Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 29: Understanding protests

The university and college student strike, along with its demonstrations and its confrontations with police, has been making news in Canada, across Europe, and even in Asia. But not in the closed little world of the Moncton Times and Transcript. Eventually, it will dawn on one of the deeper thinkers at the paper that something is happening. Unfortunately, even the deepest TandTer never goes deep enough to get his or her ankles wet. So all we're likely to get is a rant that students are all spoiled brats. One can even guess who will  write that column.

However, this is a complicated issue with lots of lots of potential for real trouble. It's also complicated because it points to a need to re-examine what our colleges and universities are about. Let's start with the potential for real trouble - trouble that could well go far beyond Quebec.

Popular faith in democratic government, especially in North America and Europe, is the lowest it's been since the rise of fascism in the 1920s to the 40s. Voter turnouts are low. Obama, the great hope of just a new years ago, has become the great disappointment. Only the willfully blind can ignore the corruption of Congress, the control of elections by big money, the real power of the defence industry.

No national leader in Canada has anything close to majority support. The power of money in government is openly flaunted - nowhere more so than in New Brunswick.

Britain is close to chaos as its Conservative government is proving incompetent; and the Labour Party is still suffering the damage to its purpose, its principles and its integrity inflicted by Tony Blair. In Europe, neo-fascist parties are on the rise..

All of this has been made worse by the unlimited greed, criminality and, it must be admitted, sheer incompetence of major banks and other corporations in conducting their own affairs, and in interfering in the affairs of the rest of us.

Luckily for the large corporations, they've had enough muscle in government to make sure the clean-up bills are paid by everybody but them. While poverty in the US has risen to levels unmatched since records began, corporations and the wealthy get all their bills paid by the taxpayers - and are now making even bigger profits. Throughout Canada, the US and Europe, the poor are getting even poorer, the rich richer - even though it was the behaviour of the rich that caused the crisis.

At this moment, the US Congress is considering a bill to cut back on food stamps and medical care for the poorest of the poor. The purpose? So they can cut taxes on the very rich even more while still handing lush contracts to the defence industry.

Countries like Greece, Spain, Britain, Ireland are in even worse shape as they face decades of high levels of poverty in order to pay for the bailouts of the rich. Youth unemployment, in particular, is running at fifty percent in Spain. That's one reason we're seeing a rise in fascism in Europe.

Add to that profound unease and distrust of both government and business over issues like oil and gas drilling, climate change, social services - and the whole world is littered with political and social bombs,any one of which can be exploded with a good shake - setting off all the rest. (and that doesn't even consider the time bomb that is China. It has the justified dissatisfaction of its own people to worry about.)

The student protest in Quebec has already linked up envronmentalists who distrust the Quebec government's plan to open up the far north to industrial activity. It has also linked up with educators, with groups concerned with social programmes, with government corruption.....

Nor do borders mean much to social movements. The Times and Tribune does not seem to have figured that out. But other newspapers in Canada have. Even the Times of India takes the potential for spread seriously enough to give major coverage to the strike next door to New Brunswick.

The weakening of democracy by the obvious control of governments by big business, the rise of poverty even as the wealthy increase their wealth, the widespread and incompetent interference of big money in areas of social planning; the rise of government suppression and domestic spying...these and many other factors make this one hell of an explosive situation. It needs only one spark - even if that spark comes from a faraway place like Quebec.

And that's not the whole story. The other part starts in Scotland.

In the year 1562, very few children but the children of the rich - all over the world - could go to school. There were not many rich in Scotland. Indeed, it was perhaps the poorest country in Europe. That's why so many Scots could find no employment except as mercenaries in foreign armies. Scots were the bulk of the army of the Netherlands. They served in the French armies - and with such a reputation for fighting that they were the bodybuards for Joan of Arc.

But educated, they weren't. Then the Presbyterian church was established over much of the country. Where Roman Catholic churches had stressed unquestioning obedience to the clergy, even conducting its services in Latin - a language that the parishioners and even some of the clergy could not understand, Presbyterianism, though,  demanded that each person come to  his or her own understanding of The Bible. That meant everyone had to learn to read. But there were no schools for most of the people.

Accordingly, the church extablished parish schools so that every child could learn to read and write.
Scotland would not set up national public schools until 1872, But public schooling for everyone who wanted it was available 450 years ago. That is why Scotland, the poorest and most backward country in Europe has produced more great thinkers and writers per capita than any country in the world.  That's why so many of the great business leaders of the Empire - espcially Canada, were Scots. The first prime minister of Canada was a Scot. So was the second.

And the public school systems of Canada and the US not only were based on the Scottish model, but were often dominated by Scottish educators well through the twentieth century.  Without that Scottish influence on schooling, North America would never have produced the doctors, business leaders, engineers that made it the most prosperous part of the world.

But universities remained private institutions. That meant that, with few exceptions, only the well-off could afford to become doctors or lawyers or engineers. In many cases, perhaps most, university was really four years of drinking for the sons of wealthy families while the  professors did their own thing in research and writing. In short, the university never really became a teaching institution. Professors were - and, for the most part, remain - quite ignorant of and indifferent to anything that has to do with education.

In educational terms, our universities are dysfunctional. Almost all teaching is by rote (memorizing). That works for the student who is going to work in a field like accounting - or, at least, the accounting courses will work because the student will be using that memorized knowledge for the rest of his or her life.

But if the course is not job training (and most of them aren't) it is a waste of everybody's time, mostly forgotten within months of the exam. I taught history. Not one percent of my students would become historians.  There's a lot to be learned from history that wouldn't be forgotten - such as how to analyze an argument, how to get and judge the worth of information, how to reason, how to communicate, to get realistic sense of how people behave and why....

But take a look at any university calendar. Look for Canadian History 101. You'll find it has a title soomething like Canada from the beginning to now. And you know this is going to be simply somebody reading notes to you when you could get book and read it for yourself - and it's all for memorizing.

University teachers know close to nothing about education - and they don't want to know. Prestige and status don't come from teaching. They come from research and publication. The result is a mad rush to find the newest, hottest, in-topic and to publish something about it - which usually means publishing it in expensive journals that few people ever read. And there they lie for eternity.

As a way of teaching, this is both useless and expensive. Library costs are driven high for all that research that doesn't matter in the first place. So they can have the time to do their research that nobody really cares about, professors' teaching hours are kept down to six to nine a week with of course, a quarter of the year off to do just research.

Universities are made expensive by their own status-seeking which is encouraged by pseudo-scientific ratings such as those in MacLean's Magazine, by a public that buys into the university prestige delusion. and by the intellectual snobbery of professors.

For a good half of the population, university is unreachable - not because of lack of brain but because of lack of money.

Yes, you can go if you're poor. Been there. Done that. But it's hard slogging, and years of debt to attend medieval institutions that don't know what they claim to be doing. Indeed, most of my student days - expecially including graduate school - were spent not in learning the truth but in learning what the professors wanted me to say. And it was spent not in learning history, but in learning the peculiar snobberies and social values of the academic world.

That's what makes universities so expensive. And the expense adds another problem.

In their desperate search for money, the universities go, cap in hand, to big business. Corporate leaders, as generous donors, are allowed to  dominate university boards of governors, frequently making all major deicisons about the university. And what corporation want is not places of learning, but places of training.

They want programmes devoted to skills useful to business. The hell with this thinking stuff. They also want students with the "right" sort of political views. So they encourage the hiring of professors in fields like economics and political science who will toe the appropriate political line. They also fund chairs (jobs) for professors who will be useful fronts for them in the the ideological bent of their teaching -and in prividing quotations for the press.

In short, corporations are buying universities as they have already bought goveronments. As well, universities are hopelessly out of touch with education and, if anything, have contempt for teaching.  To make it worse, by making it almost impossible for half of our population to go to university, we are doing what Scotland did until 450 years ago  - throwing away the potential of millions who could contribute to this country.

All of this is mixed up, sometimes only half-understood but with enough understanding to generate anger. It's a crisis coming, as inevitably as the first summer movie, to a place near you. It has the potential to reach every part of the world. It has the potential to link up and to detonate the many other dissatisfactions in our world.

That's why it's important for a nwspaper to cover it - and to cover it with intelligence.

That's why Norbert's coming commentary on how they're all just spoiled brats isn't going to help a whole helluva lot..

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