Civic Education and Inclusion: A Market or a Public Interest Perspective?

“It is, however, no secret that the modern world was built on tacit or explicit knowledge through the courageous actions of city dwellers who, like Galileo and Michelangelo, challenged established beliefs and world views that were considered immutable.”

Professor, Department of Social Work and Social Sciences, University of Quebec at Outaouais, Canada

In recent years, we have constantly been reminded that we are living in a knowledge economy. Societies that invest most heavily in training their citizens will therefore be in the best position on the global chessboard. Thus, education is being given a new role in the concept of competition. Not only is this concept of competition encouraged within society, whether in the North or South, the implication is that the primary benefit of an education is economic. For this reason, skills which are not specifically related to knowledge are frequently overvalued, often at the expense of fields of knowledge that are considered abstract and useless.

It is, however, no secret that the modern world was built on tacit or explicit knowledge through the courageous actions of city dwellers who, like Galileo and Michelangelo, challenged established beliefs and world views that were considered immutable. They, of course,
did so not only in spite of dominant establishments, but also with the support of newly-emerging institutions and new types of power. We should also bear in mind that the dissemination of new forms of knowledge during the Age of Enlightenment was facilitated by a significant technological development — printing. New forms of media communication such as the Internet are, without a doubt, an equally important step forward in the dissemination of knowledge and information.

Yet how much influence would printing have had without changes in society brought about by rising levels of school enrolment that gave most citizens of Western societies access to the written word? Thus, universal education and literacy both provided access to information and made it possible for citizens to express their will, at least in principle. Of course it took several centuries for education, which was for a long time a prerogative of the elite, to spread to all sectors of Western society. Universal education through compulsory primary school enrolment, which must first and foremost be viewed as a right, constituted a genuine revolution thanks to the establishment of state-run public schools. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the world’s population does not yet enjoy the right to this fundamental source of instruction in reading and writing, which would give these people access to information and self-expression on a civil level through either print or electronic media. Furthermore, what is the use of producing increasingly efficient and affordable communication technologies if many people are unable to use them due to their lack of knowledge in deciphering messages and information?

Thus, the development of democracy and grass roots participation cannot be ensured unless responsible government and state institutions provide universal access to basic education for every citizen regardless of his or her economic status. Only institutions geared towards public interest are capable of ensuring basic access to knowledge and to universal secondary and higher education. Strangely, over the past few decades, there has been a tendency in ultra-modern societies to view education as a personal issue, and access to education as a personal investment. The idea of competition in education is brought about by promoting the ranking of institutions, including public schools, and especially by making comparisons between public and private schools. New forms of elitism are entering the field of education and some organizations and establishments are advertising what are considered Grandes Ecoles (prestigious institutions of higher education), thereby justifying a higher cost for education for those who are clearly able to pay. These depictions of education are an attempt to instill the idea of an education market, claiming that the approach guarantees those students aiming to acquire profitable knowledge a higher-quality product.

This trend is a movement away from both the right to education — which should be viewed as a universal right — and a concept of education, not only which includes profitability but which first and foremost prepares every individual to participate in civic life and shape his or her society. Introducing variables into the education framework may, of course, promote innovation and necessary change. But should this necessarily incite education marketing and competitiveness and the establishment of schools for the elite? People often refer to the necessary balance of having a private and a public school network. In addition, too little importance is attached to the experience acquired by years of life education through social movements and civil society organizations.

The labour movement emerged two hundred years ago during the industrial revolution. Mutual aid organizations were among the first to appear, followed by workers’ cooperatives and trade unions. Not only were they extremely resourceful and innovative, but they have been, and still are, the genuine schools of decision making and participation in addition to providing training in economics and social rights advocacy. This has also given rise to a tradition of social economics which has continued for over a century. Businesses that operate in this environment have an essential sense of community, ensuring involvement and open discussion by allowing its members and spokespersons to negotiate with political and economic institutions, thereby helping to democratize the economy. The same is true of more recent social movements, such as the women’s movement, whose organizations are a genuine training ground for social rights advocacy, active civic integration, and the development of alternative service providers. We find the same forms of learning and training in debates on environmental issues and globalization models.

What these various kinds of organizations and their networks have in common is their sense of community. They give individuals the freedom to join a bigger group, and they are dedicated to community — and often universal — interests, rather than to personal ones. In this respect, they provide a more legitimate and credible counterbalance to the public education system.