In her “Education Memo” Simona Choise asks “Do Employers Belong in High School?“. Canada introduces students to vocational education much later than others and countries such as “Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovenia” have partnerships that allow students to begin vocational or apprenticeship training before leaving school.

It’s a pressing issue as the recent economic downturn has left millions of young people unemployed or underemployed and left politicians and policy makers scrambling for solutions. But it raises the bigger question of whether it’s schools’ role in our society to train students for employment?

Ask someone why we send kids to school and their answer will accurately predict their position on most other educational issues. Education and schooling are often seen as synonymous, but they are not the same. Education begins at birth (and maybe before) and persists until we die. Teachers may express frustration that students can’t or won’t learn, when what they mean is that students aren’t learning what they want them to. What they mean is that some students won’t or can’t “school”.

Schooling is different from education. It’s process of formal education designed to achieve a specific purpose. In “The End of Education” Neil Postman argues that the main purpose of schools is to create a cohesive society by communicating a shared narrative. He argues that  schools no longer do this and schools and society are poorer because of it.

Mortimer Adler suggests that there are three main objectives of modern schooling:

  1. Citizenship: To equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to participate fully as members of society. Since all citizens can participate in decisions we should try to equip them with what they need to make good decisions. Citizens should be able to think critically and effectively express their opinions. This is what Postman suggests was the original ‘narrative’ of schooling. 
  2. Self-Actualization: To equip students to follow their dreams and achieve their potential. Learning is a life long process and schools should give students the skills and opportunities they need to pursue their hopes and dreams.
  3. Preparation for Work: To prepare students for their economic future. Students should emerge from school with a clear career path and skills that allow them to support themselves and their family and contribute economically to society.

These objectives aren’t exclusive. A student can be educated to be a good citizen, self-actualized and ready for work. Conflict arises, however, when we must choose which objective is most important. If we have to choose which of them to emphasize, which one comes first? Teaching cursive writing may be useful, but if it isn’t required for employment should schools continue teaching it? Should schools take from developing language and math skills and instead devote it to civics or discussing current issues?

The gap between those who think schools’ main function is to prepare students for work and those who have other, “loftier” goals is the great divide in educational discourse. Many educators are attracted to the profession by the thought that they are making the world a better place. They see schools as places for students to better themselves, maximize their potential and go out to make the world better. Other are dumbfounded by this “wooly headed idealism”. What the point of being self-actualized if you can’t feed yourself?

The balance between these objectives shifts over time and responds to changing conditions. During times of economic prosperity we don’t worry about job preparation as much. As unemployment rises there are calls for schools to do a better job in preparing students for work by teaching the basics.

The focus of our school system is increasingly preparing students for work. In early July the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) met in Nunavut. Their statement after their meeting began:

The best way to address Canada’s growing need for an educated and skilled labour force and ensure a sustained economic recovery is to expand education opportunities and improve learning outcomes in early childhood learning and development, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, adult learning and skills development.

No mention about improving citizenship or self-actualization. Increasingly, non-essential “employment” skills are marginalized or removed from the curriculum. Less arts and physical education and more language and math. Students aren’t taught cursive writing because it’s not required by the curriculum.

Most of the discussion about education policies and practices for the last 20 years (and perhaps before that) has been about this central issue. What are schools for? Rather than discussing the relative merits of standardized testing or various instructional methods or the many other proxy debates let’s begin to address the real issue. It’s time to open up the debate and talk about what schools are for and why we have them. It’s a debate that should include everyone, because our views will have a huge impact on our collective future.