The best of both worlds?

There is no decision that we can make that doesn’t come with some sort of balance or sacrifice.
– Simon Sinek

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One of the things I like best about where I live is the view. I grant you it isn’t one that everyone would enjoy but I don’t feel the need to sell anyone on its particular attractions. From the small deck in my back yard, I look across Courtenay Bay (part of the Port of Saint John for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the geography) to an oil export terminal. Beyond the terminal, a closer look reveals a wallboard plant, a power plant and, before giving way to natural landscape, various structures with the centerpiece flame that marks an oil refinery. In the distance and to the right, all the way to Red Head, a ridge of greenery completes the horizon, one where the moon is wont to rise and cast its light upon the bay. Full moon at high tide provides the best display, but even when the tide leaves mud flats exposed, the reflection can mesmerize.

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A couple of years ago or so, when my wife was still alive, we thought about giving this place up. We looked at one house in particular, on the West Side, that had a great many features we appreciated. We went so far as to have a tour of the property and we came away intrigued but not yet convinced. I remember talking about it in the car as we were driving back home. Much of what we had seen was easy to like but we were unsettled, unsure, without knowing precisely why. We were ready to give ourselves some time to allow the impressions to settle but when we walked up the front steps, stood on the porch and looked out to Red Head across the water, any thoughts of leaving were abandoned. For whatever reason, we were attached to this very contradictory view.

I say contradictory because few panoramas offer such a stark contrast between the manmade and the natural. While Saint John has many other pockets of industry, the conglomeration of activity from the waterfront to the refinery and everywhere in between is without parallel. Among the many things I’ve learned watching the ships come and go is just how quickly the turnaround is and how constant the traffic. A ship comes in on one high tide and leaves a couple later at most. And with few exceptions, another eager vessel is waiting to take its place. Watching tugboats turn large ships displays both power and agility. Taken altogether, it is fascinating. I never tire of it.

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Courtenay Bay itself provides lots to see. I follow the tide tables and thoroughly enjoy the ebb and flow. Invitations for photographs present themselves almost daily regardless of time of day or season. For all that this body of water is a commercial centre, it still illustrates the persistence of natural forces. My imagination frequently tries to conjure an image of the tidal action of the Bay of Fundy and I have my own little laboratory just out my front or back door. As I said, the view is not for everybody but I’ve grown ever fonder of it through the years.

Many people find the industrial landscape disheartening. They lament the ruination of the natural scene and I do understand such sentiments. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate all industrial blight and return the land to its original state? Environmental orthodoxy would answer quickly and forcefully “yes”! As for me, I just don’t think it’s that simple. However much we need to be responsible stewards of our environment, we need to recognize equally that the commerce I can observe on a daily basis contributes in large measure to our being able to enjoy a standard of living that is second to none in the world.

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My Courtenay Bay scene provides the perfect study in contrasts. Smokestacks, the persistent hum of machinery, ships coming and going, all set against a backdrop of cold Atlantic seawater and rolling greenery stretching into the distance. As a believer in moderation, I have a hard time with extremism on any front. Those who object to industrial growth and development in virtually any form are no better than those who would ignore every environmental concern for the sake of a profit.

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My view across the Bay tells me that we, humanity, are here and we are having an impact. It could not be otherwise. At the same time, it reminds me of the natural beauty that is part of our heritage, a beauty and a heritage that we need to protect. Unless we believe that abandoning all of the amenities of modern life is the way to go, we need to come to an accommodation that reconciles those two seemingly opposing views. As with so many things these days, the public debate might lead you to believe this is a stark either/or question. No surprise, it’s not that simple. “Accommodation” is the key word here, and it works both ways. Balance is seldom easily obtained but rarely has it been so urgently needed.

Change? Really?

“Real governing – governing on behalf of all is hard. So in modern politics you govern to win the next election. Governing is fully subordinated to the politics of winning – but win for what? Why, to win, of course. You win to win. You win so the other guys don’t win. You win not to lose. You win because you can.”
Graham Steele, What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise – and Collapse – of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government

The above excerpt, taken from the book by Nova Scotia’s former NDP Finance Minister has an eerily familiar feel to it. Anyone who knows me would be aware that I have long been a fan of George Orwell’s 1984, not for the popularly held notion that it outlines some kind of condemnation of communism and/or other forms of authoritarian control, but rather for the always evolving ways in which I come to understand certain of Orwell’s observations. Of necessity, his dark, dystopian tale deals in extremes.

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I’m happy to report that, in my opinion, we need not fear the advent of anything resembling the world of his novel. But, as I say, I have continually found elements that predict trends of a sort or, at the very least, that cause me to reflect on his general prescience. Consider the following explanation that O’Brien provides to Winston of what makes “The Party” different from all such entities that have come before:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

To restate what I hope is the obvious: Graham Steele is not suggesting that we are on the verge of an Orwellian nightmare. But the parallel between his claim that “You win to win” and Orwell’s “The object of power is power” is striking, at least to me. And, I can add my voice to Steele’s in support of his contention that winning is all that matters in today’s political arena. I was elected to the NB legislature in September of 2010. Many times after that people asked me, especially as the next election was drawing closer, when the campaign began. My answer was always the same: “the day after the last election”.

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I don’t want to overstate this fact; if you have any hope of following through on promises, agendas or programs that you care about, being elected is absolutely necessary. At the same time, as Steele points out, the danger lies in forgetting all about the things that matter in deference to what becomes the more important and central concern of being elected or re-elected.

Unlike Steele, I’m not so sure that it has ever been much different, at least since the advent of modern democracies. The prerogative of being elected is inescapable when the very starting point of any hope for anything is dependent upon that reality. At the same time, such a point does not sit well with anyone, either in office, or from the outside looking in, when the rhetoric around politics concerns itself with matters of great significance to all of us, even to those don’t pay a great deal of attention to the specifics of government.

I was listening to Rex Murphy the other night and he was reflecting on the sorry state of public debate, a common theme these days. His particular interest was in attack ads and how they present such a dilemma. On the one hand, most people I know decry them as distasteful at best. At the same time, experience seems to suggest that they work.

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All of this was offered in light of the changing fortunes of the federal NDP. I’m not alone in wondering how the NDP victory in Alberta might affect the election this fall. I’ve been around politics enough now to realize that people are cynical to a degree that shouldn’t come as a surprise in this age of instant access and information overload. If you keep beating on any drum long enough, sooner or later, the sound will be heard by even those least prone to listen.

Dissatisfaction seems to be the prevailing trend. What interests me (and Rex Murphy and many others) is whether we have reached a tipping point. Are people sufficiently angry and fed-up with the status quo to lash out and consider a federal NDP victory? That would require all those who have never voted NDP out of a belief that doing so is a wasted vote to reconsider that view. Rex believes that the first sign of such a possibility would be a Conservative attack ad aimed at Tom Mulcair rather than Justin Trudeau. Interesting.

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If this fall’s federal election results in such a dramatic swing, no doubt a good many in the country will be looking expectantly for a sea change in the way things are done. For that to come to pass, the newly elected NDP government would have to abandon the notion of winning as their prime motivation. What’s the chance? We’ll have to wait and see.

Religion and reassurance are hard to come by

They say that Caliph Omar, when consulted about what had to be done with the library of Alexandria, answered as follows: ‘If the books of this library contain matters opposed to the Koran, they are bad and must be burned. If they contain only the doctrine of the Koran, burn them anyway, for they are superfluous.’ Our learned men have cited this reasoning as the height of absurdity. However, suppose Gregory the Great was there instead of Omar and the Gospel instead of the Koran. The library would still have been burned, and that might well have been the finest moment in the life of this illustrious pontiff.
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1st Discourse) and Polemics

I attended an event this past Saturday at the Main Branch of the Saint John Free Public Library. A lecture entitled “Is Islam a Threat to Canada? An Introduction to Islam in our Community” was given by Fazal Masood Malik of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of PEI. While the numbers might have been greater, those who attended were obviously the truly interested. Altogether there may have been 30 of us and, with the exception of one person who was somewhat strident in expressing a largely negative viewpoint, we all seemed equally receptive to our host and the message he came to provide.

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As might be expected, Mr. Malik’s answer to the question posed by the title of his lecture was a resounding “no”. And, through his reading of the Koran, it was easy to see why that was the answer. As Mr. Malik tells it, the prophet Muhammad, and through him, the words of Allah contained in the Koran, speaks of a religion that is tolerant of all other religions, that is dedicated to peace, both individually and collectively, and that has very little to say about the politics of any nation other than to insist that Muslims obey the properly constituted authority of whatever nation it is where the Muslim resides.

Mr. Malik developed his answer to the question within what I would describe as a very narrow window. Not unlike any other defender of a particular doctrine based upon a sacred text, he quoted compellingly from the Koran those instances where Allah condemns the behaviours that we in North America and other Western nations (although not exclusively just Western) have come to associate with jihadists and terrorists or whatever you might want to call them. In his reading of the Koran, it is quite clear: Allah does not sanction the xenophobic, monolithic imposition of the brand of so-called Islam practiced by ISIL, al-Qaida, the Taliban or any other group that fails the litmus test of compassion, tolerance and fair-dealing that are the hallmarks of the true Islam Mr. Malik came to defend.

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While I was both impressed and reassured by the apparent moderate and appealing reading of Islam that Mr. Malik presented, at the same time, I left, still troubled by the prevalence of a view of Islam that seems to be diametrically opposed to the teachings I had just heard. Major Middle Eastern regimes lay claim to Islam as the authority whereby they flog some, behead others and generally deny a number of human rights that we, as Canadians, accept as a given. By the measures I heard enumerated on Saturday, no country with an Islamic heritage can claim to be practicing the faith truly and diligently.

As I wrestled with this dilemma – and I do think it is the core of the dilemma that a good many Westerners have when struggling to be fair – I thought back on my own Christian heritage. I was raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic household (a house which shared a wall with the Baptist church next door) and my grandmother seemed quite convinced that those Baptists had little chance of entering the kingdom of heaven, a chance missed by all those who did not follow the “true faith” (that being, of course, the one we practiced).

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While I admit to being a lapsed Catholic, that doesn’t mean I haven’t remained interested. I’ve watched the changes that have been led by Popes throughout my lifetime. Personally, I saw John Paul II and Benedict XVI as regressive, throwbacks who wanted to reverse some of the most significant reforms of their immediate predecessors. I watch the current Pope Francis, an interesting study in contrasts, – someone who seems bent on very forward reforms in certain ways while being far less enthusiastic for others.

In my lifetime, and for a few lifetimes prior to mine, interpretations of Christian doctrine have seldom been the source of significant conflict, Northern Ireland being, perhaps, an exception, although that had become far more about political power and control than differences in religion by the time it morphed into the late 20th century. What about some earlier centuries, though? I was reading about the Emperor Constantine not long ago, specifically about one of his conquests where the entire population of a besieged city was put to the sword, ostensibly because they were not practitioners of this new faith that the Emperor had embraced.

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Fast forward through the crusades and the inquisition, both examples of Christians, in the first instance, setting out to reconquer lands considered to be within the sphere of influence of Christian powers and, in the second, putting to death anyone identified as being at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy. In either case, I have great difficulty imagining Jesus as a cheerleader. Who today would seriously argue that Jesus would have been there on the front lines of the Crusades or been the guy holding the torch in preparation for the burning of the latest heretic? From the perspective of a few centuries of moderation, we might even be tempted to say that slaughtering unbelievers and burnings at the stake seem unChristian (some understatement there, hopefully).

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By virtue of this parallel, I feel I can gain a better handle on Mr. Malik’s argument and, I would say, his predicament. Assuming he represents a “truer” interpretation of Islam, he is going to struggle to overcome the impact of all those who have bombed, attacked and otherwise slaughtered innocents in the name of their particular brand of Islam. What makes the radicals (and all radicals everywhere, no matter the rationale) truly frightening to me is how fervently they seem to believe in their version.

As I’ve tried to argue in all of my blogs here, the reality is far more complex than it might seem. Thanks to Mr. Malik, I have a greater appreciation of the nobility inherent in Islam. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make me any more secure in the face of those who act in its name in ways that seem just as bizarre as any Christian burning someone at the stake before they draw and quarter him/her. Understanding can only go so far. It can’t always prevent me from looking over my shoulder.

Some anecdotal musings

Misdirected focus on paperwork, on procedures, and on bureaucracy frustrates teachers and fails to give children the education they need.
– Christopher Bond

I happened to catch Cross-Country Checkup last night on CBC Radio and I couldn’t have asked for a better topic. Under consideration were Canada’s results on PISA math exams. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is one commonly accepted measure these days of just how countries are doing generally in certain core subject areas (reading, math and science). Operating on a three-year cycle, the tests focus on one area at a time. Considering that some 70 countries have participated to date, PISA offers, at the very least, a kind of comparison of school systems. The interpretation of results and such comparisons is the devil amidst those details but I’ll leave that for another day.

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When I was teaching, PISA exams in English were administered on more than one occasion and the results were always regarded with what might be called suspicious interest. In my experience, real teachers – the ones who spend their time in classrooms with students rather than speculating from afar from some theoretically supported ivory tower – always view external standardized tests with a grain of salt. While I am among those who always had questions about their quality, I have never discounted them entirely. Through my work with New Brunswick’s own provincial assessments as well as with Advanced Placement exams, I am convinced that good standardized exams can provide a useful snapshot of basic skills.

The discussion on Cross-Country Checkup was the result of Canada’s less than stellar performance on the PISA exams seen in light of other studies which have argued that math and other basic skills are in decline across the country. Nowhere amidst such arguments is much room allowed for anecdotal reports but, as a retired teacher of high school English, I’m going to venture an opinion formed through years of dealing with students after they had made their way through a system that abandoned the teaching of grammar, asserted that spelling was largely irrelevant, insisted that memorization or any brand of rote learning was to be avoided, promoted writing without consideration for form: you get the picture. Guess what, over my approximately 30 year career, students proved less and less capable of reading, of writing or of anything requiring an even mildly sophisticated use of language. One way of summarizing things from my experience: tasks that I would assign to grade 11 students in 1982 were more than I could expect from grade 12 students in 2010.

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But, in today’s environment, nothing gets much of a hearing unless it is supported by “research”, a term deserving of quotation marks so that I might indicate how skeptically I view research in education. Considering everything I learned when I was a student, one of the key elements of effective research was the ability to control the variables that might have an effect on results. I’ve never been entirely clear how such control is possible in something as varied and changeable as a real classroom. But that, too, is subject that I have explored previously and that I will, no doubt, return to again.

As far as math is concerned, the debate concerns what, apparently, goes under a number of names but the designation that I had heard before was “discovery learning”. In brief, this is the theory (emphasis on “theory”) that memorizing times tables and learning specific operations (think long division for those of you who remember such archaic methods) is largely a waste of time. Instead, students are supposed to discover solutions on their own, the theory being that the student who can make such discoveries will remember things better and learn more thoroughly.

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Suffice to say I think this is hogwash. As it turns out, considerable “research” is emerging that supports my contention. At its heart, research critical of discovery learning argues that some foundation of basic knowledge of a subject is needed if any kind of discovery is going to go forward. DUH! At which point my mind is truly boggled. Does it really take years of meta-analysis, studies, investigations, reports, etc., etc., etc., to figure that out?!? To put it another way, it’s pretty hard to discover something when you don’t have the slightest clue what it might be you are looking for. Double DUH!

If my exasperation with all of this isn’t evident by now, you’re just not reading. Some of my greatest moments in teaching were those where students suddenly had an insight which made the work before them easier. They crossed over from accumulation of data to application and understanding, you might say (I’m doing my best to imitate a certain eduspeak with which, I confess, I have little expertise). But no such insight or epiphany was ever possible without the grunt-work that precedes such moments.

A change is in the wind, at least where math is concerned. More and more, educational systems are returning to things such as memorizing times-tables, practicing specific methods, learning the process, etc. Why is it that we can accept the need to repeatedly practice a golf swing or a slapshot if we want to improve our particular athletic skill while arguing that practice and technique are somehow irrelevant when it comes to higher order thinking?

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At this point, the theorists are no longer listening. I’ve made the mistake of asserting something based upon my experience, an anecdotal report of what I’ve seen work through my years as a teacher. I haven’t done a study nor have I sought to test my claims in some clearly and objectively measurable way. In this, though, I’m a bit of Luddite. I’m happy to listen to those who have walked the walk, those who are praised by students for the impact they have had on their education, for the success such people have helped students achieve. Their methods are varied and malleable, as varied and malleable as the people who have attended school in the past and continue to do so today. When those with the power to change the system begin to listen to the honest voices of real teachers, only then will we see the improvements we all believe we need.