Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jan.8 The little editorial that could -and did

There was a very sensible editorial on education in this day's The Moncton Times&Transcript.

It recognized that New Brunswick has a strong record for retaining students at least until they finish high school. In fact, that's quite an old story to appear as news. For a long time now, New Brunswick schools have been doing a solid job on retention.  But at least the editorial writer is doing better than the one of a few months ago who used that same story to spit hatred and contempt at the teachers and the administrators.

The retention rate, at some 92%, is pretty good in any league - and far, far superior to the rate in the US (which relies heavily on standardized tests and rankings.)

The editorial writer did say we now have to work on the remaining 8%. Fair enough. And the editorial was honest enough to say that much of the problem now was with social backgrounds, family expectations, family disruptions, that sort of thing. More impressive, the editorial was honest enough to admit it didn't see any obvious solution. Neither do I. So let's start with how this all began.

It is estimated that in the year 1750, 75% of all Scots could read and write. That would put Scotland of 1750 right up there with the top  dozen or so countries in the world today - and way ahead of the modern US.  And reading and writing  paid off.  Scotland after 1750 produced generations of brilliantly successful scholars and businessmen. Scots dominated Canadian politics and business of our own colonial days. Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, was a Scot. So was the leader of the opposition. So were the builders of the CPR, the railway that made Canada possible. Most important, and still affecting us today, was the Scottish revolution in education.that created that high rate of literacy of 1750.

It actually began two hundred years earlier, when John Knox laid the foundations of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. He believed that people should make their own decisions. They should read The Bible for themselves; and not rely on the opinion of the clergy. That was quite different from Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism which emphasized obedience to the clergy As a result, in both Catholic France and Anglican England, most education was available only to the privileged few who could afford it. When Prebyterianism called for all to read The Bible for thsmelves, it demanded education for all.  That demand of John Knox led to public education, with access to all, even the most isolated, poor and remote.;

My Baptismal certificate carries the name of Reverend Gammel Craik. He was a Welshman, but from the Presbyterian tradition. Born very poor, he had to go to work  in the coal mines while still a child. There, like all the miners, his work breaks were spent in circles of miners deep undergraound who, by the light of their lamps, read The Bible to each other, and carried on lively debates about it. That habit of reading, discussing and learning was his community environment for ten years down in the mines. By his twenties, Gammel Craik had educated himself well enough to pass the entrance exams for theological college.

In the Presbyterian tradition, education was both public and, as we would say, continuing. Some children, like Gammel Craik, couldn't finish public school. But they at least got off to a start in the public schools. And both rich and poor went to the same public schools. The result that the schools were good.  The rich, who had political power, made sure of that because their children were in the same schools as everybody else.

My grandfather, born into rural poverty in the Scottish highlands, had only six years of school. But he spoke, besides his native Gaelic, both English and French. All of his life, he read and added to his learning. When I was a child, an elderly friend of his told me, "'e was a gentleman, 'e was. Well read. 'e could 'old his own the best people." That was all because of the Scottish environment  he had grown up in.

The Scots Presbyterians brought their public education system with them when they emigrated to Canada and the US. That's why Canada was developing public schools to be attended by both rich and poor as early as the first half of the nineteenth century. That why the private schools, then and now, have commonly been of either Anglican or Catholic origin. The public schools were based on the principal of individual freedom and equality . The private schools were based on class status and authority. (That's not a criticism of either Anglicans or Catholics. It's simply the statement of a difference between two religious traditions.)

But none of this fully explains the Scottish passion for reading and learning. It needed more than schools and teachers to produce a 75% literacy and from that to produce all the John A. Macdonalds and Lord Strathconas of Canadian histoyr. The schools were reinforced by the religious convictions of the parents, by the importance parents placed on learning, by the respect and involvement of the whole community in learning, discussing, working, achieving.

If we want to help the 8% who still drop out, we won't do it by following the hare-brained advice of business leaders who are simply looking for more profits. The problem for that last 8% (and for many of those who did finish high school) is not the schools. It's not the teachers.

It's the parents. It's the environment they establish. It's the respect for learning that so many parents lack. It's the community's lack of serious public discussion,the public's lack of any commitment to learning and to open discussion.

Moncton is the city which is sleepwalking its way to borrowing close to 200 million dollars, maybe more, for a hockey rink, a football stadium and a football team as top priorities. (And the news media and politicians support that moronic and valueless set of priorities) Moncton is where the institutions of higher learning are so inactive in encouraging learning and discussion that they are practically invisible. Moncton, like other places, is where the churches have settled fore being irrelevant.

Moncton is the intellectually and spiritually impovershed place that Scotland was before 1750.  If Monctonians were now to migrate to a new land, the only culture they would be able to bring with them would be outdoor concerts featuring aging rock stars; and beer served in plastic cups.

Children in Moncton grow up with the example constantly before them of  low expectations, primitive life experiences, massive disinterest in anything requiring an IQ of more than 50, and a spiritual vacuum. The problem is not the schools or the teachers. It never was.

The problem ss us. That's what we have to work on.


  1. Graeme
    My parents were very poor but they had great Genes. They had a minimal education but did their best to keep us in school. I almost became a dropout but my mother insisted that I finish my Final Year. By the way I completed High School in three years.I have the belief that some of the less fortunate,family wise are doomed to the 8 percent. More studies will not change much. Except to keep the people who do the studies in a comfortable position. All the best for 2011. I now have a Blog.
    DARobinson Bridgetown/Moncton

  2. I'm having trouble with you blogsite. Could you send me the whole address again? What I tried was

    But no luck.

    Had a respons early this morning from David Seymour himself. That's the lesson of blogging in NB. People in NB are so scared,they don't reply to you. They report you.

    However, Seymour comes across as a lightweight.

    It takes a while to build a blog. Keep working.