Subjective and objective elements in justice for education

[Abstract for an upcoming workshop]

Recent political discussion in Australia regularly raises concern over State support for education, from early childhood through to University and institutions for vocational training. The main reference is Australia’s relative decline in benchmarks compared to other OECD countries.
Debate often focuses on the “Gonski” report, the funding and implementation of its policy suggestions. Disagreement is exacerbated between Federal or State sources of funding, and the public and private divisions of the current system. The Gonksi report and other sources revealed that there are significant inequalities in the experiences and outcomes for individuals and communities within Australian education as a whole. Crucially, current debates do not address these inequalities.

In this paper, and in the larger project of which it is a part, I will criticise the terms of the current political debate about education.

The Principal – Stenders (2015)

I argue that the obsession with funding figures or teacher training obscures the issue of just distribution of goods within the education system. As a polity, we rarely consider what justifications hold for systemic funding decisions. In debates over abstract figures, we also ignore the very experience of the individuals within schools and universities. Yet we know that the subjective experience of education shows worrying signs that large numbers of students are not realising their aims.

In order to have a just system of education, we need to debate the purposes of education in its different stages, and reach collective agreements on what the role of diverse educational institutions are. Only then can we consider how they are to be funded. In repeated reviews however, successive governments have either implicitly or explicitly placed the principles on which our current system is organised outside the bounds of debate. The division of primary and secondary schooling into three sectors – all of whom receive government funding – is not to be questioned. The role of early-childhood education is paralysed by division between crucial formative learning experiences for young children, and the economic desire of the State to return as many women to the workforce as possible. The university and vocational sector show confusion over what their role and justification are, which invites a number of contradictory tensions in policy direction, most notably in the fraudulent cases for vocational education providers.

It is not enough, however, to discuss the systemic “objective” shape of the system, for that is to lose the voice of the very people whom education is supposed to benefit. If we do not discuss the proper purpose and function of education, even less do we address the individual’s experience. A just educational system should create the social conditions for individual realisation. Education is a central element of the theory of freedom. And it is from this point of view that educational injustice is most difficult to address. Because, for the individual, the formative process of education involves the cumulative interiorisation of knowledge and normative principles, those who experience injustice at school are consequently far less able to flourish in their individual lives. At this level, injustice is an experience of disrespect, a lack of recognition that results in not being able to identify oneself with full participation in the educational process.


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