Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Instruction vs. Education

Charles Glenn


By Charles Glenn

November 3, 2014


A distinction exists between instruction and education, one that is enforced more clearly in French, Italian, or Spanish than in English. Instruction refers to teaching of the skills and knowledge essential to successful participation in a particular society and economy; it typically occurs in schools and in workplaces. Education refers to development of the person, his or her character and loyalties, everything required to be a decent human being, family member, neighbor, and citizen. Education also occurs in schools, but begins in the family and is commonly sustained by voluntary associations, typically religious or cultural.

In any society characterized by very significant cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity, the instructional and educational missions of schools pose distinct policy challenges. Government appropriately sets standards for the outcomes – though not the methods – of instruction, since all young persons need to become competent in essentially the same skills and common knowledge, before they go on to higher education or training.

Education is a much more sensitive matter, since it must ultimately rest upon convictions of the heart, which government in a democratic society is not entitled to prescribe. Here we see the contrast with a totalitarian regime, like that of the Soviet Union or of Nazi Germany, which made the shaping of convictions, loyalties, and worldview a high priority for government action. A democratic regime is of course deeply concerned about the character of its future citizens, and about their loyalty to the common good, but it entrusts the formation of the hearts of youth to families and to the voluntary institutions of civil society, intervening only when there is clear evidence that a family or a school or a religious institution is acting in a way that abuses the interests of a child or nurtures anti-social attitudes and behaviors.

It is for this reason that American national and state governments, and the corresponding authorities in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in (almost without exception) the European Union focus on holding schools accountable for academic outcomes, the results of instruction, while leaving very considerable freedom in how children and youth are educated.

This includes, in almost every case, providing public funding to schools with a religious character as alternatives to schools with a secular or distinctive pedagogical character. Generally these schools are operated by institutions of the civil society, and are accountable to government for the measured outcomes of academic instruction, but free to decide both how to teach and also what perspectives on the Good Life to make the basis of school life and thus the education provided.

My book Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1995) showed how the opportunity for groups of parents and teachers in Poland, Hungary, and other countries to come together around their shared concern for a group of children and to create a school reflecting their convictions about a good education and thus of a good life, was a critical element in the rebuilding of the civil societies that had been so damaged by forty years of Communist domination. I predicted that the process would be more difficult and take longer in the countries that had endured that oppression for seventy years, like Russia and Ukraine, but held out the hope that the human spirit and the love of parents and teachers for children would have the same effects in the long run in those countries as well.

What is needed is the appropriate framework of laws and policies that ensures convergence and high quality in the outcomes of instruction, with a richly varied provision of education that reflects the distinctiveness of the religious and cultural groups that make up a pluralistic democracy. Real education cannot be mandated or managed bureaucratically or centrally; it depends upon the commitment and creativity of those closest to the children and youth who are its beneficiaries.

This article has been excerpted from remarks delivered last month at Taras Shevchenko National University in Ukraine.

- Charles Glenn is Professor of Education Leadership and Policy Studies at Boston University and co-chair of the International Conference on School Choice and Education Reform. He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”