As a sociologist, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which social stratification appears at the very centre of a great deal of topics associated with the discipline. So much about social life is explained by pre-existing and persistent inequalities among members of society. Social class, immigrant status, race, gender, and various other characteristics that people are ascribed appear to strongly shape the paths that are available to them. At the same time, there is no shortage of discussion about the importance of education.

Matters pertaining to education flood the media daily, whether about access, cost, jobs, or poverty. Education is widely regarded as the linchpin that has the potential to be the great equalizer or even the solution to a host of social problems.

A simple Google News search of “Education and Canada” as I originally wrote this preface has revealed the following current headlines:

  • Quebec tuition fight about keeping education accessible, students say (, March 22, 2012)
  • Higher the incomes and education levels, higher the debt: Statistics Canada (Vancouver Sun, March 26, 2012)
  • Federal budget potential turning point for native schools (, March 26, 2012)
  • Why Canada’s professors are the best (best-paid, that is) (Toronto Star, March 23, 2012)

In the first example, students in Quebec are protesting about post-secondary tuition fee increases, even though students in this province pay the lowest tuition fees in the country. Protesters are arguing, however, that low fees enjoyed in Quebec foster accessibility to post-secondary programs that should not be eroded. In the second story, the reporter summarizes recent Statistics Canada research that has revealed that individuals with higher levels of education also make more money, but they are also more likely to carry large amounts of debt. The third headline about the federal budget references the money that will be allocated to improve First Nations education, a topic that has seen a great deal of attention due to media coverage of the desperate conditions found at several First Nations communities, particularly those in remote areas. The last example is about professors’ salaries and why they are significantly higher than those found among the occupational group in other countries.

All of the above topics touched upon in various media stories have a place in the sociology of education. What is particularly interesting—in my opinion as a researcher and an educator—is taking such examples and dissecting them. How can we as sociologists of education understand all the different issues being discussed in a single media story? What larger, underlying social forces and assumptions are at play? How do the issues in one media story link to other topics around education or inequality?

What is common to all the stories I selected above for illustrative purposes is money: Quebec students are angry about having to pay more tuition, education leads to higher incomes (and more debt), First Nations education is underfunded, and professors in Canada make a lot of money. It would be easy to make quick and simplistic judgments based on such similarities: students have to pay so much money because Canadian professors are overpaid, and that may also be partly why First Nations education is underfunded. It is easy to focus on the obvious connection and attribute much of the blame of the problem to a single source, and indeed this is often the strategy employed in divisive politics. The tools that are provided by the discipline of sociology, however, allow us to understand seemingly “straightforward” issues and break them down into numerous critical components. What are the historical or cultural factors that led to current conditions? What interest groups have a stake in the outcomes of the issue being discussed? What are the larger social trends that may be fuelling these situations? What larger social discourses are colouring how these issues are being discussed by various groups?

In this book, I have tried to link the scholarly with the everyday. In my daily pedagogy as a university professor, I have focused very pointedly on delivering lectures in ways that are most likely to keep students interested. What I have found is that many students lose interest in potentially very interesting subject matter because it does not speak to them—it does not resonate. The sociology of education is certainly a topic that should resonate with students—it pertains to an important part of their lives. As such, there are many current examples that can be brought into the discussion that are occurring around them and may have had an impact on them in the past, currently, or may do so in the future. In this text, many current and topical issues in Canadian education have been used to make the concepts as relevant as possible. I have also tried to focus on marginalized populations that students may not initially have thought about as having particular unmet needs in education. It is my goal that students recognize the deep breadth of stratification in society and how the sociology of education is inextricably linked to such issues of stratification—in both determining who gets what kind of education and how education shapes life chances.

There are nine chapters in this book. The first chapter introduces the study area of this sub-discipline, using recent events in the Attawapiskat First Nation as an illustrative case study for how we may understand various topics in the sociology of education. Chapter 2 focuses on various theories—starting with the classical and progressing chronologically to poststructural, feminist, and critical race theories that are in more common use today. These theories are helpful for understanding the larger social world within which education exists. In Chapter 3, the history of education in Canada is traced from its roots in English and French Canada and the different political and cultural influences that gave education in different parts of Canada their distinctive character. In Chapter 4, the focus shifts to the structure of education in Canada and the commonalities among structures at various levels of education across the jurisdictions. Alternative structures from the norm are also given consideration, as is the federal system that governs on-reserve First Nations education in Canada. Curriculum is then turned to in Chapter 5, tracing the historical shifts in the content of what students learned at school and how this content also varied by region. The different potential influencers behind curriculum are also given careful attention as it is important to note that curriculum is a social construction that is never neutral—there are various groups that have a vested interest in what is taught in the school system. The arguments around large-scale assessments and multicultural education are also given much consideration, as they are also two controversial aspects of curricular content in Canadian education.

In Chapters 6 through 9, the discussion of school-related topics is less historical and more contemporary. Chapter 6 covers socialization and how the school serves as a major agent of socialization for children. A variety of correlates of this socialization are considered, as the socialization of students can express itself in many facets of the formation of identity. The school is a place where students learn about gender and appropriate gender roles, follow rules, and learn how to integrate with different peer groups. In Chapter 7, the school as a place of the perpetuation of structured or social inequalities is explored. Several potential sites of stratification are considered, from social class and neighbourhood, to race and immigration status, to ability and family structure. Because education is widely regarded as a precursor to entering the labour market, the topic of Chapter 8 is school-to-work transitions. How school-to-work transitions, as well as other key indicators of the “transition to adulthood,” have changed over time and by generation is given consideration, as is how such transitions in Canada are comparable to those experienced by young adults in other Western nations. The final chapter turns the discussion to current challenges to educational practice. There is much talk about the global economy and the need to prepare future workers with a global education. In this chapter, such claims are explored alongside the evidence of how educational institutions are implementing global education into practice. With funding cuts the focal point of budgets at every level of government, institutions of education have been subjected to “austerity” measures along with various other public institutions. The impact of such financial cuts on different levels of schooling is undeniable, but one definite outcome is the increasing tuition costs of post-secondary education. In addition to tuition increases, there are concerns voiced among students and teaching professionals that are related to the increasing personal costs of post-secondary education, such as the possible consumerist orientation adopted by newer generations of students about the economic value of their education.

In addition to what I believe is fresh content that will be accessible to the modern post-secondary student, each chapter ends with Review Questions and Exercises. The review questions are those which relate to comprehension around the Key Terms and concepts used in the chapter; each key term is also defined in the Glossary. The exercises are intended to further the students’ exploration of the subject matter of each chapter, either in the form of a written assignment or group work. The exercises, unlike the review questions, require additional research to be undertaken by the student. Finally, where possible, Film Recommendations have been made that would be useful to generate in-class discussion about a particular aspect of the sociology of education in Canada.


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Sociology of Education in Canada Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Karen L. Robson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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