The Scoop: Alternative News & Views

Education and Social Development

Mireille Coral, Jeff Noonan

01 May 2016 in Education

In a 2013 discussion paper describing Ontario's "Differentiation Policy" for the post secondary education system, the authors note that a key goal of the policy is to foster social and economic development, serving the needs of the economy and labour market, and promoting a culture of entrepreneurship. This may include, but is not limited to, the impacts of institutions' commercialization, innovation, and applied research activity on social and economic development." (Ontario’s Differentiation Policy for Postsecondary Education, 2013, p. 9). On one level, it is difficult to disagree with "social and economic development" as an essential goal of any educations system. The problem is that "social and economic development" is not defined save in terms of labour market needs and money-value growth. While we do not disagree that one goal of any educational system should be students who are capable of contributing to social and economic development, social and economic development needs to be defined in terms other than that of capitalist labour market demand and money-value growth. Yet, as we will see, key government documents focussed on reforms to the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education system fail to go beyond a notion of development as anything other than unquestioning service to employers.

Curriculum reform in the service of employability, appealing as it may seem to parents and students, ultimately masks a political function. As Alan Sears pointed out in his excellent Retooling the Mind Factory, the "agenda for education reform seeks to reorient schooling so that the individual develops a self in relation to the market rather than the state" (p. 11). That is, in the contemporary era, educational reforms is directed by the goal of producing subjects who think that success is a function of individual effort in market competitions. Such selves do not look to structural causes of failure or crisis but in every case identify "initiative" and proper marketing of the self as the proper response to every situation. The shaping of students into self-reliant market competitors is now shaping Ontario education policy at all three institutional levels.

At the elementary and secondary school level, current practice is shaped by the Ministry document Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010). This document argues that "learning skills and work habits needed to succeed in school and in life begins early in a child’s schooling," and that these work habits and learning skills must be "strengthened through the achievement of the curriculum expectations" of Grades 1 through 12 (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 12). The document goes on to provide a list of employability skills as defined by the Conference Board of Canada, an organization devoted to making the interests of business the cornerstone of public policy. Sample behaviours employers would like to see instilled include being responsible, adaptable, and being able to work in teams while completing assigned projects. A more complex list of competencies as outlined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is also cited in the Ministry document as necessary for student success. This list is prefaced with an acknowledgement of the complex demands of living in a globalized and modern economy, the need to make sense of rapidly changing technologies, as well as the need to make decisions that represent collective challenges: for example, "the need to balance economic growth with environmental sustainability and prosperity with social equity" (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 13). However, there is no discussion of how this goal is to be achieved or any definition of social equity advanced, leaving the reader with the impression that economic growth is the real goal, and anything else will have to accommodate itself to that imperative.

When we turn our attention from secondary schools to universities, we see government policies that openly challenge the capacity of universities to govern themselves according to their founding mission—the creation and dissemination of knowledge in the interests of the public good. Universities have had no choice but to be compliant with government demands to sign on to "Strategic Mandate Agreements." Under these agreements, Universities list their program strengths and demonstrate how they align with the social and economic priorities of the government. The overall objective is to contain costs by eliminating duplication in the system, forcing universities to specialise on narrow bands of expertise in contradiction to the very nature of a university. The Differentiation Policy follows directly from the 2011 Commission on the Reform of Ontario's Public Services (the Drummond Report) which explicitly recommended "differentiation" as a means of using resources efficiently and "encouraging and rewarding quality" as a means of ensuring compliance with government imposed-objectives. (Commission on the Reform of Ontario's Public Services, 2012, Ch.7).

In order to tie the goals of schooling more tightly to labour market demand, the traditional rights of professors must also be challenged. The attack on academic labour takes a number of forms. Tenure track positions are on the decline or, as in England since 1988, no longer available. In the United States in 2007 the percentage of tenured and tenure-track professors had declined to 31, while precarious part time academic labour had increased to 50.3. (Wilson, 2010, p.1) As in the private sector, employees without job security are more easily managed. By subjecting faculty to the discipline of academic labour markets, in which supply always far exceeds demand, their willingness and ability to develop in their students the capacity to understand and critique the social forces driving neo-liberal reforms (threatening the student’s future as well) is undermined.

We do not believe that educational systems can remain static. Human thinking—which education cultivates—ensures that our societies are dynamic. As thinking changes social life, so educational systems must change. Our concern is rather with the goals of change: are institutions being changed to better enable students to think, criticise, understand the key contradictions of our world, to better enable them to communicate across differences and propose novel structural solutions to social problems that go beyond the dogma that "there is no alternative?" Or are these reforms merely using the rhetoric of empowerment and students interests to more tightly bind students to the status quo, a status quo which is damaging to the environment, is increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic, and soul-sapping in its promises of little more than alienated work routines in return for stagnating wages.

Our conception of education is one that is guided by the value of deepening and broadening the capacities of students to understand the natural, social, and symbolic worlds they inhabit and help create. The practical goal is to help them propose ways of helping society to advance beyond given impediments to meaningful, life-valuable, and sustainable action, interaction, and creation. We too believe that education should contribute to economic and social development, but we define the latter not in terms of money-value growth and jobs, no matter how alienating or exploitative. An educational system that produces literate, critically minded people, able to detect contradictions between principle and practice and within existing principles themselves, who have a comprehensive understanding of equity and the natural and social conditions of freedom, and are able to argue across differences non-dogmatically, who can teach and learn in reciprocal turn, are people who will contribute to real social development. Real social development means use of collectively produced wealth to satisfy people's real needs so as to enable them to enjoy life and contribute as social self-conscious agents, and not simply as compliant workers and consumers.