By PIERCE GRAHAM
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.