Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation http://www.harmonyfdn.ca/
Why does education matter?
Paideia was the name for the public education system in ancient Greece. Its primary purpose was to create well-informed citizens able to contribute to society. It was a way of teaching children and youth to exercise good judgment, justice and reverence and participate in the city’s political, public and foreign affairs, all central to the effective functioning of world famous Greek participatory democracy. I am sure this noble objective once inspired our public schools too. However, today its objectives and execution look very different. Support for our public schools has declined and their mission transformed from developing well-informed citizens to training future employees, investors and consumers.
The values that are transmitted to children and youth through education should reflect the ideas and concepts upon which Canada was founded as a nation. It is of utmost importance that we ensure that our children and youth acquire the understanding, knowledge, skills and commitment needed to ensure that our political, economic and social systems remain democratic, serving all of Canada’s citizens. Our schools are fundamental to the maintenance, strengthening and evolution of the principles, which make Canada the envy of the world: democracy, civil rights, prosperity and the rule of law.
Some people find it unjust that they pay for the education of other people’s children through their taxes. Is it unfair that people without children, or people with children that are too young to go to school or have already graduated, should contribute financially to the education of other people’s children? Every one of us benefits from being part of a civil, educated, and just society. Societies were not formed on some user pay principle, but rather to pool our efforts and resources to enhance services, assets and security. When other people’s children grow up, they become our neighbours, co-workers and fellow citizens offering us every type of service imaginable. They might even become our politicians or the teachers of our children’s children. Is it not our responsibility, and indeed in our best interest, to ensure that all children receive the education they need to fulfill the roles and responsibilities we expect of them?
Learning in the school of life
Many of us too easily to embrace the argument that education is the responsibility of our school system and the professionals we pay to run it. That, in my view, is to place far too little value on our education system. If we agree that education is a priority and that our society depends upon capable, well-informed and productive citizens, then each of us bears responsibility for the education of our children and youth. It is not enough to put the responsibility in the hands of others and complain about it when we do not think they do a good job.
In ancient Greece paideia was the general education that children and youth received from the entire Athenian community. Young men would talk to grown men of all classes and learn the basic values of Greek democracy, folk wisdom and practical skills. Today, we can still appreciate that children acquire lots, if not most of their knowledge in what we call “the school of life”. Parents know that they are responsible for providing not only love and care, but also the conditions for learning to their children. Other adults that are in contact with children and youth are maybe less so aware of their pivotal role in the education of these “students.” As neighbours, relatives, after school care providers and simply just community members, we all have a responsibility to educate Canadian children and youth. We may not posses of specialized skills or knowledge that children get from elsewhere, but we are all able to answer questions about the fundamental values of a democratic society and include children in learning the skills acquired to participate in democracy by engaging them in discussion.
A great school
In a democracy, general education is absolutely necessary for cultivating well-informed, well-rounded and capable citizens that are able to actively contribute to society and democratic processes. General education must be accessible for all. We need to prioritize public education and ensure that schools are adequately funded so they do not need to cut down in staff or services, the result of which is a poorer education for our children.
Most of all we need a school system that develops informed, committed and capable citizens willing and able to work together regardless of their background. Separating kids by social, economic or cultural background is unproductive and foolish. We need a well-funded, dynamic system that fulfills the needs of all children, in all their uniqueness, and brings them together in common cause, which is the prosperity and sustainability of society.
Recommended further readings:
Carter, Robert E. (1984): Dimensions of Moral Education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Postman, Neil (1996): The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Knopf
Woodruff, Paul (2005): First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press