It pays to pamper our children

HUGH MacLENNAN July 21 1956

It pays to pamper our children

HUGH MacLENNAN July 21 1956

It pays to pamper our children



So much is being written these days against the youth of the country that a visiting foreigner could be excused if he thought that Canada (to use a phrase once applied to the United States) had become decadent without ever having been civilized. The manners of the youth, their education and lack of enterprise in athletics are being constantly assailed. What is fascinating about all this is that the criticisms are accurate in most of their details, yet add up to a conclusion almost directly the opposite of the truth. The young people in postwar Canada are not decadent, and though they are probably lazier than their fathers, not many of them are soft inside.

In making this judgment I don’t think I’m talking without experience. For most of my life I have been mixed up with education in one way or another. 1 have seen it in four countries and on most of its levels, from the public schools of a mining town to the ivory tower of a graduate college. Having spent ten years teaching in an elementary school—a job so tough that everything 1 have done since has seemed easy—I am no more sentimental about the young than their celebrated critic, Frank Turnpane. I left that school-teaching job hoping I would never see a classroom again, but after seven years of solitary writing I missed young people so much that 1 decided to accept a parttime post at McGill, where I have worked three afternoons a week for the past four academic years.

“Our future’s in good hands”

This return to young people after seven years’ absence has changed my entire outlook on life, history, the role of education in the community and what I read about young people in our magazines, ft has made me extremely hopeful about the future of Canada. It has persuaded me that the generation that has grown up here since the war is likely to turn out to be the best generation this country ever had.

l et me repeat that I accept the facts and arguments of those who seek to prove that since the war we have been developing a generation of soft minds in soft bodies. All the way from Ace Percival, the athletic coach, through Frank Tumpane. the journalist, to Dr. Hilda Neatby, the university professor and author. I accept the detailed facts. In sports, in their behavior toward their elders, in their attitude toward elementary school work this new generation is bound to be condemned if judged on the standards of the old.

The purpose of traditional education was to breed logical competitive minds in tough insensitive bodies. It was the Greek ideal coarsened by Puritanism, and it has vanished in modern Canada.

A generation ago ours was generally agreed to be a tough country in which the enemy of the teacher was not the TV set but the rink or the playing field. When I was young, a hoy was considered a sissy (at least up to the age of seventeen) if he thought a girl more interesting than a football or a bat. The nation had an athletic record of which it was reasonably proud. Canada was sensational in the Olympic Games of 1928; on several occasions in those days a Canadian won the Boston Marathon: we produced a lew oarsmen and swimmers who were famous, one amateur golf champion of the United .States, one professional boxing champion of the world.

I he picture is very different now. Outside of professional hockey on its highest level, the only sport in which Canada is supreme is curling, a game played by middle-aged men. Nobody expects Canada to win even a single point for sixth place in track and field at the Olympics of 1956. If you omit the UBC boat club, almost the only amateur athletes we now have who can engage in international competition without looking like neophytes are a handful of girls.

This refusal to expend the desire and effort to win in athletics makes Canada look pretty bad to those who consider that victory in athletics is necessary for a nation’s prestige. Everywhere else but here the nations have gone sports-crazy. Judged by present-day international standards, Canada’s athletic record ranks her slightly above Portugal and slightly below Siam.

“Today’s youth may be the finest we’ve had”

I his attitude toward success in athletics is almost exactly paralleled by the attitude of the youth of today toward success in examinations. Failure in exams no longer carries the slightest stigma among them. 1 know one lad who failed all five freshman subjects at McGill— a feat that required genuine talent—and he was not in the least ashamed or discouraged. Even if I wished to do so, I could find myself in no disagreement with Dr. Hilda Neatby’s facts about our school system. During my last few years of schoolteaching 1 saw the victory of the so-called reformers approaching, and I got out (so I thought) while the getting was good. No, 1 would not enjoy being a schoolteacher in Canada since the war. 1 would feel ashamed to send to the university a crop of children so illprepared that fifty percent of those who gained admission would leave the university without a degree. 1 didn't believe ten years ago, and I don’t believe now, that a boy or a girl can command the language without learning grammar, or can become proficient in a subject without working at it. Though I have nothing to do with freshmen at McGill, I have seen a wide sampling of freshman composition, which is neither better nor worse than freshman composition in any other Canadian college. 'The average is awful. In fact the average Canadian freshman of today has a command of his language no higher than the average ninth-grader’s of a generation ago.

Since I admit facts like these, how do 1 justify my opinion that the postwar youth of Canada is likely to be the finest this country ever had?

I do so because 1 believe I have come to know their elite (or rather, a sampling of their elite) during the last four years of work with senior students at McGill University. 1 believe that the only way you can judge a young generation is by its elite, because the elite are the ones who are going to take control when they grow up.

I he elite among the young people of today are superior intellectually to the elite among the young people in my time. Of this 1 have no doubt whatever. Regardless of how casually they may have been trained, they have emerged dignified and more capable of mature thought and behavior than I and my friends were at the age of thirty. They seem to me something quite new under the sun.

If you want to predict the future of a generation, the safest way to do so is to study the attitude of its elite toward their parents. All through history the pattern of change has been brought about by this eternal conflict, this reaction of the leaders of the young generation against the leaders of the old. On two occasions within our own century, in 1914 and again in 1939, these explosions of youth against society nearly wrecked civilization. They were blind explosions, because the youth of those days was unversed in what are now considered elementary principles of psychology. The young men who swarmed into Fascist and Communist parties in the 1930s would never have done so had they been able to recognize and understand the underlying causes of their hostilities.

The elite among the youth of today do understand the causes of hostilities because they have been fortunate enough to grow up in a society in which these mysteries are at last coming to light. That is why they are the least aggressive people I have ever seen. So far from hating their parents, they feel sorry for them in an amused way 1 confess 1 find rather charming. They assume most of us older people are immature (they caught the word from us), they take it for granted we are at least mildly neurotic and are self-conscious about sex in a way they are not. They know we don't understand the world we live in. and on the whole they are bored by our excitements over politics. They assume, as we seem slowly to be learning, that in a free country it makes far less difference than people believe who is the president or prime minister, simply because most modern presidents and prime ministers follow opinion instead of shaping it. They may not admire the advertising business, but they know (in the sense that they have grown up taking it for granted) that Madison Avenue is infinitely more powerful in the life of North America than all the politicians in Washington and Ottawa put together.

Is athletic glory important?

The traditional father-image of the past was generally a pretty formidable thing. The father-image in Canada fifty years ago was a bearded patriarch who never smiled on the Sabbath and believed little children should be seen and not heard. Today the Canadian fatherimage lies somewhere between the flurried. middle-aged man of ¡he New Yorker cartoons and the genially youthful paterfamilias of the automobile ads. No wonder our children like us.

Unaggressive these young people certainly are, gentle too. and by our standards unambitious. Few of them have the desire to prove themselves by proving themselves better than their fellows. As they have no wish to dedicate themselves to causes, so also do they have no wish to win the whole world at the price of their own happiness.

What does it signify, after all, that the postwar youth of Canada cannot compete successfully with the youth of other nations in competitive athletics? l aziness, possibly. Lack of aggression and the desire for athletic glory. But it also argues a remarkable common sense. For nobody can become a famous athlete today unless he becomes a professional, disguised or open.

The athletic argument breaks down entirely when you try to use it to prove decadence in the young Canadians who have grown up since the war. Their failure to win in games signifies nothing new or important. It means only that no amateur will beat a professional at anything.

Nor do I believe that the flabbiness of our public-school system is necessarily as important as Dr. Neatby assumes. From experience 1 know that you can't educate on the lower level; you can only train. If. as is often the case, you confuse training with education. the chances are considerable that in your zeal to train thoroughly you will crush out of existence the sacred, educable thing that appears in about one pupil out of a hundred. The slackness in the discipline of our present educational system does not seem to me so serious

as its lack of vitamin content, and with that statement I think Dr. Neatby would agree. But its very casualness, in a paradoxical way, has preserved the elite of youth from the crimes that are always committed against an elite by a tough educational system in lower grades.

What would have happened to a marvelous boy like Glenn Gould if he had been trained as 1 was. and had lived in a society like mine when I was young— a society that demanded hard work, set no store by art or beauty and assumed that the virtuous boy was the one who

scorned delights and lived laborious days? What would have been done to his genius if he had been exposed to the formidable processes of the famous English public-school system, an unrivaled breeding ground of well-bred mediocrities, brave men and unimaginative administrators? As every sensitive person who passed through the English publicschool system testifies—and don't forget, its academic standards are sky-high—it would have crushed somebody like Glenn Gould.

The only education that counts in the

long run is self-education. At least it can be said for the postwar school system of Canada that its very incompetence has prevented it from damaging potential talent beyond repair. By this I don't mean to suggest that it should not be improved. 1 mean simply that I don't think it has done as much harm as its critics believe.

Most of what 1 am trying to say in defense of this young generation can be expressed in a single sentence. They are living in a new world in which they know intuitively that many of the old rules of measurement don't apply any more.

They assume, for instance, that the majority of them are going to live to the age of eighty. This fact alone means that their performance in school and college is not a decisive index of their capacity and future achievement.

This new generation also understands that there is no virtue in toughness as there once was, because the purpose of toughness was to breed a race of warriors. The warriors of the future will not be men; they will be rockets.

As 1 see them, the youth of postwar Canada have one dominant ambition. That is to get married and start families as soon as possible. At any rate, they seem to me a pretty stable generation psychologically. They have had it easy, and some of their elders resent them for this, and others of their elders call them soft and spoiled. Personally, I thank God they have had it easy and that we could afford to let them have it easy, even though we may have gone about it in a muddle-headed way. There is no virtue in having it hard unless you believe, as the Puritans apparently did, that you must make yourself miserable in this world in order to toughen yourself for the greater miseries of life in the next.

There is a profound passage in Somerset Maugham’s autobiography in which he gives the lie to this old Puritan doctrine that suffering purifies the soul and ennobles the character. From his experience in the out-patients’ department of St. Thomas’ Hospital, in the London slums, Maugham learned that the reverse is the case. .Suffering does not purify: it degrades. Hardship does not ennoble: it coarsens. Misery does not improve the character: it makes a person concentrate on mean and petty objects. What never fails to improve a man’s character, says Maugham truly, is happiness.

This generation of young Canadians now growing up, raised by parents bruised in the Depression and haunted by obscure anxieties, is probably the happiest there ever was. Let nobody be misled by the antics of some teen-agers or the behavior of the leather-jerkined louts who charge around the streets on motor bikes. There are far fewer delinquents on the streets now than there were in my boyhood, and there were fewer then than in the days of the Good Queen, when there were so many prostitutes in the city of London that there was one for every thirty male members of the population.

These young people, finally, are extremely moral in an extremely pleasant way. Why not, seeing that on the whole they arc happy and have seldom been bullied?

In conclusion 1 would suggest to anyone who believes that nothing good can come out of our present educational system, that he contrast the young Canadians of today with the young Germans of 1914. Those young Germans who marched for the Kaiser had been through the mill of the most thorough school system the world has ever seen, the old German Gymnasium. At the age of eighteen the average young German who had been to school had a fund of knowledge greater than that of an honors graduate from a Canadian university today. He was competent, he was totally disciplined, he was brave, he was so ashamed of acknowledging pain that one of his chief amusements was dueling with swords. No young generation was ever so respectful to its elders and officers, none so sure of its duty and determined to do it.

Without doubt it was a generation that did more harm to humanity and to itself than any group of human beings since Attila, ic