Public education at the brink

By Robin Barrow

The following is an excerpt from a presentation given at the Public Education Conference, November 13–14, 2009.

What the public school system is primarily there for is to educate people. Education is good in itself, because it is better to be educated than un- or, worse, mis-educated. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. The mind being the chief characteristic that distinguishes the human from other animals, to be well educated, to have well-developed understanding, is to be more fully human—to achieve a degree of specifically human excellence. It is to be empowered. It can also very plausibly be argued that educated people, by and large, make more of themselves and contribute more to society than the less well-educated. It should also be pointed out that social justice demands a public system for educating people, because, while of course one can educate oneself, by and large people don’t—in particular people already disadvantaged in various ways, don’t.

While I am as displeased as anyone with recent news relating to the economy, I do not think we should claim that a shortfall in our funding means that we cannot succeed.

What, then, does threaten the provision of a proper education?

  1. The confusion of education with training, or a preoccupation with preparing people directly for jobs rather than developing their minds.
  2. A lazy acceptance of the fashionable view that everything is a matter of opinion such that we cannot think in terms of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, sense and nonsense.
  3. A climate of political correctness that inhibits serious debate about such matters as inclusion or multiculturalism.
  4. An incoherent rhetoric of rights that has led to a degree of vulnerability for any teacher who wants to speak her or his mind, exercise discipline or, more broadly, make demands on, and “correct,” students.
  5. A misguided belief in a science of teaching and a consequent attempt to train teachers in various generic skills and practices: thus, for example, all teachers are supposed to follow the same “best practice,” to generate lesson plans in the same way, and to write report cards according to formula.
  6. A tendency to feel that it is inherently desirable to utilize the most up-to-date technology all the time, whereas in point of fact technology may very often get in the way of true education.

But surely the most obvious problem for today’s teachers is simply that more and more tasks are imposed upon them, most of which have nothing to do with education. It is the fact that teachers have more and more bureaucratic tasks to fulfill, that they are expected to take on all the social problems society faces, and that their freedom is constantly curtailed inhibits their ability to focus on education.

Robin Barrow is a professor, SFU Faculty of Education