What is a good education?

David Flower

Is education meant to stimulate critical thinking or should it produce future employees? Or is it meant to do both? These are important questions that parents and educators alike must ask as education and the world undergo profound changes. David Flower looks at what the business community wants from schools and students in part three of "What is a good education?"

During the 1970s, the Daily Telegraph, a conservative English newspaper, carried a story about "dumbing down the curriculum" in elementary and secondary schools. According to the article, rather than raising the academic standards bar and forcing students to work harder to jump over it, the bar was being lowered to permit more students to jump over it with less effort. That perception might well have come from the proliferation of universities and colleges in the 1970s and the belief of traditionalists that the multitudes of courses in a variety of subjects meant that students could get paper qualification in almost anything. That view certainly came to the fore in the early 1990s in Alberta. Both a report from the premier's conference on Alberta's economic future, Toward 2000 Together (1992), and a Chamber of Resources' study, International Comparisons in Education (1992), expressed the concern that the public education system was not providing the scientific and technical skills that were required by businesses to compete in the global marketplace. In addition, critics claimed that many students were leaving schools with inadequate educational skills or were graduating without job- or work-related skills. This view motivated the corporate sector to demand reforms to the education system, such as bringing the process of education closer to the new model of business namely non-assembly line with a focus on accountability and increasing the skill levels and workplace skills of potential employees, thereby decreasing training costs.

However, the skills that business wanted from its new employees straight out of school were quite different from those being promoted by organizations such as the Conference Board of Canada or the American-based National Association of Manufacturers, which both advocated more scientific and technical skills.

In 1996, businesses in British Columbia were asked to rank the skills they were seeking in their new employees. The list included: (1) communications skills, (2) positive attitude, (3) flexibility and adaptability, (4) high standards. Being well-educated was ranked 14th. When the personnel directors of major American corporations were asked a similar question they indicated the following: (1) don't abuse substances, (2) demonstrate honesty and integrity, (3) follow directions, (4) respect others. They were least interested in mathematical skills, social and natural sciences and computer programing. Apparently what business wants from education is simply to teach basic skills. As the MLA Implementation Team on Business Involvement and Technology Integration in Education stated in its 1996 report: "Albertans said a stronger relationship between education and business could give more students the `real-life' experiences they need to develop necessary workplace skills."

Should modern education restrict learning simply to satisfy the needs of business or should we be encouraging our students to soar with the eagles? This is the question asked in the January 14, 2000, edition of the English newspaper The Observer. The commentary quoted the secretary of state for education (the British equivalent of the Canadian minister) as saying: "Employers want people who can do the basics and have these higher-level skills which are important to the new economy." The writer continued, "This is the Secretary of State's notion of the purpose of education spelled out in a single paragraph. It is a process carried out at great expense by the state to meet the needs of British industry. The aim is to assist this country to run a competitive economy in accordance with the policies of new Labour. If that is all it amounts to—that schools exist to meet the needs of the Confederation of British Industry, it makes better sense for Blunkett [Education Secretary of State] and Woodhead [chief education bureaucrat] to privatise them and let businessmen finance and run schools themselves."

The premier of Ontario apparently agrees with Britain's secretary of state. In March, Premier Harris attacked the province's universities for wasting public money on the humanities and what he considers useless subjects, such as philosophy, history, Latin and religion; he argued that universities should concentrate their efforts on the sciences, computers and engineering—those areas of most value, despite the lack of evidence, to the corporate sector.