What in God’s name?

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
– Dalai Lama

Where do I begin? I’m trying to find some kind of silver lining amidst the thunderclouds of misery that have come to attend the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. If someone reading this thinks that “Middle East” is somewhat broader than events warrant, let me explain.

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While most of our attention is focused on Syria and Iraq as the heartland of the hot war with ISIS/ISIL, the rest of the region languishes amidst a more familiar misery. In Israel and the Occupied Territories, violence and conflict are so ingrained that only the most remarkable of the latest incidents makes the news. Heard anything out of Yemen lately? War continues there. We in the West just haven’t heard much on the regular news feeds. I could go on but I suspect most only need a reminder.

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As far as that goes, the “Middle East”, as a term, provides a kind of insulation from the reality of conflict in the area. Turkey isn’t part of the Middle East, nor are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Mali, etc., etc., etc. What they all have in common, though, is an ostensible religious component. Some group or other involved in whatever war is happening looks to their version of a god and lays claim to righteous indignation and a calling on the deity’s behalf to right the wrongs around them.

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Making this situation even more bizarre is the trumpeted religiosity of so many of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates. I’m hard-pressed to think of an exception among that crew. When Donald Trump – not the first person who springs to my mind when I think of evangelical Christian – lays claim to the bible as his favourite book, I truly feel the world of the Twilight Zone is alive and well and walks among us.

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I can only presume that in Trump’s and others’ versions of Christianity, God smiles upon systemic bias, racial profiling, hostile exclusion of the “other” and other, equally “Christian” practices. If I find myself getting especially riled up over these idiocies, I try to find comfort in Orwell’s 1984. In his description of Doublethink, the ability to hold two entirely contradictory claims as true, the author captured the essence of a human characteristic that has, no doubt, persisted throughout history. It just seems that doublethink is becoming increasingly mainstream, especially when candidates for the world’s most powerful office seem intent on becoming leading practitioners.

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But as I said when I started, I’m trying to find the silver lining amidst all this because it is, I admit, depressing when I think about it for too long. As might be expected, hope and comfort can be found amidst the details. None struck me as powerfully as the story of the congregation of a Peterborough synagogue that offered its space as a place for worship for those Muslims whose mosque had been the target of arsonists.

To be up front here, I long ago ceased to identify with any religious group although my heritage is Roman Catholic and I remain deeply interested in the church and its goings-on. As a general principle, though, I have found it increasingly difficult to ascribe to any particular dogma. I consider myself a person of faith even as I make no claim to being able to define just what that faith is. The best I have to offer is an affirmation of the purposefulness of life, the goodness of existence and awe in the face of it all.

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When it comes to manifestations of that faith, I see it in such things as the actions of the Peterborough synagogue. If the news is to be believed, a great many who would claim to be followers of a deity of compassion and of love would be outraged as such action. Reconciliation, kindness, generosity – whatever you want to call it – these have no place in the claustrophobic religious practices of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any other fanatical expression of religious intent.

A great deal of time and ink has been spent trying to argue that the extremists who claim affiliation with any major religion are perverting that religion. While that might have a pleasant, comforting aspect, I think it misses the point. Just what any religion is “meant to be” is far from clear. To use the one that most of us around here are familiar with, Christianity, how many different versions of that can you name? I find out about new manifestations regularly and, no doubt, I will continue to do so.

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To hear it on the news, you would think that Christianity and Islam and other faiths have some fixed “good” that all the proper Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., ascribe to. History of any age can point to any number of atrocities committed in the name of religion and, like it or not, they are the tangible actions of a particular understanding of that religion. Heretics being burned at the stake during the Inquisition wasn’t an aberration; it was the “right” thing to do.

Human decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it.
– Christopher Hitchens

So when I look to the generosity of the synagogue congregation toward their Muslim neighbours, I don’t ascribe to the interpretation that this indicates “true religion” at its best. I prefer to believe that there lives in all of us, oftentimes awakened as a result of our religious experiences, a fundamental human decency that gets lost, quite often, amidst the noise of conflicting passions and beliefs. Fear, in particular, can corrode an otherwise kindly heart.

The world we see in the news can often appear a dark and dreary affair indeed. The silver lining, most often, is found in the small actions taken close to home, wherever “home” might come to be (I’m thinking of all those refugees hoping to find a new one in places they had never expected to be). Hope is never a futile thing: just don’t expect to find it very often in a headline.

Fear itself

Always do what you are afraid to do
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fear: it’s in the air. No matter where I go, regardless of the occasion, if I run into someone I haven’t seen in a while, the conversation eventually comes around to the question of Syrian refugees. And beneath virtually every opinion offered on the rightness or wrongness of Canada’s plan to welcome 25,000 souls to our shores before the end of 2015 lurks that undeniable element of fear.

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We occupy a privileged position here in Canada and, even more so, here in our little enclave on the East coast, far removed from the metropolises of Europe and elsewhere where the threat of yet another ISIS/ISIL outrage must feel incredibly imminent. The effectiveness of ISIS/ISIL’s approach to intimidation cannot be overstated. The unlimited scope of their attacks has put all of us on edge in a way that no group, in my memory, has ever been able to do.

Attacks on embassies, war ships, even the World Trade Towers, have the perverse logic of being symbols of something identifiable that the radical group opposes. In the latter case, in light of what we see as the inherent innocence of the victims (people going about their business, doing their jobs), the logic is profoundly offensive, but at least we can follow it: World Trade Centre as symbol of U.S. economic imperialism, etc., etc., etc.

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But Paris? What did anyone killed or wounded in that attack do? What was the landmark, the symbol, the thing that shouted “offensive” in the twisted minds of the death cult that pretends to have something to do with religion called ISIS/ISIL? A concert? A soccer match? A restaurant? As others have noted, the randomness of the targets is the very thing that has made them so effective. By striking somewhere that has no obvious benefit, the message is clear: everyone, everywhere is in the cross-hairs unless you are with us.

No wonder fear is evident, even here in small town New Brunswick.

But I’m here to add my voice to those who cry out against that fear. I am not suggesting that we abandon healthy caution but, as in all things, we owe it to ourselves and to those who are more immediately affected by the ongoing calamity in Syria and Iraq to not allow fear to overwhelm our better instincts. Never have I felt so in need of perspective.

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For the friends that I have talked to about this, the central concern is the obvious one: extremists infiltrating the ranks of refugees in order to insinuate themselves into positions where they can cause harm. That’s where that privileged position of ours comes in. With the exception of Air India decades ago and the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Quebec last year, we have largely been free of extremist attacks in Canada.

What’s it like, I’ve often wondered, to live in a place where the young girl approaching you across the square might be a suicide bomber, or where the car sitting idly outside a building might be rigged to detonate at any moment? What is it like, in other words, to live in a place where the threat of violent death is, realistically, a constant?

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And at that moment, I realize that that is not Canada. Here on the periphery of the violence that afflicts so much of the world, we look upon it with dismay and are grateful that it so rarely has an impact upon us. So, naturally, if we can be convinced to fear that same violence making its way to our shores, we will object to any action that could lead to that. Understandable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m nervous. The world is looking like a dangerous place and the barrage of images of carnage and cruelty beyond measure in conjunction with the overreactions of crazies who want all refugees banned and tests of Christian belief administered, etc., all contribute to putting just about anyone on edge. At the same time, my rational self demands that I take a step back and act in spite of any visceral fear.

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While it might sound like overstatement, I really do think this issue is about Canadian identity. We cannot contend that we are (or aspire to be) the world’s most inclusive and fair-minded country while demanding that Syrian refugees pass litmus tests we would apply in no other circumstance. As I’ve tried to understand my own fear, I’ve further attempted to grasp just what it is we imagine needs to be done in addition to any current screening already applied to refugees.

Because the date, the end of the year, appears arbitrary, I hear myself saying that we need to abandon that. Even as I say it, I realize that my “logic” in saying so isn’t based on anything other than an unsettled feeling inside myself – fear, in other words. “Can’t be too careful” to quote the old adage.

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And I know we can’t! But what makes me think that the agencies responsible for such things in Canada are suddenly going to abandon caution and forego the responsibility they have for ensuring all of our safety? That just isn’t the Canada I believe in and those aren’t the Canadians I know.

The bottom line is I have to work on it – my fear, I mean. Because I am afraid. Canada has as much of a chance of being subjected to some kind of attack as anywhere else. But that is not, I have to tell myself, the same as welcoming refugees fleeing from a misery that I can’t even imagine. Emotion is as transferable as a bad cold, maybe even more easily spread, and I think we can all point to bad decisions we’ve made in our lives when emotion got the best of us. Let’s not let the same mistake get the best of our country. Too many lives hang in the balance.

When ideology matters more than life itself

Do not believe ISIL is manageable
– Jeanne Shaheen

Around this time last year, I was traveling in Europe and one of my objectives was to visit Auschwitz. I have been a student of the Second World War – especially the Holocaust – since as early as junior high school. I still remember reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in grade 8. Ever since that early exposure I have continued my struggle to understand the minds behind what stands, for most people, as the greatest crime ever perpetrated by human beings.

I can’t say that the day I spent at Auschwitz unlocked any door to understanding although it did deepen my mystification at humanity’s capacity for cruelty and extend my appreciation of the enormity of the undertaking itself. As I toured the interpretation panels and rooms in the main camp before continuing on to Auschwitz-Birkenau (the extermination camp), architectural drawings of the infrastructure of death at Birkenau were chilling. No skull and crossbones or other insignia graced the pages. I could have been looking at plans for the construction of a local Wal-mart. The design itself was ingenious, ensuring a rapid processing (from assembly, to killing, to cremating, to cleaning up) of as many as 5000 people at a time.

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Among the most affecting elements of the displays for me, though, was a simple picture taken of the unloading of the trains at the siding made famous in Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice and a myriad of other films chronicling elements of the Holocaust. What caught my eye wasn’t what was happening in the background – men, women and children being herded on a platform while soldiers and dogs patrolled the scene; rather, I was drawn to two figures in the foreground. They appeared to be lower ranking personnel just slightly above the regular ranks and their backs were turned to the scene unfolding behind them. One of them was smoking a cigarette.

In tune with my Wal-mart comment earlier, remove the background context and these guys could have been having a smoke-break behind a restaurant or on their break before returning to their desks. Their detachment was palpable. I imagined possible elements of their conversation: “So, Hans, how was the game last night?” “Could have been better, but I played well. How’s Frieda?” “Well, she had the surgery and the prognosis is good. We’ll know more in a couple of days” “Tell her I said hello!” And so on. This wasn’t a picture of horror (although it was); rather, it was a photo of “just another day at the office”.

The Jew always lives from the blood of other peoples, he needs such murders and such sacrifices. The victory will be only entirely and finally achieved when the whole world is free of Jews
– Julius Streicher

More than anything, it is that ability to stand apart from what is happening and see it as normal that always gets to me. When I was back from Europe, I supplemented my trip to Auschwitz with a BBC documentary on the subject and one part of that brought the point home to me even more. An interviewer was talking to an elderly gentleman who had been part of the Einsatzkommando during the war. This was a special force that accompanied the regular army as it advanced the Eastern front. Its mission was to round up Jews and execute them. The focus of the interview was on one week in particular where this guy had taken part in an “action” that saw him and his cohort kill at least 10,000 and bury them in a mass grave.

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When asked what he felt as he was participating in this, the gentleman responded: “nothing”. The interviewer, trying to remain objective, struggled to hide her consternation and asked him to explain: “they were the enemy; they had destroyed our businesses and were out to destroy us”. When he was asked to supply any specific example from his experience of the enemy doing any such thing, he couldn’t but that in no way shook his conviction that, indeed, those he had participated in killing were the enemy. My rational self wants to cry out: “Women?!? Children?!? Babes in arms?!? The Enemy?!?!?!”

But I know it’s pointless. The longer I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve read along the way, the more convinced I am that I will never be able to penetrate the mystery of human cruelty and our uniquely human ability to convince ourselves that even the worst conceivable action is justifiable.

I write about this today as I struggle to process the events of this past weekend in France, another of those events, similar to 9/11, that serves to focus our attention on something that remains at the periphery of our concerns unless, like all of those refugees fleeing the battlegrounds these days, it touches in some way upon our more immediate world. I join with every other voice in the world that wants to see the perpetrators of this particular outrage held to account.

At the same time, I hope we can work to understand who and what it is we are up against. Similar to Hitler, Nazism and the virulent anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust, no argument can be had with ISIL/ISIS. Sadly, for this immediate case, nothing can be said to bring the adherents of this particular group back from the brink. Most important, for all of the world that opposes the actions of ISIS/ISIL, is to know and understand who we are fighting.

Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million. – Graeme Wood http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

To put it another way, this is not a fight against some radical interpretation of Islam, against Muslims, against “the other”. It is not a fight to “preserve our way of life”. We are faced with a group that, through its own particular logic, has arrived at the conclusion that the individual life has no value other than the way in which it can be used to serve the ends of its ideology. Similar to Hitler, this is fanaticism at its most perilous. That which most of us (we like to think we are the norm) hold to be the greatest value, the central miracle of the universe – our existence – is irrelevant to the ends of ISIL/ISIS.

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The Nazis and Hitler would not concede defeat until Hitler himself was dead and the “empire” he had created was reduced to a street or two in Berlin. We must remain united in our abhorrence of everything ISIL/ISIS does and be prepared for a fight that may never be “won” in an absolute sense. History tells us that someone will always find a way to believe that life isn’t as important as some cause or ideology or other.

The struggle today, where ISIL/ISIS is concerned is to recognize that this group does not represent anything more than itself and those who adhere to its precepts. Xenophobes, ultranationalists and fanatics of other stripes will look at the actions of ISIL/ISIS and see a chance to further their cynical ends. Fear has always been fertile ground for hatred, intolerance, prejudice and support for oppression. For those of us who want to hold to our love of life and diversity and to values of acceptance and tolerance, we need to continue to remind ourselves and others that ISIS/ISIL is the latest manifestation of a recurring human horror. A certain appeal to religion might be the breeding ground for these maniacs, but an ISIS/ISIL suicide bomber is no more a Muslim than Jim Jones was a Christian.

After the election: of kittens and cabinets

The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.
― Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays


I found this “Kittens against Stephen Harper” posted on a fence in uptown Saint John and I just had to have it. I hope the poster can forgive me for absconding with it but it made me laugh so spontaneously (it still raises a chuckle) I couldn’t let it go. For me, whether deliberately or not, it captured the frustration I felt throughout our now-concluded federal campaign. As a number of my recent blogs have argued, that campaign showed signs of Canada drifting toward an American-style polarization of right and left that scared me. As a Canadian, rightly or wrongly, I have long treasured what I, and many others, see as our long history of moderation and tolerance. I’m hoping that the extremes we saw over the last few months are an aberration and that we are now “back to our old selves”, you might say.

Kittens against Stephen Harper? For all of the apparent exaggeration, it really did start to feel that way, at least among a number of the people I know. I can’t recall a time when so many were so animated in their “hatred” (is that too strong a word?) of a public figure in this country. It seemed as though the election was repeatedly drawn in the starkest of terms, very much an “us vs them” or, dare I say it, “good vs evil”. Some will say I am, myself, exaggerating the extremity of opinion but I don’t think I’m that far off. Mind you, much of what I’m using as the basis of my view is social media but the more mainstream media and personal conversations I had seemed to support my contention overall.

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And the thing is, I’m happy to acknowledge that many things that Harper’s government did were objectionable to me personally. I was no fan of Omnibus Bills, extremes of message control, half-hearted action on climate change, paranoia on many fronts, mandatory sentencing, etc. That being said, I also hold that such actions were undertaken out of a view that they were in the interests of the country and its citizens. But, as I’ve had occasion to say to a few people lately, we live in an age where outrage is fashionable. As the words from Bertrand Russell above suggest, one of the easiest alternatives to a meaningful argument is strong feeling. Personally, I would have much preferred to hear more of the argument and less of the outrage. As for any final verdict on Harper’s contribution to the country, I’ll leave that to time and historians.

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As I said earlier, though, I’m hoping that Canada, in the meantime, can return to its senses. And the actions of our new Prime Minister, so far, seem designed to restore all kinds of faith for all kinds of people. The optimism is near universal although, predictably, some have found things to complain about, most notably the composition of the new cabinet. The naysayers point to gender balance as inappropriate and a false requirement imposed at the expense of merit. My knee-jerk reaction to that one is to go “Really?!?” with a look of dismay plastered on my face but, in line with my own argument, an explanation is the better way.

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A Cabinet Minister in Canadian legislatures – federal, provincial or territorial – certainly has a job to do in a specified arena of interest but to imagine that the background of an individual can somehow be the sole measure of qualification for the position suggests a misunderstanding, in my view, of both the role and the nature of the job itself. Justin Trudeau has done an admirable job of lining up ministers with portfolios that match elements of their professional and educational backgrounds – and that is certainly one thing to think about when making such choices – but the media has made me laugh with their comments on one appointee, comments that supposedly highlight this minister’s appropriateness for the portfolio. The minister in question? Marc Garneau, incoming Minister of Transport. He is, according to Peter Mansbridge and others, eminently qualified because, after all, as a former astronaut he’s been to space. You get it: he’s traveled a lot, so he’ll make a great Minister of Transport. Right?

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To be clear, I’m not criticizing the choice. I am, however, pointing to the absurdity of imagining that one’s experience as an astronaut prepares you for such a role. Does anyone really think this compares to Harjit Singh Sajjan and his background in the military being chosen for Minister of Defense? Now THAT pick really does seem to line up.

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In terms of the bigger picture, though, the composition of Cabinet has always been based on more than any apparent qualification based on background. Language, region, ethnicity, affiliation – any number of things can serve as legitimate considerations if you view cabinet composition as an effort to reflect the country it purports to represent. When you have 184 MPs to choose from, qualification, to my mind, is a given. Nothing I have read suggests to me that anyone in Cabinet lacks capability. That Justin Trudeau decided to proclaim through his choice that women deserve an equal representation at the table is a move I applaud. Does that mean such composition should be writ in stone? I would argue no. The message has been sent and we can move forward from here. The symbol can spread the message, even if the reality (true equality across the spectrum for women) will take time to come to pass.

And so Canada moves on and revels in the fresh blush of a new government and the end of any number of policies and attitudes that were found objectionable. Many who might have said they weren’t are once again happily and proudly Canadian. I hope we can hold on to that and never lose sight of the fact that each of us – if we find ourselves citizens or residents of this country – truly won the lottery just by virtue of being here. For now, the kittens are content but, make no mistake, they’ll be watching.

Bicycles, attendance and the purpose of education

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. ~ Edward M. Forster

So I’m listening to a piece on CBC a couple of weeks ago regarding an idea someone in British Columbia has of licensing bicycles. Essentially, so the argument went, if people had to license bikes, thefts would be reduced, people would be more responsible, etc., etc. I’m sure most of us could come up with a rationale for such a thing. Personally, I don’t have a well-developed opinion on the matter. I don’t own a bike and I’m not familiar with the challenges bikers face. I have to say that, from the perspective of a motorist, bike lanes seem like a good idea. But that’s about it when it comes to my thinking on bikes.

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The people interviewed on CBC, of course, had far more to say about the issue than I could be expected to have. Of greatest interest to me, for the purposes of this particular blog, was the alternative suggested by someone that bicycle use and all the associated concerns (whatever they might be – as I said, I’m no expert of any kind in the field) should be rolled into a course that would be offered in the public schools. Since any proposed bicycle law was viewed as difficult to enforce, having schools develop and institute a bike curriculum was felt to be a better approach. Let’s leave that for a moment.

I haven’t been teaching in over five years now so I’m not quite as tuned in as I once was to what’s happening in schools these days but my attention was captured just yesterday when a bus went by with a lovely poster announcing, on behalf of Anglophone School District South (our local district), that student attendance was important. That jogged my memory. I recalled that I had heard and/or read another article that was summarizing the push that was being undertaken to improve student attendance, something that was equally an issue when I was still in the classroom.

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While these two items may seem entirely unrelated, both, in their way, point to some of the absurdities that the school system and teachers must deal with as they go about the incredibly difficult task of trying to be all things to everybody when it comes to the education of children.

A dedicated course on biking? Really? I’m not saying in any way that it is a bad thing for young people to learn all they can about bikes. At the same time, does anyone really imagine that amidst the many demands already placed upon the system and the teachers who labour there that adding just one more thing doesn’t make so much difference? Think again.

From virtually the onset of my own career as a teacher, though, – over 30 years ago – I’ve watched schools be considered as the natural repositories of responsibilities that might have, at one time, been deemed inappropriate for an educational setting. From courses with such names as “Family Living” through “Outdoor Pursuits”, the very idea of a school has moved far from its original conception as a place where young people went to learn basic skills that would enable them to succeed as citizens in adulthood.

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Please, don’t mistake my intentions: much of what has been added as far as curriculum goes has a place and can be easily defended. At the same time, the notion of the school as an agent of socialization has come to mean more than, in many cases, the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. The emphasis on inclusion at the expense of virtually any other consideration (discipline, learning environment, effect on other students, etc.) is the clearest example of that.

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This latest push on attendance, though, is another manifestation of how expectations and the means of meeting those expectations seldom line up. When I saw the poster on the bus telling anyone reading it that student attendance mattered, I couldn’t help but chuckle. DUH! Does anyone question for a second that it matters?

At the same time, from my own experience, I felt the pain of those who had to devise a campaign for this big push to improve attendance. Over my time in the classroom, I saw any number of attendance policies come and go. At the core of all changes was the conflict between those who believed that only if some kind of consequence was involved could attendance be improved and those who insisted that it was all about making school more attractive to those who tended not to come.

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When I am confronted with the reasoning of the latter group, I confess I want to weep. These are the “school as socialization” theorists who picture human beings as eager learners who somehow get turned off when they are actually expected to be responsible for something. Never mind that as soon as they leave the cozy confines of public schools, a very unforgiving world expects a great deal.

As for the attendance policy here in New Brunswick, all attempts to encourage attendance must be undertaken in the face of the stark reality that not attending carries no consequence. To be clear, if I am a student and I choose not to attend class, the most I might suffer is a letter telling me I should come. Granted, the longer-term cost of no education is not being factored in, but you get my point.

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Initially, the argument was floated that poor attendance was the fault of teachers. They just weren’t interesting enough or something along those lines. Happily, we’re not so far gone (most of us) that we would allow that “opinion” to hold sway.

In different ways, both the bikes issue and the attendance policy point to how disconnected and confused we are when it comes to what we imagine schools can and should do. At one time, I would argue, society’s expectations of a school system were fairly clear. Over the last 40 years, especially, those expectations have diversified to the point where no one could easily specify just what they are except in the very broadest of terms. And as we all know, it’s difficult to arrive at any destination when we don’t know where we are going in the first place.