What is the purpose of education?

The grumbling is going to get louder and louder: why get an education? After all of these years of study, how unfair is it for graduates to end up with loads of student debt and no job from which to earn a living?

Just last week, Mrs. Michelle Obama, the wife of the globally popular former US President Barack Obama, was preaching to the converted when she exhorted her audience in Montreal to get as much education as possible. Racial prejudice, sexism and personal securities, she reminded, should not be allowed to hinder anyone’s [social, educational and professional] progress.

In many ways, that advice is still valid. Not too long ago, few people even bothered to question the wisdom of getting an education. The mainstream thinking has been: if you go to school, study hard and get your degrees and your certificates, you will get a “good” job and earn a good living for yourself and your family.

But, after several decades of poorly conceived national and international policies, the labour market is being turned upside down, with disastrous consequences for those who followed too closely the thinking that education opens the doors to success.

On the contrary, the world of work is now is now painfully different, especially for the increased numbers of educated youth. The tried and tested globalized arrangements that govern finance, production and trade have failed miserably.

And technological innovation, including automated production and robotics, are only partly to blame for the devaluation of educational qualifications.

A large part of that blame falls on the myriad versions of economic management that have prevailed: free markets, free-trade, de-regulation and investor-friendly policies. Adding insult to injury, austerity economics has been imposed worldwide with the help of the intergovernmental agencies such as the International Monetary Fund.

In that context, education became a captive of the profit motive, which in turn gave way to greed and some so-called “efficiencies”. In the production of goods and services, national and international out-sourcing and supply management led to the negative realities of unemployment and under-employment. There has been a constant decline in wages, employment benefits, purchasing power, and job security.

In that same context, education also became a cash-cow industry in its own right. Aided and abetted by the financial institutions and by inadequate government oversight, the universities, community colleges and other post-secondary educational institutions in the industrialized countries sought to expand their local and international student population. The quality of the education “product” fell and the use of permanently pre-carious teaching staff became the norm, rather than the exception.

In that same era, the fundamental distortion of the concept of education also took root. In the midst of decades of materialism, education was demoted to the status of the acquisition of formally imparted skills that contribute to the commercial production, marketing and sale of goods and services.

But the rewards for most of those students who graduated were not evenly shared. Statistics for August 2017 showed that youth unemployment in Canada was estimated at 11.5 per cent, almost twice the rate for the whole society (6.2 per cent).

A few short years earlier (2014), youth under-employment figures also showed that 4 out of 10 university graduates were doing jobs which required skills and experience levels significantly lower than those they had so painstakingly earned: 40 percent of those same graduates aged 25-34 were under-employed.

To a certain extent, those disappointing statistics may be partially attributed to the fact that universities do not generally offer the technical, hands-on training that community colleges and more specialized post-secondary institutions.

But the broader consideration here is that education had been losing two of its most valuable components, those that are absolutely necessary for successful nation-building:  social values and critical thinking.

On the one hand, “education” without such social values as civic responsibility, social equity, justice and mutual respect is not education. It is schooling.

On the other hand, “education” without critical thinking is not education. It is a de-humanizing, prison-like system of intellectual solitary confinement in which the acquisition and management of knowledge is not promoted as the source of motivation and inspiration that leads to analytic skills, critical thinking and creativity.

All of those valuable components pushed Michelle Obama to excel in her educational and professional pursuits and in her personal and family life.

Those same components impelled her husband to temporarily put aside his professional development as a legal practitioner and to dedicate himself to community activism. He was not perfect, but he certainly was the total opposite of the “uneducated” specimen that now prowls the corridors of the White House.


Eventually, those valuable components of true education produced the most internationally “loved” and respected President in American history.

He is a powerful role model for Black youth to emulate.