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In defence of public education by
His Excellency John Ralston Saul

Canadian Teachers' Federation
Whitehorse, Yukon

July 13, 2001

What is the tragedy of a classed based society? Quite simply, it is a society which has institutionalized selfishness.

We all have selfishness within us. We all have our self-interest. And we need it.

But that is quite different from acting as if selfishness were the leitmotif of civilization. A healthy democracy is one which works to avoid that tragedy.

As for public education, it is a simile for civilized democracy. You could say that public education is the primary foundation in any civilized democracy. That was one of the great discoveries of western civilization in its modern form in the middle of the 19th century.

Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of democracy. I personally do not believe that citizens—Canadian citizens in particular—have any desire to abandon the true strengths of their society. I believe that there is a profound understanding in our society of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.

Citizens live complex lives and have little free time. Yet they are obliged to deal with all of those fashions and ideologies which come along, grab hold of the mechanisms of public influence, and then set about undermining the fundamentals of civilization.

The ideologies of our day are comfortably ensconced in various schools of economics which have embraced late 19th century simplistic theories of inevitability. You can also find them in various schools of managerialism, which also are attached to a belief in the inevitability of events. Floating around these economists and managers is a whole new class of what used to be called courtiers and are now called consultants. Some of them are operating out of what are called independent think tanks, financed in such a way that they are independent on behalf of those who finance them.

All of this represents a tidal wave of specialists who have drawn as their principal conclusion that inclusive systems which serve the public good are no longer viable. In other words, the ideologies and fashions of our day are devoted in good part to a return of the tragedy of the class based society. They are devoted to weakening the universality of the very public education system which has made Canada such a remarkable success society.

Let me point out something which is difficult to accept for many people who are themselves devoted to managing—and managing well—classes, schools and the school system. Managerialism encourages and rewards agreement among professionals. It admires discretion and conformity, it encourages us all to believe that through detailed work, we can rectify enormous problems.

Let me give you two examples of the contradictions this creates. We all agree on the need for small classrooms, particularly in this era of high immigration, ever more complex societies and ever more open borders. We need intense, personalized education. This seems to mean classes of twenty or less students.

Yet the managerial solutions of today are carrying us towards larger classrooms. Why? Because no matter how modern these managerial theories sound, they are usually rooted in the industrial theories of the late 19th century. And those theories are based upon a belief in economies of scale. What is more, we are consistently bombarded by statistics which assert that class sizes are not actually too big. This is where the business of discretion and conformity and attempting to solve problems behind the scene comes in. In most cases, those statistics are a form of gerrymandering.

The statisticians take the total number of accredited teachers and/or administrators, and divide them into the total number of students. But many of those included in the calculation never go into a classroom because they are principals, vice-principals, counsellors and so on. And so the official statistics talk of 25 or 30 students per class, when parents—that is citizens—know that their children are in classes of thirty five.

Let me give you another example of what happens when we buy into the closed arguments of inevitability.

In school after school around the country it seems that there is ever less money for what are now described as the soft edges of education. Many of these soft edges were included automatically in education until a few years ago. Schools find themselves short of books and of equipment. They find that certain advanced classes are suddenly too expensive. Certain special needs are too special. Many extra curricular activities suddenly are beyond their budgets.

Principals, teachers and parents find themselves obliged to go out and raise money - i.e., engage in private fundraising. This presents two very real problems. The first is that raising funds for a public school in a middle or upper middle class neighbourhood is not all that difficult. Raising funds in a working class or lower middle class neighbourhood—or indeed a neighbourhood with many new immigrants trying very hard to begin their lives in Canada—is a much more difficult undertaking. The whole idea of private fundraising for public schools is the first step towards introducing a class based society into Canada. Private fundraising is, in and of itself, a form of exclusion.

Let me add a tougher comment. By going out and spending a great deal of their valuable time fundraising, principals, teachers and parents are actually collaborating in the gradual privatization of the public school system. They are making privatization easier for those who do not wish to take public responsibility for raising the necessary amounts of public money. I often feel we would do better to stand back and to say openly that this is a public system and that if society and its leaders are not willing to fund the system, then we collectively, and they specifically, must all take responsibility for the decline in the education of our own children and the children of our fellow citizens. Perhaps there is a need for citizens to stand back and say to the public authorities: It is your obligation to raise the funds and to deliver universal public education. It is not our responsibility to undermine that universality. Over to you.

Our country has been built, from the very beginnings of its democratic system 150 years ago, upon a happy linkage between democracy and public education. These are the basic principles of the Canadian democracy.

In the 19th century we were a naturally poor country, working under the extremely difficult circumstances of our climate and geography. We constructed our prosperity consciously and intellectually. We constructed our success and we did so to a great extent through our public education system. Any move towards weakening that system will risk undermining not simply our society, but also our prosperity.

Our success as a country is built upon this system. It is only with great difficulty that I could imagine a greater betrayal of the principle of Canadian democracy than the piecemeal reduction of public education to private education.

There is one point on which there should be no misunderstanding. The concept of universality does not mean that everything must be the same. The strength of a public education system such as ours is that, being so large and serving so many different communities, it is capable of enormous diversities. We only have to look at the remarkable success story of French Immersion over the last quarter century to see what our public system is capable of. Starting at zero, we have today over 320,000 students in French Immersion.

Let me add to that the other large requirement of diversity in our society. This country has been built on a combination of its Aboriginal peoples and its immigrants. Most of those immigrants have come as reasonably poor people, very often illiterate or not speaking either of our official languages. The Saul's, for example, came here in the middle of the 19th century as virtually illiterate stone masons. My family, like yours I'm sure, is a product of the public school system.

We citizens take the responsibility of inviting people from around the world to come to join us in Canada. We're the host. The primary obligation and responsibility is ours, as it is with any host. We offer these newcomers an open, inclusive society in which the citizens can act as citizens, can speak out, become involved in public life as they wish, and perhaps do well economically. We have three primary obligations when we invite immigrants to come to join us here. First, to ensure that our democratic system and its values are clearly understandable and accessible to them. Second, to ensure that our public systems work. Third, to provide an intense, inclusive public education system which will allow them and their children to adjust to Canadian society.

All the state has to provide are public systems which work and a good education system. The immigrant/citizen does all the rest. My family, like yours, is the proof that this is a bargain which no self-respecting democracy can turn its back on.

One of the particularities of Canada is that we have many levels of government, as befits the second largest landmass in the world with a reasonably small population, two official languages and three founding peoples. The system is as it should be. And fundamentally it works well. After all, we are the second or third oldest democracy in the world.

One of the specific realities of this system is that the responsibility for education was given, from the beginning, to the provinces and territories. This ensures that the regional nature of Canada is not overwhelmed, as it was in most parts of Europe, by monolithic, centralizing theories of state and mythology. Our civilization is intended to be complicated and the regionalization of our education system allows it to maintain that complexity.

What this means is that the primary arm for the creation of citizens, whether children of people born in Canada or immigrants, lies in the hands of the provinces. It is their most important responsibility. And it is regional, national and international at the same time. You may be for or against globalization. But at the end of the day, the ability of our young citizens to face the various effects of the opening of borders lies in the hands of the provincial and territorial governments. That is, it lies in their obligation to provide universal public education; to maintain the century and a half old tradition of a middle class egalitarian inclusive society.

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century.

We must turn away from the mediocre and tired management theories of efficiency through economies of scale. We must particularly beware of their latest manifestation which preaches training rather than education. We need more than ever to look at the public education system as the primary tool we have to ensure that children are able to grow up to become citizens.

Updated: 2001-07-13
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