Making a Case for Educational Reform

by Ken MacDougall

Two things that have continued to drive me crazy over the past ten years of teaching is, first, how little we expect our children to know before they matriculate, and secondly, how once they do have that certificate, how many believe that their educational “experience” has finally come to an end. In this age of “helicopter parenting”, a polite way to describe parents who fight their children’s educational battles, this sense of “graduation” by the child is viewed as a success. Moreover, it gives false testimony to those who now believe their children are fully prepared to manage their own lives and contribute to the betterment of society.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. What is being described here is a phenomenon of negative educational reform that promotes success through mediocrity, and where the “bare minimum” of 24 credits earned in Grades 10 through 12 earns a child the “right” to never have to strenuously think again.

I have referenced journalist Roger Miller thesis on educational disinvestment on several occasions of late, a process wherein governments have since the mid-1990’s made it a point to not provide sufficient fiscal support for educational advancement. This, in turn, has led to the destruction of whatever competitive advantage we had as a nation with one of the highest standards of living world-wide. What is equally galling is that even before our governments even started their fiscal march towards intellectual disinvestment, we have allowed ourselves to elect governments that believe whatever we might accomplish in life, it’s not really good enough, or there’s some nation in the world – usually the United States – that can do much better.

One has only to examine some of the more inept policy decisions made by predominately conservative-leaning governments to make this point. For instance, the world-renowned Connaught Laboratories, whose research efforts included the development of heparin (blood thinners) to aid in cardiac care, the manufacture of typhus and polio vaccines, as well as penicillin, was privatized by the Mulroney government in the early 1970’s, leaving Canada with no means to contribute towards the development of possible cures or vaccines against, first, Ebola, and now the pandemic induced by the COVID-19 virus.

Equally asinine military policy decisions abound. As a nation we tend to – sort of – acknowledge our military’s many achievements in world campaigns. We know our Canadian soldiers know how to fight, as was witness at Vimy Ridge in WW-I, or in the success of our sniper units in Afghanistan in the world’s first assaults against al qaeda terrorist forces, but God help us if we have to actually spend money equipping them for battle. Former Prince Albert resident John G. Diefenbaker was conned into believing that the Avro Arrow fighter jet prototypes being built in Malton, ON, were already obsolete, thereby giving Boeing an opportunity to unload their poorly designed Bomarc missile system as an “effective” way to halt potential Russian air strikes against North American targets. Then, realizing the limitation of these “advanced military weapons”, we purchased four squadrons of Lockheed’s F-104 StarFighter for use by the RCAF, an unstable craft Canadian pilots would soon come to nickname the “Widowmaker” – with good cause.

Indeed, one can’t help but marvel at how riveted Canadian conservatives are in noting that nothing is as “good” as equipment manufactured in the good United States, or – maybe – Germany. What this means, politically speaking, is that every time the Quebec or Ottawa governments provide supplementary funding to Bombardier, the St. Lawrence River will run saline for days with the anguished tears of Conservative MP’s. However, let Stephen Harper write another $10 billion cheque to fund Lockheed Martin’s “research fund” the F-35 Lightning, and it’s, “Well, at least we’re not buying $600 hammers like the Pentagon…”

Our nation’s seeming contempt for Canadian intellectualism is also on prominent display here in the fly-over province. Thanks to both the Devine and Wall / Moe government’s indifference, those with impressive skills are often forced to go elsewhere to work. For instance, following a Saskatchewan Medical Association move to initiate a discussion with software developers on how to best create and store medical records, the Devine government went out and contracted SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation), not to be confused with the prestigious school of art located in Chicago), a Pentagon supplier of various weapons of mass destruction, whose only link to health care was its minimally functioning recordkeeping software designed for United States military hospitals. UTLAS (University of Toronto Library Automation Systems), at that time housed in Regina, saw the writing on the wall for future developers, and moved out of province within six months of that move.

Right now, the government of Saskatchewan is sitting on a bundle of potential projects that, were we to have the “people” resources fluent enough to handle such missions, would snap our economy back to attention in a heartbeat. The problem is, it would also require the government to give some serious thought as to the restructuring and funding of education. Moreover, not all such funding need be directed to what our labour forces tend to refer to as the “geek trades”. Germany, for instance, has successfully demonstrated to the world that an educational philosophy placing equal value on the contribution to its economy of “blue collar” workers is not only profitable, but plays a large part in upgrading our standard of living. Industrial – educational “co-operative” programs have only enhanced tradespersons’ skills apprenticing for journeyman status, producing a quality of worker worthy of “Bachelor” status on a degree-based system. Germany has also been able to establish Master’s and Doctorate-equivalent programs requiring more creative and innovative approaches to trades enhancement, which in turn has motivated industry to consider key elements of their labour force as management resources – something only the most enlightened of industries in Canada or the United States would even consider.

To accomplish these reforms alone requires two major funding adjustments be pursued by our Department of Education. First, the number of credits required for graduation should be increased to at least 30, and secondly, at least one Mathematics and two Science or Technology-based credits should be appended to the Grade 12 level of classes offered in every high school in this province. In other words, we have to recruit or train many more teachers specializing in STEM-based subject areas, so that we do not fall behind in the innovative production of break-through technologies, particularly in the areas of renewal and conservation.

For the moment, then, we will leave the need for greater language facilitation in our schools and our quest for integrating our Indigenous peoples into the economic mainstream of the Canadian economy to another column. Our Constitution recognizes the dual role both the French and English played in moving this country to nationhood, but we still haven’t really addressed the colonialist mentality of our Euro-centric citizenry we still manage to project upon our nation’s true founders. Thus, our educational reform “issues list” is still far from complete.

Skeptics who find flaws in my reasoning may be, and perhaps should be asking questions as to embarking upon the reform pathway I’ve already mapped out. Typically, their inquiry might well begin with the question, “If we go through with this obviously expensive reform, to what purpose would these newly acquired skills be used?”

Here are but a few examples:

1. We could diversity the agricultural market, expanding our services to market gardening and specialized crop experimentation to address the issues created by global warming

2. We need enhanced north-south transportation, preferably through high speed rail. Why not require those benefiting from taxpayer relief see it as their corporate responsibility to take on such a project, so that our north is finally well-looked after?

3. We might finally be able to put a full-time research team to work addressing the environmental concerns created by the Quill Lakes pollution problems

4. We could start to manufacture our own “green” and “renewable” product lines, rather than having to buy them from someone else, as we now do with solar panelling

5. We could finally allow SaskTel the opportunity to provide our rural communities with high speed, affordable Internet service, so as to make the agricultural sector more competitive world-wide

6. We could have scientific monitoring of proposed irrigation projects now being pushed by the DoD, without having to worry about turning such projects such as the Lake Diefenbaker area into another Quill Lake disaster

7. We could address the need to finally make the Port of Churchill viable by resolving construction of a high-speed rail line into the community to handle grain and passenger traffic, and develop a road service to that community

8. Instead of worrying about pipelines to the United States, we could lay the groundwork for such infrastructure to lead to the Port of Churchill, and

9. We could start to address the serious need to incorporate Indigenous people into the economic mainstream of our society, without bitterness

I guess the real question for the future should be, “Is anyone in government really listening?”