Sunday, May 27, 2012

On restricted-focus government

One household in Canada
All the little economies
A recent poll determined that Canadians place higher priority on the economy than on crime. I don’t have access to the question asked by the poll, so it's difficult to decide whether or not it was a reasonable reflection of what the average Canadian is thinking.
 One thing I do know, though, is that asking anyone to rank items in a list like this is a of little value, the result obscuring more than it illuminates. The choice of items for the list, for instance, is in itself a manipulative enterprise in that it must—by its nature—exclude or choose items on it. Furthermore, the implication in this case is that the economy and crime are similar categories between which a choice can be made, or a choice that's already been made can be justified.
            The current government has decided that its focus on the economy is justified both by the results of the election and such polls, as well as by the economic instability around us. They have a point; economies must be tended thoughtfully and must distribute goods and services equitably and efficiently. Ranking this need as the Harper government has done, though, is dishonest. The economy is not separate from crime, or health, or highways, or education, or environment. Seems to me, a portion of our population has been lulled into the thinking that all must serve the economy, including environmental considerations.
            We know intuitively that building a house on a crumbly foundation is foolish, but in the world of politics in Canada today, are we still agreed on what is house and what is foundation? Surely if environment and economy were listed in a poll, most people would choose environment as fundamental, a foundation on which the economy is built. And yet, our government speeds up environmental hearings, pushes the polluting oil sands as if there were no problem there, all as if the economy were foundation and the environment must be built on top of it.
            Imagine a household run like our current government runs the country. “I'm sorry, children, but the most important thing around here is getting as much money as possible into this house, so food, clothing, music, education, recreation (being of less importance than finances by the latest poll) are on the back burner until further notice. And by the way, you've been slacking off so now you're all either getting paper routes, or your allowances will be cut!" (Think EI changes)
            If this metaphor seems out of place to anyone, just a reminder that the word, economy, derives from Greek words for household management and steward.         
A restricted-focus government is no proper householder at all.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

If you don't believe in it, don't do it!

Academy Bed & Breakfast now
Academy Bed & Breakfast after September

John Irving, author of The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, was on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight the other night. (See Irving has been a stalwart supporter of equal treatment for people regardless of differences—in gender preference particularly. Stroumboulopoulos played a clip of Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry, on a homophobic rant while he was still in the running and trying to turn a tide that was quickly shifting against him. (Remember the “I would close three federal agencies: commerce, education and . . . and . . .” speech?) The question to Irving was, “What do you think of comments like that?” If you click on the link above, you can hear his reply; if not, it was something like: “If you don’t believe in gay marriage, my best advice to you is to avoid falling in love and marrying someone of the same gender. Likewise, if you’re not pro-choice regarding abortion, don’t abort your foetuses. We don’t tell you hard liners what to do, why do you feel you have to direct us?”

There’s something of American “individual rights” mentality in that response, but there’s some food for thought as well. In a similar vein to Irving’s point of view, I would tend to add: “If you believe the Bible literally read to be the one and only true source of instruction and guidance for humans, read it carefully and apply it to yourself as best you can, but refrain from applying it to your neighbours. Encourage them, rather, to study it for themselves and act upon it if it moves them.” The urge to use civil government to enforce a uniform ethic is always there, as witness the current attempt to hold a parliamentary debate on “when life begins,” a conundrum that can’t possibly be resolved in a debate in the Canadian parliament at this time.

Is human biology ethical? moral? We’re designed for a scenario in which procreation was mandatory for survival, so important that the urge to copulate had to be as strong as the urge to eat lest indifference cause our species to dwindle. Unfortunately, in our age survival hinges on our ability to limit procreation, while the libido designed for an earlier aeon ticks on. Imagine what the world would be like if we could devise a new way to procreate. In order to have a baby, suppose two people would have to face each other for ten minutes while kneeling on dried peas, tapping each other on the shoulders continuously with peeled birch sticks and chewing a special gum. After ten minutes, they would exchange DNA by swapping their wads of gum and one of them would develop and pass an egg, which they would take turns tending until it hatched nine months later. Accidental or unwanted pregnancies would be rare and we would certainly have resolved the abortion debate. Sexual union would be just the most pleasurable way of expressing intimacy and love, or, perhaps, be available as an alternative to Scrabble.

I thought I detected the exasperation of weariness on John Irving’s face at the question; that “must it always be about this?” ennui that we’re all beginning to feel over the questions of same-gender marriage and abortion. His “If you don’t believe in it, don’t do it” may be as close to an answer as it’s possible to get on these issues
 . . . and a few others you could undoubtedly name.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Go, student demonstrators, go!

School room display - Mennonite Heritage Museum

My dad's High School class (Row 2, Number 1) 1916
There were those perched in the branches of my ancestral tree who were suspicious of education, at least in the go-to-school-for-a-long-time, get-good-grades, achieve-a-certificate-or-degree sense. The thinking was that the more you knew, the more you would “lean unto your own understanding;” the less you would depend on the Word of God for guidance. Of course, opportunity and wherewithal also played into how much my forefathers and foremothers valued academia . . . or didn’t.
Jacob D. Epp - Teacher, farmer (1820 - 1890)
George Epp - teacher, non-farmer (1941 - ?)

               What knowledge and skill does the average North American need today? Well, for survival, probably not much. For meaningful employment, quite a bit. For contributing creatively? Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it?
               By the time I got to make choices between finishing high school or not, getting a post-secondary education or not (this was around 1960), the scales in my culture were tipping in favour of formal education, even for those going into church-related careers. The state had been pushing mandatory, universal education through compulsory attendance in a public school system for some time by then, so basic literacy was a given except for the developmentally challenged. But in a primarily agricultural context, the assumption that Grade 8 was enough for most practical purposes persisted; the pressure for more was half-hearted where I lived.
               Historians and anthropologists could tell us how the nature and content of education has evolved but it’s clear to me that both the said nature and content ought to change in step with the transformations in the world in which we live. Simply put, the maintenance and repair of ox carts might be learned in one day; competence in the repair and maintenance of the cars of 2012 demand a lengthy apprenticeship and numerous courses, for instance.
               At one time, Grade 8 was deemed to suffice. Then a high school education became the desired bench mark. Both levels could be had free in a public school with qualified teachers.
But a high school education doesn’t meet the needs of modern society; the complexities that are faced on a daily basis simply aren’t comprehended by a large portion of the population. We need to take the obvious next evolutionary step: the first four years of post-secondary education should be provided in the same manner as high school once was. That is, totally subsidized by the state.
Quebec, we’re told, has the lowest university tuition rates in the country. The Charest government is planning to raise these fees to “a more realistic” level and the resulting student demonstrations are dragging on into their twelfth week. What position should the public take on this? I’m firmly on the side of the students (although entirely out of sympathy for the hooligans for whom any demonstration is an opportunity for creating mayhem). The demonstrators are at the leading edge of a much-needed next step in the evolution of our education system. The bench-mark is relocating upward; free post-secondary education needs to become as commonplace as free high school.
It can’t come soon enough. Be brave, students! Carry on!
And while I’m at it, another observation: education has two parts; one is the preparation for employment, the mastering of skills that can be sold to an employer or applied entrepreneurially; the second is the development of wisdom and understanding sufficient to being a good neighbour, a good parent and a contributing citizen. Public education has swung too much toward the career-training part of the equation; the balance needs reconsideration.
I’d propose, for example, that Logic and Rhetoric be reintroduced as basic components of high school education and continued in all post-secondary programs. A Grade 12 student I talked with a few nights ago was exhibiting a picture of a Kalashnikov he’d manufactured on his computer. Since it was done in a Peace and Justice unit of a Christian Ethics course in a Mennonite school, I asked him if the course had done anything to make him reconsider his stated intention of joining the military after graduation. His reply—haltingly expressed—was that he could further peace from within the military!
The prosecution rests.