Education isn’t about job training — no matter what Doug Ford wants you to believe

Posted on April 20, 2023 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Education
Apr 19, 2023.   by David Moscrop

The Tories are pitching a “back to basics” approach. What they’re really doing is missing the point of education entirely

Premier Doug Ford is a big fan of big government — in all the wrong ways. Traditional wisdom goes something like this: the left likes an interventionist state, but the right wants smaller government, more freedom, less regulation, and greater local autonomy. Traditional wisdom rarely holds up, though. And it definitely doesn’t hold up when we’re talking about the Ford government and its plans for Ontario’s education system.

The Progressive Conservatives’ approach has been to interfere with other levels of government whenever they can, micromanaging, dictating, limiting consultation, ramming through legislation, and generally making a mess as they go. They chose to bully municipalities over how they run their elections, for instance. Most recently, they’re trying to run school boards from Queen’s Park without bothering to ask anyone how such things should be done. To boot, they’ve decided to reshape the province’s education plan, gearing it toward ideas that are more reminiscent of plans for an early 20th-century Fordist or Taylorist factory than a contemporary society.

This week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced plans for a “back to basics” approach for Ontario’s schools. The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act will give the minister more power over local school boards, forcing a focus on labour-ready career training instead of education. Lecce tried to frame the changes as a pivot toward better science, technology, engineering, and math education. “The goal here today is to send a signal to school boards to refocus their energies on what matters most, which is improving reading, writing and math skills and education,” he said.

There’s nothing wrong with learning in these areas. They are, indeed, essential. But the Ford government doesn’t seem to care about learning. It cares about training.

The poet William Butler Yeats most likely neither said nor wrote that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” a quotation often attributed to him, but the line is true nonetheless. Particularly at younger ages, when students first meet formal education, and, later, when they begin to understand its highways and byways, instilling a love of curiosity and exploration is job one. If you get that right, the rest will follow.

Writing in Lapham’s Quarterly, the American essayist Lewis Lapham picks up on the idea of education as the lighting of a fire. Assessing education in the United States, he writes, “Education is a playing with fire, not a taxidermist’s stuffing of dead animals, and until we choose to acknowledge the difference between the two pedagogical techniques, we do ourselves no favors.” This is precisely the way. Again, we ought to be lighting fires. But the Ford government wants to stuff dead animals all the way to the factory floor. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that education is about job training or preparing students for the market. Following the Ford government’s logic is a great way to produce weak, docile students who are neither curious nor, incidentally, capable of learning the things the government wants them to in the first place.

“Awaken the student to the light in his or her own mind, and the rest of it doesn’t matter,” Lapham continues, “neither the curriculum nor the number of seats in the football stadium, neither the names of the American presidents nor the list of English kings.” Education isn’t about job training. It’s also not about memorizing facts or figures. Alongside developing curiosity, it’s also about instilling a capacity to think for oneself. Deep down, I suspect the Ford government knows this to be true and is terrified of it. It’d much prefer a compliant population that packs their lunch every morning without thinking too much about what the government is up to, about what the headlines say, about what the next election may bring or fail to bring. Much better to train students from a young age to be production units, not critical citizens who wish to take part in self-government or, at least, enlightened criticism of the well-heeled politicians running their lives from Toronto.

Lecce’s plan is heavy-handed, dangerous, and, as it happens, unnecessary. CBC senior reporter Mike Crawley writes that, in fact, Ontario’s schools may already be doing what the minister says he wants them to do. “While he points to scores on provincial standardized tests as evidence,” Crawley notes, “one could equally point to international tests as evidence that Ontario has one of the best systems in the world, outperforming all other G7 countries on reading and beating all G7 countries except Japan in math and science.” If that’s the case, Lecce’s plan is even more curious — or, rather, obvious. Once more for those in the back: the Ford government apparently wants to turn schools into job-training facilities, filling pails with water and using that water to extinguish any fires of curiosity that may be surreptitiously lit.

The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act should be thrown into the wastebin and forgotten, and the government should take its boot off the neck of local school boards. If the government wishes to improve education, it can spend more on teachers and reduce class sizes. That’s a fine way to make space for learning that will pay all sorts of dividends to a free and democratic society.

David Moscrop is a political theorist, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of “Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.”

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