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.

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