From Mike Lushington
Whither Public Education?
Coincident with the writing of my column for last week, I happened to catch an interview on CBC's afternoon program, Shift, with a gentleman whose name escapes me (I was driving at the time and they do say that it is not a good idea to try to find pen, paper and time to write while doing so). The host of the program introduced him as an international expert on public education who had been invited to come to New Brunswick to have a look at our public education system and to make specific recommendations for its betterment. It was clear, after a very few minutes into the interview that he was familiar with our specific system and its problems; it turned out that this was the latest in a series of formal consultations with the provincial government and the Department of Education.
He had a great deal to say, all of it thoughtful and direct. Two thoughts pervaded, though: one of them is that the problems being faced in New Brunswick are not particular to this jurisdiction but very similar to those across Canada and, indeed, around the world. The second developed directly from the first - we are all expecting too much from our education systems.This dovetails directly with what I wrote last week. We cannot expect our education system to be all things to all people, nor can we expect it to address all the issues and concerns with which it is currently besieged, not if we wish for quality in our students.
Although I have been retired from the public school system for nearly nine years now, I have maintained contact with students through the first and second year university courses that I have been teaching for St. Thomas and UNB. Students are students - kids are kids. They haven't changed over the years. Some of them come to these courses brimming with ideas and ideals, others with a great deal of uncertainty, still others with a burden of expectation (passed along by parents and old teachers) that they are not at all certain they wish to fulfill. In these things, nothing has changed. But there has been change, and it has not been for the good.
I am not talking about an inability to spell, or to write a coherent sentence. In al honesty, I do not see a significant decline in the mechanics of writing, nor has there been any significant improvement. The change, the decline, that concerns me is with their inability to think about, to process, to assimilate, and to evaluate ideas. They are pretty good at remembering and regurgitating facts, but processes that demand that they consider a concept and relate it to another, perhaps from a different context, are foreign to them. They have similar problems evaluating the validity or worth of an idea. I maintain that these are important intellectual skills and that they have been seriously neglected in their education to that point.
It is not that they are incapable, nor are they to blame. They simply have not been given the opportunity to develop these abilities to this point in their education.
My ongoing experiences with these young people leads me to the question for consideration: What, in fact, is it that we require from our education system? Do we want to graduate students who have been superficially exposed to a wide variety of concerns - academic, physical, health-related, social or whatever - or do we begin to consider what it is that a high school (for example) might be able to do best, and then provide it with the opportunity to do that. If we decide that academic excellence is something that we should be concerned about at times other than when test results come in, then we need to take steps toward achieving that goal. Obviously, if we do that, something else will have to go - and I would like to consider that concern next week.