What does it mean to be "Educated"? 

While re-reading Montaigne’s “On the Education of Children” over the holidays, I was reminded of the old, still very relevant, and difficult to answer question: What does it mean to be “educated”? Of course, there are myriad competing answers from across the ages. In the latter half of the 5th century B.C., Isocrates—not to be confused with Socrates—a Greek sophist and the father of education according to some, wrote that an educated person is one who has “good character”: one who manages daily circumstances well and demonstrates accurate judgment, decency, goodness, honour, and good nature. While some parents would add academic prowess to the list, it still sounds pretty good, right? So how does the Ministry of Education in Ontario answer the question of what it means to be “educated”? How does their answer fit (or not) with Isocrates’ ideals? Most importantly, what do Ontario’s schools do to achieve this aim of “educating” our youth?

Over ten years ago, former Premier McGuinty announced that Ontario was to implement a character education policy from K-12 in public schools—a commitment to engage students in developing the positive habits and characteristics of responsible citizens, thereby creating better “educated” individuals. All children in Ontario’s schools are now subjected to this initiative from the start to the finish of their education, and both students and parents have been voicing concerns about the experience over this past decade. At the most fundamental level, many have asked what problem this policy initiative is supposedly addressing. Was Ontario not already producing “educated” graduates ten years ago? And then there’s the glaring contradiction that has puzzled many: McGuinty said that the values and attributes of character development are “universal and transcend racial, religious, ethno-cultural, linguistic, and other demographic factors,” yet he also stated that there was growing need to find “common ground” on the values and attributes Ontarians hold in common. If the values and attributes of character development are indeed “universal,” why do we need to find “common ground”? Indeed, how do multiple social, religious, cultural, political, and racial voices get included in the conversation about character development—especially those of immigrant families?

They don’t. And that is largely due to the fact that the Ontario government didn’t find (or even look for) “common ground” on community values (i.e. not many people were consulted in the process of choosing the character traits schools would inculcate through the program). Despite the rhetoric about creating a school culture of good citizenship, the Ontario Character Education Program is a top-down prescription: typically, in addition to a vague goal of promoting citizenship and a sense of community in schools, ten character traits are provided to each region (one for each month of the school year); each trait is then posted at the school and teachers (who are not provided training or curriculum for this program, and most of whom do not have any credentials in moral education or philosophy) are expected to independently weave their own interpretations of such concepts as “honesty,” “integrity,” or “loyalty” into the classroom as they see fit. In some schools, teachers choose a few students who exhibit a given trait better than their peers (or rather, who have “performed” the trait most convincingly) for a month’s-end award.  

In my published doctoral work on the topic, I examined the Ontario initiative, its rhetoric, rosy promises, and seeming contradictions. My research and continued interest in the initiative have left me with four main concerns and one proposed solution. My first concern is that the Ontario government used a (failed) American, rather than a tried and true (or, at least, home-grown) Canadian model, for conceptualizing its project. My second concern is that the Ontario government chose a traits-based approach, ignoring an abundance of research that invalidates this particular conceptual framework. My third concern is that our policymakers did not sufficiently explore the ongoing intellectual dialogue on the subject of character education and “good character,” failing to consider multidisciplinary research, cutting-edge theories of mind, or neuroscience insights into moral development. My fourth concern is the lack of rigour and direction in the implementation of this initiative: there is no extensive character education curriculum or province-wide agenda (or assessment of success) and yet teachers (bright and well-meaning though they may be) are expected to address morality and "good character" in any which way in their classrooms. Of note is the fact that Ontario teachers and students who have been interviewed about the implementation of the initiative have unanimously agreed that character education is an afterthought and/or ignored by most at their schools and the policy has done little to change the school culture.  

The solution? I have a positive vision for constructing a viable character education program in Ontario: mandatory philosophical inquiry with the aim to enhance critical thinking skills and impart empathy.  And I'm not alone in my conviction: The Toronto Star - only a few days ago - echoed this view in the article, "Trump, Trudeau, and Teaching Critical Thinking for 2017"  Surely Isocrates, were he alive today, would agree that having children tap into the timeless human dialogue about being "educated" (and, in so doing, discuss moral education) is the right way to go. Rather than prescribing traits for students to perform, have students (in age-appropriate fashion) examine philosophical ideas, such as the dangers of moral certainty, the science and nature of the self, as well as the neurology of the “moral mind.” There is such an abundance of scholarly research that points to the beneficial impacts of philosophical study on young people's academic and empathetic development that it is our responsibility to include philosophical inquiry as a subject in our children's schooling. Teachers (those who are expertly trained and accredited) need to facilitate students' philosophical exploration; indeed, topics on ethics (including, perhaps, whether or not a universal approach to morality can be put forward as a valid conceptual framework for character education) would be a great start. 

As an educator myself, I make a point of including philosophical inquiry into every lesson I teach and can't imagine extricating this element from my pedagogy (indeed, doing so would detract from the "educating" of my students). Certainly if Google hires philosophers to direct their "moral operating system" (yes, even a tech company cares about the morality of its products! see: our education system certainly could use a serious philosophical approach to its own attempts at moral education.

Clearly, the discussion on the subject of being "educated" and having good character is so rich, enduring, and progressive. At the very least, we should aim to let our young people learn how to explore classical philosophical ideas and have philosophical discussions and debates--even if our policymakers can't or won't. I'd like to think that an educated youth is encouraged to carefully and thoughtfully consider a history of ideas and apply their own thoughts to their exploration; in fact, in so doing, they would be heeding sage advice philosopher Immanuel Kant once gave, "Sapare aude!" (Latin for: Dare to think for yourself!)

Dr. Karine Rashkovsky-Tomas (B.Sc., B.Ed., M.Ed., Ph.D.)

Founder & Director

Brain Power Enrichment Programs Ltd.

Brain Power