Category Archives: A Better World is Needed

A Back-To-School Wishlist for Society

Simply, two things. Let’s make sure our public school system recognizes two things:

  1. Our children are priceless individuals with immense capacity to excel, not standardized, interchangeable commodities who can be warehoused in assembly line learning factories.
  2. Thinking matters, not just filling up heads with data.

A week before the new school year starts is a key time to think about some priorities.

I quit my 12 year teaching career because I could no longer contend with the increasing assault on those two things. I shifted to politics to address the political agenda that robbed me of a great teaching career by eroding the system.

Teaching and learning is mostly an art because people are different. It’s that simple.

High stakes tests like highly standardized final exams and the Foundation Skill Assessment tests rarely cover the breadth of human experience in learning. Standardized tests, often marked by scanning bubble sheets, allow only certain kinds of questions to be asked. Students cannot possibly demonstrate the breadth of their experience in such testing environments.

The system has ended up valuing only what can be tested in these ways; the rest is demeaned. This is good for the Fraser Institute’s privatization agenda and various traditional learning advocacy groups, like what turned up in the National Post yesterday:

Romantic progressivists also are given to touchy-feely edu-speak, like “learning to learn” and “higher order thinking” and “meaning-making in a context-rich environment,” imprecise terms representing theories supported by very weak–or no–scientific evidence.

via Learning the old-fashioned way.

I hear these types of criticisms a lot. But I’ve never before actually heard higher order thinking lumped into the mix. Impugning a model of education that empowers actual thinking attacks the idea that while lower order thinking is important, like remember and comprehension, higher order skills are useful in really contributing in life: applying knowledge, analyzing it, evaluating it, and creating new approaches or ideas.

Anyone who talks of promoting a knowledge economy connects with higher order thinking integrally.

But now the traditional learning folks are actually admitting that they think higher order thinking is bad. This is no surprise because people well-versed in such thinking can see the socio-economic agenda inherent in some of these education policies: creating an underclass of subservient, productive, obedient, not overly capable, but non-threatening workers and consumers.

There is no need for higher order thinking if schools are designed to warehouse children, toss them on content assembly lines, ignore individuality and pump out interchangeable worker bees in a just-in-time, mainly service sector workforce.

Asking if we’d like fries with that requires really only rote learning. As does reading the book profiled in that article without investing the time to really understand complex issues to the point where we could evaluate, analyze and draw conclusions:

What’s Wrong with our Schools And How We Can Fix Them….This book is short, fewer than 200 pages. It is easy to read — like a school primer, no coincidence. Even at the end of a long day, parents can manage the necessary 20 minutes it takes to read a chapter….

Don’t be put off by the “for-dummies” simplicity of the format and language.

via Learning the old-fashioned way

No. It’s not supposed to be ironic.

Now the Fraser Institute is advocating that to improve schools by running them more like businesses, we need to

start thinking of children as commodities….

Ontario’s plan to invest in full-day schooling for four-and five-year-olds “delivers an immediate return of $2.02 [in GDP] for every $1 invested in operations and $1.47 for every $1 invested in capital infrastructure.”

via Run schools like businesses, researcher says.

This is just terrifying. If we eradicate higher order thinking and human individuality in lieu of developing children’s minds and spirits as a value-added commodity, like turning a tree into a table, we will cease to have an education system for our society.

And if we follow the money, we can ask who benefits:

  • politicians who would like to arrest hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and bystanders during a political summit, preferably without civil outcry, all in a context of diminishing voter turnout [does this sound familiar?]
  • corporations who need semi-skilled workers who don’t need pesky hobbies or critical thinking to impede their ever-increasing productivity
  • think tanks that are well-funded to push policies that serve the two masters above.

On Canada Day this year, I attended a celebration at a Vancouver community centre. The ever-glum BC minister of education showed up and skulked around putting in her face time. I watched her for a few minutes observe children at play with studied disengagement. Maybe as a doctor she wanted a different ministry. Maybe she was having a bad day.

But she and her government are doing their best to enrich the rich, privatize public assets and institutions, exercise shock doctrine tactics to create crisis for easy dismantling of social systems, and generally defund government so communal approaches in society become so crippled that only their beloved market can save us all. Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is of course, God!

But even this minister of education, though, was quoted yesterday spouting the kind of policy that the Fraser Institute would cringe upon hearing:

“Research shows play-based learning…for kindergarten students makes a big difference to them.”

via Full-day kindergarten for B.C. kids starts next week.

She sounds like a romantic progressivist! So when a minister of a government that normally riffs on Fraser Institute pseudo-wisdom speaks in opposition to the think tank Kool-Aid, we know there’s a good deal of spin in the air.

When Labour Day passes next week into a new school year, we all need to be vigilant to ensure our school system does not get eroded to a point where it is of no use to society. We’re already heading there. The National Post is pushing the agenda strongly with the Fraser Institute and many other groups who have a stake in killing the social good.

Whether each of us has children in the system or not, if we care about having a new generation of intellectually capable and well-rounded human beings graduate from high school, we need to push back on this anti-social agenda.

If we don’t, our next generations will not even be self-aware enough to know they lack the aspirations necessary for ensuring the future of our community, nation and world is sustainable and worth living in.

Terrorism + Child Abuse Joke = National Post

What do obsessive coverage of terrorism and a joke about how to beat children have in common?

As it turns out, it’s today’s National Post.

Firstly, everything in the first 5 pages was devoted to the terror suspect arrests, except for one article stoking the idea of staying in Afghanistan, so that’s related.

5 pages.

Everything.

Obsess much, National Post? Yes, is the answer, in case you didn’t know.

Secondly, this Twitter “cleverness” on page B2:

@NPsteve: Never strike a child! Wait patiently until they’re 18 and then give them the beating of their life.

Once upon a time, an insensitive relative forwarded to me one of those annoying chain emails that longed for the good old days. It was full of cliches and goofy things as well as some bits from the past that lots of people have happily not carried forward.

Some memories in that email were benign:

Remember “when a quarter was a decent allowance?” and “laundry detergent had free glasses, dishes and towels hidden inside the box?”

Some things were to leave in the past:

Remember when “All your male teachers wore neckties and female teachers had their hair done every day and wore high heels?”

Then it continued:

When being sent to the principal’s office was nothing compared to the fate that awaited the student at home?

Then it had an iconic 1950s photo of a dad spanking his son spread over his knees.

Basically we were in fear for our lives, but it wasn’t because of drive-by shootings, drugs, gangs, etc. Our parents and grandparents were a much bigger threat!

Nice.

But we survived because their love was greater than the threat.

Whatever that means.

Didn’t that feel good, just to go back and say, ‘Yeah, I remember that’?

Not really, no.

So then today we got to read Steve Murray’s Twitter post included in the print edition of the National Post about not beating children, I suppose because maybe that’s bad?, but waiting until they’re adults so you can give them the beating of their lives.

I have a really good sense of humour. Honestly. But what kind of person finds that funny?

I see that there is “humour” in that, but it is not acceptable humour. The legions of children who grew up with mild to severe beatings probably don’t find that funny. But maybe their parents do, which is maybe why it’s in the paper.

But really, it’s right down there with “Did you hear the one about the female circumcision patient?”

But one thing I learned is that the people who run the National Post believe their readership will find that joke funny. They might be right or wrong about that. Who knows.

But if they’re right, I’m not happy about it.

And now that the CanWest papers are now Postmedia, I’m looking for examples of corporate branding and marketing posture that make the new owners different from the Aspers’ biases and idiosyncrasies.

So far, the National Post continues to be sad.

And the pattern of 5 front pages on terrorism with a “joke” later on about how to beat kids seems to fit a disturbing pattern.

Building Community as a Tonic for Political Cynicism

More than just political burnout, there is a malaise of cynicism present in many progressives across Canada right now.

Instead of just being tired from fighting many battles with social and economic conservatism, more and more progressives I’m encountering have become disillusioned with those who ought to be our champions.

There are number of head-scratching events in progressive politics in recent years that tend to sap our energy. In response, we can either cocoon or rebuild. Rebuilding community is the far better choice.

FOOD FOR CYNICISM

Without even describing the litany of right-wing causes of our malaise, here are some left-wing let-downs:

1) Obama is not Jesus and didn’t/couldn’t deliver on really good healthcare. So, we continue to fight harder to protect our system from American privateers while American progressives figure out how much their new president can actually accomplish.

2) The B.C. NDP failed to stop the mean, right-wing Liberal party from winning a third straight election largely because it alienated its base by rejecting its own party policy supporting carbon taxes. In reaching for centrists, the B.C. NDP lost much of its progressive base, who stopped funding, volunteering for, and even voting for, the NDP. Welcome to a third term of abuse after an election with the lowest voter turnout ever.

3) On the Saskatchewan NDP’s website the party leader declares these priorities: “strong business, strong labour, strong government.” Putting business first is disconcerting. Putting government last is no salve.

4) Proportional representation movements across Canada fail to resonate with the masses, in part from corporate media attacks and concerted neglect from mainstream progressive parties.

5) Split electorates in this decade lead to near ties in U.S. presidential elections, and stalemate minority governments in Canada and spurts of stillborn coalitions. But, within days of a minority government election in Britain, two parties form a functioning coalition, with hope for electoral reform. We should not be standing by while politicians form a coalition and pursue electoral reform in the UK when we could mobilize for the same goals. Yet, we do.

POLITICAL ABUSE SYNDROME

American psychologist Bruce Levine wrote on Alternet.org last December about the abuse syndrome that progressives seem to embody. Beaten down by the soft fascism of the corporate-government partnership, interpersonal alienation, consumerism and suburbanization, Canadians, too, seem unable to rise above our humiliation to exercise our democracy and vote out our economic and social abusers.

In his book, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times, Paul Rogat Loeb warns against allowing our defeats to push us into a private life, ignoring the public sphere in despair. We cannot subcontract our democratic activism to professional political operatives. Democracy is a muscle that can atrophy. Obama’s healthcare plan is weak, in part, because the millions who mobilized to elect him stopped mobilizing after he was elected, not realizing that the same kind of effort was required for the next four years in order to force Congress to actually implement change.

THE COMMUNITY TONIC

So how do we lift ourselves out of our abuse syndrome? We can take our cue from the hive minds around us: monarch butterflies, bees, ants, starlings – those awesome birds that fly inches from each other in tight formation. If we human beings were able to cooperate to even a fraction of how the hive species cooperate, think what we could accomplish. Yet, our abuse syndrome keeps us from believing that the power of cooperation can defeat the isolation of the consumer individual. It’s so easy to forget the complexity of the social systems we have already created. We built them incrementally, with occasional grand leaps forward (Medicare, CPP). They have been steadily dismantled incrementally as well. And we cower as a people instead of linking arms to regain what we’ve lost.

Beyond recalling the power of human collectivity, we can remember the recent rebirth of the salon movement to fight social decay. We need to re-purpose that positive social movement to embrace those of us who suffer from disillusionment in progressive leaders and institutions. We need to begin by looking to one another.

Instead of retreating to our living rooms, we must invite people into our living rooms to work through the angst of missed expectations. Then we need to throw our hopes and principles into a crucible so we can focus on what matters most. We can’t retreat to the private life; we must be uplifted by the relationships in our private lives! Truly, why belong to a revolution that doesn’t include dancing? When the cynicism beats us down, we need to gather our people together, enrich our souls and our communities, go dancing and build each other up, because, though we might presume so, we are not alone.

We need to build more teddy bear catapults. We need to visit ArtThreat.net regularly to support and take part in artists’ efforts to engage in all things political. We need to write clever, insightful, clear 25-word letters to the editor. We need to follow the Yes Men. Community is the tonic for cynicism and shutting down, that’s for sure. It’s what’s keeping me going.

We really are all in this together – unless we embrace some kind of despairing, free-agent status. And when that happens, we have really lost. It is by restoring each other’s community spirit that we can win.

The above is a version of my commentary piece in the current issue of Our Times, Canada’s independent labour magazine. It was written before the G20 suspension of Canada’s constitution in Toronto.

A Better World is Needed: The oh-so ‘Canadian’ style of dissent

It’s Canada Day, which is apparently a day for Canadians all across the country to dress up in red and white and wave flags and yell “Oh Canada” and paint their faces and humbly comment on what a polite and kind country we are, because we’re number one!

For me, Canada Day is an interesting holiday.  I certainly acknowledge that this country — this state, this creation of lines drawn on a map — is a nice place to live.  I’m lucky to have been born here.  There are places in the world where I wouldn’t be able to write things like this.  But even as I acknowledge the relative comfort in which I live, I find myself acknowledging how much of a better world we could live in.  There is exploitation and subjugation and destruction in the world.

To echo and twist the oft-repeated phrase, a better world is not only possible – it is needed.  And Canada Day highlights this for me, as we celebrate the popular myth of Canada: the benevolent state that engages in cultural genocide, the peaceful state embroiled in foreign and domestic wars, the free state that does crushes basic human rights.  Yes, a better world is needed.  And we need to get there.

But thinking about how we do that and putting those thoughts into action is just as confusing as it is liberating.  To me, one thing is simply obvious: the oh-so ‘Canadian’ way of dissent, that which is so polite, so pleasant, so quiet and careful, is rendered nearly meaningless when it comes face-to-face with the Canadian state, emblazoned with maple leafs but carrying shotguns.  A better world is needed, and we need to actually work for it, not just hope that someone powerful might take pity on us.

My original idea for this piece was to question why so many activists in Canada see a desperate need to ‘play by the rules’ that the state sets out for dissent.  This comes after the Toronto G8/G20 protests, where a fury of righteous indignation erupted after people happened to take to the streets, inconveniencing some commuters while police either encouraged property destruction or police agents provocateurs actively engaged in it themselves.  A flurry of self-described progressives rushed to condemn protesters and support the police, because some windows got smashed and some police cars burned.

Later, after the ‘left’ spent large amounts of time condemning itself, stories emerged that the Toronto Police Service was enforcing a law that it knew didn’t exist in order to illegally search, question, identify, and detain activists, marchers, or residents who strayed within five meters of the military-style fence erected in the Toronto downtown.  Stories emerged of horrid conditions in the temporary detention camp built in a movie studio.  Stories of threats of violence and rape emerged.

This is all part of the plan of the neoliberal state: impose policies that enforce capitalist expansion and exploitation, remove social programs, and delegitimize dissent.  Capitalism may be protected, but nothing remains of liberty or democracy.

A better world is possible.  A better world is needed.  But we won’t get there through the oh-so-Canadian style of dissent that so many left activists take to heart.

(more after the break… click ‘read more’ to continue)

Continue reading A Better World is Needed: The oh-so ‘Canadian’ style of dissent

Afghanistan, September 11, 2002 and Land Mines

Afghanistan signs the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines on September 11, 2002 while Iraq, Israel and the USA (and 46 others) still have not.

With North America (at least) dwelling on commemorative events surrounding the first anniversary of September 11, 2001, odd ironies were at play elsewhere in the world as that day, Afghanistan signed the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines.

There are still unanswered questions about who is functionally in charge of Afghanistan (and if the big W is pulling strings, or the big W’s string pullers, whatever) and why that day was chosen. What kind of political value would there be, and for who, to orchestrate that event on that key day? Is it a sign of the White House’s total domination of the enemy that is/was Afghanistan that they signed on that day?

146 countries have signed, ratified, or agreed to be bound by the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, also known as the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines. They are listed here.

49 countries haven’t signed the treaty as of this month, including some notables: Iraq, Israel, and the USA.

And while political posturing prevents more countries from signing, Canada’s light shines as an example of how other states COULD operate.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham attributes, “much of the remarkable progress achieved to date to an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination between governments, international organizations and NGOs.”

I wonder who will sign on September 11, 2003.