What is it we deserve?

“Every nation gets the government it deserves”.
– Joseph de Maistre, 1811

I’m sure we all recognize the quotation above, even if the form might have been altered slightly to fit the occasion. Most importantly, it’s necessary to consider this statement as it applies to democracies. I would hate to think that the author of the original could have foreseen a Pol Pot, a Stalin, or a Hitler and still imagined that his assertion was absolute. At the same time – very much in line with the general theme of my blog – the division between government and the governed is at best a blurred line, often even in the most exceptional circumstance. History has shown very clearly that Hitler was the popular choice when he initially assumed power. Generally, though, I want to believe that the despotism evident in so many places in the world isn’t what most people would choose. Am I being a starry-eyed optimist for holding to that? Perhaps.

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Still, here in Canada, the adage, by and large, holds. No matter how much is ascribed to “tactics”, in the end, those elected are the ones who have garnered the most votes on election day. Dirty tricks notwithstanding (since they have a way of being discovered if anyone is dumb enough to try them in the first place), Canadians can have confidence that the results on election day are a valid expression of the “will of the electorate” on a given day. Sure, voices might object based upon the first-past-the-post system, poor turnouts at the polls and other considerations but, as far as the process goes, few would deny that the results themselves are valid and verifiable. Such is the nature of a democratic election in Canada.

Once that day is passed, however, we all have to live with the result for the four or so years of an electoral term. Ordinarily it doesn’t take long for the knives and hatchets to come out. Letters to the editor in local papers, articles in national ones, analysis across a variety of mediums all tend toward the negative. Other than the few partisan stalwarts who regularly contribute to the local paper, few kind words are forthcoming for a government in power. If you think about it, that dynamic reveals a rather curious reality: governments elected by virtue of their being the most popular on the day of the election almost invariably decline in popularity within a brief time. Indeed, time and again the previously popular choice eventually becomes the reviled or, at the very least, the dismissed.

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A simple explanation of this phenomenon would hold that parties fail to live up to their promise (and their promises). This demand for absolute adherence has always struck me as being at least as unrealistic as so many of the promises that go unfulfilled. When we consider again the notion of getting the government we deserve, I think we need to recognize that, if we are looking to play the blame game, we have no one to blame but ourselves. I’ve been involved in enough elections (and paid attention to many more) to know that certain contradictory realities occur virtually every time.

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First, consider the predominance of “change” as a popular theme. I cannot think of an election I have been involved in personally that did not have change in some slogan, approach or appeal along the way. Whether it is parties or individuals, those seeking to oust whoever is currently in government are going to promise some kind of radical departure from whatever is current. As for those in power at the time, even alongside a “stay the course” message, some enhancement of what is currently in place will be promised. All of which makes perfect sense since the objective of every politician and party is to win. When dissatisfaction dominates the messaging of virtually every news medium, who wouldn’t want something else?

But then the election is over and the time comes for the implementation of some of those changes. Offsetting the ever-present demand for change is the equally pervasive resistance to that same change. A commonly acknowledged truth about people’s demand for change says that change is welcome as long as it doesn’t affect them. And so, with a guaranteed chorus of discontent growing apace, governments proceed to make changes where they can, thus fulfilling portions of an election platform while guaranteeing that general popularity will decline.

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Second, repeatedly, around election time, calls are heard for parties to be straightforward and up front, to avoid promises of any kind and just – to use the parlance so popular these days – “be open and transparent”. Needless to say, that one doesn’t get much traction. Without going into detail, I would state simply that on the few occasions when parties choose such an approach, they are seldom, if ever, rewarded. However much they claim otherwise, the electorate at large isn’t looking for a description of what is; they want a vision of what COULD be, no matter how many times those elected based upon the presentation of such a vision fail to deliver.

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I think what de Maistre actually captured in his comment about our receiving our just deserts was a truth about all of us. Human beings are inherently complex and contradictory so it shouldn’t come as a great surprise when our political system – especially a democratic one – reflects those characteristics. In my opinion, the greatest disservice done to politics today arises from the persistent negativity so much the focus of media. Yes, ours is an imperfect system populated by flawed people. But the system itself has delivered a quality of life second to none in the world. Surely a scurvy politician or two deserves some of the credit.

And the question is . . . .

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.
– Margaret Atwood

An article in the local newspaper caught my eye today. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I am inevitably drawn to issues surrounding education or, more specifically, to matters concerning public education here in New Brunswick and, by extension, elsewhere in Canada and in North America as well. The conventional wisdom throughout my career in the classroom was that ideas coming from the States made it to Ontario first and found their way to NB approximately five years later. Another pillar of that same wisdom suggested that those ideas only made it this far after they had been proven ineffective in the previous jurisdictions. Perhaps that can be a topic for another day.

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Anyway, in this article, a representative of a local adult education group (one that is best known for working to improve literacy among adults) voiced the concern that many students graduating from high schools do not possess sufficient literacy and numeracy skills “to cope at colleges and universities”. Chances are, this comes as no surprise to many people. Certainly employers, for some time now, have lamented the lack of fundamental literacy and numeracy among prospective employees, a matter distinct from the lack of “skilled” workers in any number of fields. In light of their concern it shouldn’t come as any great revelation that many receiving a diploma might not seem, according to traditional notions of why one SHOULD receive a diploma, especially deserving.

But that’s a field upon which most are very afraid to tread. Nowhere in the course of the article was any mention made of it being inappropriate that someone would graduate from high school without having achieved at least a passable level of literacy and numeracy. The article mentions that over half of New Brunswick’s population “over 16 lack minimum literacy skills”. We are told about the remediation efforts of universities, specifically the institution of tutoring programs and writing centres where students can get help with those basics that they seem to have missed through their years in the public system.

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This unwillingness to confront something fundamentally ineffective in our schools has become a predominant theme in many of my musings about public education in New Brunswick. Among any number of things that regularly come from the Department of Education about purported improvements in the public system, statistics about graduation rates has long been a favourite. Side by side with that number, you might find another, related percentage concerning student retention. Those reporting such numbers will also usually offer some kind of historical comparison suggesting that in the last 20 or however many years, both numbers have increased substantially and – here comes the conclusion – this proves that education in New Brunswick is constantly improving.

I have long decried the emptiness of this particular claim. How can the QUALITY of an education be summarized by a numerical assessment of graduation and retention without some accompanying account of the real achievement of those staying in school long enough to graduate? If New Brunswick’s functional literacy rate remains less than 50% among adults after almost 35 years of ongoing adjustment, change, innovation, tinkering , etc., surely someone should ask the simple question: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

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But that question is not one that either governments or those responsible for changes in the educational system are eager to confront. Here in New Brunswick we have created an educational system that costs over a billion dollars to operate year over year. Class sizes at all levels have been reduced on numerous occasions; specialists and experts have been hired in great number and work in schools or district offices; programs are added, subtracted, modified, replaced. You get the picture. And yet, something as simple as a measure of literacy suggests that all such innovation has amounted to virtually nothing in terms of real improvement.

But then, “improvement” is another one of those complicated words. The official who trumpets retention and graduation rates can’t really be faulted in one way. The measure of success in his/her account is clear and simple and can be reduced to a statistic. 20 years ago, let’s say, 75% of 18 year olds graduated from high school and now it’s 90%. Who can argue with the contention that this suggests an improvement of sorts?

As I was reading the article that served as a springboard for this blog, I was struck by how much it avoided any suggestion that something was wrong with the system itself. It chose to focus on remediation, reassurance, suggestions of circumstances external to schools that might contribute to the situation.

Strange where the mind can go. As I was reading this article and wondering how it was that no one was wondering WHY students were graduating in such numbers even though they did not possess what might be thought of as the bare essentials you could expect from 12 or 13 years of formal education – being able to read, to write and to do basic math – I thought of the movie I, Robot where a hologram of a dead scientist cautions the lead character, played by Will Smith, to “ask the right question”.

So it is with education in New Brunswick and, again, as far as I’m concerned, in many other jurisdictions. One of these days someone is going to have to ask the right question, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so.

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Welcome to the two minute hate: Canada-style

“As for politics, well, it all seemed reasonable enough. When the Conservatives got in anywhere, [Judge] Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so,–not, mind you; from any political bias, for his office forbid it,–but simply because one can’t bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil.”
― Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

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References to certain features of George Orwell’s 1984 are common; I have used them in my own musings on more than one occasion. Today I’m thinking about the “two-minute hate”, that detail in Orwell’s novel where members of the party are invited to watch a two-minute video on their enemies and summon up as much vitriol as they can and direct it at the screen. As with so many of the features of the book, it might seem improbable in its details but, in its observations re emerging trends in politics, I’m not sure how far off the mark it really is.

I’m referencing the response I tend to hear from any number of friends when the subject of our current Prime Minister comes up. At the mere mention of his name, or even a general reference to the federal government, I’m liable to hear “I hate Harper” as a preface to whatever is to follow. Chances are the face twists into a frown and a certain real passion is evident as a brief elaboration on all that is wrong with Steve follows. Mind you, I’ve learned not to ask for details. The response seems to be largely visceral, a generalized abhorrence not necessarily connected to anything specific; rather, it’s a felt sense of “something wrong”, that some fundamental core principle at the heart of Canadian democracy is being violated constantly. “Dictator” seems to be a favourite word when summarizing the overall impression of the man himself.

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This bothers me, not because I’m a defender of Stephen Harper and his government, necessarily, but more for what it says about the regard we have for the system in which Stephen Harper operates. If you’ve followed my recent blogs regarding the niqab and Bill C-51, you would know that I’m not some right-wing conservative ideologue trumpeting the majestic achievements of our current federal government. At the same time, I am appalled at the readiness with which otherwise rational people suggest that Canada is on the verge of descending into a morass of failed democracy, a disenfranchised population, and a place where fundamental freedoms are sacrificed on an altar dedicated to the establishment of a secret police equal to those found, either currently or previously, in various authoritarian regimes.

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The thing is, I can’t pretend that I’m surprised. I started this blog to counter what I see as the rampant oversimplification of a cornucopia of complex issues in the world today. The “us vs them” mentality – and a very stark version of it – dominates public debate (or the reporting of it, at the very least) whether it is environmentalists vs pipeline builders and supporters of hydraulic fracturing, liberals vs conservatives, criminals vs law-abiding citizens, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc. I’m sure you could add a few more if you wanted to. In almost every case, the rhetoric is heated and the arguments tend to the “my way or the highway” version of debate which, to my mind, really isn’t debate at all.

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But real debate requires thought and careful consideration and we are not designed for that these days. When complex events are boiled down to the 2-minute newscast or, even more, the “tweet” that is delivered with breathtaking immediacy, a mentality takes hold that, I suspect, is unavoidable. We are buried in an avalanche of unfiltered information. Is it any wonder that, out of a desire to be heard above the noise, those with a message would feel compelled to boil it down to the memorable phrase, regardless of how much such a phrase might fail to represent the nuances of a position/theme/subject? We live in an age of slogans and acronyms, anything that will stick in the mind and deliver the “essence” of whatever we are being asked to consider.

I believe this is poisonous. When we seek to understand the often-rancorous proceedings of the House of Commons, the NB legislature or, for the most appalling example, the United States Congress, we need some introspection. The political class in Canada – a country where our sitting Prime Minister could be turfed this year and would, without question, bow graciously and congratulate the inheritor of the position – behaves as it does because we have made it that way. Having sat as an MLA not so long ago, I can’t help but ask: when your awareness of the business of government is garnered largely from the 2 minute clip of question period, a feature which lasts one half hour out of a six to eight hour legislative day, how informed are you? Also, if those participating in Question Period know that this “proceeding” has the greatest potential for shaping people’s opinions, is it any wonder they would seek to use it for greatest advantage?

Stephen Harper is participating in Canada’s political sideshow, one that people mistake for the actual business of government. Go ahead and disagree with the policies and laws that his government has instituted. Even better would be speaking up and critiquing those laws and policies, but without the stridency that has become the hallmark of so much of what we see and hear. And finally, if you look beyond the “show” that is conducted and the extremes of positioning that result, please recognize that Canada is a remarkable country that is, by and large, governed better than or, at least as well as, any other country in the world.

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A great deal of hand-wringing occurs when it comes to voter turnout in the country, especially when it comes to the young. Ask yourself: how attractive can voting be when the loudest voices consistently condemn our political system as broken, as undemocratic, and your vote as a waste of time because nothing changes? I’d like to hear some voices raised celebrating a system that is, certainly, imperfect but that has, nevertheless, given us 200 years free of war within our own borders, a standard of living surpassed by few and better than 80% of the rest of the world, and a culture that is largely tolerant, compassionate and welcoming of all. In the meantime, it’s time to cancel the two-minute hate, no matter who is the target. Today it’s Stephen Harper. Next? Get in line.

If only we could all be learned!

Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.
― Mark Twain

So school is canceled yet another day. I haven’t been keeping count, but that must take it to 12 or so this winter, at least by my very dim reckoning. I don’t have to pay attention to those details anymore but voices are raised in an expected chorus of alarm over the number of instructional days students are missing. If you are detecting a certain “tone” in those first few sentences, you’re right. Maybe not for the reason you’re thinking, though. I’m far less concerned with the hand-wringing over time away from class than I am with the things that such concern obscures. Another way of putting it: Time away from class – on the list of things that should concern us about our schools – has perhaps the least impact on our system.

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I remember very clearly when the shift occurred that gave us the now common phrase “time on task”. I had been teaching for seven years and a change was coming to high schools in New Brunswick: semestering was about to be adopted and the primary rationale was identified as the need for students to spend more time in class, especially at the high school level. Under the old system, a couple of weeks before Christmas were taken up with the administration of exams. A similar regime existed at the end of the year. With semestering, all exams were expected to be administered over four days and the year was divided into equal halves. If you were wondering, that is how we ended up with a school year where exams occur in January.

When this change began, any number of us decried the loss that this entailed, chief among those losses the continuity that was a key element of the old system. As a teacher of English, I was especially concerned; I firmly believe that a mastery of language requires constancy. With semestering, in its earliest form, it was entirely possible for a student to take an English course in the first semester of one year and not take another until the second semester of the following year. My colleagues at the time and I (and any others in other schools with whom I might have spoken) were united in our opposition. I won’t bother you with the details of all that followed. Suffice to say that I mark the institution of semestering in high schools as the beginning of a decline in student achievement which, to me, was ongoing for the remainder of my career. Things began to go downhill and they have never recovered. Now things get complicated. Semestering, per se, isn’t the problem. The deeper issue is embodied in that phrase I mentioned earlier: “time on task”.

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Depending on your mindset, you might view the demand that more time be given to a task as a good thing. Additionally, as the actual processes of education within schools become increasingly obscure to the average person (and to a great many of those who are supposedly practicing and/or implementing such processes), worrying about the number of hours students spend in classrooms can seem reasonable and, at the very least, manageable. I think it is a fairly common truism that we all tend toward those things that we find manageable or that don’t intimidate us.

The “time on task” mantra satisfies the same demographic that takes comfort in the numbers of students retained in school until a certain age, or in the increasing numbers of high school graduates as a percentage of the student body. All three offer only the most superficial measure of success (?) in schools but the key word here is “measure”.

In no way am I opposed to having time made up that is lost to weather. Should all subsequent winters prove to be as ridiculous as this one has been, having taught high school for almost thirty years, I could not argue against allowing for some time to be made up. But the amount of time someone spends in a classroom can in no way stand as a measure of the effectiveness of a school system. Unfortunately, the “time-on-task” mentality presupposes that all facets of education are objectively measurable and so easily compartmentalized that we need only establish and maintain a clear timeline in order to ensure that all the necessary “educating” gets done. I hope the last part of that sentence sounds as dumb to you as it does to me; in the end, all of my ramblings about education can be illustrated through my rejection of the notion that education is something that “gets done”.

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As I’ve tried to outline in a number of my other blogs, when you try to reduce something as complex as education to a series of strategies and outcomes (or whatever the jargon of the moment might be), leading to some kind of “improved” education or, in tune with another feature of current eduspeak, “21st century education”, you will never succeed. In the same way that you cannot teach literacy (you can teach reading and writing in hopes that people would BECOME increasingly literate), you cannot quantify education in such a way that it becomes objectively measurable in any absolute sense.

People, especially those in power, rarely feel comfortable with things they cannot control. As we have come to look upon our schools more and more as almost exclusively a conduit for the workers of the future (schools as training facilities), and as instruments of social engineering, “education”, as a term, has become increasingly uncomfortable for those who want to exercise such control. I believe the preference for “learning” in reference to what schools do is a consequence of that discomfort. Learning can be objectively measured, or at least that is the argument. Education is far more nebulous and immune to objectification.

“Time on task” is not about quality education; it is about control. Someone, some time ago, bought into the idea that education and test results were the same thing or, at least, that test results can allow one to quantify education. Can you think of any other arena where little or no objective improvement (a decline, in fact, both in literacy and numeracy, by most measures) in thirty years would have people continuing to pursue the models consistently proven ineffective? All I can say is: welcome to education in the 21st century. Or should I say “learning”.

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Canadian enough?

Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.
– Herbert Marshall McLuhan

As promised, the rallies in opposition to Bill C-51 went ahead and, I suspect, they have had the impact I would have predicted: they made a newspaper here and there and probably were reported in other media but, overall, the voices raised in protest will join the ranks of others at similar events, events important perhaps to the few who were involved, but largely ignored by the general populace. Most people went about their business confident that the country wasn’t going to descend into dictatorship and become a police state anytime soon. One need only look to Russia for an example of what such a process really looks like. As one commentator pointed out, can anyone imagine a scenario where Stephen Harper would take charge, personally, of an investigation into the assassination of a political rival? In Canada, we leave the policing to the police; in Russia, Vladimir Putin increasingly seems to be the sole voice of law and order, if you can call it that. But I digress (but only slightly).

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I’m mentioning Bill C-51 because it segues nicely with another controversy that I believe is rooted in a similar, core issue: “values”. I’m referring of course, to the court ruling which supported a woman’s right to wear a niqab to a citizenship ceremony and the subsequent decision by the federal government to appeal that ruling. In a manner similar to the response to C-51, both opponents and proponents of either side are lining up and leaning toward “outrage”, the default position it seems these days for just about anything one might support or decry.

On the one hand you have those who view the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, as outlined in Canada’s charter. Personally, the law being the law, I expect this view to prevail. It seems pretty clear that the woman in question has no other reason for wanting to present herself veiled beyond the convictions of her faith. The other side interests me far more by virtue of its important but nebulous appeal to “Canadian values”, as in “covering your face while you are participating in a citizenship ceremony goes against Canadian values”.

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I know many other fine examples of oversimplification exist but rarely does one of this caliber come to the forefront of public discussion. Whoever makes the claim for this violation of values assumes a willingness among those hearing it to simply nod assent and express something along the lines of “yes, as a Canadian, I don’t want anyone covering his/her face while swearing allegiance to the queen and the country”.

At the risk of being accused of treason, sedition or some other soon-to-be-defined offence, I have to ask: what “value” is it exactly that the niqab-wearer is violating? Please don’t think I am disparaging this position in favour of the other. As I’ve already said, I think the law falls on the side of the niqab wearer. But making the issue a question of some overarching set of Canadian values is of especial interest to me because it assumes that such an animal exists and is clearly understood by all. I can only speak for myself here, but am I alone in feeling that any such a value-set is far from clear?

We have instruments of law that outline rights which seem to coincide with, or emerge from, values of some kind, but the niqab example serves to illustrate extremely well just how complicated things can become when elements are added to the equation that probably no one envisioned when the charter was devised. In particular, public fear of the radicalized versions of Islam embodied in al-Qaida, ISIS and others creates an atmosphere where people can feel that something they treasure – even if articulating that “something” might be difficult – faces a tangible threat.

And the niqab is both tangible and exotic. I can’t recall having seen one around Saint John until a few years ago. Having spoken with some who are adamant in their opposition to the niqab, I know they associate it, negatively, with all kinds of things that might fit within that Canadian value arena: oppressed women, extremism, religious fanaticism, etc. And I’m with them inasmuch as I believe values are key to the manifestations of angst we see over both Bill C-51 and the niqab-wearer.

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However, just what those values are presents a problem. When the Prime Minister appeals grandly to Canadian values while announcing plans to appeal the niqab ruling, he does a disservice to us all. Politically, such a narrow opposition may serve him well but the entire question deserves a closer look. IS it consistent with being Canadian to go around in public places with your identity obscured? Will we equally require teenagers and others to remove their hoodies, a feature of certain apparel which rivals the niqab when it comes to hiding your face?

Canadians have been accustomed to define themselves by saying what they are not.
– William Kilbourn

Really, the larger question concerns that age-old dilemma: what, precisely, does it mean to be Canadian? Growing up and later studying Canadian literature, I heard a variety of voices on the subject. The only place consensus seemed clear concerned our neighbours to the south: whatever it meant to be a Canadian, we definitely WEREN’T American.

Perhaps, as the world becomes increasingly complex and we are challenged to accommodate more and more differences from some vaguely stated, but commonly felt, norm, the time has come to give some thought to just what values we do cherish as Canadians. My point always would be, simply, it isn’t a stark choice between tolerance and intolerance. Somewhere amidst the fear of terrorism, anxiety over things that are new to many, and a general unease as the world seems increasingly chaotic lies a Canadian identity. Maybe it’s asking too much that we try to articulate clearly some common principles that define us but we certainly won’t know unless we try. If that is to happen, we need to scale back the “us” vs “them” rhetoric and, in today’s public arena, that might be the hardest task of all.

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The elusive in-between

“It seems the only way to gain attention today is to organize a march and protest something”.
– Billy Graham

While online today, I was invited to sign up for an upcoming rally opposing the implementation of Bill C-51, the federal legislation that will expand the powers of various agencies tasked with combating terrorism, ostensibly in an effort to make the country safer. According to the invitation, I would be attending an event designed to oppose the Harper government’s intention to establish a “secret police” force within our borders. I have no plans to go.

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I do, however, have questions myself about the efficacy of C-51, this latest salvo in the “war against terror” here in Canada, but I am equally unimpressed by this group that wants a “national day of action”, as though a bunch of people waving placards and chanting (no doubt) a variety of slogans is the best public response to just about anything they don’t like. As I remarked to a friend this morning, what chance for discussion is there when those opposed to something have already branded those they oppose as Canada’s version of the Gestapo?

It’s a sad day, really, but it has been a long time coming. The impatience that society seemingly has with anything that requires subtlety and careful attention cannot be overstated. Simply put, it is much easier to attend a rally and carry a sign than it is to take the time to read and understand a proposal or, for that matter, to just think about it for a while without jumping to conclusions or following whoever has adopted a resolute response before you. Never underestimate the power of the bandwagon effect.
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Please note that the federal government is essentially employing the same tactic in their approach to seeing that the bill is passed. Riding a wave of popularity as the result of their perceived hard-line in the face of terrorism, the feds are pushing ahead with the bill in its current form more, I suspect, to reinforce their image as strong and resolute than because of any deep and abiding conviction that C-51 is the best possible way to confront whatever threat might exist within Canada.

I use the word “might” conscious of the impact it could have. In the current atmosphere surrounding this topic, I’m liable to be singled out by some as an apologist for terrorists, as though, again, anything other than enthusiastic support for dramatic and tangible opposition is equivalent to being an ISIS sympathizer. Outrage tends to be what makes the news after all. Few are those who want to pause and reflect and subsequently seek out other opinions in order to develop a more nuanced and careful approach to any topic. “Us” vs “them” is the paradigm that dominates discussion (or conflict that passes for discussion) of just about any overarching issue these days.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we see this tactic employed. My experience has convinced me that the average person pays little attention to things beyond the purview of his/her day-to-day living. As a culture, we have become so “busy” that we have very little time to pause, to survey, to consider and to reflect upon the issues that we face. For that matter, the speed with which technology advances doesn’t allow us time to assess the most recent “next big thing”. Within six months of its introduction, that next big thing is largely obsolete, more often than not.

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When politicians and groups seeking public support for a position appeal stridently for the simple yes or no, arguments are inevitably reduced to the “us” and “them”, namely, those who support our position and those who oppose it. Rarely are even the simplest of things readily reduced to such terms. We might, for example, establish clear boundaries for our children but the process of growing up is an unfolding story of prohibitions being qualified, changed and, even, abandoned altogether. When dealing with our kids, we realize that maturity brings deeper and subtler understandings of many things.

How I wish we could apply a similar standard to our understanding of the larger issues of our day. In the case of C-51, I’m not sure what the answer is. By and large, Canadians are concerned about radicalized Islam, especially when ISIS and al-Qaida go out of their way to identify Canada as a prospective target. Add to that events over the last year, and fear is to be expected. At the same time, do we need a national lockdown and expanded powers for our national security agencies? I don’t pretend to have the strategy to address either the situation or the questions it raises. I do, however, believe that we need to do something. The federal government has chosen to move in a particular direction that causes me unease, but, as I said earlier, I won’t be attending the protest on the weekend.

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More than anything, I wish we could find a way to engage people that didn’t demand such oppositional posing. In a world where so much information is available, you might think that being informed would be easier. Unfortunately, the sheer volume is problematic but, even more, the indiscriminate nature of the information itself is the greater challenge. How does one distinguish between the pertinent and the irrelevant when a search on Google reveals 171,000,000 hits on C-51? Is it any wonder that people are so often content to focus on the concerns of their individual worlds? Eventually, though, the larger world will inescapably intrude. We need to be ready for such eventualities, even if we must continually challenge just what being ready means. Contrary to what the “no” voice shouts so frequently and so persistently, Canada remains a democracy. However imperfectly that concept might manifest itself here, to borrow from Robert Frost: “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.*

*”Birches” (1913-14)

When education equals product – part 3 (conclusion)

A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.
– Benjamin Disraeli

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As I bring this discussion to a close (for now), I find myself referencing an unlikely source for my lead-in. I happened to be on Facebook over the weekend and dropped in on an ongoing discussion regarding Daylight Saving Time, a topic that has stirred increasing controversy over the last few years. United in their frustration, the contributors wanted DST banished, largely – at least according to their posts – because it interfered with sleep patterns, necessitating an unwanted adjustment from which they never quite recovered. The fact that such an adjustment had to be made twice a year simply compounded the misery.

As it turns out, I am the contrarian in this regard: I like the time changes. I agree that they throw your sleep patterns out of whack for a period of time, but I enjoy the ritual and the connection it has to seasonal changes. Amidst a winter such as the one we have “enjoyed” this year, anything that tells me we are approaching the end of winter and the onset of spring is welcome indeed. When I think of these time changes, I consider them as a kind of social ritual, not unlike Christmas, Easter, and whatever other days on the calendar have a common social import. So, from my perspective, I want to hang on to the time changes. I now know that a significant constituency exists on Facebook that disagrees with me and I’m okay with that.

What I am not okay with is the more pronounced objections that we hear of in more conventional media settings, i.e., newspapers, television and radio. There the focus tends to be pretty much exclusively on the economics of the change. Statistics are rolled out suggesting that any perceived savings are just that and nothing more: perceptions. In truth, so the argument goes, it would be cheaper to leave the clocks alone. Case closed. By now you might be asking how does this connect with my earlier reflections on the business education symposium I attended?

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In both cases, any discussion of the issue inevitably swings to a consideration of the current and always dominant preoccupation with “economy”. As I’ve indicated, when it comes to Daylight Saving Time, I don’t care about the economics of it; I value the “ritual”, you might say, because it represents something that has value for me beyond dollars and cents. You might as well try to quantify a sunrise, a sunset or the pleasure of rocking an infant to sleep in your arms.

University, and “education” in general, as concepts, are rooted in a similar kind of idealism. Products of the Renaissance and a key to the emergence of what most of us might call the modern world, universities were rarely regarded as places people went in order to be able to find a job. These were the redoubts of those tasked with thinking about the world and humanity’s place in it. As time went on and the various disciplines began to define themselves more clearly, practical applications in the sciences began to be found for scientific discoveries especially. As I’ve suggested in an earlier blog, university was not regarded as essential for employment when I was leaving high school. By 1975 (my graduating year), it had become a preferred route for many; still, it was more an option than a necessity.

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Over the course of the last 40 years, that has changed dramatically. Now, the need for some form of post-secondary education has become a given for most. Community and private colleges are well-suited for such a demand. Both offer programs that are very skills oriented. Everyone is clear on why you are there: employment upon receipt of your diploma. I’m sure we’ve all known people who chose the “tech” route following high school graduation, most of whom have gone on to very successful careers. Few who attend such institutions experience the handwringing common among undergraduates at university as they approach the receipt of their Bachelor’s degree. Virtually all of them expect that further study and accompanying debt will be needed before gainful employment can be realized.

Few universities want to talk about how the university model has failed to adjust to this changing reality. In conversation with one of the young people attending the business education symposium, I spoke about the role of a university “fellow”, essentially someone who is granted a salary (stipend, if you prefer) in order to free him/her to pursue research without other obligations, such as offering courses, interfering. This represents the exceptional but the ordinary circumstance of professors and the granting of degrees holds to a model that I, personally, believe in but one that is singularly unsuitable for programs that purport to be designed to provide job opportunities upon completion.

Universities were imagined as places where the learned could gather so that knowledge might be deepened and greater understanding of a plethora of concerns might be achieved or, at least, studied. As such, they were forged out of a Renaissance ideal of the emerging human being, one who was noble, capable, and to be admired in his/her own right without reference to divinity’s approbation. And so the quiet, forested campus with majestic buildings was born, a monument of sorts and a kind of metaphor for the conduct of the university: quiet, reflective, long-term, free somehow of the demands of the larger world.

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Need I say that that has changed? Universities are now viewed – as is virtually everything else – largely in light of what they can or cannot contribute to the supply and demand imperative of the marketplace. Personally, similar to my preference for Daylight Saving Time, I prefer the older conception. But reality for business and other programs increasingly precludes the university being regarded as the hallowed halls of academe. When it costs as much as $100,000 or more to obtain an undergraduate degree that offers a shaky guarantee of employment (now your primary reason for attending in the first place), the “customers” understandably want some kind of guarantee that their money is being well-spent. If universities continue to be driven toward a model that sees them as job training facilities, they will no longer be universities in truth. And that would be a sad day for all of us.

When education equals product – part 2

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

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At the event I referenced in my last post, a young man, during the question period, made a claim which I now include in my list of current, clichéd observations and comments: “we are the most educated generation in the history of the world”, or something to that effect. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage the young man and his offering. I’m simply using his assertion as an example of how public discourse easily avoids real scrutiny when the opinions expressed run in concert with the reigning orthodoxy.

The second topic of my opening comments (the first having been credential creep) was what I have dubbed the “positivity myth”, more for convenience sake than for any inherent value. I’m trying to capture a sense of a phenomenon we see in so many arenas in our modern world, one where certain things, while they might be subject to certain mild criticisms, are held to be essentially unassailable truths. And the irony is, they may very well be either true or expressions of admirable aspirations.

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The problem I have arises when someone (usually me) tries either to challenge or to qualify such “truths”. Not the least among those truisms would be any configuration that asserts the value of an education. If my theory is correct in any way, if you are reading this, somewhere inside a little voice is saying: “surely he isn’t going to say that education isn’t important?” Even to countenance such a thought might make you uncomfortable. Hopefully, my concern re education has been made clear even if certain of the specifics may yet require explanation. That, after all, is my persistent premise: we live in a world too ready to accept the pat answer, the clichéd solution, or the comfortable optimism of the purveyors of modern positive-thinking, self-help mantras (I’m thinking of the Deepak Chopras, the Tony Robbins, and others of a similar ilk).

So this young man’s claim to being a member of the most educated generation in history would ordinarily be a throwaway (others heard later would include “government has a role to play in education”, “we need to foster innovation and creativity”, “strategic investments in education will pay dividends”, etc.), but I found it provocative in light of my interests so I challenged his claim on the most basic of grounds: what do you mean? In other words, what underlying assumptions are you making regarding the educational attainments of previous generations, the quality and/or relevance of whatever education you attained, and other factors too numerous to list?

After a pause, the young man smiled, nodded some form of acknowledgement and I moved on with my comments. As the discussion proceeded throughout the morning, the cavalier use of the word “education” became all the more apparent. Whether we know it or not, when we find ourselves in such public forums, any number of unstated assumptions are in play. Foremost in an environment such as the one for this symposium stands the meaning of education. Just about everyone assumes that we don’t need to spend any time defining such a commonly used word; we KNOW what education is – let’s move on.

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Lacking a clearly defined, agreed upon definition presents a problem in its own right. When any challenge to such a “positive” assessment of our current situation conflicts with the constant demand that we be positive in all we do, how is it possible to pay real critical attention to matters at hand, whatever those matters might be? People commonly applaud such empty statements as “we need to invest in innovation”, as though simply making declarative statements equals actually providing a thoughtful approach and/or solution. Those same people will usually turn away from or dismiss any reasoned critique as though providing such a thing is inherently negative and, thus, counterproductive.

This reality stands in the way of the apocryphal “adult conversations” which we are frequently reminded we are in need of. I say apocryphal because I’m struggling to recall an occasion where one actually took place. As a general rule, our modern determination to avoid the controversial – to be “politically correct” – prevents such conversations from ever getting off the ground.

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Such a conversation, if we were to have one regarding education, would need to begin with determining just what it is we are talking about. We can no longer afford to muddle along thinking that we all possess a common understanding. My experience at the symposium last week brought that home to me. If education is little more than a place where you are made ready for a job market, why do we need universities? Surely training programs with a far more targeted approach would serve us better?

Somewhere in the back of most people’s minds lingers an image of education – particularly university education – as a “higher pursuit”, the value of which goes beyond simple job preparation. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, that presumption is increasingly being challenged as universities and their defenders lose their ability to articulate just what those higher values might be. If they cannot find some way to reclaim the higher ground, universities – especially smaller ones such as UNBSJ – will be more and more servants of a mindset that says training and education are synonymous. It just so happens that I disagree with any such suggestion as it exemplifies especially well the dangers inherent in oversimplification.

When education equals product

“But when they began handing out doctorates for comparative folk dancing and advanced fly-fishing, I became too stink in’ proud to use the title. I won’t touch watered whiskey and I take no pride in watered-down degrees.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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I was a panelist at an event I attended this past Friday and I warned the organizer who invited me that I wasn’t entirely sure what I could contribute. Nevertheless, not one to turn down an opportunity to share certain views publicly, I went as unprepared as one could be. I had no notes, no opening statement, not really any expectations. In order to have the latter, necessity demands that you have some sense of what it is you are facing.

The occasion was a meeting held at UNBSJ concerning the future of business education, a subject in which, as I said (and shared very clearly with all those I attendance) I make no claims to having any expertise. I wasn’t surprised to encounter a number of familiar faces when I arrived. Having spent the last number of years involved in politics, I’ve met many people who look to the university as an integral piece of any plans either for sustaining or for improving Saint John’s viability as an urban centre. Fortunately (for me), I was the last panelist to present so I had time to listen to others and formulate something to say. It didn’t take me long to realize the approach I would take, largely because so much of what I was hearing related so well to an element of the larger problem I have been pursuing in earlier offerings here at unabsolutedotcom.

All three who preceded me brought business experience to the discussion, whether that experience was as business owners, executives in companies or in other roles. Considering that three subsequent keynote speakers had a similar mix of backgrounds, as well as considerable academic experience, I might have expected to be out of my depth.

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Again, fortunately, I was well-served by the very thing which has occupied so much of my time here, namely, a lack of clarity when it comes to just exactly what it is we are considering. Listening and making notes for myself, I detected what I choose to call “muddiness” in our considerations of “business education”, the same muddiness that I believe is so much at the root of problems with “education” at large.

Time and again, speakers, as well as those asking questions, returned to the specific needs of the workforce, those needs being described primarily in terms of prospective candidates’ attributes or – to use an especially popular term these days – competencies. These recruits should be innovative, creative, adaptable critical thinkers. Who wouldn’t want such people as part of the workforce? I can only presume that business schools offer courses in accounting and what might be termed the more “practical” elements of the evolving university program while, supposedly, engendering the other qualities.

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When it was my turn to speak, I chose to focus on what has been called credential creep. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, consider the following. When I was attending high school in the mid seventies, graduates could choose to forego university in favour of direct entry into the workforce without too many concerns. Going to work for a local firm or pursuing a trade from the ground up were perfectly legitimate choices. We probably all know someone who started working at _____?______ right out of high school, worked there all his/her life (maybe still there), and will retire soon if that hasn’t happened already. We all know how much that scenario has changed.

A contributing factor easily overlooked amidst the many technological and other changes over the last forty years or so is the value of that high school diploma. Back in 1975, when someone presented you with one, you could be fairly confident that it indicated the holder had certain fundamental abilities. He/she could read and write well enough, do some basic math and think for him/herself. Few would take that as a given these days.

I think it was in the 80s that universities began offering writing courses to make up for deficits in students’ work. While no one really talked about it publicly, it was clear to professors that students were leaving high school lacking certain fundamentals. Thirty plus years later, a high school diploma guarantees very little, except in the case of those students who have always excelled and whose abilities are evident no matter what system they operate in.

The new bottom line is the Bachelor of Arts and, even then, from an employment perspective, many, I suspect, would not take even an undergraduate degree as proof of competence. Students not looking to pursue professional designations at the graduate level, or academic work for its own sake, increasingly look to community colleges as the preferred path. How often do you hear people disparage the value of a B.A.?

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Similarly, in business, I asked the question re the B.B.A. In light of the many demands that “interested parties” seem to be making of graduating students, how much practical value does a B.B.A. have? My concerns were echoed by one of the students in attendance who was preparing for graduate work. We certainly hear comments about the value of a “Harvard M.B.A.” I can’t recall any occasion where someone remarked on the B.B.A. someone just received received (even if it was from Harvard). Credential creep (and the escalating cost of making it even to the top of the first ladder) threatens the relevance of university courses and programs in a world that more and more associates universities with job readiness. Personally, I’m not sure those two interests intersect nearly as well as might be thought. (to be continued)