The education debate we need to have

Lately I’ve been thinking that one policy debate that really needs to happen soon is on purpose of education. It’s a debate that has been avoided for many years.

It has been touched on at Larvatus Prodeo and by Andrew Norton both noting the Gillard Government’s outcomes-based focus on education, outcomes that centre on developing an individual’s skills and human capital to engage in the modern economy.

What we need to debate what is the cost of the focus of this approach to the other detriment competing purposes of education and how it reflects not only an instrumentalist view of education but a neoliberal view where the state shapes individuals to fit economic needs. We need to debate whether this is what is not only wanted but good for society.

So what would a real debate on education look like? Well, it would discuss some of the following questions:

  • Is it purpose to service the economy by providing the skills needed to drive economic growth and productivity?
  • Is it to ensure social mobility and how would it?
  • Is it to provide the critical thinking skills, individuals need in a democratic society?
  • Is it a public good to expand societal knowledge?
  • Is it a product for consumers to purchase and own that has status?

My own view is that the answer is likely to be “yes”, to an extent, for all of the above.

However, there are clearly some inherent contradictions haven’t been worked out yet. For example, the commodification has led education to be increasingly framed as a product to be sold, whether as an experience to be purchased and/or a product of status from sandstone universities. The movement towards education as a product for conspicuous consumption has the potential to both undermine the skills necessary for the modern economy, the purpose of a university to expand the reaches of knowledge and the critical thinking skills needed for a citizen in a modern liberal democracy with a decline in quality and rigour.

I doubt whether the contradictions can be worked out in the short-term but getting everyone to think about these issues and how they may conflict would be a good start to a debate.


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