Tag Archives: Education

Education is the key to reconciliation

100 Years of Loss

BRITISH COLUMBIA’S Education Minister, Peter Fassbender, announced late last week that the province will introduce a new education curriculum on Aboriginal cultures and history this autumn.

Education was a focus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 recommendations. (Download the TRC’s “Calls to Action” document here.)

Here’s an excerpt from the TRC’s education-specific recommendations:

Education for reconciliation

62. We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

i. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.

ii. Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.

iii. Provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.

iv. Establish senior-level positions in government at the assistant deputy minister level or higher dedicated to Aboriginal content in education.

63. We call upon the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada to maintain an annual commitment to Aboriginal education issues, including:

i. Developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade Twelve curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.

ii. Sharing information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal history.

iii. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

iv. Identifying teacher-training needs relating to the above.

There are many more education recommendations in Calls to Action. Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, has said that “Education is the key to reconciliation.”

It makes sense for him to say this. The residential school system was an education system of a sort. It didn’t provide much at all by way of skills or learning. Mostly, it was a child labor system.

Always poorly-funded, the residential schools depended upon the output of child workers. Relatively little teaching and learning took place, especially until the 1950s, when reforms gradually were introduced.

The point is that the present-day education system can help to redress what was done by an education system of the past.

For this reason, I’ve been working for years on residential school curriculum. One of the projects with which I’ve been involved—”100 Year of Loss”—is already in use in two Canadian school systems, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

Next month, I’ll start work on an exciting new curriculum project which I will say more about when the time arrives.

In the meantime, I commend British Columbia. And I look forward to more school systems responding to the TRC’s recommendation to “make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students,” in “consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators.”

How my school days prepared me for a world which doesn’t exist, and didn’t prepare me for the one that does


SCHOOL DAYS. They were so long ago, you probably don’t remember them. Or maybe what you remember didn’t happen.

I’m talking about you, not about me. My memories, of being the team captain and MVP, are as sound as any Ken Burns documentary. See how the camera pans across a photo of me, holding an electrified cattle prod to keep from being torn to pieces by sex-crazed females? It’s more dramatic with video, but that’s what you get when imaginary Ken Burns narrates the Dionysian out-in-the-woods madness that was your school days.

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FNCFNEA: An Interview with Grand Chief Gordon Peters

Grand Chief Gordon Peters

Download entire interview (320 kbps mp3) | Visit The Roundtable on Facebook.

Grand Chief Gordon Peters is a citizen of the Delaware First Nation, near Chatham, Ontario, and the Chair of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians Chiefs Council. The Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) is a non-profit organization which advocates for the political interests of its member Nations in Ontario – the Oneida, the Mohawk, the Delaware, the Potawatomi and the Ojibway.

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Intellectual Dishonesty Still Beats Learning Grammar


THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH Carolina has a bit of a mess in its lap. Back in January, Raleigh’s News Observer publicized the story of a whistleblower named Mary Willingham. Weeks passed, and in more recent days Willingham was interviewed by ESPN and CNN. That’s when the ordure hit the oscillator.

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Give the First Nations Education Act a Chance


THE ISRAELI DIPLOMAT, orator and polyglot, Abba Eban, is today memorialized in the truism that men and nations behave wisely only once they have exhausted all the other alternatives. In the case of Canada’s exhausted Indian Act policies, the alternatives to a wiser course have been many as well as durable, as we all know. Thus it is with surprise, and enthusiasm even, that the Assembly of First Nations is this week absorbing Canada’s late acceptance of the five “Conditions for the Success of First Nations Education,” enunciated in the AFN’s December 2013 unanimous resolution and enshrined in Finance Minister Flaherty’s 2014 budget. These conditions are as follows:

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When Toddlers Save the World (or — It Was Dr. Mustard, in the Study, with a Lead Argument)

THOSE OF YOU who know me only through these sometimes-prickly writings of mine — which is to say you don’t know me at all — may be surprised by my claim that I’m as a rule a docile and muted and even agreeable fellow. I’m provoked now and again — and the yearly occurrence of Black Friday is one of those occasions. I don’t much care for this late, absurd, and phony non-event, which promotes the rotten and rot-inducing ideas that our highest calling subsists in being a consumer, and that everything depends upon one’s subservience to this duty.

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There’s much talk about debate these days, but do we even know how to do it?

WHEN I was in high school, I had the good and (even in those days) atypical experience of passing through the classroom of a teacher who held fast to the discipline of the formal debate. Looking back, I regret that I hadn’t had more of it, and I wonder to what degree today’s students are similarly deprived by a culture which mechanically genuflects before the shrine of debate while refusing to nourish the conditions which make it possible.


The Lost Art Of Penmanship

As I recall it now, the awards day was for all of us gathered in the school’s auditorium a day of anticipation as well as of obligatory observance. In my case it needn’t be a matter of suspense: indifferent, distracted, and, above all else, bored, I was the worst of students. Each and every year toward the end of the proceedings I received the brown and gold felt badge in the category designated for those of us who in reality had earned no prize. I am speaking of course of the award for Penmanship.

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The Confessions of a University Drop-Out

During the years 1992-1998 I was a full-time Ph.D. student at Queen’s University at Kingston Ontario. It happened something like this. I had completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Brock University and a M.A. at Queen’s. The deepest recession since the 1930s, or so I was told, was setting in, and I was faced with bleak prospects. Like many of my contemporaries, I decided to drift further into graduate school. Call it laziness or inertia if you like. At the time it was the best option available, for reasons I’ll show later. And after all, I’d been told since age 4 that an education is the key to success, whatever that means.

I had graduated from high school during the recession of the 1980s, so the territory was familiar. I worked as a bartender, and had even less talent for this than I’d shown as a student. I would have been fired were it not for the fact my employers were kind and generous friends. Eventually I figured out I was going nowhere, and school represented itself as a strategy for improving my fortunes. In 1984 I returned to my education, applied myself for the first time, and completed grade 13. Had you asked me ‘What is the purpose of an education?’ when I was a high school graduate and a simpleton, I would have replied, ‘To get a Job!’ I didn’t care for school until my university sophomore year, when I came to realize that I believed learning for its own sake is a noble endeavour. I admit it is a selfish endeavour also, but then my purpose here is not self-glorification. My point is, I still believe that education is a noble endeavour. I suspect this is a minority opinion, and that most who go to university would find it a bit quaint. They are there for the job training, which is not the same thing, in my opinion, as an education.

You are doubtless eager to chastise me at this point. You suppose I am going to issue the commonplace laments about the University: that it does not educate, that it does not lead to a job, that it is ‘outdated,’ etc., etc. And you want to tell me, as if I’ve never heard it before, that I ought to have studied something useful. ‘Computers. Now there’s a degree! They’re dying for people who know about that.’ True, the market demand for English majors is relatively low, and yet I’ve never doubted that I have a useful degree. I also feel that I got an education, so there will be no laments forthcoming.

I was accepted at Brock University and began my English degree in the fall of 1985. Why did I choose an English major? I don’t recall my thinking, but I imagine I’d figured out by then that I had a knack for literature and an interest in writing. Indeed, I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of 8. My other principal interests were, and still are, biology, general science, and music. But English Literature it was. I chose my courses, bought my textbooks, and went off to class. Of those early years my memories are few but pleasant. I recall the pungent lectures of Michael Hornyansky and, incongruously, the Brock pub, Alphies Trough. The years went quickly, or so it seems in retrospect, and by 1988 I had decided I would pursue a graduate degree. Here I recall my reasons with clarity. I was a good student and loved nothing more than loitering in the company of history’s great and infamous minds.

I applied to Guelph University and Queen’s, and chose the latter after visiting Kingston in the winter of 1989. The trip I remember well because it was viciously cold and because I scored an apartment for the next fall at a house party my first night there. I saw little of the city, but fell in love with it because it was everything St. Catharines was not: intimate, communal, convenient. The students I met all lived within a few minutes’ walk of one another and within blocks of the university. I would discover later that this cliquish intimacy had its dangers, but at the time it felt marvellous – and I have to say that nostalgia for this college-dorm life is doubtless behind the success of Friends, Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and other such Peter-Pan let’s-never-grow-up TV shows.

I moved to 379 Alfred Street in Kingston on 24 August 1990 – I remember it well – and began my M.A. in September. It was a gruelling year, academically speaking, and personally difficult, but productive and rewarding. As I look back to 1985, when my education began in earnest, the markers of my life’s significant events and discoveries include entries like: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Penguin Classics, Either/Or volume I, Ulysses, Paul Fussell’s Bad, George Orwell’s essays, H.L. Mencken, and so on and so on. Every year brought with it a new set of discoveries, new vistas, a bigger imaginative world. I feel about these what others feel about Ebbetts Field, the moon landing, or the death of John F. Kennedy. You see, I can’t imagine my life without them. Beyond that, it seems almost pointless to try to put the matter into words. Either one understands, in which case the explanation is unnecessary, or one does not, in which case the explanation won’t help.

My involvement with the Ph.D. program began, ironically I now find, with money. One is required during his or her M.A. studies to apply to several funding agencies for Ph.D. assistance, even if there’s no certain intention to become a doctoral candidate. I therefore wrote a thesis proposal, filled out the forms, assembled a team (advisor, second reader, etc.), and posted the paperwork – a tedious task, and one which I expected to end up nowhere. To my surprise, I ended up with grants from every agency to which I’d applied. Imagine living on perhaps $400 or $500 a month (perhaps you don’t need to) and then suddenly being offered grants totalling about $30,000 a year to do something you find difficult but also rewarding and noble. Well, are you interested? Perhaps now you see why this was the best option.

I completed my required first year of courses, my second year of comprehensive and specialist examinations, and one of my languages (Latin). I still had one language examination to complete (French), and of course the thesis itself. The actual thesis, a scholarly argument of 200-400 pages, isn’t begun until year three, after the first year of courses and the second year of exams. In years three and four I read dozens and dozens of books and articles, hundreds I suppose, and made notes which filled several yellow 1½” ring binders. The actual writing, which began in year four, was protracted and felt often disgusting. There were days, many of them, I did anything to avoid my computer. The problem was I never quite knew what it was I wanted to say, or even why I should say it. My title page read “Autobiographical representations of the Indian, and the making of the self, in Eleanor Brass’s I Walk in Two Worlds, Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, and James Tyman’s Inside Out, by Wayne K. Spear, A thesis submitted to the Department of English Literature in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.” The argument, in a nutshell, was that our conception of ourselves is shaped by narrative conventions, social institutions, and cultural beliefs working in a complex and dynamic interrelation. I came up with some clever insights and a few marvellous paragraphs, but it occurred to me I could say everything I wanted in plain, ordinary English – in about 100 pages. Too bad for me the scholarly mode of writing is tortuous prose by the pound. I had another problem also, which is that my profound skepticism over my project kept creeping into the discussion. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of my Introduction: “There is a refrain among Native peoples with which I would like to begin this study. I have heard it spoken at academic conferences, and in that context it serves as a suitably dark suggestion both of the limitations and the effects of research and of knowledge. That refrain goes something as follows: ‘Indians have been studied to death.’” I may as well have added, from Ecclesiastes, ‘of book making there is no end, and great study is a weariness of the soul.’ This quotation is from memory and may be garbled, but no matter; it’s precisely how I felt about the work I was doing.

Stubborn as I am, I lingered in the thesis-writing stage for 4 years, convincing myself I would finish my dissertation. But in the end I had no incentive, other than being done, and it was making me quite miserable. Writing a thesis is a gruelling ordeal, which would not have been quite so bad had it served a purpose. I do not mind hard work, provided it has a purpose. Certainly I was no longer in it for the money. The government grants had run out in 1996, and again I was living a careful life. I was going on sheer determination, and not even my love of learning could help me now. You see, one learns little writing a thesis; it is a solitary, pedantic, technical exercise, a hoop through which one jumps on the way to becoming a professor. I had decided however that I didn’t want to become a professor. Then why was I sticking with this massive, rambling, pointless exercise called the dissertation? Because I’d made a commitment and had been given public money to do so. I rationalized the decision by telling myself a Ph.D. would give me more ‘options,’ which I think is another way of saying I could become a university professor. It turned out all English Ph.D. roads lead to teaching.

I’d had enough experience of the teaching profession to learn I wasn’t well suited to it. For 5 years I was a teaching assistant, and I realized that most students don’t really care for what they’re doing and are just trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. In other words, they’ve already learned the cynical art of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. Some of them have figured out what they need to pass and put in the minimum effort to get there. Others, god bless them, are good, decent people who never quite get it, no matter how hard you try to help them. As a result, I marked a good many papers littered with statements like the following:

…the wife [of Bath] tries to explain that men write about women’s being unreasonable, because men do not understand who women are, and then she likens women to Venus who stands for partying and spending money.

Most people have an image in their head of a fish stuck on the hook trying desperately but vainly to escape.

The English Romantic writers very often use their works to criticize and judge the society and people in which they live.

Additionally, Byron emphasizes the important role memory serves, as it enables man to remember all the intricacies of life, and at the same time, reminds us that our memory will always be with us from the moment we remember them.

Keats lost both of his parents and a brother before the age of fifteen. He had a chance and got his training as a doctor and could have made money, but chooses to make a living as a writer. He had a love of his life, but was too poor to marry her. One likes to assume this made his writing more positive.

The fact that there is no real inclination to believe that the speaker is actually surprised at the fact that she worships him leads the reader to believe that worship is what he expects. The belief that he believes that he deserves to be worshipped is pure arrogance.

Though hidden in the weather, Browning ironically describes an arrogant person…

A man who tries to weir a women through poetry will say that they are devoted the them and only them.

Social construction for each culture is unique and built on their knowledge of self and the culture in which they live.

It is obvious that Dante [Riordan, of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] would stand behind the church no matter what the outcome and fiercely believed that sinners should be published.

There is no darkness in Heart of Darkness, yet there is no light in the Heart of Darkness…

I used to find undergraduate essays written like this frustrating, but today I find them amusing and, I admit, touching. There was a time, you see, when I wrote like that too. The above quotations are the product, not of dim-witted oafs, but of the best and the brightest of our high schools. In any case, I think fondly of my former students, most of whom were pleasant and lovely folks, and I wish them all well. This, by the way, is the attitude you’ll find among truly good professors, of which I could never be one. Good professors haven’t any self-flattering illusions about academe, yet they have a deep respect for what the university in principle represents. Somehow, through what seems to me a magical process, good professors make a profound and positive difference in the lives of their students. Besides my limitations as a teacher, the other reason I left the university is the ugliness of its bureaucracies and its complete lack of purpose, at least in the case of the humanities. I worry it will only get harder to teach well, given the current love affair with privatization, technology, ‘efficiency,’ and the free-market.

In retrospect, there are two things I miss about university life. The first is the feeling one has on a university campus in September. It is a feeling of optimism, renewal, and of hope. I have never felt quite so alive as I did each September when I was at university. The second thing which I miss is good seminars, which were rare and thus exquisite. Why do I miss these things? I find the answer almost too unpleasant to state. Nonetheless, this must be said. Beyond the university campus, intellectual curiosity is quite near extinction. Imagination and critical intelligence atrophy in the workplace, where only the narrowest, functional mental tasks are required. This assumes, of course, that atrophy has not occurred already in the public schools. Most of us learn to put behind us the grand philosophical ideals of ‘the good life,’ if we’ve heard of them in the first place, and focus on more practical matters like getting a job. And of course ‘popular culture’ is there to captivate us also. I am not saying this is always the case, but that it is often the case I know for a fact, having observed it. Most of us go through life passively, as spectators. Nor am I inclined to scorn, as I was when I didn’t understand the efficiency with which the ‘real world’ grinds us into conformity. As I’m certain you’ve noticed, human arrangements in America are not organized around basic human needs for creativity and participation, or for spiritual and intellectual development. But in a university they are, at least to a greater degree than in the surrounding culture. That is chiefly why I miss the university.

Never mind the maudlin social commentary and the ‘thanks for the memories,’ you are saying. What about all that wasted taxpayer money? The thousands and thousands of dollars? What about that? Well, it goes without saying I lived very well for four years at taxpayers’ expense. I am not complaining; life was good then. It is not, as one of my professors used to say, ‘politic’ of me to state this publicly, but that is the fact. I will not pretend that the money went only to high-minded and charitable things. At the time I was awarded the grants I owned 2 bookshelves, one desk, one twin bed, one area rug, a computer, and about 800 books. By the end of my Ph.D. I had accumulated furniture, dishes, appliances, a new computer, and 1,000 more books. Anyone who knew me then will tell you I had it very good. I ate decent food and drank wine with dinner at least twice a week, but then I had done so even when my annual income never exceeded $6,000 a year, which was up until age 26. I shared a house with two others, and despite being well below the so-called ‘low income cut-off line,’ we wore decent clothes and had good meals every night. Were we poor? No, not really; the children of middle-class parents never truly are, so long as the possibility of support obtains. While a middle-class Queen’s student, I discovered that perfectly good clothing is sold by the Salvation Army, that a large bag of rice lasts for months, that healthy vegetables and simple sauces are cheaper than meats, that you can make a batch of wine yourself in your house at $2 a bottle, that when all else fails S&R will let you pay for groceries with your Visa – and Visa will let you pay the debt at $24/month and 18.5% interest. But as a middle-class adult I would probably not need these lessons for long. As it happened, my research grants meant that suddenly I had become rich.

I do not know what to make of all this. I only know what generally is made. An egregious example of fraud or waste is disclosed (I assume this is how my story would be regarded), and from this a program of revenge is launched. A handful of authenticated welfare cheats is generalized into a social class, hence everyone on welfare is a cheat. A failure or crimp in the system is found, so the system must – all of it! – go. A story in the news now often yields calls for major overhaul, comprehensive reform, sweeping legislation. I suspect something like this will happen with publicly-funded education, and indeed it is happening already. Stories like the one I’ve just told invoke jealousy and rage. I don’t mean to insult you with moralizing; jealousy and rage may perhaps be appropriate responses. There is, for instance, little support for the university among the working classes, and for good reasons. The university appeals to the middle classes and derives from them its political constituency. This fact is obscured by certain rationalizations which are felt to be true only by the middle classes – for example the idea that higher education is an established ‘right’ inextricably bound to the public good. If only that were so. [-October 1998]

How I Survived My Education


WE ARE ALL deeply indebted to our education system, for despite it, and maybe even in rebellion against it, we have become educated persons. Education like birth is something that simply must be done, and however much you may have benefited from it, you’d hardly wish to do it all over again.

I remember peculiar details whose significance today escapes me. I was once forced to stand in the hall for something I’d done, or hadn’t done; I had to go to the bathroom but I feared interrupting the class, so I pressed my legs together and danced until the pressure was more than I could bear, and then I wet my pants. This sort of unpleasant experience is unusual only in particulars. Most of my memories of school involve the themes of crime, authority, fear, and punishment. I suspect any other student could tell comparable tales. Nothing which could be construed as a ‘lesson’ remains afterward. I remember only the punishment, and the rest might as well never have happened.

The grammar school I attended had a long tradition of military-style education. The principal as late as the 1950s was typically a retired sergeant, or some similar figure. ‘Stern, male, and authoritarian’ seemed to be the chief requirements of the job. The yet-surviving Victorian model of the teacher was vanishing, but examples were still plentiful enough. The awkward phrase ‘Victorian model of the teacher’ is my own, and if I had a better phrase I would use it. It designates the educated middle-age woman who, having raised her own children, is thrust upon the children of others only to keep her busy. Behind the practice were some ugly assumptions about women and children which I suspect are familiar. Even today the assumptions inform our education system, which is why tenured university professors tend to be male and grammar-school teachers female. One assumption, which applies to other professions as well, is that work done with children really isn’t important enough to command the respect and wages of work done among adults. Thus the school was a dumping ground of sorts, and though inspired and gifted teachers could be found, they were accidents. Deviation from the norm was an unfortunate condition to be beaten back, and the creative teacher faced, then as now, a host of opponents.

To appreciate the character of the education I’m describing, you’ve got to consider the sort of things one was expected to learn: spelling, penmanship, punctuality, respect for authority, and obedience. All of these involve conformity to standards, whose justification is taken as self-evident. One learned to spell ‘correctly,’ with the help of a British dictionary. The authority of the dictionary was taken for granted, as if there were only One True Dictionary. I was also taught there was a correct way to make a lower-case ‘p’ – with the vertical stroke rising above the curved, much like the Old Norse thorn, þ. Regarding punctuality, never my strong point, I was reminded that I’d never get a job if I couldn’t learn to be on-time. Here the clock was the authority, and there could be no questioning the exigencies of the schedule (correct pronunciation: ‘shed-jewel’). Regarding respect for and obedience to authority, no matter what subject was ostensibly under consideration, these were the lessons. I suspect they were ultimately all that we were meant to learn.

In my case the system failed; I somehow learned not to respect and obey, as a matter of habit, authority. School showed me that our leaders are not self-justified, and that they indeed often behave far from justly. I learned these lessons while reflecting on my experiences. As an adult I could see clearly that the function of the system was to produce moderately intelligent middle-managers and docile proles. That is what the industrial capitalist system of my childhood needed, and that is what it mostly got. The system was designed to produce people who would show up for work on time and do what they’re told, how they’re told, no matter how demeaning, pointless, or even stupid it may be. The system produced these folks the way it produced everything else: in mass quantity, according to specification. In such a world it’s inconvenient to question the structures and dictates of work, just as it’s awkward to ask why ‘fill-um’ is the correct Canadian way to say film. Such questions were discouraged. In both cases one was expected to do as one was told, period. Authority, I discovered, is often a mere matter of expedience. Education standards, for instance, may serve the interests of education bureaucrats more than they do students, and the function of the authorities may be to ensure that the standards always triumph. In my opinion, you’re not educated if you’ve never had this suspicion.

When you start to ask questions, a curious phenomenon occurs. Things begin to unravel. You learn that authority stands on shaky ground. The teacher is not all-knowing and in fact only says fill-um because she was told by someone (another authority) that it is proper to do so. Behind every authority is only another authority: the Oxford dictionary, the CBC, the Queen, and so on. Question any individual authority and there is nothing in principle stopping you from questioning authority itself. How frightening such a state must be for teachers whose insufficient training and meagre resources make them entirely dependent upon the teaching guide. Their authority is all that they have. At least the bureaucracy offers them the conditions they need to do their job. One person’s hell is another’s heaven, and I know today that mindless fill-in-the-blank work is a blessing if you’ve got the right temperament. Bureaucracy, after all, serves a useful and even civilizing function. You need only do and think as you’re told; the system will then propel you along toward your pension.

Although this may sound cynical, it describes the way most of us live. Consider the realm of opinions. Even if we don’t believe most of what we read, we at least have read most of what we believe. We couldn’t possibly have first-hand knowledge of all that goes on in the world. We have to believe something to function. I don’t mean ‘belief’ in the religious sense of ‘faith,’ as in the phrase ‘to believe in God.’ Instead I mean belief in the sense that we concede the world is pretty much what the experts say it is. Though the meanings overlap, they differ in the sense that the expert describes something you could see for yourself, like an atom, if you made the effort. Experts pretend to describe objective facts, in relation to which blind faith is not only unrequired but inappropriate. If you doubt the descriptions, you are free to examine the matter for yourself and to form your own opinion. Most of us however haven’t the time or inclination to do this, and so we acquire our opinions second-hand. This is not an argument against the media, but merely a description of the way in which opinions necessarily operate in the real world. We can only go so far in challenging conventional wisdom, if we challenge at all, because beyond conventional hearsay there is conventional heresy, and beyond that little more than regions of fire and dragons. The conventions, whatever their shortcomings, serve a function.

One of the great and overlooked paradoxes of the education system is that it is blamed for all social ills and called upon to remedy them. The possibility that it is neither the disease nor the cure offers little opportunity to the polemicist and so is rejected. Civilization has its discontents, but this is not entirely the fault of the education system. Even if we restrict the discussion to learning, the education system can be shown to have a doubtful role. Einstein’s genius did not flower as a result of his contact with the University; he was at best a mediocre student. There’s no doubt in my mind that the education system of my childhood tended toward stupefaction, but stupidity was not always the outcome. Yes, school inoculates the young against intellectual curiosity – but this is only merciful, so long as the adulthood to which the young may look forward consists mostly in mindless work, endless sitcoms, and cajoling advertisements. When’s the last time you heard an education reformer observe the obvious, that there’s almost nothing to do with intellectual curiosity except make a pest of oneself. The corporations do not want it, despite their talk of the knowledge economy; the government does not want it; the TV does not afford it; and your boss will retaliate at its first appearance. In short, intellectual curiosity is as useful to social success as bad breath. Nothing is cultivated at such cost, with such pains, only to be met by such perfect indifference. That is why the education system works the way it does. And it does work, by rooting out intellectual curiosity and replacing it with ‘workplace skills,’ lest a peaceful and gainfully-employed existence be forever precluded.

Any system will fail at least some of the time. Intellectual curiosity may survive prolonged therapy. In my case the education system was indispensable to my efforts, like the floor against which an athlete must push in order to leap. I began my life as a critical thinker when I first discerned what the education system is really designed to do – and how far this reality is from what education spokespersons claim it is designed to do. Reformers insist they want to make the education system a place of critical thought. Think about it: a generation of critical thought would pretty much put an end to the advertisement and PR industries, not to mention a good many political careers. The whole culture would have to be remade to suit the thinking and tastes of clever, skeptical people. Critical thought would pose a larger technical challenge than the Year-2000 bug. Our dullness is a national treasure. It is an industrial lubricant; without it the wheels of progress would grind to a halt. No more blockbusters, no more bad newspapers, no more trickle-down economics, and on and on. Do we really want to end civilization as we know it?

I would, but that is only because I am a pest who’s survived the education system. [-June 1998.]