Educated for Life?

As of this writing, elementary and high school teachers in Ontario are embroiled in an escalating dispute with Premier Doug Ford’s government. Teachers have held a number of one-day strikes and, I understand, have many more planned. While the government has been putting forward a narrative that consists of the “greedy, overpaid teachers who don’t care for your kids are asking for more money” storyline, teachers point out that they are only asking for a raise that meets the increase in the cost of living. Moreover, they say, they are concerned about the quality of education they will be able to offer their students if government proposals increasing class sizes and the number of on-line courses students are required to take are implemented.

Ontario teachers' strike, 24 February 2020

Ontario teachers’ strike, 24 February 2020. (Source: Ontario Teachers’ Federation Facebook)

Rather than taking a side in this dispute, I want to consider the role public education plays in a democracy like ours and the two incompatible goals teachers in Ontario (and other provinces as well, I assume) are expected to meet.


Arguably, healthy democracies require two basic things of their citizens: first, they need to be educated enough to make sense of the options presented to them by political parties vying for their votes and for power and they need sufficient critical thinking skills to evaluate these options for themselves. Second, if democracies like ours (that is to say, democracies that are pluralistic and multicultural) are to be stable over time, a majority of citizens must possess a shared set of political and social values: they ought to believe in the value of democratic choice; they ought to be tolerant of the beliefs and ways of life of their fellow citizens, even if they don’t share them or actively disapprove of them; and they must be willing to support, through their tax dollars, the institutions of the state — universities, schools, and hospitals — that are required if citizens are to live well. Meeting these two goals constitutes one of the most important tasks of public education — indeed, this task is perhaps even more important than the task of providing students with the tools that are needed in the workplace (many of which can be learned on the job), since even a successful economy requires a secure political framework in which to function.


Consequently, governments at any level that support only the goal of preparing students for the workplace, and assert that the only purpose of public education is to give students the skills necessary to function in a capitalist economy, fundamentally misunderstand why public education is so important. Whether this misunderstanding (on display now in Ontario) is deliberate or accidental I leave to readers to judge.

Second, and following from this, the two purposes of public education — to prepare people for the workplace and to teach students the requirements of good citizenship — can be in tension, even in conflict, with one another. One of the results of teaching students the critical thinking skills necessary to become good citizens is that they might become critical of the assertion that the primary purpose of public education is to prepare them for the workplace. They might, indeed, start to think that some elements in the economy, including the ways in which they can expect to be treated in the workplace, need to be changed so that they can better meet human needs, or that “useless” subjects (like philosophy and the arts) actually have much to contribute to their lives.


Another way to get at the same point is to notice that we can think of the value of public education in primarily intrinsic or primarily instrumental terms. Many people working in Ministries of Education seem to understand the value of public education in primarily instrumental ways; many teachers (and professors) understand its primary value as being intrinsic, and as lying in intangible and non-measurable things.

If we see its value instrumentally, the primary purpose of education will be to give students the practical skills they need to get a job. If we see education as having intrinsic value, in contrast, we will think about the pleasure and interest it adds to our lives. Learning to appreciate a work of art or to understand a difficult philosophical argument may not be useful skills in many workplaces, but our lives will be better if we can do these things. And we should notice, further, that the last thing that politicians who understand public education to be only instrumentally valuable — valuable because it contributes to the economy and nothing more — want is for students to be educated in ways that encourage them to ask hard questions about the claim that this is the purpose of public education.

: Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot

Critical thinkers? (“Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future’s earlier climate strikes,” 15 March 2019. Photo by Dina Dong, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In a healthy educational system, these two understandings of public education – that it is intrinsically valuable, and that it can serve practical instrumental goals – are held in a creative balance with one another: of course, it is a good thing if education can help students get jobs, and teach them the skills they need to do well in the workplace, but a good education should do more than this. It should help students better understand themselves and their world; give them the thinking skills necessary to evaluate and even critique the dominant political, social, and economic ideas that shape their culture; and help them live better, more interesting lives than they would otherwise be able to.

The problem with the way in which politicians like Doug Ford understand public education is that they think of it predominantly or even entirely in terms of its instrumental purposes, and they tie those instrumental purposes only to the workplace. Moreover, if they succeed in reducing public education to this one purpose, understood in this way, our individual and communal lives will, over the long run, be impoverished.

Featured photo: Students in reading classes, Leflore County Schools. (Carl Albert Research and Studies Center, Congressional Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.