The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods:Liberal Studies in the Corporate Age

by David Solway
202 pages,
ISBN: 0773521119

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Lessening Canada's Youth. Liberal Arts Studies in Jeopardy
by Harold Hoefle

¨graffito sprayed on concrete walk outside McGill's Leacock Building, May 2001

In his third book on education and culture, David Solway again attacks our technophiliac society and government policies bent on "accomplishing our docility and servitude." Quebec's education ministry¨like its provincial and American counterparts¨continues to implement pedagogic reforms, and Solway has responded with The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods (Liberal Studies in the Corporate Age). His title's first half derives from a student journal-entry. Solway's book is his latest screed against theory, reform, administration, and technology, forces he considers responsible for "the deconstruction of the self [which] is the agenda of the contemporary Zeitgeist."

Solway recently retired after teaching English Literature at a Montreal college for twenty-five years; he has authored eight books of poetry, a book of literary essays, a book about Greece, and numerous newspaper pieces; he gives the lie to the adage, "Those who cannot do, teach." He writes within two traditions: that of such creative-writer/critics as Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, John Metcalfe, George Steiner, George Woodcock, and of such literary-scholar/teachers as Northrop Frye and Lionel Trilling. Solway's authority is beyond dispute. When he tells us that paranoia "is the only healthy response to what is happening in the realm of education today," it behooves us to listen.

Solway specifically critiques the Quebec education ministry's two latest pedagogic reforms: Outcomes (Competency) Based Education and the Program(s) Approach. In the former, according to Diana Bateman's Rhetoric of the Reform, the basic assumption is that educational improvement depends upon a shift from inputs to outputs. Once desirable student outcomes are identified, all educational practices are keyed to these outcomes, and educators are held accountable for achieving them. The entire curriculum is redesigned into coherent, thematic programs, courses and units that support the outcomes.

Solway argues that teachers have always (and obviously) concerned themselves with testable abilities and results. He describes the above as "part of the Back to Basics crusade," a response to "nearly a century of Progressivist or student-centred pedagogy" and its "erosion of academic rigourÓexalting of student impulses and desires over the civilizing mandate of the scholarly traditionÓwhole languageÓand the invidious dismissal of intellectual excellence as the propaganda of an elitist conspiracy." Solway has a point. A former student of mine, now a successful twenty-two-year-old playwright, blithely tells me that his generation "doesn't care about spelling." And in the September issue of Harper's, editor Lewis Lapham notes that more students attend college than ever before, but one-third of freshmen need remedial help in reading and math.

Solway criticizes "the fallacy of curricular transference"¨the Outcomes Approach notion that "methods and principles transfer smoothly between subjects." He thinks the Approach may be suited for certain domains (sports, technical subjects) but not the humanities. Why? "It militates against chance, serendipity, and the emergence of unforeseen ideasÓit divests both teacher and student of intellectual freedomÓ[and] works against the spirit of play." Solway, alluding to the apathy which often animates students, argues that "without exhilaration or delight, which is also an aspect of mastery, the whole process of learning is reduced to mere hypomnesis (Plato's term for arid and superficial recollection)." Solway also notes that proponents of the Outcomes Approach, in prioritizing measurement, forget that "some aspects of the learning transaction, perhaps even the most authentic, are simply unresponsive to relentless and obtrusive assessment"¨Solway refers here to such "unassessables" as how one grows to better understand oneself and one's culture.

Solway also argues that, since the Outcomes Approach makes the teacher rather than the student responsible if the former "has not managed to convey the material or inculcate the appropriate [student] behaviours," the student will ultimately suffer. He or she "will not likely grow into autonomous selves capable of reflection, intellectual dignity, and moral answerability for their own accomplishments or even for lack of such." And Solway sees this reform as responsible for training a generation of students who will serve "the so-called New Capitalism." The Outcomes Approach, with "its offer of near or immediate psychological self-gratification"¨lots of task-specific tests with little connection to bigger issues like the self, culture and the history of one's culture¨does not inspire, let alone enhance, critical thinking. The new pedagogy will "construct individuals who will do as they are told and uncomplainingly." To illustrate the decline of the student mind, Solway quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins: "From much, much more; from little, not much; and from nothing, nothing."

The second major reform which Solway critiques is the Program(s) Approach. According to ministerial documents, it is "an integrated set of learning activities leading to the achievement of educational objectives based on set standards." Solway critiques the new ministerial language, "drawn from business management and computer technology with a tributary influx from the behavioural sciences." What Solway calls the government's "cryptolect" is very far away from language "as a celebration of difference." Consequently, the reforms shrink from "genuine education [that] is neither student-centred nor function-based but always book-and-idea-focused, envisioning the gradual inliberation of the mind." Solway's self-made word is apt¨echoing, as it does, both the notion of freedom and the word "libation," a reference to the drinking that Solway's intellectual forebears indulged in as they debated the nature of society and the self. But perhaps Canadians do not want this inliberation. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, in her September 11th article entitled "Dumb and dumber: schools 'r' us," reminds us that in every Canadian opinion survey taken, when asked about the most important purpose of our education system, people rank intellectual development third. "The first thing we want our schools to do is prepare the kids to get a job. The second is to turn kids into 'good citizens.'" Echoing Solway, Wente sardonically adds that, regarding the current education reforms, they "are only incidentally, if at all, about academic excellence. Why must we raise standards? Not to instill a love of learning, or teach the habits of skeptical inquiry. Canadians are far more pragmatic than that. We must raise standards so that kids are better trained for the workplace." Solway, though he believes these reforms and proposals will fail as a collective educational policy, also thinks they "may very likely succeed as an invasive political and economic strategy¨that is, their political and economic success is a function of their cultural and educational failure." Solway, then, sees the new reforms as an attack on "our fundamental humanity."

As a rearguard action, he proposes that concerned citizens start "a rigorous analysis of our cultural values." He also suggests raising high-school and college-teacher salaries, "preferential schedules," "sabbatical development projects," "generous and accessible" student bursaries, renewed investment in school buildings, library acquisitions, laboratory equipment, and "a moratorium against institutional shakeups and theoretical upheavals." While some of these suggestions, however enticing to a working teacher like myself, sound vague, one sees the obvious student benefit in better buildings and more books. (Solway could have added library-staff salary increases¨my college library closes at 6:30 daily and is shut down on weekends.) And, of course, Solway recommends "the radical downsizing of that bloated parasitic cohort composed of occupational, advisory, technocratic, ministerial and corporate 'experts.'"

Solway's book is a passionate, erudite, and intelligently argued polemic against the present round of educational reform, and of the language which houses it¨language which, as Solway often reminds us, is abstract, pleonastic, and dehumanizing. Unfortunately, for all his eloquence, Solway's own rhetoric sometimes turns abstruse, for his polysyllabics occasionally clog and turn his point to murk. For example: "Perhaps, after all, we deserve the Program and its accompanying slew of remedial and missionary congeners sanctimoniously deployed in a climate of phalansterian rectitude that cloaks a nascent deformity of the spirit." Solway's remarkable vocabulary does raise the language standard, an act especially laudatory in our time. However, adjectival overload can let in obfuscation. His overall argument is cogent, nuanced, powerful; the odd woolly rant dilutes his rhetorical splendour.

David Solway's new book is a necessary addition to the debate on educational reform. If you are unaware of the reforms your elected government is pursuing as you go about your day, read The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods. It is enlightening, inspiring, and a call to arms. ˛

Harold Hoefle teaches literature at a Montreal CEGEP. He has published fiction and regularly writes reviews for The Danforth Review, an online journal.


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