Learning A Living

MALCOLM GRAY September 7 1987

Learning A Living

MALCOLM GRAY September 7 1987

Learning A Living


Every autumn from 1983 until 1986, Alberto Manguel asked freshmen who entered his classes at

Toronto’s York University to take a quick quiz on Western culture. Manguel, a writer and broadcaster, said that the 20-question test required some familiarity with art, history and literature—knowledge that, Manguel argues, a high-school graduate should possess. But Manguel said that he was so depressed by the students’ consistently poor performance that he stopped giving the test—and teaching the course. For one thing, he recalled that not a single student could correctly identify a sonnet or a centaur. And apart from encountering great gaps in knowledge, Manguel said that he had found that many freshmen had never learned how to think clearly. Said Manguel: “There is a failure to ana-

lyse. Information is digested the same way as a TV series is digested. Students end up believing that what happens in Iran does not affect them any more than what happens on Miami Vice.” Mind: A growing number of parents—and many students—share Manguel’s concerns and those of Allan Bloom, an influential philosophy professor at the University of Chicago. Some of them say that many of Bloom’s criticisms of the American school systems are equally applicable in Canada. In his best-selling book, titled The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom writes that excessive emphasis on career-focused teaching has eroded educational levels across North America (Maclean’s, July 27). In opposition to that trend, Bloom said that he wants students to have greater exposure to such traditional subjects as

classical thought and English literature—general areas of knowledge that will both inform students and help them develop their powers of analysis. Indeed, critics argue that learning to think is more important than ever at a time when many young Canadians are increasingly fearful about the future.

Jobs: As well, many educators say that the heavy demands placed on Canada’s provincially run school systems—trying to prepare young people for entrance into the job market as well as providing basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills—often confuse children, parents and teachers alike. That confusion was reflected in negative comments about school from young people interviewed by Maclean ’s. Nine-year-old Cecilia Cunnington of Oakville, Ont., for one, said that “school can be one of the worst things about being a kid.”

Still, some critics of the public schools cite factors other than the absence of traditional learning, including what they conclude is discrimination against ethnic minorities, female students and children from working-class backgrounds. For one thing, The Federation of

Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario recently conducted a study of reading material currently in use in the province’s elementary schools. Its conclusion: the textbooks usually showed men in active roles while women were depicted as passive. Such portrayals, the association report argued, were still preparing female students to be “silent slaves in a man’s world.”

Stream: As well, eight staff members of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto said that studies conducted during the past 20 years showed that working-class children were less likely to advance to college than their middle-class peers. Indeed, a 1983 Toronto Board of Education survey found that only 46 per cent of children from working-class homes were taking college-entry courses while 88 per cent of the children with parents

in such middle-class occupations as law or accountancy were in the advanced stream that led to university.

Skill: And according to the OISE writers in a book published last April, Critical Pedagogy and Cultural Power, the reasons for that divergence can be traced back to the development of literacy skills in early childhood. For one thing, middle-class parents read to their children while working-class parents are often too busy working to spend time encouraging their educational development. As well, David Livingstone, the sociology professor who edited the book, argued that the school system then widens that gap by forcing poorer children to use textbooks filled with unfamiliar depictions of middleclass life. Said Livingstone: “Essentially, schools use the television-commercial image of what life is like in Canadian society.” As a result, he said, many of those students became disinterested and fell behind in their studies.

Care: As critics make those charges, school systems across the country are also experiencing the effects of such sweeping social changes as a dramatic increase in the number of children in

day care —more than

220,000 children across the country. And many of them are enrolled in provincially registered centres where certified day care teachers help them develop reading and writing skills — sometimes as early as age 2. As a result, many public schools have upgraded curricula for beginners, but that may leave youngsters who lacked preschool training in basic literacy skills lagging even further behind.

And many elementary pupils now know how to use devices such as calculators and computers.

In British Columbia,

ministry of education officials have recommended a $125-million program that would almost quadruple the number of computers for student use— placing 30,000 machines in classrooms

across the province as

early as 1992.

But some parents say that the schools are placing too much emphasis on career preparation. Among them is Marilyn Worth, the mother of two Dartmouth, N.S., children entering Grades 7 and 10 this fall. Declared Worth: “The whole of society seems to think that if you go to school and don’t immediately get a job, then somehow you have failed.” And Ann Elsdon, an English professor at a Montreal community college, complained that many of her students were interested only in knowledge

that would help them get a good, highpaying job. Said Elsdon: “You get a class with some students who do not see why they should have to read books not related to accounting or electronics. The important thing to them is getting their careers organized. They want to earn money.” Focus: That narrow focus distresses Toronto’s Manguel. Still, he said he believes that the current generation of job-oriented students can be fired with a desire for learning for its own sake. Declared Manguel: “Once you show them what is available—that these periods of history existed, that our civilization came along this road—they are delighted and excited.” The challenge, according to Manguel, Chicago’s Bloom and other critics, is clear: unless students learn how to think as well as prepare themselves for jobs, that rich cultural heritage will be lost forever.