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Rethinking educational objectives

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Universal education has to be one of the great tenets of modernity. Regardless of race, religion or gender, our principled position is that all children must get an education. They must all be able to read, write and do basic arithmetic. They must learn about the world, the human experiences and interactions that mark us as a civilized society. This we believe, but don’t always achieve!

The Jewish community benefited greatly from these precepts in North America. Our children were quickly accommodated, whether in public or private schools. We adapted to these principles, as they fit so well with our own Jewish standards: Torah l’shma – study for its own sake is a precious principle.

The 20th century saw the astonishing integration of Jews as our community benefited from night classes and all means of free access to higher education. At one point in time, in New York, there were more Jews, male and female, in colleges than any other group. University education was the key to upward mobility in North America. Parents sacrificed much to enable their children to go to university and live a better life.

Today, universal education is again an issue, but now the problem is the cost of that education. In America, the cost of private universities is offensive and unmanageable for most middle class families. In Quebec, we have the lowest tuition in Canada, but that has led to a failing public system. The government is cutting our education resources and leaving our great institutions unable to thrive or compete. Yet, one election issue south of the border is free universal higher education.

Nonetheless, I will argue that finances are not the foremost issue. There are serious issues that should first be investigated. What is an education? Where does it get us? Who deserves it? How do we support it?

I am not of the opinion that all are “entitled” to a free university education. Not all students are going to benefit from a one size fits all style of college curriculum.

First issue: what is the purpose of college education? If the purpose is knowledge for its own sake – the primary objective – then we can have no objection other than arguing that we need distinct institutions that offer diverse approaches and concentrations. One western-based curriculum is not valuable for all.

But that is no longer what our administrators are seeking. They want to provide students with career training. In a push for survival, many institutions have revamped their curriculum and vision. The focus is on getting the students in and out quickly. Retention and time to completion are replacing discussions about the educational content.

Significantly, current thinking claims that all students should graduate with a job. But in this sprint to an income, many are losing out. Rushing their years in school, students miss out on time to reflect, learn and develop intellectually. Vocational or professional training is not the same as knowledge schooling.  Students are being short-changed with this confusion of purposes.

Unexpectedly, recent studies indicate that university education does not correlate with a rise in standard of living. The dream of a better economic life attaching to a BA degree is shattered by recent American statistics. It seems that one-third of those in the labour force with a BA are underemployed. Even though they have jobs, they are not doing better than the cohort without a degree. In fact, many are doing worse. A study I just read claims that a university degree does not necessarily reduce income inequality or enhance economic competitiveness. So what are we promising?

We should not shift educational objectives without being sure that our new designs will be met, or that we even desire them.