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Time for realistic dialogue on education

JOHN R. WIENS

AS an outspoken critic of the now deceased Bill 64, I am often asked three related questions. First, was there nothing good about the bill? ( Nothing significant or new: most of it is just unrealistic and misguided.)

Second, are you saying the status quo in schools is OK? ( No, but this bill did not address the real issues, and it’s dangerous to throw out the good with the bad.)

And third, what would you suggest? ( A fundamental reimagining of schooling based on good evidence and common sense.)

Bill 64 got almost everything wrong — a missed opportunity to get important things right, including the process of determining what makes sense to parents, educators and the general public.

I would propose a meaningful, not time-bound, somewhat continuous public discussion (not government- rigged consultation) open to all without a preset end point. Why? Because the current system, while failing in some aspects, is not in crisis. There is no “status quo” — it is constantly being upgraded and renewed by trustees, administrators, teachers and school personnel.

If there is a weakness in the current system, it is a shortage of public engagement and commitment to public education. But as the reaction to Bill 64 attests, it is not from lack of interest or conviction.

The most glaring omission in the K-12 Commission Report, Bill 64 and BEST (Better Education Starts Today), the implementation document, is the absence of any preamble about why we educate our children and why we use schools to do so. What are the purposes of public education that most of us could agree on, are prepared to pursue by making schooling compulsory and are willing to pay taxes to achieve?

Put another way, what is it we want for our children as a result of their being in our schools, and what do we hope for them when they have finished compulsory schooling?

Education, like democracy, is a human activity that grows stale and old without continuous critique and renewal, and reminders about why we decided to embrace its ideals, ideas, actions and strategies in the first place. Our children need to learn why democracy was fought for and chosen among the many ways of governing people’s lives together, and how we get to keep it.

Our early leaders chose the democratic ideal because it provides room for everyone, encouraging all to consider themselves member-citizens of this very open public club, inviting them to bring their individual ideas to the table to help design and shape what our living together harmoniously and beneficially might look like, and confirming that in order for this to work as it should, we all have to take responsibility and play a part.

We have yet to achieve this lofty ideal to a point of fulfilment, but the ongoing effort is worth it.

Compulsory schooling — public education — was what was put in place to ensure that our striving and longing for democracy would not be lost from generation to generation. Granted, compulsory schooling was also intended to prepare young people for careers and economic participation, and to look after our children while their parents went to work.

Nevertheless, and although challenged from time to time, the greatest imperative of schooling remains to prepare children to accept the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, participating in making better our living together where everyone is acknowledged, valued and necessary.

Children are not born with the desire to consider others, to be part of and to welcome a larger collection of people very often unlike them, to know how to act among different others, and to be willing to make personal sacrifices on behalf of a greater good. They must be taught the habits, mores, conventions, codes and obligations, as well as benefits and joys of citizenship. That is primarily the responsibility of public schools.

But this is not a responsibility of schools and teachers alone — they could not possibly do this by themselves, no matter how sophisticated, skilled and committed they are. For a comprehensive education, we need all of society to be the educators of the young.

The demise of Bill 64 is a good lesson in democracy. Let’s not let that lesson go to waste by abandoning our intentions to make our schools better and by abrogating our responsibilities as citizens to help with that never-ending project. Let’s start with a public dialogue about what we want from our public schools. We can, collectively, be trusted with this important task.

John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.

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