Thursday, May 27, 2010

Oh, to be a conservative now that spring is here...

The Conservative Party of New Brunswick has a plan for the schools. It's even bigger than the Liberal plan to turn all New Brunswick students into patriots by making the listen to blurred, scratchy, and barely audible recordings of O Canada on sound systems never designed for music.

But Conservative leader Alward is daring to go where no person (with any brains) has dared to go before. He is going to make it compulsory for high school students to volunteer their services to various service agencies in their communities. There are, of course, details to be ironed out.

1. Very large numbers of students don't want to be in school. Go figure; but there it is. That's why they talk, doze off, play with cell phones, and generally make nuisances of themselves. They,and others,may not be crazy about volunteering.  As a result, agencies will get stuck with trying to control hordes of disruptive kids.

2. The close observer may note that New Brunswick has a large, rural population. Rural areas have very few agencies on the spot. Will it be up to rural parents to start agencies?

3. In town or country, how will they get to their agencies? Will parents (who are working) drive them? Will they use school busses?  If so, we will have to raise the school bus costs substantially to cover the extra busses and drivers which will drive some students home, some to volunteer work,and pick up the volnteer group for the return home. We'll also have to hire some brilliant schedulers.

Still, give the Conservatives credit. They've been thinking. Not much. But thinking. It puts them ahead of the Liberals whose idea of education is making kids listen to O Canada, and spending big money on "scientific testing" which doesn't actually test anything.

Maybe we could have a coalition  government. Think of the possibilities - thousands of New Brunswick teenagers spending hours a day in busses listening to faint and scratchy versions of O Canada.

Almost makes ya cry, don't it?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It Ain't Just the New Brunswick Press That Sells Propganda

The Toronto Globe and Mail is probably Canada's most prestigious newspaper. It certainly thinks it is. But take a look at the top of page 3 for May 21, 2010. "street smart: Ranking learning in Canada's cities." As it says it rates some thirty cities for the quality of education in their public schools.

How big is the difference between top and bottom rank? Is it enough to worry about? Who knows. What was tested? There are only hints in the article. Do the test results reflect the quality of learning? Or of teaching? Or social class? Of income levels? Or of cultural backgound? The Globe didn't even think of asking those questions.

Is the learning that was tested of any continuing value?  Probably not. Most standardized testing from standardized tests will reflect rote learning -which means it will soon be forgotten.

Who carried out this extensive study? Well, it was something called The Canadian Council on Learning. And just who is that? Well, that's hard to tell.Their web site lists a couple  of top level University heads -which looks more impressive than it is. University heads rarely know poop about education. Most have no training in it, for a start. And they are hired by faculty and board committees who know nothing about teaching, either. In any case, they're hired to handle image and bring in money. Education has nothing to do with it.

In the same vein there are doctors and lawyers and businessmen. What do they know about education? Why are they interested in it?

More to the point, exactly who funds what must be an extremely expensive research operation?The federal government stopped supporting it. But it goes on, anyway. Who's paying the bills? The article mentions the council gets money from private foundations. I think that means rich people and corporations.

Well, let's cut to the chase. This idea of introducing business methods into education through standardization was begun by the Fraser Institute at least a dozen years ago. The Fraser institute is a propaganda front for big business. One of its concerns is to get more private business sucking money out of the education system. The grandly named Canadian Council on Learning works for pretty much the same people, producing the same sort of pseudo-scientfic reports. The news media display those reports prominently as though they really were scientific.

Why do the news media take these "think tanks" so seriously?

Guess who owns most of the news media.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Slap Me Awake

     When I wrote my last piece about the idiocy of building a new, eighty million dollar stadium in Moncton, I was being more than a little naive. What woke me up to the real stench of this deal was a news item in the Moncton Times-Tribune of May 17. What woke me up was an interview with Robert Irving,owner of the Moncton Wildcats hockey team.

      Mr. Irving thinks a new, eighty million dollar stadium in downtown Moncton  paid for by taxpayers would be a wonderful idea. I'll just bet he does. That's when all the coincidences fell into place.

     My original thinking, naive me, was what Ottawa and Fredericton had, by coincidence agreed on a substantial grant (to be paid for by taxpayers) that would be given to Moncton for a civic improvement fund. Next coincidence? The Moncton City Council decided to put up the extra money (our money) to raise the project to eighty million.

      Then, another coincidence. Eighty million just happened to be the amount Mr Irving needed to get a stadium built for a hockey team. Final coincidence - city council almost immediately, and certainly too quickly to have made any study, applauds a stadium as the civic improvement most desperately needed  in Moncton.

      Watch for the next coincidence - an editorial in the Moncton Times-Transcript in praise of a new stadium.

       No. I don't think those are coincidences. Nor are  they listed in the right order. I don't think this is an idea that began in either Ottawa or Fredericton. This is the sort of thing that begins with someone who is well connected, someone who is the only one who will gain from this otherwise wasteful and irresponsible spending of our eighty million dollars.

   

Saturday, May 15, 2010

News papers as Propaganda

It was on the May 14 front page on the respected Toronto Globe and Mail, - a big, colour photo of young girls in a classroom. Below it, in large text, was "For Haiti's children, school is a safe haven. In the comfort of the classroom, teachers are learning to help traumatized students heal."

 This was a feel-good story. Haiti is changing. Our aid is paying off. I looked back at the girls.

 They looked healthy and well cared for in their spanking clean school uniforms, and with the happiest of smiles. Their hair was so well done, it may have been - and probably was - professionally coiffed. They didn't look like girls who lived in slums that had no plumbing or electricity. They didn't look like girls who had only rags to wear. And, with those big smiles, they didn't look like girls who had lost parents and even whole families in an earthquake.

Then I noticed the figure in the background, a woman in a crispy clean gown, a nun. Of course. This was a Catholic private school.  These were not Haitian girls. These were rich, rich Haitian girls, the descendants of a tiny elite who had supplied the generals and secret service thugs of brutal dictatorships supported by the US for eighty years. The private schools were theirs alone, and lavishly funded with decades of aid money.

As for them being traumatized by the earthquake, the reporter could find only one child in that school who had lost a relative, a grandmother. Of course. Their houses weren't rickety slum shacks.

The photo were about change in Haiti when, in fact, nothing has changed. The reporter who wrote the story must have known that. If I were to say the editor who ran that photo and story on the front page didn't realize that they gave a false image of life in Haiti, I would be calling him stupid, and I wouldn't  want to be so rude.

That story is propaganda. It's lying propaganda. It's unprofessional. It's unethical. The very media entrusted with telling us what's going on in the world hide the truth, and replace it with lies.

Almost all of them do it. Even the most respected ones.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How to Destroy Downtown Moncton For Only Eighty Million Dollars

Question: If you give politicians a large sum of money to make Moncton more attractive, what will they do?

1. Consult urban development experts, and think through all the needs of the city, and the relationship of those needs to how to make the city more vital and stimulating for us common people and for tourists.

2.  Put all the money into one, huge and jazzy but overpriced project the city doesn't need. In the process,  bulldozing much of downtown Moncton, and  destroying most reasons for anybody going there ever again.

If you chose number two, consider yourself a possible mayor or at least a city councillor for Moncton.

When all three levels of government pledged to give money to Moncton (well, our money, actually, since they're borrowing it, and  we all have to pay it back with interest.) - anyway, they announced there was eighty million to spend on Moncton.

City Council didn't even need to think about that one. (At least, I hope they didn't think. If they did, they must have have all the thinking skills of a moose in heat.)  (Sorry. I meant to say mousse.)

It immedately announced it would use our eighty million dollars, every cent of of it, to build a specacular hockey stadium/showplace in downtown Moncton. That would revive downtown Moncton, and draw tourists and shoppers back to it.

Oh, really? Just consider this.

1. Moncton already has a large hockey stadium/showplace. It's not all that old; and one might reasonably wonder whether supporting two, large hockey stadium/showplaces might be a bit ambitious for a small city.

2. If  you think a hockey stadium/showplace is going to revive an area, please send me a list of all the restaurants, boutiques and offices around the present stadium.

3. How many people, tourists and locals would find it a big thrill to go downtown so they can stroll around a huge building and its enormous parking lot?

4. Imagine the hell of traffic downtown whenever there is some event at the new building.

5. Much of the cost of the new building will be money thrown away on pure destruction. A very large area of  quite sound and useful buildings will have to be expensively bulldozed before we put even the first dollar down for building.

6. The involvement of all three levels of government will be good for only one group - those lucky contractors who have the right connections to get lush contracts at our expense.

Question: Are there other needs Moncton has? Well, a few are glaring.

1. Downtown Moncton is losing out to malls because of parking availability. A better planned bus service could make going downtown just as attractive for business, shopping and pleasure as going to a mall. It could also be done ffor much less than eighty million dollars (though I can see enough contractors with the right connections running over that.) Going downtown will not get more popular until it is easier to do.

2. Instead of spending millions to destroy usable buildings, some of them heritage buildings, why not create attractive districts, each of a stret or two united by an overhead roof of translucent material, and closed to motor vehicles. These are very popular in Europe, and draw people for a pleasant time of shopping and dining - especially dining outdoors in summer. That would cost way under eighty million.

3. As City Council  has observed, many people in Moncton wear skates at one end of their bodies. Perhaps  it might take a moment to look up and notice they wear brains at the other end. Now, that sure points to another need. In other cities, I have seen libraries that are always full of visitors, and get heavy use as a meeting place for students after school. Iin Moncton, there is almost nothing for the mind. Such a library could be very helpful here. But ours has two fatal handicaps. One is that it is not easily reachable (that bus problem again); and the other is that it is hopelessly underfunded and understaffed to do what libraries in other cities can do. It has so little money, it cannot afford even to keep up to date in books. It certainly has no money for the staff it would need to put on adequate youth and adult programmes.

(Yes, I know the universities should be filling some of the intellectual blank spaces. But, like most universities, they don't do much in the public area.)

Alll three of these suggestions would  preserve downtown, and make it more attractive to people and to business. All three together would cost far less than eighty million. But we are going to borrow eighty million  (plus the inevitable cost overruns) to destroy downtown, replacing it with a monster building we don't need while continuing to ignore the things we really need.

Enjoy paying for it for the next couple of generations.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Think Tanks

What is a "think tank"?  We've heard a lot about these. The usual image is that a think tank is an organization of scholarly researchers, giving deep and impartial study to important problems. Some are that, and do that.

But not many.

Really, there is no clear definition of a think tank. Two office clerks chatting around the water cooler about the boss are a think tank.  A meeting of a church committee is a think tank. A circle of lunatics screaming at each other in an asylum is a think tank. There is no firm definition of what a think tank is, what it does, what its qualifications have to be. That's because there are no qualifications. Not even an A for toilet training in kindergarten. Any two or more people can become a think tank simply by saying they are.

But news media and governments pay close attention to think tank reports. Often, those reports will be prominently displayed in a newspaper, with an edtorial facing them than can barely control its slobbering. A think tank needn't cost much; But media attention makes it a dynamite way to get a message across. In New Brunswick, as in other provinces and in the US, the opinion of  a think tank is enough to to make governments ignore a century and a half of public school reseach, and follow adivice that is deliberately false and self-interested.
In Montreal about a dozen years ago, a "think tank" wrote a report "proving" there was no global climate change. It was published opposite the editorial page of a leading newspaper, discussed on talk shows, and even made the supermarket tabloids.  The report, whose findings disputed those of thousands of scientists all over the world, was by one man. And he wasn't a scientist. And he had no lab equipment. And he took no samples. His total research to dispute all those highly trained scientists and all those thousands of studies? He had read two books. Count them. Two. (One was a recent book by a scientist who said there was no global warming. The other was a book on something else published over a century ago.)  As a university teacher, I would have failed any first year student who handed in a paper based on so little research. I think most university teachers would. But it passed through the news media with flying colours.

Now, I have no desire to argue over whether climate change is a reality. That's off the point. The point is that most news media take reports like that seriously. Why? Are editors really, really stupid?

 Nope. They aren't stupid at all. I wish they were. Then we wouldn't have to raise the ugly possibility that they might be unethical.

Coroporations and wealthy individuals discovered the value of think tanks in the 1950s.  It was so easy. You gather together a few people willing to write up propaganda disguised as serious research. Then you tart them up with fancy titles like "Senior Research Fellow" or "Director of Analysis". If you need someone with more credentials, you go to a university for a "rent-a-prof".  You can even find some who believe in the nonsense they will have to put their names to.

From that point, the rules are siimple. The think tank will produce "scholarly" studies which peddle the sorts of ideas corporations and wealthy individuals want us to believe. You can make up the list of those interests from just a casual glance over the records of The C.D.Howe Institute, the The Fraser, or The Atlantic Institute of Marketing. Almost without exception, the following are bad:
1. Medicare (best to leave it to private insurance companies.)
2. Taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. (It makes them feel bad.)
3. Mnimum wage increases. Very bad.
4. Any social programmes. Private business is better to solve all social programmes.
5. Government regulation of business - very bad. It's, well,....it's awkward.

These think tanks have had an eye on education for a good twenty years. There are huge sums of money spent on education. The problem is that most of it has been going to teachers and students; and private business would like to see some of that money come its way in profits. That's why the think tanks have been big on proposals to privatize universities, privatize or partially privatize public schools, and to force schools to contract out for some needs such as tutoring.

More recently, they have moved to propaganizing for an ideology that until recently has lurked only in the darker corners of the business world. It is the extreme ideology that opposes any social role for government at all, and that advocates the privatization of pretty well everything - including schools.

Standardization is a part of that ideology. The idea behind it has nothing to do with learning. It has to do with making private business the model for everything in society. That would certainly be in the interest of large corporations and wealthy individuals; and, in any case, it's the  only sort of organization they understand. That's why schools have to be standardized. It's because that's the way private business operates an assembly line.

Why do civil servants in a department of education even listen to a concept so damaging to both students and teachers? Well, if you want to advance in the department, you had better appear to the Minister of Education to be a cooperative sort of person.

Why does the Minister of Education go to a private think tank for advice when he lives on a continent full of experts on education? Well, he's a politician and a member of a party. Both he and the party need money to operate.  Education professors are not big contributors. Corporations and wealthy people are.

Why do most of the news media publicize the research of these think tanks? Why do they publish kiss-up editorials, even when they know nothing about education? 

Well, I'm don't want to point any figures. But I would guess that very few news media are owned by poor people or even average ones.

Now, all the children of New Brunswick and all the taxpayers are going to pay the price for pure greed.