His Excellency John Ralston Saul
"Struggling for Balance:
Public Education and Civil Society"
University of Calgary
March 25, 2003
The Chancellor, Dean, ladies and gentlemen.
As many of you know, I have always claimed Calgaryas one of my hometowns.
I was christened here. Began school here. Came here to help to set up
Petro Canada as the assistant to its first president, Maurice Strong.
In fact, I was Petro Canada 's second employee. Whenever I come to Calgary,
it is with the real pleasure of, in a sense, coming home.
This week is particularly exciting because my wife and I are at the beginning
of a two-year process in which we are hoping to invent – if you will forgive
a slight overstatement – a new sort of discussion about the lives of Canadians
at the municipal level. We are hoping, in a series of cities, to bring
together citizens in order to examine what it is to live in the good city at
the beginning of the 21st century in Canada.
If we are going to undertake an in-depth two year-long urban visit across the
country, Calgaryis in many ways the best city in which to start.
One of the interesting things about this city is that it is very different
from what it imagines itself to be. Many people, for example, will describe
Calgaryas being the city most oriented towards the American way of life; the
Canadian city the most matched to the North American view of the world.
In fact, it is one of the most international thinking cities in the country
– along with Vancouver. It's also a city which has particularly strong
links to other cities in the rest of the country. It is also a city which is,
far less than many of the others, cut off from the land which surrounds it.
Interestingly enough, while it is a profoundly Western place, it is also one
of the leading cities on a per-capita basis from the point of view of enrolment
in French immersion schooling. One of the particularly interesting characteristics
of Calgaryis that it has a great tradition of volunteerism. I personally
think it is important to point out that volunteerism is just another way of
saying citizenship, or responsible individualism.
Perhaps more problematic, it continues to have real difficulties in reconciling
its own longstanding ideas of the public good with its also longstanding belief
that this is the city which stands for a pure idea of market economic theories.
As a result, it is often in contradiction with itself, which is interesting.
There's nothing wrong with being in contradiction with yourself. You just have
to know you are.
I'm very glad to be spending the whole of today in different parts of the University.
I've just had a fascinating meeting with the President and a group of professors,
talking about the importance of bilingual – indeed trilingual – education.
What we've been discussing is whether or not Canada 's universities have adapted
themselves to the reality of our school system, which now has some 324,000 students
in French immersion systems. If you add in the first-language francophone
students outside of Quebec, this means that we are now educating, in French,
outside of Quebec, some half million students. That means we are graduating
some 30,000 to 40,000 students per year - graduates who represent the future
critical mass of bilingual/trilingual Canadians. I say critical mass because
they are students who will be able to help the rest of us undertake a national
debate. They are also the students who will play a leading role in our
international efforts, whether they be artistic, economic or diplomatic.
The difficulty today is that while our public school system is graduating these
young multilingual students, our universities have not yet adapted themselves
to this new reality. As citizens, we have all invested emotionally and
financially in the creation of this critical mass of bilingual Canadians.
We must not discourage them at the university level. Indeed, if we do
not continue their development through university, they will have lost many
of their skills by the time they are ready to enter into the career stage of
their lives. In other words, it is now time for the universities to begin
assuming the obligations and opportunities which will come quite naturally from
building upon this school level multilingualism.
I think it's worth pointing out that these linguistic and cultural skills are
a great deal more than mere linguistics. They have to do with the ability
of young citizens to imagine the other. This is the classic philosophical
conundrum. Civilization can almost be defined as our ability to imagine
the other. We have two languages and two cultures. With two languages
there is a reasonable chance that you can already imagine one other, someone
who is different from you. That sets you on the road to imagining a third
possibility and a fourth.
I've come to this hall today to talk with you about public education and its
purposes. Let me begin by quoting the great Bob Edwards, that strange
and funny Calgaryjournalist. You are here in a university and you're therefore
in a place where you're continually told that you must try to rise to the top;
that you must increasingly push yourselves into narrower and narrower specializations
in order to be at the top of the very narrow chimney of your specialization.
This is not only true at the University of
Calgary . It's happening in universities all over Canada
, all over North America. And "Before congratulating yourself when you
come out on top", Bob Edwards used to put it, "bear in mind that the froth of
a glass of beer does the same."
This was put slightly differently by a famous Renaissance French Prime Minister
when he said: "Plus monte le singe, mieux on voit son cul."
This is a subtle way of saying that being the best isn't always exactly what
it appears to be. In some ways, it may be what the surface suggests.
You may indeed turn out to be a Nobel Prize winner admired around the world
who also reads poetry, has a happy, married life and brings up her children
well. This could happen.
On the other hand, it may not. You may lead a more normal life and if
you do, it's unlikely that this vision, this sort of tunnel, chimney, vertical
vision of education and knowledge and rising to the top will actually apply
to the real way in which life is going to work out for you.
And so, what I'm going to talk about today is the role of education in the
context of the real world. That's not to say that you shouldn't try to
be the best and rise to the top, but it has to go in concert with many other
What we've seen over the last decade is the rise of a certain sort of discourse
– a discourse which is about a very extreme and narrow dream. Curiously
enough, it is also contradictory. It is a discourse which on the one hand
says – try to be the best, rise to the top – but on the other hand it says
we, your society, don't have the time or the money to offer you a lot of complications
on your road towards complexity. In other words, the discourse says be
smart and be stupid at the same time. In other words, get specialized, get trained,
get a job. Don't think.
Nobody ever really seems to notice that there is a central contradiction in
these two parallel discourses. You can't both be the best and simply get
trained at the same time, because the best is very complicated and training
is simply the traditional 19th Century early industrial revolution
approach towards producing employees. Getting trained is a throwback to
an 1890s approach towards public education.
Of course, we do need specialized education. We need all of the astonishing
breakthroughs that we've made in remarkably complex and narrow areas.
We know so much more than we've ever known before. But we have to be careful
not to be victimized by these explosions in new knowledge. We can't be
victimized into believing that because everything has become so much more complicated,
therefore each of us can only know about very narrow areas. None of us
can ever finish a sentence which somehow deals with broader issues. If
we can't finish those sentences, we can't actually be citizens, for the simple
reason that we will have allowed ourselves to be cut up into tiny vertical slices.
We will have disallowed ourselves from commenting on anything outside of our
area of expertise. You might almost describe this as a form of fear; fear
that we will be trespassing in the areas of other people's expertise.
The fear of trespassing; the fear of speaking outside of narrow chimneys –
that is the reality of today's intellectual leadership. A leadership which
denies the possibility of leadership. To put this in very concrete terms,
there are many forms of illiteracy. I would argue that the most dangerous
form of illiteracy in western civilization today – and by that, I don't mean
Western Canada, but western civilization at large – is the illiteracy of the
elites. Increasingly and whether you like it or not, because you are in
universities or graduates of universities, you are part of what could be described
as a functioning elite. You're getting the education which gives you the
obligation to provide the language of leadership relating to your areas of expertise,
but also well beyond those areas.
Fortunately in Canada our elite structures are extremely porous. That,
in and of itself, is an invitation to you to reach beyond your areas of narrow
expertise in order to make broader sense. That is one of the strengths
of the country. And we have to keep it that way as much as possible. But
that does not lessen the problem we are faced with today – which is that people
who have a very fine education in a narrow area are becoming increasingly functionally
illiterate in most other areas.
You only have to look at what these people read and what they discuss in order
to be able to say that they – perhaps you – are not literate. You have
to ask yourself the question – do you know anything about any other area except
your own? If you don't, then it is a major problem for civilization, because
civilization is horizontal. It is about the integrated relationships between
people and things.
If you try to build civilization on the basis of vertical isolated chimneys
of knowledge, what you produce will not hold together. What's more, the
higher you rise in expertise, the more fragile the civilization will become
because it will consist of these tall, spindly chimneys with people desperately
staying inside them, climbing up those metals rungs inside, getting higher and
higher while the thing is waving more and more precariously back and forth,
each of them a danger to the other, but with no relationship to the other.
If one falls over, it knocks down many of the chimneys around it.
This is a dangerous and false model for civilization. High education is not
civilization. It is merely one of the parts with which you can build a
civilization. We need to have both the vertical specialization and the
great horizontal linkages. It is those linkages which allow the vertical
specialization to make sense. It is those linkages which allow civilization
work; which to make it both solid and imaginative and intelligent in the full
sense of that word.
Now, let me step back from that and say something to you which I've said before.
One of the particularities of Canada is that we are one of the oldest continual
democracies in the world – the second or third oldest. Most political
social scientists put Belgium first, Britain second and Canada third.
They don't include the United States until well into the 20th Century
because a slave-based society is problematic on such a list. They put
various other Commonwealth countries immediately after Canada on the way down
the list. That's the way many social scientists do it.
For myself, I usually put Canada second based on the percentage of eligible
voters in the middle of the 19th Century. Britain had a much
lower level than Canada because of the relationship between voter qualifications
and the resulting right to act as a citizen.
A second peculiarity about this democracy is that we are a naturally poor country
– northern, isolated, with a difficult climate, and so on. Even to grow
wheat successfully, we had to invent the sort of wheat we could grow.
That need to develop even agricultural species specific to our place is a good
reminder of the fact that we intellectually constructed our prosperity just
as we intellectually constructed the well-being of this country. And most
important, we intellectually constructed the democratic methods of this country.
Canada is an idea, an experiment put in place slowly, which has gradually turned
us into a prosperous middle class society.
We didn't simply become rich by living in an easy, mid-range economy.
We didn't simply become a middle class and then democratic. We invented
ourselves as a society and that invention produced a form of stable democracy
and then stable prosperity. One of the principal ways in which we invented
ourselves was that all the leaders who stood for democracy – and brought about
democracy – in the middle of the 19th Century in Canada were precisely
the same people who stood for universal public education. The people who
invented Canadian democracy believed that universal public education was a simile
In the history of Canada , democracy and public education go together.
They have been together from the very moment that the democratic idea took form
in Canada . They have been inseparable for 155 years. Universal
public education is not an accident. It's not episodic. It's not
something you get over or grow out of. It's not something we inherited
from another country.
In fact, the original models of public education in this country were very
carefully put together after international research trips taken by our leaders
in the middle of the 19th Century. We are, according to standard
discourse, a society based upon British and French society, British and French
law, and of course English democracy. In fact, our leaders went around
and specifically rejected the English and French systems of education.
They rejected the American system except for some small influences from New
York State, most of which no longer exist in New
York State . And they
built the Canadian public education system on the basis of influences found
in Switzerland , Prussia and Holland. These were the three major influences
in the construction of the Canadian public education system. If you go
back to Ryerson and Meilleur, you will find all of this very carefully laid
What we did, we did in a very conscious and careful manner. I am insisting
on this because we have been fiddling with public education in Canada for the
last decade; fiddling as if there were no fundamental assumptions essential
to the way Canadian democracy works and is related to public education.
If you go back to the arguments for an egalitarian society made by the fathers
of Canadian democracy – Joseph Howe, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Robert Baldwin
and so on – you will find that their arguments for egalitarianism were intimately
tied to their idea of public education. For example, in the Adresse aux
Électeurs de Terrebonne of LaFontaine of August 28, 1840 – the public declaration
which is effectively the intellectual foundation stone of Canadian democracy
– he made a point of including a paragraph which began: "L'éducation est
le premier bienfait qu'un gouvernement puisse conférer à un peuple." "Education
is the first public good that a government can confer upon a people."
That integrated view of democracy and public education quite naturally spread
out to the Prairies because the Prairie tradition was very clearly linked to
an egalitarian approach. You will find this intricately laid out in the
farmers' movement of the first 20 years of the 20th Century.
Those Prairie provinces took a slightly different approach by including
such other elements as cooperativism. In effect, they strengthened the
ideas of the mid-19th Century by adding into them a whole new layer
of cooperative egalitarian structures.
Of course, there were some influences from the western United States .
There were also some influences from Scottish immigrants. Equally important,
there were and are Aboriginal and Métis influences on the Prairies, which are
never talked about in terms of mainstream education and democracy. Yet
these were very important and longstanding. They were central to the egalitarian
ideas which would develop in the Prairie provinces ; you could even
argue that they were important to the cooperative idea. It should also
be said that in Western Canada the influence of the disciples of Joseph
Howe who had moved west from Nova Scotia has been very under-rated.
I could spend a great deal of time quoting from the original School Acts of
the Canadian provinces. If you don't mind, I'll just quote from the 1872
School Act of British Columbia. In the introduction there is a key line:
"The purpose of public education is to give every child in the province such
knowledge as will fit him – of course, they were missing 52 percent of the population
and it took them a little while to notice that failure – as will fit him
to become a useful – and at this point, you think, ah-ha, utilitarianism, but
then it goes on – a useful and intelligent citizen."
In other words, at a time when this was a very poor, marginal, third- or fourth-rate
colony out in the middle of nowhere, the people of British Columbia were already
thinking to themselves that they could afford a public education system, the
principal purpose of which was the creation of citizens.
Of course, they hoped they'd prosper afterwards. No doubt they assumed
that this creation of citizens would lead to business, to economic activity.
But the key lies in public education as the tool for creating active citizens.
Public education leads to public debate, to public involvement, to citizens
who see themselves in a public light. And that fits right into the great
Prairie tradition of cooperativism. We always say in Calgary that this
is a city of volunteerism. People ask themselves, where does this come
from? The principal source is the 19th and early 20th
Century Prairie traditions of cooperativism, which has evolved from the Maritime,
Upper and Lower Canadian traditions of egalitarian democracy.
That tradition took one direction in Calgary, another in Edmonton, another
in Regina, another in Saskatoon, another Winnipeg. But at their base,
those five cities and the smaller cities and rural areas around them are linked
by this agreement about the nature of citizenship. It is very important
not to slip into a misunderstanding about more recently arrived industries and
their approaches towards individualism. The idea that Calgary is a great
volunteer town is the modern expression of the original farmers' movement which
defined this area and in the process all of Canada in the early 20th
So beware of recent bizarre assertions that Albertans are driven by an extreme
form of individualism which no one else understands expect, perhaps, a few Americans;
that Albertans are individualistic in a manner unlike any other Canadians; that
they are driven more by self-interest than others and come to their volunteerism
through their self-interest. This simply is not an accurate description of the
remarkable civilization which has been put in place in this province.
Alberta is a place which belongs firmly in the cooperative tradition.
As a result, it has a long tradition of strong public services, including universal
public education. The idea that people here are principally driven by
self-interest in fact has no roots here and is destructive to the social structures
which you have put in place carefully over a century.
It's a very long tradition in Alberta, the tradition of social
involvement and of social policies. It cuts across all political lines.
To believe that people are principally driven by self-interest is to fall into
a marginal trap of false individualism which says that selfishness is the way
to go if you want to create a civilization; and if we make a mess, well, we'll
always have charity to clean it up later on. Volunteerism is not charity.
Volunteerism is about becoming an involved citizen. Remember, charity
as we now understand it is largely a partial solution invented in the late 19th Century
to deal in an inadequate manner with massive social problems created by an industrial
revolution which was creating dangerous instability in its own society.
Giving is a good thing. It is an essential thing. But it has to
be tied to citizen activity; that is to volunteerism and to democratic government.
In other words, there is a triangle: the citizen volunteers to take part,
citizens have an impact on their public structures and the citizens give money
through both their taxes and as individuals voluntarily. It is a triangle
and all of the pieces work together.
Secondly, beware of the idea that the purpose of education is to create a meritocracy;
that we're all going to become the best. Of course, we do want to strive
for the best, but the concept of a meritocracy is essentially anti-democratic
and historically is tied to anti-democratic states. If you go back and
read through the social sciences, philosophy and political history, you'll find
that the whole concept of the meritocracy has its modern birth in the Napoleonic
idea of the state. Hitler was a great believer in meritocracy versus democracy.
It has at its heart the idea that those at the top will pick out the best from
the mass of the population and bring them in to the top and that small group
will run society. The result is the opposite of what is intended.
Societies based upon the meritocratic idea rapidly become increasingly mediocre.
Why? Because the more you pick out the best, the narrower the band becomes
and the more you cut yourself off from the intelligence of the population at
large – from the collective unconscious – you cut yourself off from the great,
broad intelligence which lies in the complexity of the civilization. The
brilliance of broad-based inclusive democracies is that we wallow in our inefficiency.
We wallow in the inefficiency of talking among ourselves and of being open to
ourselves. That process allows us to reach down and pick out the best
whenever we want, wherever we want.
A meritocracy, on the other hand, will build a pyramidal society which eliminates
people and becomes increasingly inflexible. It appears to work for a few
decades. It looks to those who are choosing the best as if their society
is becoming better and better and better. Suddenly, those in charge look
down and realize that there are only a few of them and it's not going anywhere.
Suddenly they realize that their system is fragile because it isolates the elites.
It is our wallowing in the delightful and essential inefficiencies of broad-based
democracy, which admittedly takes time, but which also allows us to get the
best and to reach out to everything which society has to offer.
Beware thirdly of the fragility of an exclusively linear view of society.
Yesterday, we were at a place called the Back Door, which is a small NGO dedicated
to helping street kids re-enter society. We had a remarkable conversation
with a group of young men and women. What became clear from talking with
them – it was a sort of existential conversation – was just how resilient they
were. Fragile, but resilient. Resilient because they've been knocked
down more times than probably anyone else in this room. They have been
knocked down and got back up, knocked down and got back up, knocked down and
got back up.
And when they come through that long process of getting off the streets, they
have become incredibly resilient citizens. They may not go on to become
PhDs, but they're very interesting in terms of the challenges of life.
They have a lot to teach people in universities, a lot to teach people like
What I was hearing from them was a very profound argument against the narrow,
linear view of education. I'm not suggesting you all go onto the street
in order to prepare yourselves to earn your PhDs. What I'm saying is that
there is something much more complicated about life than simply becoming a specialist
in an area. The people I am describing to you end up with very strong
dexterity, both from an emotional and an intellectual point of view.
Let me add that last night we spent the evening with a group of people who
range between 35 and 45 years of age. These were successful Calgarians
looking for a new way to become involved in the volunteerism of society.
Their organization is called Social Venture Partnerships. It is an interesting
new kind of mix. Yes, they want to give money, but they are not all that
interested in the old-fashioned charity approach. They would rather pick
out causes in which they could become personally involved as advisors and participants.
And in addition, they would give money.
Their work represents two parts of the triangle: citizen involvement
plus personally giving money. The third is that government is also giving
money through taxes – in fact, most of the public service money. One does
not eliminate the necessity of the other. You need to pay as many taxes
as you possibly can in addition to giving more money in specific areas which
personally interest you. It is not said enough that one of the great glories
of a democracy is that you show how successful you are by paying taxes.
I've never really understood why people thought it was a sign of success to
avoid paying taxes. You don't even really show your success by driving an expensive
car. You can get that on credit, the way you can get a house on a mortgage
or you can buy clothes on credit. If you want to prove to people that
you are successful, then all you have to do is publish your tax bill, providing
it shows that you're paying a lot of taxes.
That is actually a Renaissance idea. The Renaissance city-states of northern
Italy had a great deal of m'as-tu vu?, hey, look at me. I pay more
than you do in taxes. I've built more than you've built for this city.
I've done more than you've done. Admittedly, it was showing off, but
at least it was showing off your contributions to the public good.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying: beware of education as narrow,
meritocratic training. Education comes in many forms. It is a very
odd idea that the Canadian society of the 19th Century – an extremely
poor society – believed that it had the time and the money to think about and
set about creating citizens. And here we are, one of the richest civilizations
per capita seen in the history of the world, living 50 to 80 percent longer
than we've ever lived before, and what is the dominant line? We don't
have time for broad education. We don't have time for ethics or history
or civics. We've got to get trained fast in order to get a job fast.
We're acting as if we're still dying at the age of 50, as we did in 1900.
We're acting increasingly as if we were becoming poorer and as if there were
only enough money in our society to get ourselves trained in order to get on
with a narrow utilitarian approach towards life.
Actually, we've never had so much time and we've never had so much money. There
is indeed time to get trained. There's time to get educated vertically.
There is more importantly time to get educated in a broad and an inclusive manner.
There's an enormous amount of time. What's the point of retiring at age
55 and going off to visit empty churches in buses? Do you really imagine
your lives divided almost in half, the first half being active and interesting
and the second half being a slow death of non-involvement in the reality of
your society? Are you planning on spending the last 35 years of your life
wandering aimlessly around the world in a golden sunset? If that's golden,
I think I would prefer a shorter lifespan.
For the first time in history, you have the time, the money, and the health
to be a citizen in a democracy, to be educated, to be an expert and to be involved.
Of course, this is largely a student audience and there's no doubt that current
policies across Canada are making you poorer for the first part of your lives
because of the rising cost of education. I will come back to that.
But let me just point out that while you're poor, it's interesting to think
consciously about what you nevertheless have the time and energy to do.
What you are discovering is that in spite of being poor, you actually have a
lot of time. Time to give to your society as citizens. It's very important
to get used to volunteering, to being obstreperous publicly as citizens at a
time when you don't have any money. I would suggest that it's important
to get used to the idea, that you can devote at least a quarter of your time
to this sort of public involvement while you don't have any money. If
you get used to that, you'll be able to resist the idea, which will appear later
on when you are making money, that you no longer have the time for such non-self
interest based activities. There will be a lot of people saying that to
you. In truth, it's all a matter of mindset and civic culture.
In fact, if you get used to public involvement while you're poor, then you'll
probably find yourself doing more and more as time goes on. One of the
reasons is that you may well get bored making money. There's nothing wrong
with making money, but it isn't the most exciting activity known to human beings.
The really exciting stuff usually has to do with being involved in your society.
I meet people endlessly who have entered into their middle age and suddenly
woken up, saying to themselves that yes, they are a success, but they feel awful
because they're not doing anything that really interests them. In effect,
they wake up feeling bored, which is one of the worst things to happen to a
successful human being – it is a sense that you have wasted the first half of
your life on the secondary activities. The smart ones get involved and
act as citizens. I'm suggesting that you should be getting involved right
now. I think a lot of you probably already are, if the NGO involvement
of students is anything to go by. In other words, time is no excuse.
Get used to giving public time while you are still poor.
Now, let me come to the question of the cost of university education.
I accepted this invitation before I knew about the events of the last few weeks
and of this week; before I knew that you were all caught up in a discussion
over student fees and differential fees and so on. I had already planned
to talk about this, without knowing what your precise situation was.
So you should take my comments as being both general to what is happening across
Canada and, if they fit, specific to this university. It's very important
to have a debate inside our universities about the real long-term implications
of tuition policies.
What I would argue is that for completely extraneous and artificial reasons,
universities across Canada have slipped down a road which is atypical in terms
of how we fund our universities. I shouldn't say slipped perhaps.
A more appropriate word would be pushed. This is an artificial road which
has nothing to do with the Canadian tradition that I was talking about a little
earlier. In fact, the Canadian tradition would have taken us in another
direction. But there's a wave going across the country, carrying all of
the universities in more or less the same direction.
I'm not saying that there is no such thing as individual responsibility.
What I'm saying is that the problem goes well beyond the arguments which are
taking place on particular campuses. If you don't draw back from your
campus and ask yourself why this is happening, where this is coming from, then
it becomes difficult to understand the force of current events. I'm sure
that the Chancellor, who is with us today, has been involved in thinking about
those forces, about our ability to weigh real options. Why then does it
increasingly appear that the only available choice from the point of view of
university after university is to move towards the American model of expensive
I would argue that there are series of arguments and assumptions which have
slowly dug themselves into Canadian society. And now they are carrying
us off in the wrong direction.
First, I would say that we are suffering from the results of a particular accounting
system – a particular approach towards public accounts which is both artificial
and false and is very destructive to the public good in Canada .
I'll come back to that.
Secondly, there has been a failure of government which has found itself unable
to imagine a way to continue along the line of 155 years of universal public
education in Canada . And so, at all of its levels, in all of its areas,
governments have been increasingly dragged off track by forces which are not
quite understood nor analysed.
Third, I think we are increasingly suffering from the belief that governments
will function better if they get advice from outside. As a result we
have gradually shut down public interest advisory groups which are tied – even
if at arm's length – to public institutions. This has left us dependent
on what is called independent advice coming from outside.
That independent advice tends to come from consultancy firms. This is
an international business which presents itself in a neutral manner. Of
course, I intend no offence to consultants on a personal basis, but it should
be said that consultancy is just the latest word for lobbying. And lobbying
was just the latest word for being a courtier. There is no real difference
between your smooth consultant today and your smooth junior count standing outside
the door of a grand duke at Versailles. There is no fundamental philosophical
difference. They're in the business of selling ideas for money.
At that point in the argument you have to ask yourself whether or not their
advice is therefore in any way independent. After all, where do their
ideas come from? If you analyse the international consultancy business,
if you really dig down through their management method assumptions and
all that comes with them, what you will find yourself faced with are the roots
of an approach developed in the small number of universities in a small part
of a single country. They are private universities, largely based in the
northeast of our neighbour to the south.
Their assumptions – the assumptions of their theoretically neutral advice –
are based upon an entirely different system of government and education; a system
in which public services are not particularly admired; in which universal public
education is considered to be a relative failure in western democratic terms.
Remember that there are approximately 20 democracies in what is loosely called
western civilization. Endless studies are done about the state of education
in these 20 odd countries. We are constantly asking ourselves questions
about levels of literacy, levels of participation, levels of higher education
and so on. At the heart of these questions lies the desire to know how
many students lie above the acceptable line and how many fall below.
In the most recent study, Canada came out number four with five percent of
our students below the line. Reassure yourselves, I don't really believe
any of these studies. But I suppose we should take them as general indicators
of the situation. Britain was number seven with 9.4 percent of their students
below the line.
The United States was 18 with 16.2 percent of their students below the line.
If you were to add up all of the comparative studies done of western inclusive
education systems over the last few decades, you would find that, generally
speaking, Canada comes out somewhere in the top five and the United States comes
out somewhere in the bottom five. In other words, if there is one country
which we should not be looking to for ideas in the reform of our education system,
it is our close friend to the south. They in effect have one of the most
problematic public education systems of the 20 odd western democracies.
I'm not saying that nothing works there. From the meritocratic point of
view, they have some real success stories. But on average, their systems
are not the systems which are admired throughout the western democracies.
And yet, by drawing increasingly upon the independent advice sold by
consultants, we find ourselves inextricably and unconsciously drawn into the
maelstrom of an artificially imposed debate which suggests that our system is
not doing well. In fact, what they really mean is that the system which
influences most the consultants – the American system – is not doing well.
And so you will constantly hear how badly our public education system is doing
when actually it's doing not too badly at all. All the numbers show that
our system has problems but is nevertheless functioning not too badly in its
own terms, and pretty well in international comparative terms.
Now, if you add to the advice coming from those consultants, the advice coming
from the independent think tanks which are funded by interest groups in order
to think independently on their behalf, you will have a reaffirmation of the
panicked idea that we are living in a maelstrom of educational failure.
And the two together will increasingly encourage us to go seriously off track.
Off track? In Ontario, a recent study has been done upon
the effect on the accessibility of medical schools of 14,000-dollar a year tuition
fees. What they have found is that the combined incomes of the parents
of first-year medical students is now 100,000 dollars. In other words,
in this egalitarian society imagined by Howe and LaFontaine and Baldwin and
the farmers' movement in Alberta and wonderful people like Peter
Lougheed and so on, suddenly we have a medical education system which on the
basis of the incomes of the parents eliminates probably 85 percent of the population
from going to medical school. In 19th Century classic social
science terms, this is what is called a class society. I am using the
word class in the sense of upper, middle and lower. It is a class society
model when you eliminate people through money.
It is not a reply to this problem to suggest that there are scholarships and
bursaries ready to help those who are eliminated. The bursary approach
is a reaffirmation of the 19th Century model. If you are very
smart, you will get a scholarship. And if you are very poor, you'll get
a bursary because we are charitable. That is the 19th Century
model. But we are a middle-class society and the broad sweep of our society
lies in the middle. Most of us don't fit into either category as potential
Nobel Prize winners or as extremely poor. But there we are, and we are
left out of this 19th Century model. That's why you end up
with an average of 25,000-dollar debt loads for students across the country.
That's why medical students have debt loads of 60,000 to 100,000 dollars.
That's why in the Maritimes and among aboriginals, debt loads are regularly
in the 60,000 to 100,000-dollar range.
The effect of these debt levels across the country is the exact opposite to
that which is imagined. It does not encourage students to become tougher;
to learn how tough life is and so get on with things. If anything, it
will tend to make them think that they cannot afford to take risks, because
they are going to come out of school with the equivalent of a mortgage, but
not a house.
Instead of going out and taking risks, they are more likely to become employees.
They are more likely to become passive, because passivity is the best way to
pay off your debts. A calm and stable employment is the easiest way to
pay off your debts. A risk-oriented free market approach towards your
career is the most dangerous way to attempt to pay off your debts. In
any case, you're unlikely to be able to fund that sort of risk-oriented career
when you're already deeply in debt at the time of graduation. And by the
time these debts have been paid off, it isn't clear whether the graduate will
still have the hunger to go out and take those risks. Or will they have
become used to the calmer, more stable life of the employee?
In the United Kingdom they have had an argument about how to fund education.
The outcome was this: a better way of dealing with the relative costs
of different parts of education was not differential fees for future lawyers
and doctors, but instead an agreement on a specific dedicated tax after graduation;
this tax being tied to a percentage of income to be paid to the university.
In other words, the concept is not one of debt; nor is it one of humiliation.
It isn't intended to tie the student graduate down. Instead, it says that
once you are a functioning citizen with financial success, you will be paying
an appropriate percentage of your income for a number of years. In other
words, it's a form of dedicated taxation.
And so if doctors do well and if lawyers do well and management graduates do
well, they will pay afterwards, when they are doing well. Now, that is
a sensible approach towards encouraging people to go out and to take risks and
to be active individuals. It's an interesting idea which doesn't seem
to be being debated in Canada . Why? I suppose because it isn't
part of the model of those independent think tanks and those consultants.
It's not in their model because their model comes from those few universities
in that small area in the nation-state to our south. Why are they not
thinking about this approach? Because for a very long time, they have
been used to the idea of very high fees in private universities and they are
passing this idea along to us as if we have the same sort of system.
What I am suggesting today is something which I've said a number of times before.
But I've learned in life that it's worth repeating yourself. There are
about 20 western democracies. In 18 of them, undergraduate education is
either free or extremely cheap. In two of them, it isn't. The United
States , which is the exception to the rule, has gone in the direction of both
private education and extremely expensive education for a critical mass of people,
commonly known as the elite. Canada , which was moving for a very long
time in the direction of the other 18, is now slipping, backwards, towards the
regressive system which is used in one of the most problematic public education
systems to be found in the western democracies.
Let me add to this that in the 18 other western democracies, the system which
assumes that public university education should be free or cheap doesn't seem
to be leading to failure. Japan is not falling apart. Japanese students
do not seem to be unable to deliver in their careers. French university
graduates do not appear to be degenerate. German university graduates
do not seem to be lazy. The Scandinavians seem to work just as hard as
we do. The Italians and the Spanish have extremely interesting approaches
towards business and particularly towards regional government. Nobody
seems to be running up against any fundamental problems because they must fund
and produce interesting graduates through a system which is either free or relatively
cheap for the students.
Let me look at this from a slightly different perspective. Trace the
rise of universal public education in Canada. In the beginning, they felt
they could afford the first five or six years of education from the public purse.
Then, as the 19th Century moved on, so the universal and
free aspect of education rose until it reached the end of high school.
Then, in the 20th Century, we began to open the doors of our universities
wider and wider. Our approach was to charge, but not to charge too much.
I am making two points here. First: the direction in which we were
headed was towards the gradual inclusion of undergraduate education inside the
universal free public education model. Second: had you graduated
from Grade 12 in 1900, putting aside some specialist areas such as medicine,
you would have been eligible for approximately the same sort of job that you
can get today with an undergraduate degree. So indeed, the logical progression
of universal public education in Canada would be that an undergraduate degree
became either free of tuition or close to free of tuition.
What's more, that would be a continuation of the idea that this is an inclusive
society. It would also be a continuation of the idea that this inclusivity
involves bringing a large number of immigrants to Canada with the expectation
that they will quickly become involved and successful citizens. It would
also be consistent with the idea that we attempt to maintain flexibility in
the democratic citizen base so that people who have fewer possibilities, but
have ambitions and talents, will be able to find their way into the mainstream
without being humiliated or hobbled along the way. In other words, our
tradition is intended to be the opposite of a class system. I would add that
it is a tradition which is very close to the egalitarian, cooperative tradition
of this city and of the Western provinces.
Finally, let me add that our governments aren't actually saving much money
by charging the students more. If you add the money up, you will find
that it is, in public financing terms, a pittance. And it certainly is
not a great deal of money when compared to what you get as a society by giving
access to the highest possible levels of education to a broad swath of citizenry.
This allows them to fit in, to participate and to contribute to the well-being
and the wealth of society.
Now, let me come back to the question of our accounting systems. We are
increasingly using a public accounting model which is modeled upon the private
sector. In fact, I don't actually think it is a private-sector model at
all. It is an ideological interpretation of what a private-sector model
is. Certainly this model is not used in the private sector. Why
do I say this? Because it assumes that governments must be reduced to
two simple columns – profit and loss. Money comes in. Money goes
out. If money goes out faster than it comes in, it is said that we are
acting in an irresponsible manner.
Now, that is not the way the private sector actually works. To put it
in simplistic terms, the private sector offers itself three columns. The
third column is called investment. It is treated differently by them and
it is treated differently by governments when it comes to taxing the private
sector. Investment is not treated the same way as expenses. In fact,
our taxation system is designed to encourage the spending of money on investment,
as if it were not simply an expense.
But when we turn to the habits of government, well then the consultants and
the independent think tanks and their economists suddenly say that public sector
is a different matter and that in order for it to be responsible, it must be
reduced to the two basic columns of a mom-and-pop corner grocery shop in which
produce is brought in and then sold; in which the ledger has only two columns;
in which investment is either an absent idea or a difficult idea or a very rare
In other words, the private sector has a sophisticated – and I admire it –
model with three columns, but the public sector is expected to function on a
mom-and-pop corner shop model. We bring in candies. We sell candies.
The truth of the matter is we're trying to build a civilization and we probably
need four columns or more. Why limit ourselves to two? If we do
limit ourselves, then we will not be able to afford public education or public
parks or any other forms of public services. Or if we can afford them,
it will be in narrow and difficult circumstances.
Let me finish this argument by making a few comments on the obligations of
the universities inside this debate; particularly the professors in the universities.
In our system, we have something called tenure for our professors.
Tenure has only one purpose. That is to guarantee the full and unbridled
use of freedom of expression to our academics without the threat of losing their
jobs. That is the purpose of tenure. There is no other purpose.
And therefore, I think it would be reasonable to expect that professors should
daily ask themselves whether they are making full use of their tenure.
It is not supposed to be about having a nice house or looking after your family
or even being able to go off and research whatever you want. That is not
its purpose. And so have one group in society which is actually designated
to provide official intellectual leadership. The members of that group
are supposed to use that intellectual leadership to go out into the public place
– inside the universities and outside of the universities – to be heard.
To be heard about what? To be heard about what they really think on the
issues facing society. It is their job to be as annoying as possible.
Nobody else in society has a contract which says to them that they are being
paid in order to be annoying; they are being given a guarantee of employment
structured precisely in order to encourage them to be annoying. It's called
Instead of that, the effect of the chimney, the specialization chimney so beloved
in our universities, has been the exact opposite. It has increasingly
suggested to the academic world that the purpose of tenure is to give you the
time to work as a quiet and closed-in person; as an increasingly isolated specialist
in your area – someone who doesn't speak out in public because you're only a
specialist in an area which does not have natural public links to other areas;
an area which is not broad enough to permit you to speak out on great – or even
small- public issues, because they are broader than your specialist expertise.
Now, the Dean is sitting on stage with me, and I know that he speaks out.
I've actually been on some public panels with him. There are a few professors
who do speak out at this university and in other universities. But let's
face it, it's a pretty small group. I'm not even sure it's a double-digit
group in most universities. If you actually started making the list of
how many of our tenured professors are publicly known for their opinions, I'm
sure you'd find it's a pretty low number. In other words, tenure is not
being used for its real purpose.
Perhaps the Chancellor will be very unhappy to hear me saying this. I
don't know, sir, but I think that it is very healthy in a democracy to have
spirited and disorderly debate. And if there are any natural and in fact
identified leaders for such a debate, it is the tenured professors. I
can see from the smile on your face that you at least partly agree with me.
Because this is not what is happening among the tenured professors, I would
encourage them to get out there, into society, outside of their silos and chimneys,
and to speak as broadly as they wish and can on the subjects that interest them.
I would encourage them to think of their specializations, yes in the habitual
vertical terms, but also in unhabitual horizontal terms. Their presence
is needed in the public debate. They must not allow the checks and balance
system of current intellectual examination to make them feel that they need
to be careful about what they say. To imprison their minds in chimneys.
It is not actually a central characteristic of intellectual integrity to spend
one's time being careful.
I think Socrates made that point pretty clearly. Now maybe you are not
interested in drinking a potion that will put you out of business.
Nevertheless, he made the point. The very fact that we're still talking
about his point 2,500 years later suggests that he may have been making a very
relevant point. Speak out and take risks.
The second point I want to make is that we have not heard fundamental intellectual
arguments against the deviant direction in which our universities are being
carried off. Where are the alternate arguments as to how we should be
funding the public good? Funding public education? Determining the
future nature of public education? Where is that debate? Why are
the departments of economics allowing completely bogus ideas such as real
cost accounting in the public sector, to stand as if they were an absolute
truth, when we know that they are nonsense? Why is no one pointing out
that real cost accounting, when applied to the public sector, actually
introduces pure inflation into public costs? After all, it takes full-time
employees and machinery, which already belong to the public sector, and constantly
recalculates their cost into the public accounts. The result is that it
always seems too expensive to go out and do things. One could argue that
real cost accounting is designed in order to make governments seem more
expensive than they are.
Where are the historians of economics? Where are the macroeconomists
who are needed to come forward and point out that this very narrow, micro, unimaginative
approach towards economics, simply has no relevance when it comes to a complex
democracy such as ours?
I say this because our governments are dependent upon academic ideas.
If you're not willing to go out there and push the envelope about a approach
towards funding and organizing and supporting, who is going to do it? Well,
I'll tell you who's going to do it. The courtiers – that is, the lobbyists
and consultants. If you're not there, they're going to be there.
And they're going to be paid precisely to be there.
You, on the other hand, are already paid. You don't need to be paid to be there,
out in the centre of the public debate. You can go out and speak free
of change and free of spirit precisely because you have tenure and because you
have the knowledge and because you're intelligent and because that's your job
inside this civilization.
Let me finish by making a comment on the financial situation of our universities.
Of course, all of you, the leaders and professors, feel that you're not getting
enough money. You feel life is tough. The old-fashioned way of dealing
with a tough life is to think about other people for whom life is even tougher.
The fact is that our universities can only work if our public school system
works. In other words, the influence of the universities in support of
the first 12 years of education is essential. A democracy like Canadian
democracy is won or lost in the first 12 years. If you can win it in those
first 12 years, you can then cement that victory during undergraduate and post-graduate
education. That's your second job. But it is in those first 12 years
that our society is won or lost.
And so the universities have to reach out to the teachers, to the kids in those
schools, to the parents and their organizations in order to support the universal
public education at the lower levels. You, I believe, should be speaking out
for such things as smaller classes in schools. Forget about the university
for the moment. If there are more than 20 students per class in your schools
today, you're not going to be getting the kids with the entry level education
that you need at the university level; you are going to be spending time and
money on preparatory work which should be unnecessary.
In other words, you have an obligation and a real need to go out and speak
and work in favour of an integrated vision of public education. You need
to be looking at whether or not those services which were normal parts of school
education 20 years ago and are now being chopped off and turned into special
services, should be treated in this way. If we treat them as optional,
as something which has to be paid for on a student-by-student basis, are we
not introducing a class system? Is that not the system which then renders
inevitable a class system at the university level? After all, it means that
the students coming out of middle-class families will get these services and
the others probably won't. The immigrants won't. And the poorer
You need to be out there. And whatever form your message takes, I would
imagine that at its core, there might be the eternal Canadian message:
that we are an extremely complex society which has succeeded because we have
built a complex, inclusive, universal public education system; and that the
central purpose of this system is to prepare individuals to be citizens in this
society; and in that way, to prepare them for the reality of the life which
Let me show you just how complicated our situation can be. The Alberta
curriculum for schools is still being used in much of Nunavut .
It just happens that for bureaucratic reasons, and for southern reasons, the
exams are written in May. Of course, the questions are basically popped
out of a computer. Any old fool can push the button. Neither the
elaboration of these questions nor their timing is rocket science. Nor is there
any real educational reason for their timing. The timing is circumstantial.
In Nunavut , it just so happens that the month of May is the primary
hunting season. If you live in an isolated community in the Arctic and
you do not go out on the land – this was true for men and it's increasingly
true for women – it is a major psychological and cultural disaster.
Not only do you still live off that food to a great extent, but if you don't,
you have to go and buy southern food at the Northern store or the Co-op.
You have to spend a great deal of money. This type of food also has health
implications, mainly negative. Where are you going to get that money?
From subsidies, I suppose. Where do they come from? The south.
In other words, if you interfere with the hunting season, you create a vicious
circle which will have an effect on finances, societal habits, healthcare, and
most important, on the psychological well-being of young people.
In other words, the food which is hunted is the right food for the people who
are living there. It's also the food that they want. It's also tied
to their sense of themselves. Do you want to talk about suicide?
Do you want to talk about the problems in the northern communities? Well,
a great deal of that is tied to our insistence upon a southern idea of how they
should organize their lives – how they should get an education, get a job, live
their life – as if they were living in a community down in the south when
they actually living in a community of 500 to 1,500 on the Arctic circle.
To summarize: to insist upon southern particularities such as exam writing
in May, is a new way of enforcing the southern created alienation on northern
peoples. It's another way of telling the Inuit that their civilization
is not worthwhile. Its subtext is that people should choose between hunting
and education, and that the purpose of education is in effect that graduates
should leave their communities.
Let me put this in extremely clear terms. From our bureaucratic heaven
in the south, we announce that since exams are written in May on the Prairies,
all civilized people must write exams in May. The result is that
kids in the Arctic are faced with a choice. Are you going to be a decent
southerner and write your exams or merely a northerner who goes out hunting
and obviously isn't capable of getting educated, because you won't even stay
in school to write your exams. In other words, we in the south are insisting
upon recreating our old racist habits, dividing the immigrant and aboriginal
populations; we're just doing it in a new, specialist way, so that we don't
even have to tell ourselves that we're being racist.
What would it take to move the exams in the Arctic by two or three weeks?
It would require not putting a finger on the button for three weeks. That's
all. We can't even bring ourselves to do that because we're so certain
that we're going down a particular, professionally elaborated, linear road towards
training and getting jobs. In a subliminal way, we're sending out the
message not simply to our own students, but to young students thousands of kilometres
away in the Arctic, that there's only one way of doing things, and it's our
way, and they'd better get used to it.
Two minutes of reflection – and that's taking a long time – would suggest that
not only should the exam times be changed, but the curriculum itself should
be changed in order produce an education which is appropriate to continuing
to live in the North. In other words, we Canadians have enormous need
for a northern curriculum which marries northern ideas with southern ideas instead
of putting them in competition one with the other.
I tell you this story because it is important and because it takes you outside
of your own difficulties. It reminds you that we all have to think every
step of the way about the effect of our decisions not only on our citizens here,
but on citizens elsewhere.
All of this is to say that the primary purpose of universal public education
in Canada is to create active citizens. And an active citizen is someone
who feels comfortable living in their own community and improving their own
community. Real individualism is responsible individualism, whatever your
education. The purpose of education is to adapt itself to the appropriate
nature of responsible individualism in that community. The more educated
you are, the more you have an obligation to become involved and to be heard
as a citizen. Not because you're going to be right. Actually, the
risks of being wrong increase, not decrease, when you're equipped with a specialist
education. The one danger which comes with specialists speaking out on
broad issues is that they must work hard not to deform reality according to
their narrow centre. But you can do it. You can make that specialization
a highlight of your broader view, not a self interested recentering device.
The point is, you do have an obligation to bring your knowledge to the public
debate. This is knowledge and understanding which our civilization has
enabled you to get hold of. This is a bank of knowledge and argument which
has been lodged within you. You are the carriers and the developers of that
knowledge. You have an obligation to be part of its continuing role in
Public education is about citizenship. It is secondarily and tertiarily
about getting trained and getting a job. Education is about democracy.
Democracy is about education. The essence of Canadian civilization – one
of the oldest, most stable democracies in the world today – is that education
remains the key to our reaching into our own collective unconscious, that of
the total population of the country. We must think always about how to
broaden that inclusivity in order to make this a richer civilization in the
true sense of the word rich.
Thank you very much. Merci