North America’s university experience is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly standardised. Students are introduced to a university campus culture that is a non-stop social free-for-all, with an embedded hook-up culture. In contrast, these same campuses have a rigid expectation of political correctness that curbs free thought and free speech. There are numerous examples, as underscored by the recent Munk Debate on Political Correctness.

How best prepare young students to successfully engage in these challenges?

Frequently, the solution to the most difficult challenges begins with small things.

A case in point is Hawthorn School in Toronto, whose tagline is “Smaller school, big difference.” The big difference lies in the school’s 30 year history of working closely with parents in shaping the leaders of tomorrow. Hawthorn rightly prides itself in providing a unique, well-rounded education, focused on developing the character and intelligence of students, so they become confident women of integrity and faith committed to the betterment of society.

The school achieves this partly through its liberal arts curriculum. Students benefit from courses in philosophy, moral theology, and Latin, all of which help them integrate their learning and arrive at meaningful insights.

Character development is assisted by each student in the school having a mentor with whom they regularly meet to discuss everything from their latest marks and future career aspirations, to how they are striving to live a particular virtue.

The Master Discourse Project: philosophy-plus

The culminating experience of the “Hawthorn difference” is a substantial interdisciplinary research paper, completed by all grade 12 students, over the course of their final year. This is the equivalent of a mini-thesis; an undertaking we refer to as the Master Discourse Project (MDP).

As with any thesis, the MDP entails a number of steps. Students first scope out an interdisciplinary thesis topic, which links the content of grade 12 philosophy with at least one other grade 12 course. They develop an annotated bibliography of sources to support their research. They then apply their analytic skills to discover insights on this issue, and document findings in a well-researched, persuasive paper.

The final step of the MDP is students’ oral presentation and defence of their position to the Hawthorn community and a guest panel.

Hawthorn students are no strangers to public speaking. Each year the school holds a speech competition for the senior classes in its Lower School (grades six and seven). A guest panel of judges provides feedback to the budding public speakers, and certificates are awarded to first, second and third place winners. There are, in fact, only winners in this formative educational event.

Recently both the Lower and Upper School curriculums have begun to draw on the support of Toastmasters International to further equip all students for public speaking.

Last month, the graduating class presented their MDP insights to a guest panel comprising Dr Janine Langan, Emeritus Professor in Christianity and Culture at the University of Toronto; Barry White, co-founder of the Catholic Teachers Guild of Toronto and current Liaison for Catholic Education at the Archdiocese of Toronto; and Kathryn Mackenzie, an award-winning speaker and certified world class public speaking coach. The audience included family, teachers, fellow students, friends and alumni.

Barbara Kay, a National Post journalist, while unable to attend the event, reviewed the research papers and provided feedback, including the following accolade: “I must congratulate your school on teaching these girls the fundamentals of essay writing, and the precepts for building evidence-based arguments… I enjoyed reading them all, and consider their general rhetorical rigour, and reflection of a college-level capacity for research, a tribute to Hawthorn’s superior educational standards.”

Marxism, music, art, authentic speech…

The students’ MDP topics represented a very broad range of issues, with each student instinctively scoping out the areas for which they have the most passion.

Nina analyzed the legacy of Karl Marx, applying impressive analytic rigour, including a full reading of the Communist Manifesto. She aimed to anchor and expand upon her personal experience with Marxist ideology, given her Venezuelan roots and the country's Communist Regime. She delved into insights of Dr Jordan Peterson, calling out post modernists as essentially Marxists under a different brand.

Rebecca’s interest in kinesiology, physical activity and family led her to analyse the current utilitarian view of the elderly within society and how it can lead to support for euthanasia. Within this mindset, she showed, we focus on the cost of maintaining dependent persons rather than their intrinsic dignity. Her research highlighted the profound positive impact intergenerational relationships can have on the mental and physical well-being of all parties involved, with benefits for the whole of society.

Isabel was inspired by the experience of growing up in a large family (relative to today’s Canadian standard) to focus on the symbiotic relationship between strong families and strong societies. To help anchor this empirically, she compares two time periods in Canadian history: the Baby Boom era, in which society gave greater importance to family, vs. today’s comparatively individualistic culture. Marriage rates and birth rates were used to underscore her thesis that strong families lead to strong societies, and that Canada’s current approach tends to weaken the family, resulting in a weaker society.

Preya’s love for the arts led her to delve into the age-old question of whether art is objective or in the eye of the beholder. She compared Plato and Leonardo Da Vinci, from the objective tradition, with Immanuel Kant and Pablo Picasso as representing the subjective approach. She finds that aesthetics, at the heart of the philosophy of art, has had a profound effect both on philosophers and artists and their work. She concludes that while art has its foundational principles in the objective perspective, art should be considered subjectively due to personal intellectuality and opinion.

Jane undertook extensive research on the power and function of music in society, finding evidence of music’s ability to improve neurological and psychological illnesses and disorders and their side effects. She summarizes evidence of music’s ability to improve our quality of life by releasing chemicals and activating brain regions that are linked to empathy, happiness and trust. She draws on contemporary research as well as findings from Aristotle and Plato in terms of asserting music’s ability to educate the soul. 

Paula sought to better understand the impact of social networking of youth on their relationships. She incorporates a philosophical perspective, recognizing that every individual is seeking happiness, andthat today’s adolescents tend to seek happiness through technology/social media. However, social networking sites (SNSs) can obstruct the formation of true friendships that are necessary in reaching happiness. The overuse of technology can lead to simply seeking validation by others though creating false online identities, rather than forming loving relationships. She concludes that SNSs can be a great way to reach out to others, but good relationships can only be properly cultivated with love and face-to-face interaction.

Malena set out to demonstrate the pull of hedonism, a core issue affecting societies since time immemorial. She contrasts this with what she affirms is the opposite of hedonism: the altruistic gift of self. Drawing on historic examples such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, she argues that it is only through the sacrificial gift of oneself to others that we can aspire to achieve a fulfilled life. In defending her thesis she was asked by the panel whether someone can be both hedonistic and altruistic. She immediately cited Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction, stating that someone cannot be and not be hedonistic (or altruistic) at the same time and in the same way — a response that raised more than one eyebrow given its depth.

Guinevere, given her passion for politics and journalism, and her appreciation of Dr Jordan Peterson’s critique of forced speech, tackled the topic of “authentic speech and dialogue.” She underscored her research with a philosophical approach, finding that real conversation involves authentic listening and authentic speech. These are comprehensive activities, predicated on intellectual humility and an openness to having one’s beliefs altered. If this these are absent, ideology takes hold, leading to sub-optimal results. She concludes that unless Canadians recognize the value of thinking authentically and adopting intellectual humility, there could be very troubling repercussions.


At the end of the day, the graduates of Hawthorn School will face the challenges ahead armed with their faith, the virtues they have developed through good habits, and the knowledge, skills and competencies that have been honed at home and at school. The rocky road of post-secondary life cannot be smoothed, nor will its potholes be filled. However, through an effective character education program, a solid classical liberal arts curriculum and initiatives like the MDP, Hawthorn graduates are well prepared to navigate the journey and to have the ride of their lives. These women from a smaller school are about to make a big difference. Just watch them!

Anne Francis currently teaches courses in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Hawthorn School for Girls in Toronto. She has a Master's degree in Economics, post-secondary studies in Philosophy and Theology, and twenty years of experience working in Canada's federal government.