It’s back to school time and education issues come to the fore with a provincial election in a few weeks. According to a local professor, the New Brunswick education system is too centralized — but it’s not just education. Addressing the problems of centralization is an issue with all established institutions as we shift from an industrial to a networked economy. First we might look at the underlying premises of the current system. According to SFU Professor Kieran Egan, in The Educated Mind, three premises compete for attention in our public education systems:
- education as socialization
- education as a quest for truth (Plato)
- education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)
Since no one premise can dominate without precluding the others, we continue to have conflict in our education system. When one dominates, then the others get less attention. We see this in initiatives like ‘no child left behind’ or the demise of music and physical education in the Canadian public school systems. There is no clear idea of what our education systems are trying to achieve, and we constantly go through ‘flavour of the year’ initiatives, like the early French immersion programme in New Brunswick. But none of these three approaches is appropriate for a modern society, as Egan explains:
“Socialization to generally agreed norms and values that we have inherited is no longer straightforwardly viable in modern multicultural societies undergoing rapid technology-driven changes. The Platonic program comes with ideas about reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no longer credible. The conception of individual development we have inherited is based on a belief in some culture-neutral process that is no longer sustainable.”
Public education has become all things to all people, and this conflict is clear in Egan’s book. You cannot socialize, seek the truth, and realize individual potential all at the same time — within a single, enclosed system. Our public education system was created to give equal access to all (a good thing) and to prepare workers for industrial jobs (a self-serving thing for the industrialists). Public education was embraced by reformers as well as factory owners. I call it a shotgun wedding.
The lack of agreement on what our education system should be is muddying the waters in our discussions about learning. When reduced to the basic process, learning is an individual and personal activity. But learning also has significant social aspects and can be helped or hindered in many ways. How we build systems to nurture, support, or coerce it, are the issues that we can address as a community.
While the industrialists would have preferred education as socialization and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth, we are stuck with a standardized curriculum that benefits few. In addition, the education system is in for some new competition. We may soon get invited to another shotgun wedding, this time between techno-utopians, with financial speculators as bridesmaids, and libertarians, who feel the state and teachers have screwed-up education. It will be education as socialization, but socialization to the dominant business paradigm. However, problems with any education system are mostly a result of the governance and economic environment in which it resides.
What can New Brunswick do?
- Allow for experimentation at the local level.
- Empower teachers in a transparent manner so everyone can see what is happening.
Sadly, I think the province will continue to stumble into an increasingly complex future, for which its institutions are poorly prepared.