Education is a soup that's always on the boil. Open the Globe and Mail or Books in Canada, and you've got a good chance of finding an article about schooling or a review of the latest books on the subject. Most of what I read makes me uneasy, and I find myself going back to simple things, what I remember of my own education, of the education of my children, of my experience as a teacher. All of that evidence is what is called anecdotal and easily dismissed, but in fact the education of any individual is a series of anecdotes that form the intellectual past.
It is accepted wisdom that education has deteriorated. I first heard this when I was a university teacher in the 1960s. I didn't believe it then and don't now. Recently I happened to come on a Globe and Mail editorial on the improvements that are being planned in the Ontario curriculum. The wise young men of the Globe are much exercised by a low placing of Ontario students in an international math competition. Under the new dispensation, students will learn to convert decimals to fractions in Grade 6 instead of Grade 7. So have things gone down hill? I remember when I learned that skill. Grade 7. Or was it Grade 8? About 1950 that would have been. So when were things good, and when did they become bad?
There is a story my mother once told me. I was a little thing and walking down the street with my grandmother.
"Look at the brown dog, David," she said.
"That's not brown," I said. "It's cinnamon."
There I was, long before school had got its hand on me, a small poet, or prig, depending how you look at it.
When I got to school, what do I remember? About the early years, mostly things which had emotional significance. The first day of school, left there by my mother, I sniffed a little, but was aware that another boy was making a spectacle of himself by howling, and this probably helped put iron in my small spine. In general, I liked school because I was good at it. I was able, just, to look after myself in the schoolyard. But few of my memories are of academic matters, though probably by the end of public school, I had developed some vague aspiration to be an educated person.
High school was different. For five years I travelled to school by bus, and before long, I was sitting with War & Peace on my lap. It seems to me I read the first hundred pages two or three times, but that it was years before I got to the rest. And how did I discover Tolstoy? Well, in my first year of high school I joined the Library Club, and there I came upon Somerset Maugham's selection of the world's ten greatest novels. I suspect that War & Peace was Number One. I decided if these books were the greatest, I should read them. Dostoyevsky was too much for me, and I'm not sure about Balzac-I may have read Père Goriot, but I actually liked Tolstoy's epic, though its length daunted me.
So there I was, a kid from an ordinary family on a school-bus full of rowdies singing obscene songs-I liked the songs-working my way through War & Peace. The school and the energetic little woman who ran the library-Miss de Mouilpied, who later taught me French-offered the opportunity, and something in my life-my parents were thoughtful people but neither had finished high school-had made me want to be clever.
I do remember quite a lot about high school, not just a few moments of emotional importance, but the content and form of classes. It was an intellectual experience. One of the first truly joyful educational experiences I remember is being introduced to Euclidean geometry. By Mr. Jay, in Grade 9 or 10. Though at first I rebelled at the idea of Latin, I studied it and learned what I know of English grammar and syntax. I've written in The Child of Someone about Mr. Tiplin's class of one, in which I studied Greek. Liking words, eager for attention, I entered public speaking and verse speaking contests. There is a photograph of me after a second-place tie in a verse speaking contest. The girl I tied with was Barbara Rosberg, later to be better known as Barbara Frum.
Stamford Collegiate, the school I rode to on that bus, had a good many competent and serious teachers, but it wasn't an academic hothouse. Latin, Greek, verse speaking, have mostly vanished now, but the high school my children attended in Kingston, Ontario, a generation later, was, from anything I could gather, not a lot different. Latin was taught in extra hours as Greek had been when I was at school. More students were going on to university. People were talking about the deterioration in schools even then, but in my experience it wasn't true.
The confusion about education, I suspect, has less to do with changes in the schools than with changes in the society around them. Television, the end of deference, the population bulge. When I left high school, it was not thought unusual that out of a large school only six or eight people from the graduating year went on to university. No doubt there were big city schools that sent larger numbers, but university was for those who wanted to become professionals-two of my close high school friends became doctors-or for those who simply liked to study. Another friend of mine went from school to work in the hotel business and was comptroller of a large hotel before I finished university-though perhaps even then the idea that a university degree meant financial success was beginning to catch on.
The baby boom came of age, and the universities expanded. The apparent decline in the qualifications of those who arrived at university was, I suspect, purely demographic. If more people go, there are sure to be more who lack some of the interests or abilities traditionally required. When I taught at Queen's, I didn't find that students couldn't write, though everyone said that was true. What I did notice was that students with British names wrote English as if it were a foreign language, accurately, but without idiomatic fluency-a lack of the habit of reading and speaking and writing, one assumes. University was more and more a requirement for people who had the intellectual capacity, but lacked any great interest in learning for its own sake. Education was declared a panacea, but then as the universities expanded, the job market began to contract.
When in doubt, blame the schools. I suspect the schools are still filled with more or less competent teachers doing their best to keep order and teach a few things to crowds of children. Some of the pupils will be academically brilliant or financially successful, but the schools will do no more than facilitate this. For reasons that economists may or may not be able to explain, competition has become more intense, and we have begun to idealize a more competitive world. The role of education has become increasingly confused. It's been suggested, and I find the suggestion convincing, that what universities teach that employers value is not rare skills-the best computer hackers are self-taught-but obedience, a certain amount of discipline, and a kind of manners. Once there were enough jobs that high school was seen to provide enough of this kind of grooming, but not now. Currently it appears that you may not be well off with a university education, but you certainly won't be well off without. So parents feel a new and more desperate kind of ambition for their children. They make demands, claim that teachers are failing. My parents were ambitious for me, but it would never have occurred to them to tell teachers how to do their job.
In the attempt to keep up, money is spent to fill the schools with computers and systems that will be outdated before the students are adults and serve only to put money in the vendors of hardware and software, yet I was recently told about a Toronto school that had a dentist on staff because otherwise students wouldn't get adequate dental care. Now that, not some imagined drop in academic standards, is shocking. (Civilized P.E.I., where I now live, has public dental care for children from three to seventeen.)
More and more academic qualifications are required for any job, and at the same time, the cost of university is rising. It is hard to express how deeply disturbing it is to me that so many students borrow large sums of money to attend university. Apparently, it is now thought appropriate that students should begin their lives in debt. The analogy that comes to mind is the training bra: wholly useless, but it prepares you for a future role. Start early as an habitual and obedient debtor. A perfect recipe for cynicism and despair. That large numbers of young people begin life in debt is wrong, and the wrongness is far more serious than the results of some international competition.
David Helwig's most recent book is a collection of essays, The Child of Someone (Oberon).