Chapter One: Making Sense of Public Schooling

1.3 The Meaning of Education

In everyday language, people slip easily from “education” to “schooling” as though the two words were synonymous, with schools being the formal institutions of education. But a thoughtful examination of the organization of schooling in Canada requires thinking about the meaning of education, the purposes of schooling, and the particular significance of public schooling.

Questions of what it means to educate, or to be educated, have been the subject of debate at least since Aristotle (Coulter & Wiens, 2008; Johnson, 2015). In the Western liberal tradition, education is inextricably bound to ideas of self-knowledge or identity, as well as to a notion of empowerment – “becoming more than we are.” Symons (1975) argued that to be educated means “to know ourselves”: who we are, where we are in time and space, where we have been and where we are going, and what our responsibilities are to ourselves and to others. Nor, he suggested, can self-knowledge be separated from an awareness of the social context in which we live our lives, the two kinds of knowledge being not merely interdependent “but ultimately one and the same” (p. 14).  Similarly, some Indigenous scholars have suggested that education must be premised upon respect for others, reciprocity in relationships, relevance to people’s real lives and worldviews, and helping students assume responsibility over their lives (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2001).

For the process of acquiring self-knowledge to be considered educative, people must play an active role in creating their knowledge, in ways that inform actions and provide the skills and dispositions that enable people to grow and to exercise more control over the ways in which they live their lives. This view of education, although simplified in its presentation here, would not be acceptable to everyone. Traditionalists, for example, might argue that it does not give adequate attention to absorbing the central lessons of the past and the best of our collective cultures.

Education is about more than the formal process and structure of schooling. We learn many of the most important things in our lives before we begin our schooling, and over the course of our schooling we continue to learn many things outside of schools as a result of our experiences, our reading, our contact with other people, and our engagement with technology, particularly the Internet. Even institutional education extends well beyond the school system. Programs ranging from early childhood education to courses for senior citizens, and including the vast gamut of adult-education activity in Canada, are also clearly educational in their focus.

At the same time, for many people there is a clear connection between these general ideas of self-knowledge and their expectations of public schools in Canada. We expect schools to be places of learning and development for students. Yet this rhetoric masks the multiple functions that have been assigned to public schools since their establishment as compulsory institutions in Canadian society. The problems and tensions facing schools can be seen by considering their official goals and their actual purposes.