GRAHAM – A response to those who criticize our school system

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Guest Columnist

AS A RETIRED secondary school English teacher and vice-principal, I have seldom passed up an opportunity to respond to publicly aired criticisms of our school system, such as letters to the editor, FaceBook postings, and the like.

I should know better than to go for that kind of bait, because in most cases the complaints or harangues are just that — poorly informed or biased rants from the naive, the uninformed, the uncritical, or the similarly disaffected. I like to think of my views as none of those.

Common to all of those — usually negative— condemnations is a general lack of understanding of the purposes of education in a multi-cultural, inclusive, and democratic society. And in many cases the criticism comes from someone who was unsuccessful at school.

And, of course, in the standard mantra, the fault belongs entirely to the school.  Introspection — particularly in hindsight — is beyond the scope or intent of the critics. To do so may even be self-defeating.

As often as not, criticisms of the schools target a supposed inability or reluctance to change.  In most cases, of course, the perception of stasis is in the mind of the viewer and not in the school processes.

The pace at which time moves in a societal/institutional perspective is quite different from that at which it moves in the mind of an adolescent. Schools do change, of course, but they do so on a scale greater and more subtle than that perceptible to the critic, particularly the adolescent. Even the adult critic’s analysis is basically one individual’s own often adolescent perception, in full naive belief that it is shared by all others. Or it may even be his adult recollection of his once adolescent perception.  Soft ground to stand on….

There is no question that a school system, like a public transit system, cannot divert  — deliberately or randomly — from a prescribed route to an had hoc, individually based and custom-made scholastic-experiential-maturational taxi-service.

One may, however,  get off at unscheduled stops,  departing from his chosen or required route. Thus, exploration is possible, even mandated. But it should be purposeful because, in public education, the goal, or purpose, is not sight-seeing, it has clearly marked sign-posts and goals which are set largely within the same social framework as are the means of reaching them.

And that is true for those evaluating the system; external criteria are often irrelevant, and arbitrarily imposed.

The fundamental principle is this: public education is part of a social framework; the purpose or destination is set largely by society, and the  route is chosen, like a bus route — but only partially — by the rider.

And, of course,  departures from the norm, or leaves of absence are always possible. And one can always walk…. can do it alone…but that is not recommended. Man is a social being.  Education, like public transit, is best done publicly. And there is no upper limit to enhancement or supplement or enrichment. As my first alma mater’s motto says,”Tuum est.”  It is up to you (UBC).

In public schools, including universities, the public also has a large share in bearing the weight; it is among the beneficiaries, probably the most important. The wealth/health of societies rests on the education of its citizens.

In defence of the public schools of B.C., particularly in Kamloops, where I spent 32 years teaching in classrooms from Grade eight to first-year college, in administrative roles at four secondary schools, and many sessions in Adult Education at the local college, I offer to the critics of the system the observation made by the American educator, and sociologist, Talcott Parsons.  It is fundamental and incisive.

Parsons described the purpose and role of any public school system, in any society, even dictatorships, as “pattern maintenance.” The description is valid, even when one considers the role of private schools, whether faith-based or economic-class-based, only slight additions, or decorations, or embellishments, of the pattern appear.

There are no major departures. Public education is the glue between the individual and his society. Some individuals, as well as societies, require stronger glue. None tolerates subversion.

The goal of any school system is set by its founders to maintain the essential prevailing ethos of the society — or the micro-society, or the social class, or the religious or cultural or linguistic sector of the larger society — which it serves.

The greater the group, the clearer the emphasis. The greater the rate of social change, the more sensitive the system. It must always lag or follow, never lead. And, obviously, the smaller groups with narrower views are required to operate within bounds deemed acceptable to the larger society, and deleting much less than that which they are required to add.

In B.C., for example, students in Jewish or Sikh schools may skip the daily King James Bible readings in favour of Jewish or Sikh doctrine, and so on.  Whatever the case,  all are involved in their own pattern-maintenance within a larger, more diverse, yet tolerant  social pattern.

The ends, or goals, personal/individual and social/societal, however broad or inclusive, are achieved by socially set strength and breadth in the diversity of means.

The narrower the goal and means, the less likelihood of finding either the tolerance or the success which we believe are important enough to be recognized within a diverse and secular society. Specialization in public school curriculum plays a secondary role, behind that of socialization.  Anything else is, literally, subversive, and does not belong.

I fondly recall my roles as master of many graduation ceremonies, in which I seldom passed up the opportunity to advise the graduating students that the event was, metaphorically, a public placing of a stamp on each graduate stating, “NorKam Secondary, Class of 19—, guaranteed socially acceptable and productive.”

’Twas, and ever will be, thus. Good thing.

Pierce Graham is a retired vice principal of NorKam secondary, a long-time English teacher, and a member of the Rube Band.

About Mel Rothenburger (9233 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

3 Comments on GRAHAM – A response to those who criticize our school system

  1. David Johnson // August 30, 2021 at 3:11 PM // Reply

    Mr Graham,
    I agree with your response to the Finland approach comment, you just cant take a field of Cabernet Sauvignon vines and decide that your going to make beer, but it does bring up what is being seen as our own homegrown problem that’s been in the news recently, that I offer as example.

    A School Board in Prince George is struggling with a report from a B.C. government appointed team looking into governance issues which shows troubling evidence of systemic racism against Indigenous students, and includes a quote ‘a culture of fear, bullying, harassment and racism’ and the system is providing a ‘holding tank’ for Indigenous kids. I am sure you are aware of this.

    In effect, due to what ‘the system’ sees as poor performance, many students have been shuffled to modified programs where attendance can be an hour a day, or only one day a week.

    Seeing this as a governance issue – although a stepping stone – is only the tip of the iceberg. Should we not see this as still attempting to force an implanted system on those that dont see it as value?

    Is this not yet another, albeit 1000 miles away, our woke societies attempt at indoctrination vis-a-vie the Residential School experience? Obviously we aren’t going to ‘beat the native out of the child’, but is the school systems still operating on its own well entrenched adherence to its dogma, as the only ladder towards achieving success?

    My point is about the systems own inability to adapt to the unique learning needs of these students, due to the well entrenched barrier of entry requirements to what we call ‘society’, and the schools system attempt to bridge that gap.

    Is that bridge, that is long built upon a concept of ‘to get over there, you have to adapt here’ … appropriate for those who may gauge success in a way not quantifiable in the school system?

    The system has to assess and evaluate on a grade point structure derived from information learning that these students simply don’t need to know, in a societal environment that does not benefit their life. Is this the students fault, or the systems?

    For these students, I submit that the system fails to recognise that the goals of indigenous daily life and culture can not be directly linked to the output goals of the school system. The report does not go this far, but it is easy to read this deeply into it, as the actual problem.

    What we have today is students failing out of the system, and a warm body in the seat approach, which checks the bullet points of success for the school, but leaves these student with nothing they can use, yet submits them to the psychological turmoil of perceived failure. if they don’t turn to complete acquiescence towards what the school system sees as societal success; higher education in the fold or otherwise entry to what we term ‘our society’.

    For all the others who don’t make this turn, does all this not just perpetuate the ongoing need to rely on future aid funding to maintain the students … now adults … Charter rights? Who wins here? No one; not the school, the student or society.

    This entire argument can also transfer to students who are non indigenous, but also fall thru the cracks of societal expectation. This conversation also can, and probably should include them. I will enter myself as example; Scottish, English immigrant derived, failed out at grade 10 in the early eighties as school just didnt offer what I needed, but by doing so, relegated my experience of no end jobs, until I found a way to find what I needed to succeed on my own accord.

    What if these failed out students are not able to make this adaptation?
    Isnt that (beyond personal, family or other dynamics) the school system entire responsibility?

    Obviously in a column forum … or over coffee … we wont solve this, but should this not be the public conversation at its root, and not just be a ‘governance issue’ due to racism flags?

  2. Comparing the demographics of Finland and Canada is pointless, as their societies are vastly different in complexity, starting with the fact that the Saami people and culture, while still under communist influence,
    are native and dominant, while the white culture of Canada is not native, but dominant, and in itself varied. We are a nation of immigrants, often only a generation or two removed. Besides, my essay was about a provincial system, not a Federal one. Finland is a relatively uniform demographic; Canada is not, and BC is not. Vancouver has oriental students; Williams Lake has Chilcotin students. Those in the Kootenays are neither. Such diversity demands provincial/regional variance, sensitive to geographic, economic, and demographic bases. Apples and pears. My essay was not about standards, but about sensitivity to diversity of learning capacity, purpose, style, function and social acceptance in a constantly changing world…NorKam was and remains a leader….I am proud to be an alumnus. Final observation: you appear to state that we must emulate Finland or fail. The logic…if any…escapes me….and it appears to have eluded you, too.

  3. R Marcus Lowe // August 30, 2021 at 8:07 AM // Reply

    Finland has high standards that we can (and should) follow, why re-invent something that has proven to work over the last 20 years? —or we can choose to fail…

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