Education is one of the most important institutions in contemporary society. Education, as an institution, is an enduring set of ideas about education and how it can be ideally used to accomplish societal goals. Education influences our socialization, status, the social order, and economic productivity. At school, behaviours are modified, employment skills are developed, social interaction and conflict are negotiated, at the same time notions of social reality are defined, and structures of inequality are reproduced.
Before the Industrial Revolution, there was little interest in educating the masses. However, the Industrial Revolution demanded a more disciplined, trainable, and literate workforce. With the rise of industrial capitalism, industrialization and public education became interdependent. As early as 1846, education in Canada was seen as a means of achieving economic modernization. At that time, Egerton Ryerson promoted a universal, free, and compulsory school system. Writing over a century later, Stephen Schecter (1977) argued that state-run education was premised on centralization and uniformity, both of which were instruments of social control to be used on the emerging working class. This educational model was also a means of assimilation of immigrants. Malacrida (2015), in line with Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘docile bodies’ examined how compulsory education is used to enforce social subordination. She argues that education ranks and sorts children to the detriment of those considered inferior by the dominant ‘monoculturalist’ English system by ways of truancy laws, tests, and curricula that standardize expectations of educational success, as well as “Health” testing conducted via medical and psychological examinations.
The need for a more educated workforce after World War II led to the expansion of colleges and universities across Canada. The perceived piggyback relationship between educational expansion and economic growth forms part of the human capital thesis which suggests that industrial societies invest in factories, equipment, and schools to enhance the skills and knowledge of their workers. This thesis is used to justify the low wages paid to marginalized groups by claiming that they have less human capital (i.e., education, skills, training, and knowledge).
Since the 1970s, decreasing corporate taxes have led to reduced government budgets and thus cuts in funding of post-secondary institutions. As a result, colleges and universities have turned to corporations for financial support. This relationship has created some potentially problematic changes in post-secondary education. For example, we see increasing advertising on campuses and academic research has become more closely tied to corporate agendas and control.
The Canadian educational system has been based on three models over the years. Initially, assimilation was the dominant approach to education. English Canada was viewed as a white Protestant nation into which all students, regardless of background, would be assimilated. This monocultural approach continues today, foregrounding British culture as superior to others. However, this model fails to recognize racial bias and discrimination inside and outside the school system.
The second model was multiculturalism which was officially implemented by the Canadian federal government in 1971 and aimed to preserve and promote cultural diversity. The multicultural model focuses mainly on studying and celebrating lifestyles, traditions, and histories of diverse cultures such as differences in “food, festivals, and folklore.” Multicultural education rests on three fundamental assumptions: (1) learning about one’s culture will improve educational achievement; (2) learning about one’s culture will promote equality of opportunity; and (3) learning about other cultures will reduce prejudice and discrimination. However, this approach promotes a simplistic focus on the “exotic” elements of culture and ignores substantive values and beliefs fundamental to shaping cultural identity.
The third model is anti-racist and anti-oppression education, which emerged in the 1980s. This type of education acknowledges that systemic racial inequalities exist in Canada while it seeks to expose and eliminate institutional barriers to equity. It aims to change institutional policies and practices as well as the individual attitudes and behaviours that reproduce social inequality.
While the education system is designed to provide members of society with relevant knowledge and skills, it also socializes them. It does so through the hidden curriculum—or the latent curriculum—which consists of the unstated, unofficial agenda of the education system. Robert Merton’s structural functionalist theory helps us understand the hidden curriculum as performing the latent function of hegemonic teaching of dominant societal norms. For example, the education system teaches us to value work, respect authority, and use time efficiently. However, conflict theorists might argue that the hidden curriculum is performing a latent dysfunction by, for example, reproducing the existing social class system.
Conflict theorists question whether education is a motor of social mobility, instead they argue that education mainly serves cultural reproduction, by reinforcing and reproducing existing social inequality. To examine this concept, Jeannie Oakes (2005) researched tracking, or streaming, in junior and senior secondary schools. Tracking is defined as the process of categorizing students in order to assign them to different classes. This mode of streaming is generally done based on the student’s perceived ability and realizable educational outcome (e.g., university degree, a trade, clerical job). Oakes’s research demonstrated that sorting was based on class, “race,” and ethnicity rather than perceived ability. Oakes found that lower-class and non-white students were expected to achieve less and subsequently receive lower-quality education. Further, she found that instruction in lower-track classes was focused on routine, rote learning and discipline (where teachers were more punitive), while instructional and learning activities were more demanding in higher-track classes (where teachers provided more trust-based, supportive interactions). Students in low track who accept their tracking placements as “fair”, legitimize the inequality reproduced by the education system, another example of ‘false’ consciousness.
Jean Anyon’s research highlights the reproduction of the vertical social structure, where the education system helps working-class children become mere working-class adults, middle-class children become middle-class adults and so on. Anyon studied five elementary schools and divided them into four categories: working class, middle class, affluent professional, and executive elite. She found that instruction in each type of school varied considerably, depending on the class-based expectations of the children. While working class students were mainly taught to obey the rules and were not encouraged to make independent decisions, students in executive elite schools were asked to reason through problems, conceptualize rules, and apply them to solve problems independently. These very unequal approaches to education propel students in different schools to different career tracks.
The sociology of education examines challenges that emerge in the context of the education system. For example, studies of homework and its role in reproducing the existing class structure have shown that students from upper middle-class and upper-class homes have a distinct advantage. Their parents are better equipped to assist with homework (in terms of both time and formal educational background, and facility in English), and their homes contain quiet space and up-to-date technologies for doing homework. Further, studies of homework’s impact on family life have demonstrated that homework reduces the amount of time spent on family activities. Conflicts and power struggles over homework are also common, thereby it can have a negative effect on family relationships.
Several issues regarding education in Canada have emerged. One area of concern is Indigenous education. For example, the scarcity of Indigenous voices in curricular materials (e.g., textbooks), even those about Indigenous people, is a worrying trend. Foucault (1980) uses the term disqualified knowledges to describe knowledges that have been deemed inadequate to their task. Indigenous knowledge is frequently disqualified due to credentialism, whereby mainstream society evaluations such as certificates, degrees, and diplomas trump actual local, oral knowledge and ability. Consequently, the role of elders (who hold and pass on knowledge, wisdom, and skills to children and adults) is denigrated. Another issue involves Indigenous students’ success rates in mainstream schools. A recent study completed in British Columbia schools identified five key elements in Indigenous student success in non-Indigenous schools, but these issues have not been implemented yet.
Other discussions focus on issues in post-secondary education which has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, mainly due to economic and social factors. An example of these changes is the increasing use of adjunct faculty. These instructors, most of whom have the same or higher credentials as full-time faculty, are hired on a contractual or part-time basis. Adjunct faculty often teach courses that full-time instructors either can’t or don’t want to teach and allow institutions to save money on benefits, competitive salaries, and office space. A two-tiered system of faculty currently exists in Canada, with non-permanent faculty often exploited and placed in vulnerable positions vis-à-vis full-time faculty.
Another change in post-secondary education is the move away from in-class teaching to online instruction. While online teaching has been praised as offering more “advanced” and “open” learning and increased “access,” these claims may be more myth than reality. The disadvantages of online education include issues of alienation (separation and estrangement between people and the work they do), commodification of education (tendency to treat it as something that can be bought or sold), and access without mobility (educational opportunities are provided, but not employment opportunities). Ironically, online courses yield high dropout rates, insufficiently critical analysis skills due to reliance on instrumental education, and the eventual creation of a two-tiered system where those who can afford to attend an actual school will be perceived as having better credentials than those who can afford only an online program. This perception will simply reproduce the already existing class divide.
The sociology of education explores other issues as well. One is the underemployment, which is defined as involuntary part-time and/or low-wage, low-skill employment for people with valuable skills, experience, and credentials. Another issue is the increase in plagiarism, defined as a serious form of academic misconduct in which another person’s ideas are represented knowingly or unknowingly as one’s own. Plagiarism is encouraged when role models indulge in plagiarism, and plagiarism becomes an industry (essay industry, graduate students who sell their writing skills, and also companies that sell services to colleges and universities to catch plagiarism). The increasingly corporate nature of post-secondary education and the competition for students might dilute rules and makes it easier for those who plagiarize get away with it.
After reading chapter twelve, you will be able to:
- Summarize the historical development of institutionalized education in Canada.
- Distinguish among three central models of public education.
- Explain the hidden curriculum using specific examples.
- Identify the linkage between class and educational success, and how the educational system reproduces inequality.
- Compare and contrast Anyon’s (1980) and Oakes’s (2005) cultural reproduction approaches to education.
- Analyze false consciousness in Indigenous students’ poor educational performance.
- Define educational streaming or tracking and outline its implications.
- Define commodification of education and its role in the spread of plagiarism, and an increase in ‘degree mills’.
- Identify how the emphasis on exotic aspects of other cultures ignores the substantive components of the cultural ‘mosaic’ that is Canada.
- Figure out how credentialism marginalizes the invaluable local knowledge of the diverse Indigenous communities across Canada.