Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Education ... What's it good for ...?

In my last post, I tried to argue that education was a good thing. Indeed, it is almost silly that I have to make that argument. It would have seemed bizarre to previous generations of Canadians who went to remarkable length to increase the level of formal education in our society. Previous generations of Canadians made it illegal to *not* education children. They introduced minimum working ages to ensure that kids were in school, they built a massive public educational system and then equally massive postsecondary university and college systems. They subsidized tuition through tax dollars, developed life-long education models, introduced senior colleges, promoted training programs at work, organized correspondence courses and now online courses and frontier colleges and after school homework programs. They expanded the range of subjects taught in schools; introduced immersion, and a host of other things. Those taking their stand against increased access to postsecondary education are, then, taking their stand against the weight of tradition and force of Canadian history. And, this is something we all, I suspect, know. As I said, have you ever seen a parent who has said "Yes, keep my son or daughter uneducated?" Was this, in fact, not one of the arguments against the Taliban ... their refusal to allow education to girls?

There is another argument that we can make in favour of increased access to postsecondary education as well: it is democratic and helps promote equality. Let me lay out the basis of this argument.

Canada is a liberal-democratic society. This doesn't mean liberal as in the Liberal party but liberal in terms of its commitment to individualism. Like many things over the course of Canadian history, that commitment to individualism has been honoured in the breach and we should not ignore that. We should not pretend that Canada was (or, is) a better country than it was (or, is). Individualism, historically, excluded all kinds of people on the basis of skin colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, social class. But, what we could say is that this is a goal and this is a standard against which we evaluate ourselves. For instance, we become upset with sexism -- say, someone who decides they won't hire women for a job -- because it violates our sense of individualism. We think that the best person should be hired for the job and that gender is -- most of the time -- irrelevant to qualifications. Individualism, in this way, serves as a marker against which we can assess decisions.

The Canadian belief in (or, ideal of) individuals is not, however, naive and its not revolutionary. Its not naive in the sense that most people recognize that we live in a society of manifest and real inequality. We live in a society where there are, for instance, significant distinctions in wealth, material  circumstances, access to leisure pursuits, etc. Some children grow up on Cote de neiges; some grow up on impoverished northern reserves; some in the south end of Halifax.

What does this have to do with education? Liberal Canadians (again, small-l) looked on education as the great -- and non-revolutionary tool -- to address social problems. Education, said differently, is the great leveller. It is what allows for equality of the opportunity.  I won't say I necessarily subscribe to all of this way of looking at things but let me lay this argument out for you.  Its runs like this: if individualism means anything in Canada it does not mean what former Prime Minister Trudeau called equality of circumstances. Liberal Canadians accepted economic, social, political, etc., inequalities because, so this theory runs, they are based on natural differences between people. Those differences might in desire (one's wish to do something); they might be in ability (one's ability to do something better than someone else). And, on this level of natural differences, liberals do not believe that there should be much state interference. Again, as Pierre Trudeau among others have said, it is not the state's business to tell people what choices to make with their lives.

This is, however, different from allowing unequal competition based on things other than ability, desire or hard work. If one child, for example, had an advantage over another for reasons other than abilities, etc., that is not, Trudeau and others have argued, true individualism. The wealth of parents is one of those things that can (and, I'd likely argue does) provide an unequal and unfair advantage to some versus others. To continue this example: if one child -- by virtue of his parents wealth -- gets a manifestly better education than another child, then we don't really have individualism because this allows the wealthy child to occupy a more competitive position in the job market. When this happens we have a replication of social class, rather than a competition of individuals where the best qualified person gets the job.

In the Canadian liberal mindset, then, inequality is acceptable when based on certain things (desire, work, etc.) but not when it is based on others (replication of wealth). Why? Because the wealthy child who benefits from their parents wealth has actually done nothing to earn that privileged position themselves. They have obtain an advantage in the labour market, not by dint of their hard work, skill, intelligence, determination, etc., that is: something based on their character, but simply by virtue of the fact that their parents had money.  If this were the case, a liberal might say, we don't actually know whether that rich kid was actually the best candidate for the job. And, if we start hiring people who are not the best for the job then companies and society suffer as well. We know only that he or she benefitted from their parents abilities, skills, etc.; and not whether they have those skills, abilities, etc., themselves. What we know is that that rich child won the genetic lottery and that is all. It is ethical -- is it fair -- that the child should benefit because they happened to get lucky and -- through no fault or action of their own -- were born into a rich family? Should we hire people on this basis? Is that good for employers? Is it good for society?

Increasing access to higher education (again, done as best as we can on the basis of choice, without telling someone what to do) is the way inequalities of condition (the genetic lottery) can be addressed to without levelling society. Instead of lowering everyone to the same social condition, Canadian liberals let equality go but try to raise each cohort of children to roughly the same competitive level through education. It is not 100% equal. Children born in wealthy families still have advantages others cannot afford (private lessons, tutors, trips, and the like) but as long as the same basic level of education is accessible, then, we can have about as good an equality of opportunity as is possible without crossing that line and starting to tell people what to do with their or their children's lives.

Education is, thus, an essential tool through which Canada has tried to realize individualism. All the caveats apply: it does not work perfectly. It  does not create perfect equality. It is focused on individualism rather than equality, etc., and all those are true. The issue, however, with regard to  free tuition, as I said before, is not its perfection. It is whether or not it advances certain objectives.

What all this is designed to say, then, is that there is an ethics to "free tuition." "Free tuition" might be about helping people. It might be about being nice to poorer Canadians. It might be about challenging the dynamics of social class. Or, it might be about a dozen other things. But, at its heart it is about a Canadian conception of individualism organized around the idea of equality of opportunity (which is not equality of condition or perfect equality). In addition to the social benefits that accrue to a better educated society that I mentioned in my previous blog, access to post-secondary education is about a society that is committed to individualism putting their money where their mouth is.

Because, after all, if one claims to believe in individualism and equality of opportunity but does nothing to create an individualistic society in which there is equality of opportunity, then, well ... one does not really believe in those things, does one?
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