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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2003

A Skewed View of Liberal Education in Canada

John Lewis

The Erosion of Democracy in Education: From Critique to Possibilities

John P. Portelli & R. Patrick Solomon, eds. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 2001; 328 pp; paper $26.95 CA.
In 1925, a British Columbia Royal Commission insisted that: "The development of a united and intelligent citizenship should be accepted without question as the fundamental aim of our schools." According to the leaders of the day, school systems were not simply social organisms set up for individual enlightenment but also ones meant to unite the citizenry in its political project. The authors of The Erosion of Democracy in Education allege that recent educational changes in Canada are eroding this belief and, by extension, damaging the quality of our democracy.

Co-editors John P. Portelli, professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, and R. Patrick Solomon, associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, have assembled an impressive collection of essays by distinguished theorists who question the conviction that certain fashionable educational reforms are improving Canadian society. The authors argue that many of today's reforms - including standardized tests, corporate involvement in schools and outcome-based education schemes - are antithetical to democracy and, thus, dangerous.

Since the 1980s, for example, the democratic emphasis of education has become "supplanted by an economic agenda" in which "political and economic elites (push) for education to prepare students for the new global economy." (p. 36) According to the authors, the result of this change has been a reduction in citizens' participation in public life, replaced instead by a more privatized and managed conception of education in Canada.

In their introduction, Portelli and Solomon lay out a contrasting view to the "neoliberal" one. They urge for education which transforms society through increasing public participation by privileging "student voice rather than student choice" (p. 19) and emphasizing communal rather than individual (i.e., private) interests. The authors critique the common view that schooling is principally meant for individual growth. They argue that child-centred pedagogy which focuses obsessively on topics relevant only to students is harmful to democracy because it places an unreasonably high premium on autonomy while ignoring issues of diversity, for example, even where the student population is relatively heterogeneous. Instead, these authors prefer schooling which is more holistic and inspires greater "democratic action."

Subsequent chapters continue this theme, dealing with both critiques of and possibilities for Canadian education. Portelli and Ann Vibert from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, for example, tell us what's wrong with the push toward standards in our modern society. Standards concerned only with increasing outcomes on some scale of measurement without regard for the value of outcomes they produce are not only ineffective at encouraging participation but also destructive for society. At their worst, "abstract" standards can be viewed as a means of political control.

The common view of standards in education masks inequities in our society, according to Portelli and Vibert, because the proponents of standards assume we live in a meritocracy in which common standards are the unbiased solution to inequity. What's the use of measuring student outcomes with no concern for structural and social impediments to actual achievement, for instance? Or, as York University's Sharon Murphy dryly points out in a later chapter, "No-one has ever grown taller as a result of being measured." (p. 145)

Other chapters take on this theme of educational shortfall persuasively. David Mackinnon exposes outcomes-based programs in Atlantic Canada as too "technical/instrumental" and "behaviouristic," claiming they do little to broaden community input and improve equity (two important democratic themes).

Solomon and Andrew Allen examine the "discontinuity" between theory and practice that newly-trained teachers often experience upon entering the classroom. Fresh teachers, for example, can face unsupportive colleagues in their efforts to introduce practices with the potential of transforming classrooms.

And Nina Bascia details the negative effects on students and teachers of the "pendulum swings" in policy behind English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. Given that ESL is about keeping cultural minority students from being left behind, Bascia's chapter provides a powerful challenge for much of contemporary orthodoxy by showing how reforms to certain programs - including reductions in funding - promote inequality.

One of the most interesting chapters for theorists of education, though, is a wide-ranging chapter by Ken Osborne. In it, the author discusses more generally the "democratic deficit" as it relates to education - the way, for example, that the rhetoric about democracy has little to do with the reality of what's happening in schools. Unfortunately for me, however, this chapter raises more questions about the book's content than it answers. There is no attempt in the essay (or the book, for that matter) to deal with the more basic question of why there is support for many of the reforms. Why is the reform movement so popular, for example? Isn't it the product of the kind of "liberal education" promoted since the commission of 1925?

Osborne's article makes one wonder what concept of democracy the authors were working with throughout the text. It seemed to be a much more participatory one than most Canadians deem desirable - given tumbling voter turnouts and the growing slide toward individualism among the populace - which makes the book less about "Canadian" democratic desires than about the authors'. Why argue for politically liberal education, then repudiate the results of it by urging for a wholly different outcome? Osborne takes this step by arguing for learning which is context bound (by liberal capitalist democracy, for example) and then lamenting the types of social structures (the individualist society) that it produces.

Since when, for example, does the notion of community necessarily belong in a society such as ours which now sees itself as essentially "liberal," bound to a charter of rights? I suspect Osborne and others are speaking more to education in a "multicultural" or communitarian setting than a purely liberal one, but more needs to be done to explain this.

The majority of the chapters, like Osborne's, are strong on critiques and make the case that educational reforms are eroding the kind of democracy that Portelli and Solomon advocate. It's a view to which I'm particularly sympathetic. Nevertheless, a deeper and richer sense of what "democratic" educators want is still necessary if Canadians have any hope of reversing many of our most antidemocratic policies.

John Lewis recently defended his PhD dissertation "Lessons for Human Rights Advocacy: Education and the Limits of Political Liberalism" at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He lives in Toronto.