Bankrupt Education:
The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada

189 pages,
ISBN: 0802004350

Post Your Opinion
A Serious Book
by Richard Myers

It was in the middle of one of my first-year political science classes, two or three years ago. We were talking about national unity, and a student named Michelle suddenly interjected, "I don't see what Quebec has to complain about. They've been treated pretty well, if you ask me." "In some ways, that's true," I replied, "but what about the classic examples of the English majority ganging up on them: conscription, Louis Riel, and so on?" Her response: a completely blank look. In a tone that mixed encouragement with disbelief, I gently inquired, "You know what I'm referring to, don't you?" The blank stare continued. "Didn't you take Canadian history in high school?" I asked (now in sheer disbelief). "Oh, is that Canadian history?" she replied. "No, we don't have to take that any more. We take Maritime Studies instead." She went on to inform me that though she had never heard of "that guy Riel", she could tell me anything I wanted to know about lobsters.
Experiences like this can bring out the old fuddy-duddy even in a mere thirty-something like me. "What are they teaching kids in schools these days?" I wondered. "How are young people supposed to become responsible citizens, when they know so little political history?"
Bankrupt Education is addressed to those with such concerns. The book opens by asserting that "our Canadian education system is in a shambles." The cause is the thirty-year "root and branch" war on traditional education that has been waged by arrogant "educrats" and ideologically driven politicians. Parents and teachers know that most of the recent innovations have been harmful, but their objections are not taken seriously. For Emberley and Newell, however, "there is dignity in the anger of teachers and parents." Their basic intention is to articulate a theoretical foundation for the lay objections. That foundation is built from a philosophical meditation on the true nature and purpose of education.
They argue that the kind of education we need in Canada is liberal education. This they define as "an education in wholeness and balance. It enables us to cultivate our moral and intellectual capacities to the fullest, thereby achieving the satisfaction of a just, stimulating, and productive life." In one of their finest formulations, they compare it to the travels of Odysseus. It is "a journey of the soul from one's particular time, place, and attachments to the universal and back again to one's own". This "journey to the stars", that is, to the "great ideas", is meant to liberate us from the conventions and prejudices of our own time and place, but "only so that we can return to our own way of life better able to appreciate both its defects and its virtues." This means, among other things, that liberal education is always a kind of civic education. For reflection on the fundamental human alternatives shows how they are always tied to various political alternatives. And liberal education, by showing us "the difficulty of finding a single political order that could satisfy every valid human need or desire", promotes a critical, but sober or moderate approach to those alternatives.
To be sure, there are different ways of understanding that "wholeness and balance". In the best part of their book-the fourth and fifth chapters-Emberley and Newell sketch a brief history of the deepest alternative understandings of education in the Western tradition. There are short but penetrating accounts of the soul-craft developed by thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Vico, Rousseau, and Hegel. The discussion at this stage is in broad but powerful strokes, and the authors present a remarkable range of human possibilities. It would not be an exaggeration to say that at this point the book is no longer simply about education; it is education.
Particularly good is their discussion of the Hegelian view of liberal education. Hegel's educational objective is said to be a grand synthesis of "understanding" and "love". By this, they mean that he advocated an education that would reconcile modern science and the Enlightenment doctrine of rights with the Rousseauian emphasis on nature and community. Hegel thought that in the modern age, which favours the former, education would have to be bolstered by a healthy dose of the literature of Greek and Roman antiquity. The purpose of reading it is not to indulge in a nostalgic longing for the past. Hegel sees the study of ancient literature as "a way of rising above our own time and place and then returning to them better equipped to take a responsible role in affairs."
In the sixth chapter, Emberley and Newell descend from the heights of the philosophic tradition to the origins of Canadian education. They present their discussion of those origins within the framework of general reflections on our country's political "founding". Following the lead of George Grant (whose influence is evident throughout the book), they situate the birth of Canada in a Victorian political culture characterized by an "organic" view of society. In opposition to the rationalistic liberalism of the United States, this culture kept a place for precedent and tradition. And while the American founders emphasized the rights of atomized individuals, their Canadian counterparts spoke the language of duty to the larger community.
According to Emberley and Newell, this Victorian political culture was an ideal home for liberal education. From Plato through to Hegel, all of the philosophers they examine understood education to entail the development of the civic, moral, and spiritual faculties, as well as the intellectual ones. The Victorian insistence that "moral principle and public duty took precedence over individual rights and autonomy" thus was fertile soil for the balanced education favoured by the philosophers.
Their central contention, in the final part, is that "the main ideas of liberal education we have been discussing throughout this book" actually formed the "core" of Canada's early educational system. In order to support their thesis, they examine three important influences on it: Egerton Ryerson, the Scottish "common-sense" school of philosophy, and the German idealism of Hegel. While there are important differences between these three, they argue that there is a common core: an emphasis on the need to teach moral and civic virtue; a profound respect for both reason and sentiment; a concern with the historical roots of political realities and cultural meaning; and an insistence that freedom is linked to duty and law.
The overarching thesis of Bankrupt Education is that current reforms are gutting this traditional Canadian liberal education. The second and third chapters look at the changes that have taken place in Ontario schools in recent years. Emberley and Newell trace the impetus for reform to two chief sources. One is the demand by business leaders and right-wing politicians that our educational system should do more to prepare young people for productive lives in our capitalist economy. The other is the desire of the Left to use the same system as a way to make society more diverse and egalitarian. Emberley and Newell argue that the reforms adopted in Ontario, from the Hall-Dennis report of the sixties to the Common Curriculum proposal of the NDP government, are a response to this strange alliance of Left and Right.
Ontario's reformers have jettisoned much of the old curriculum and pedagogy. Angry parents' groups have protested these moves, and the authors echo some of their criticisms. For instance, the new pedagogy claims that by having students learn in collaborative groups, it will prepare them better for the kind of collaborative work-place that seems so important to the economic success of Japan and Germany. Yet as Emberley and Newell point out, the schools in those countries remain highly focused on individual achievement. They suggest that our fixation with collaboration will create a system that produces nothing more than "docile group-workers in low-paying service-sector jobs". Similarly, they take up the popular reaction to "de-streaming", a move motivated by the NDP's belief that organizing instruction by level of achievement is "an institutionalized form of racism and classism". They say that this attack on streaming is an attempt to convert Canada "from a country based on equality of opportunity for the meritocratic inequality of result into a racialist and sexist state where the government distributes entitlements, jobs, and status so as to exactly replicate at all times the distribution of the two genders and visible minorities in the population at large." They go on to argue that this policy will inevitably "demoralize" both teachers and students.
While they share some of the common objections to the new curriculum and pedagogy, we must appreciate that their deepest concerns lie elsewhere. Their central objection is that the new fashions undermine the kind of liberal education they so vigorously champion.
The most interesting part of their argument is probably their analysis of the proposal for a new "integrated curriculum", which would eliminate the traditional boundaries among disciplines. They acknowledge that these boundaries are in some sense artificial, but point out that the examination of the world from a number of different perspectives provides an important balance: "to be responsive to other disciplines checks the subjective certainty of technical competence acquired by researching within any one paradigm." In order to give the student "the maximum flexibility to integrate reality to his needs", the integrated curriculum adopts as its universal methodology that of natural science, in which truth "is predicated on self-certainty." The authors find in this "holistic" but (literally) self-centred approach the seeds of political danger, for it encourages students to create simplistic and dogmatic solutions to complex problems. In other words, this pedagogy fosters "millenarianism".
In one of their most insightful passages, Emberley and Newell argue that it is just this kind of millenarianism that led to the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord and the current constitutional crisis. They say (rightly, I believe) that that debacle was ultimately caused by the fact that so many Canadians insisted on their own constitutional abstractions and then clung to them as though they were divine truths. Canadians seemed to think that the need to be "creative" and "authentic" somehow made consideration of our actual political heritage irrelevant. Like Michelle, the lobster expert, we saw no reason why our wholesale ignorance of political and historical fact should prevent us from advancing the most sweeping political generalizations.
Bankrupt Education is not without its faults. It is exceedingly ambitious, and the authors try to do too many things in too small a space. This forces them to paint with very broad strokes, so that they leave many questions unanswered. I wonder, for example, how accurate their presentation of Canada's political founding is. Was Victorian Canada really an "organic" political community? Many would argue that it is more accurate to describe the political culture in the founding in terms of the ideas of Mill and Burke. Similar questions arise about the presentation of Canada's educational founding. Emberley and Newell discuss briefly the ideas of several prominent educators, but there is no evidence to establish that those ideas really produced a genuine liberal education. A more adequate treatment would require some careful research into actual curricular history.
It is also striking how little they say about contemporary Canadian universities. Their remarks are limited to a brief attack on a part of the Smith Report (of 1991) that proposes to distinguish between teaching universities and research centres. Surely there are greater threats. Why do they say nothing about the way in which value relativism and its concomitant free-market principles have gutted the old humanist curriculum?
Let me raise one last quibble. Emberley and Newell suggest that Canada was uniquely suited to true liberal education because we were free of the atomistic individualism that characterized the United States. That would seems to imply that liberal education could not, did not, and does not exist there. Surely this goes too far. One wonders if here they are not too much haunted by the ghost of George Grant.
In the final analysis, however, Bankrupt Education is an important piece of work that anyone interested in education should seriously consider. For, whatever its weaknesses, the book has the great virtue of focusing our attention on the key questions: What are the ends of public education? If we agree that education must be more than job training and socialization, if we believe that it is the cultivation of the human soul, then we must ask ourselves who has the deeper understanding of the soul, Hall and Dennis, or Hegel and Descartes? Emberley's and Newell's fine book gives us much to think about.

Richard Myers, who is chair of the political science department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, is also a co-author of Liberal Education and Value Relativism: A Guide to Today's B.A., which University Press of America will soon publish.


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