Does Our Education Educate?

Most college students, says this professor, are worthy, obedient —and stupid. Our aims are fuzzy and we train too many

ARTHUR LOWER November 15 1948

Does Our Education Educate?

Most college students, says this professor, are worthy, obedient —and stupid. Our aims are fuzzy and we train too many

ARTHUR LOWER November 15 1948

Does Our Education Educate?



Most college students, says this professor, are worthy, obedient —and stupid. Our aims are fuzzy and we train too many

NOTHING is more characteristic of modern society than the vast scale of its educational efforts. From the kindergarten to “adult education,” from training “courses” of every description to the topmost ranges of the university, the attempt goes on to bring people abreast of the requirements of our civilization.

Our educational enterprise constitutes one of our leading industries. Everyone is concerned with it for everyone pays taxes for its support. Nearly everyone expresses warm approval of it; even the brashly prosperous who hold the teacher in contempt for his failure to make money.

How paradoxical it is, then, that this country in its typical attitudes to the essence of civilization should be among the most Philistine of the western world. Nearly everywhere else traditional culture is accepted and respected; the scholar and the artist do not have to apologize for their own existence. In Canada, over large parts of our society, people despise the things of the mind and the educated man finds it wise to hide his light under a bushel.

Our attitude toward education is partly the result of inadequate discussion. This must be my excuse for what I have to say in this article.

Veneer of Culture

I MYSELF have been a teacher for more years than I like to think of. Though t he major part of my career has been spent within university walls, I have had some experience of practically every type of Canadian school—ungraded country school, city public school, town high school, private school. I have worked with teachers and young people all my life. My relations with them have been uniformly cordial. But I have not always felt that our mutual efforts toward raising the general level of enlightenment have been satisfactory.

Our educational effort—I speak mainly of Canada, though with some subtle exceptions what one says of Canada applies to the continent generally— has certainly not lacked organization. Everywhere public “systems” of education have been cast up, with vast apparatus of government departments, inspectional organizations, municipal boards, teachers’ training arrangements, courses of study, grading, rules, regulations—and certificates, certificates, certificates.

Most of our educational effort is only made possible by the ease with which we make paper and the abundance of that material. In contrast with other ages, we put everything down on paper and keep records of everything. Other ages have preserved themselves in stone: we preserve ourselves in mountains of perishable paper.

Nearly everybody today knows A from B. Nearly everyone can write his own name. What use is made of this knowledge is another matter which will be referred to again. At any rate, one result of school plus paper is the disappearance of formal illiteracy. Along with its disappearance, there has been spread over more of society than ever before a veneer of what most ages and climes have recognized as civilization or culture. Here, in Canada, our educational systems haye not yet brought into existence a culture in the sense of an original civilization: we have not to our credit anything approaching in impressiveness English literature or Greek drama or Renaissance'sculpture.

But a certain mild leaven has been worked through the lump. Although “higher” education— meaning that provided in bygone ages for priests, ministers and the sons of gentlemen—has been uneasily fitted into our pattern of “mass” education, we have done something for the average man. As a result our educational systems have no doubt “paid off” in certain direct, practical ways. The

Canadian forces in this last war had far higher proportions of young men in them with some highschool attendance to their credit than any others (except possibly the German) and our military reputation probably depends to some extent on that fact.

What we expect from our schools depends upon the predicates upon which we base our lives and society. In Russia the schools are expected to turn out zealous young Communists. In Canada what are they expected to turn out? That is precisely the weak spot in our educational armor. We are not sure of what our schools are expected to turn out. It is easy to resort to a shibboleth and say “young democrats,” but it would not be difficult to show that most people who use such terms have vague ideas of what they mean by them. Here is the area of our education which most needs examination.

The major fact about our western world is that it is the child of a great religion, Christianity. One leading denomination in Canada complains of our “Godless” public schools. But schools in Canada are far from “Godless”: whatever the formal regulation, they are schools existing in the shadow of t he Christian tradition and influenced at every point by that tradition.

Christianity and its ethic, especially its ethic, is predicate number one of our society. It is true that our Canadian traditions are not uniform: there are English schools ai>d French schools, Protestant schools and Catholic schools, and all the minor traditions that come from the denominations of Protestantism or the various racial descents of our people, hut all (hese arise out of Christianity. In English-speaking Canada, the Calvinistic variety of the Christian tradition

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has been especially powerful. Christians, in the Calvinist’s view, were people “of the Book”: they must he able to read “the Book,” that is, the Bible. It is no accident that our first general school systems stem from Calvinist Scotland and from Puritan Massachusetts.

Puritanism eventually warped the simplicity of the concept. It made a frequent association of godliness with worldly success and opened the door to quite a different concept of schooling. The connection between schooling and success soon became obvious: the result was the highly utilitarian view of education that has been so prevalent in North America, especially in Canada. Many people came to regard education simply as a kind of vocational can opener — get some “learnin’ ” and become a doctor; pull yourself up out of the ruck and make it possible for your sons to face an easier : road than that which you yourself trod, i Education must he immediately useful: as a result the average Canadian can understand the education of an engineer; the education of an author he, as a rule, despises.

Not that education is wholly inspired ; by notions of what is practical. The j Christian tradition, however emphati: cally it might he repudiated by certain ; sections of the public, is still our formaj live influence. From it derives our conj viction of the worth and dignity of the I individual man and from that it is only | a short step to the natural equality of j men and their equal right to whatever j advantages the state can give them, j From this concept comes universal, ; compulsory education. Like all other j good conceptions, it can he pervertet! j and it is from a kindly perversion of the Christian view of man that many faults it» our education spring.

All men are the sons of God, or as Thomas Jefferson put it, all men are created equal. But it is only a shallow interpretation of the great truth to say that all men are created the same, with the same gifts, and that only opportunity is needed to bring out in all men the same great potentialities. All men are created equal hut very different: ideally, what we need is a separate individual education for every sc pa rate i nd ¡vidual.

Business Is Our Virtue

I, myself, was taught that education is the development and perfection of character and that, through it, we are taught “how to think.” Our responsibility as teachers was to he, in the first, place, training in the various virtues and, in the second, inculcation of knowledge. 7’hese were admirable objectives and 1 am sure every good teacher consciously or unconsciously is guided by them.

But one awful truth was not revealed to me—namely, that virtues I differ, even the very concept virtue differs, according as societies differ: every society has its own set of ideals and its own methods of getting them into the heads of the young.

The sons of medieval barons were brought up to love warfare and despise the arts of peace. 7'he Nazis set up special schools to indoctrinate the young Aryan. The young Communist is disciplined to have nothing but scorn for bourgeois morals. 7'he young English gentleman of the 19th century was brought up as a ruler of empire, his code was command tempered by Christianity. Young Americans and

young Canadians, too, are often edu« ted in a commercial morality for business world.

Is education, then, nothing more than the initiation of the young into folkways of the tribe? Is it at bottom simply indoctrination? Is education, in other words, merely an aspect of politics?

When a society lives safely within a given philosophy or religion, with little or no fundamental dissent, its element of indoctrination is not very obvious. When all Europe was Christian, no one would have labeled Christian education “indoctrination.” But now that a considerable section of Europe repudiates Christianity charges of “indoctrination” or “propaganda” can be hurled about. When systems of morals or philosophies collide, the schools immediately become battlegrounds. We have had sharp examples of that here in Canada, where the issue of separate schools has caused conflict after conflict.

Education is more, far more, than a mere aspect of politics, but politics— that is, the assumptions upon which the state is founded—will always enormously influence education, determining its course and its content. When a society’s sense of direction is strong, there is little difficulty about education, for nearly everybody is agreed upon fundamentals. When the sense of direction weakens, then rifts appear, everyone, or every group, has a panacea and education often takes queer shapes. Courses in interior decorating or basketball coaching (the latter happily not given in Canada) demand equal status with studies requiring contemplation of the eternal verities.

Canadian education has been increasingly afflicted with this lack of a sense of direction. Higher education has largely escaped from the orbit of the church and so no longer solely follows the age-old Christian and j classical tradition. Other stanchions of our old educational foundations are j giving way. Canada is no longer a mere I British colony, taking its ideas and its code from the mother country readymade. Yet, of all people, we Canadians have been reluctant to think over the conditions of our own life. Except in matters of economics, which we have threshed out pretty thoroughly, we have done little of the hard thinking about our national society which Americans, as a result of their revolu; tion, were forced to put on theirs. 7’oday American life has lost its sense of direction even more markedly than I has Canadian, hut it will do Canadians j good to remember that, for a century ! after their great upheaval, Americans debated every aspect of their life, with the result that an American way of life did take shape. No distinctively Canadian way of life has yet emerged, nor will it emerge merely by neglect. And until it does emerge our objectives, both in education and generally, will neceasarily be hazy.

Canadian Alien

One of the major reasons for our slowness in realizing ourselves has been the inability of large and important sections of our community to admit that we are a new society, its determination to regard itself as a mere overseas aspect of the parent British community. This comes out strongly in the sphere of higher education, with its intense conservatism.

It is only slowly that we are turning to educate our young men and women as Canadians. A respected professor of my own, now gone, once remarked to me that as a Canadian he was virtually a pioneer, and a rather lonely one, in university instruction. When he

jepan his career, practically all his Ijoljleagues were from abroad. They regarded themselves as exiles, he said, and the day the college year ended they took ship for the land whence they had come, to return at the last possible moment before the new term began. Things have changed since those days, though the process described is still a familiar one, and our universities continue in some degree to believe in the superior culture of the incomer, sometimes to the exclusion of our own young men.

There have always been, and there are today, enough “exiles” in Canadian universities, men whose hearts and minds are elsewhere, to give to a considerable area of higher education an air of unreality. Students have been brought up in an exotic atmosphere, presented with a culture which could not possibly be their own. There is a difference between studying certain subjects as if you were a European and studying them as if you were a North American. Even the English literature of the last hundred years or so is not exactly our literature: it is a literature which may contain our memories, but not our lives. English history is our history until toward the end of the 18th century, but since then it has become somewhat exterior to us. Educationally it would be a great gain for us if we could gear our work more closely to our own circumstances and have it grow more out of our own life.

Today many other factors are also at work to weaken our sense of direction. There is deep division everywhere about the nature of society and about the very nature of man. Is man just a little lower than the angels or is he a set of chemical reactions? Is the family just a convenient institution or is it an institution sacred in itself? Is society a highly integrated mechanism which must, be carefully controlled or will it. run itself? Our education reflects all these deep conflicts and as they echo through the schools— usually indirectly —they make rifts between the generations, make or unmake political parties, set class against class and race against race.

Partly because of the unsureness of our aim, but largely because we have always been a pioneer country close to the fight against physical nature, the

cultural accomplishments of our education have been weak. Originality of conception has a hard fight here in Canada: if you want a quiet life, it is best to be steeped in the conventional. An Englishman of some attainments resident here, in a moment of candor recently expatiated to the writer on the “pseudoculture” of Canadians—they seemed tricked out in other peoples* clothing, he said. To such an observation can be joined the numerous examples of those of us who find it easy to be English with the English and American with the Americans—our Canadian chameleons.

Semisophisticated Bilge

This weakness of accomplishment comes out more strongly on the more ordinary levels of education. We have almost ended formal illiteracy, it is true, but what have we got in its place? Go by any of the shops which sell reading matter and you will have evidence enough of what the general public does with its ability to read. Counters piled high with sexy magazines and a very sparing selection of anything else. Listen to the radio.

I was once forced to lie in hospital and take my room companion’s radio “straight” for days on end. I make an honorable exception for our national broadcasting system, but if my experience was typical it gets the small end of our people’s attention. I made a little transcript, one night of what came out over the air in a casual turn of the dial. Here it is:

“The celebration’s in honor of adding the 2,0001 h baby to the creche . . .”

“Old Hob Bewfick’s coming along. Here’s the old microbe right now . . .”

“. . . and l want to say to you, ladies and gentlemen, plug your ballot for Judge White and let Will Brown stay right where lie belongs, on the moonicple bench. Plug your ballot so you can say to him in the words of the old saying ‘well-done, thou good and faithful servant’ . . .”

“. . . this program comes to you from San Francisco’s beautiful new million-dollar marble opera house, courtesy of Associated Oil Companies, get Associated Service with a Smile ...”

“To the smart miladi is presented this really discreet questionnaire: do

you think you could find hosiery that . . .”

Ali this sort of bilge is addressed to the semisophisticated, not to the simple man. Our great-grandfathers, who could not read or write, would not have listened to it. It is not much of an answer to say that it comes mostly from American stations: we drink it up too and would produce it if we could.

Does our education educate?

As a matter of fact, it is only a pleasant fiction that the schools shape education. Teachers do what they can. Little Peters, they keep their fingers heroically sticking in the dikes. But the real educators among us are the radio, the movies, the comic strip and suchlike media. This great tide of muck keeps on remorselessly rolling forward and if the dikes hold and some degree of mental sanity is saved for us, wondrous it will be.

A university is a good vantage point from which to watch this struggle between reason and unreason—or to give it plainer words, between civilization and barbarism. It is a little world in itself and students are quick to reflect the dominant forces in the great world outside. For the great debate, whether civilization is advancing or declining, a university classroom forms an unusually sensitive barometer. From my own experience, I should hesitate to return a decision for my students have always been just as courteous and of as good character as students were when I was one myself. It is certain that they have not been demoralized (though very much bewildered) hy the trash that shoves itself at them. But there are far more of them and it is there that it seems to me the peril lies. The instruction given has to be spread pretty thin. And the average background seems to be poorer than when only certain classes went to college.

Safe Citizens

That is inevitable, but it is regrettable for, in the democratization of education, its level has been reduced to the danger point. There is, of course, in every university a small group of students who in ability, intellectual curiosity and sometimes even in background, will compare favorably with their fellows anywhere and of any age. These are our potential creators and leaders. In Canada, we quickly dispose of a large percentage of them by shipping them off to the United States.

In every institution also there is a larger group of persons of respectable capacity and of industry. This group suits Canadian life perfectly. Its members are the solid, reliable, unimaginative people who keep this country ambling along its safe, if unexciting, road. Typical Canadians, they have both feet on the ground. The first group often has its head up in the air— or to put it in more complimentary fashion, its gaze upon the stars. That is why so many of its members go to the United States. Canada is no country for stargazers. We want people who will “bring home the bacon.”

Down below these two groups is the great mass of students. There are not really many complete irresponsibles among them. But there is a tremendous proportion of worthy people who are just dull and rather stupid. Every year hy the thousand they painfully drag themselves through the examinations just missing failure by a shade. If all, such people were failed, as ideally they ought to he, graduating classes, instead of being as huge as they are today, would be reduced to moderate proportions.

Students in this category—and they tire a large percentage of the whole—

literally cannot read, they cannot write, ¡hey cannot speak. They, of course, ¿now their A B C’s and can perform Jementary operations in mathematics. That seems to be about as far as many if them go. They can hardly put words together to form a sentence which means anything.

“Since man is created by sin then all lis creations are sinful, therefore, the representative of God on earth, the Pope, being the spiritual power is, therefore, supreme over the temporal.”

That is an example, and not an extreme one, from one of my history papers. Students who write thus can get hold of only the most elementary information. Many of them graduate unable to spell simple words. Nothing is more discouraging than what passes for conversation among them. Talk often consists of monosyllables, long nasal sounds run together and grunts. In fact, it is hardly too much to say that many of our students—and other young people even more so—really cannot talk at all. Not only do they have nothing to say but the sounds they do make can hardly be understood.

“A y’ goan a wade?” I once heard one girl say to another. I worked this out to “Are you going to wait?” An English friend of mine used to assert that all the Canadians he had met apparently came from three cities; “Trawna, Owah, Mawrl.” Lest this seem overdrawn, let the reader check his own speech. In the city of Toronto the pronunciation of the numeral 20 is too-oo-eny. The word Prodesdand (in writing) regularly makes its appearance among the examination papers I read.

Keep Quiet, Take Notes

Our students reflect the general level of our civilization. Linguistically, it is entirely without distinction. In fact, I suspect it hates distinction. No politician who spoke with the precision, clarity and epigrammatic quality of Winston Churchill would stand the slightest chance of election in Canada: it pays to mumble and muddle. Classrooms, like the House of Commons, are full of mumble and muddle.

Very few of our students want an education for education’s sake. Few of them have much intellectual curiosity.

Few read anything for themselves. Students coming in fresh from school seem to take it for granted that their job is to sit at their desks, keep quiet and take notes. I hope I am wrong but they often strike me as trained in taking orders, just good, obedient children. If our schools are turning out merely passive people, people who merely acquiesce and do their allotted tasks, then they are turning out young Germans rather than young Canadians. It often seems to come as a shock to freshmen to find that they are on their own, with no one to supervise them, no one to see that they “do their homework.” The very essence of the greatness of England’s accomplishment has lain in the initiative which her sons have manifested; are we Canadians sinking back into a Teutonic passiveness?

Of course most of our students come from meagre homes—homes where food may be plentiful enough but books and discussions rare. We don’t seem to build up a body of educated families such as one meets everywhere in New England. It seems as if with each new crop of students the process of education had almost to begin all over again. I am by r J means suggesting that education should only be for an elite. It must be recognized, however, that families of distinction have a vast contribution to make, for they carry along with them from generation to generation much of the apparatus of civilization. Think of the Adams family in the United States, which has been furnishing distinguished men to the republic for six generations.

It is not enough to excuse the low cultural level of our education by pleading that we are democrats and that everyone must have an equal chance. Democracy must mean more than the blind leading the blind. By all means let us have opportunities for all, hut let us recognize that by no means all can be dragged through the same educational knothole.

If a really rigorous standard were maintained in our universities, they would not be troubled with overcrowding. Many of those now in attendance would be following some other type of training and not merely cluttering up the classrooms where

more gifted students could wrestle profitably with the problems that perpetually perplex mankind. Our Canadian students are a thoroughly decent lot of young people, but relatively few of them can be considered “educated people” in any genuine sense of that term.

Naturally our low educational standard is not all the fault of the students. So many young things are sent to college because their parents think it would be “nice” for them to go and for other reasons of equal validity. When they get there they batter away at the doors and sooner or later these yield. Instructors are timid, they have their positions to think about and few are prepared to be rigorous in throwing out the unfit. Administrations, with the spectre of poverty always behind them, view with alarm the falling off in fees. Institutions keep discreet eyes on each other: competition is the life of trade and if the student cannot “get in” at one college he can at another. It is only the calibre of the B.A. that suffers and few worry about that.

Dead wood on Staff

There are many other explanations: the lack of precision in objective, as mentioned above; vested interests; alien instructors; dead wood among the instructors. Subjects “run out” in interest as the times change but the instructors in such, being human, struggle to retain their places. Fads come in and their proponents are usually liberally equipped with the plausibility necessary to urge them. Subjects get out of touch with reality. I hope I will not offend the numerous acquaintances of mine who teach French if I contend that French is to some degree an example. Here we are in a bilingual country and the French taught in our schools, upon which we spend tens of thousands of dollars, is for the most; part still of the “Whereis-the-hat-of-my-aunt?” variety. I hasten to admit that if French were taken seriously and taught as the language of our fellow countrymen, thousands of zealots in English-speaking Canada would rise up and demand the heads of those who were betraying the English-speaking race.

In few' countries of which I know ¡ anything is there the gap between the j educated and the mass which seems to j exist in Canada. That is bad for both i groups. It hinders the growth of a I genuine culture, for ordinary people I will cling to their intellectual poverty, j fearing to be accused by others of j being “highbrow.” Thus, it is only very slowly that our national standard of literacy rises. Our speech habits actj ually seem to get worse. Discussion,

1 public and private, the life blood of j democracy, suffers.

There are many rivers to cross, some J of them in flood before the gap is closed I and the genuinely educated come to feel at ease in this Canadian society of which they are so essential a part. I refer the reader to Robertson Davies’ recent play, “Fortune, My Foe,” for a far more powerful expression of this point than I can give. Closing the gap presupposes a society unified to a far greater degree than is ours today. Until it is closed, however, our educational system will always turn out a good many brilliant misfits and countless dull people who fit in all too well. It is the business of persons engaged in the profession of education to seek to close the gap, through the growth of understanding and common objectives among all our people. It is to be hoped that the process will also involve the growth of a democracy of individuals, not of sheep, and of that finest product of a people, a culture. hr