Letters

March 2006

School’s Out
Ken Alexander’s Sightings on high-school education (“Schooling: Repeat After Me,” December/January) would have pleased professor Hilda Neatby (slumbering in her grave these past thirty years), author of the 1950s bestseller So Little For The Mind. Neatby accused education planners and teachers of pandering to mediocrity and squandering the opportunity to produce the quality graduates needed for Canada’s post-Centennial future.

Neatby called for tougher standards in evaluating student progress in the basic subjects—native and foreign languages, mathematics, science, and history. Neatby was influential in the piecemeal rejection of the 1968 Hall-Dennis report, titled “Living and Learning,” which advanced the revolutionary concept of a curriculum intended to unleash the creativity of each child while granting teachers professional autonomy, which reflected the personal-liberation dreams of the era. Since then, though, there has been repeated government meddling into the public schools system, leading to the current reality of fiscally austere bureaucrats presiding over emasculated school boards, demoralized teachers, and anxious parents, all of them stewing about the results of the latest standardized test.

Alexander’s remedy of seminar-style classes combined with stricter streaming of students?—?meaning the academic high flyers are unencumbered by the dolts?—?is an unlikely solution. The additional cost of small classes combined with the social inequalities of streaming for the meritocracy is politically unacceptable.

It is time to question the preoccupation of university teachers with the literary skills of first-year students. There are more important preconditions for success in post-secondary education, such as independence of mind, creative imagination, community awareness, and technological know-how. If college and university admissions officers paid more attention to these qualities, high schools, freed from having to cram countless facts into the addled heads of teenagers, could offer students the chance to develop into free and enquiring minds?—?the basic preparation for active citizenship in a democracy. Therein lies the perfect motivation for improving literacy both at school and through life.

Peter H. Hennessy
Elginburg, Ontario
(Hennessy is a retired professor of education at Queen’s University. His most recent book is
Democracy in Peril: Are Schools Guilty?)

Alexander writes, “Schooling, especially public high school, has become a most complicated affair.” He also laments university entrants who “will not read and cannot write.” His solution has three points?—?smaller classes, separating students according to ability, and restricting choice. As a recently retired teacher and avid reader, I agreed with many of these suggestions.

The next day, however, I read an article in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record by York University education professor Heather Lotherington. It promoted the idea that students have moved beyond understanding words on paper and producing two-dimensional print, and that modern technologies need to be incorporated into what students learn at all levels of schooling. I have heard elsewhere that researchers are studying new, post-literate, cognitive skills based on the overwhelming amount of visual information to which students are exposed.

How might we foster a love of Shakespeare as well as the ability to create animation or visual text? This is certainly a “complicated affair,” as Alexander writes, and one on which there is little consensus.

Paul Tortolo
Waterloo, Ontario

I also enjoy time spent “creating meaning from static black-and-white type,” but Alexander’s article smacks of techno-phobic elitism. Canadian high schools should teach reading and writing skills to all students, and small class sizes are essential to achieving this end. But high-school graduates must possess artistic and technical skills as well as a knowledge of the world beyond their doorstep. If schools were made a “safe haven from the visual world,” our youth would be ill-prepared to participate in contemporary society.

Students must learn how to harness new communication technologies while being critically aware of the manufactured nature of all images. With regards to new media, Alexander states, “The trouble with visual learning is that it rarely places the responsibility for making meaning on the viewer, and is thus more entertaining than edifying.” Visual images are in fact far more open to interpretation than text.

As television is subsumed by the Internet, students must be taught how to critically explore the vast amount of information and knowledge that it provides, which far surpasses in volume all high-school libraries. Even Alexander’s oft-quoted technophobe Neil Postman also suggests that “We need students who will understand the relationships between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so that they may begin informed conversations about where technology is taking us and how.” With new media, there is no need to “robotically follow” the flow of images. Students can choose what to view, and can learn to reinterpret and reposition these images as well as produce their own images.

I finished grade seven thinking that Animal Farm was a story about farm animals. Neither text nor images will ensure the edification of students unless teachers engage them in a creative and critical manner.

Towagh Behr,
Victoria, BC
(Behr is a former high school teacher and new media producer.)

Ken Alexander responds:
I have not read Hilda Neatby’s So Little For The Mind, but I am familiar with “Living and Learning,” and I appreciate Professor Hennessy raising it in this context. My greatest concern with “open” approaches to education is that they tend to assume creativity, broad imaginations, etc., and that the order and directives of traditional schooling somehow represent coefficients of adversity to the creative imagination. Creativity operates most successfully under certain constraints, and it comes to purposeful fruition through the sophisticated articulation of ideas. In order to “unleash the creativity of each child,” essential building blocks must be in place, and the most essential of all is a high degree of literacy (and the ability to manipulate language), i.e., being able to tell and write stories that resonate with learned thinkers and readers. A student’s feelings should be informed by his or her knowledge and by the skill of articulation. I do not propose standardized tests as a gauge, and I agree with Professor Hennessy that cookie-cutter approaches to learning often suppress the active mind. Rather, I suggest an “open” test?—?e.g., an essay on the colour red?—?that clearly demonstrates a student’s ability to use language for a particular purpose, while also exhibiting the extent of his or her creative imagination. Success on such a test is virtually guaranteed by students who are habitual readers?—?an apt description, I would hope, of Professor Hennessy’s own students at Queen’s University.

My sense from Paul Tortolo is that he regrets public-policy decisions that allow for classes of ever-increasing size at the high-school level. While this issue is being addressed in some Canadian jurisdictions, the fact remains that in many schools, classes of up to forty students have turned teachers into classroom managers. At the best of times, adolescents have difficulty with identity issues, and can get lost in such teeming and undifferentiated environments. To Mr. Tortolo’s point about “post-literate” learning and skills development, I recommend Jonathan Kozol’s 1985 book Illiterate America. In it are painful descriptions of how the illiterate must navigate through a print-based world. (Over the past two decades the Internet and other forms of new technology have, in numerous ways, made society even more print-based.) Many such people demonstrate a wily intelligence, devising intricate strategies to avoid detection. Just the same, the stories are painful because illiterate people often live a shadow- and fear-filled existence. Given that Statistics Canada has recently reported that 42 percent of Canadians are functionally illiterate, one can only imagine how many desperate lives walk past us each and every day. Rather than a “post-literate” world, my fear is that the have and have-not world will soon be replaced by the can-read and cannot-read world.

While Neil Postman wrote many of his books using pen and paper, I cannot agree with Towagh Behr that he was technophobic. Certainly, in both Amusing Ourselves to Death and The End of Education, Postman articulated some of the dangers of resorting to visual learning strategies, but his prescriptions were hardly anachronistic and his analysis of the impact of television was prescient. In fact, Postman’s collected works represent an ideal guide for media literacy, for teaching students (and teachers) when truth versus propaganda is on offer. In providing a rationale for the high-school study of disciplines like archaeology and anthropology, Postman would support Northrop Frye’s notion of the educated imagination as a necessary if not wholly sufficient condition for young people to be protected from the onslaught of visual stimuli, which, more often than not, are simply attempting to sell them something.

Hydrogen Economics
Thank you for Arno Kopecky’s review of the Icelandic experiment with hydrogen energy as an alternative to fossil fuel (“Water To Burn,” December/January). I suspect, though, that island economies like Iceland’s are better experimental models for alternative energy than Canada, a continental nation with an overpowering neighbour whose economy is overwhelmingly committed to fossil fuels.

I also appreciated Kopecky’s exposure of Canada as a laggard among the international community when it comes to building a hydrogen-based energy economy. This is a political gaffe, and not due to a lack of initiative by the Canadian business sector. Kopecky is correct to note that Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian company, is a global leader in the development of fuel cells as a replacement for combustion engines. Omitted, however, is that another Canadian company, Stuart Energy Systems (now Hydrogenics), is also a pioneer in the field. Alexander Stuart, the company’s founder, began pursuing hydrogen as a clean energy source almost sixty years ago, and developed electrolysis equipment for refuelling hydrogen-powered cars at home. The idea was to refuel cars during off-peak hours, late at night. Stuart’s refuelling technology and Ballard’s fuel cell, together with a non-fossil-fuel energy source, are the basic prerequisites for development of the hydrogen economy.

What is not realistic, however, is Kopecky’s claim that wind power can provide any real solution to our energy crisis. Windmills, in fact, cannot adequately power our transition to a hydrogen economy. Canada must re-engage with nuclear energy. How else can you refuel your car on a cold night in January when there is not a breath of wind? I would emphasize that Canada, through Atomic Energy of Canada, also owns the knowledge to complete the triad (fuel-cell engines, hydrolyzers, and fossil-free energy) necessary to achieve a carbon-free transportation sector.

A. A. Driedger
Professor of Nuclear Medicine/Oncology
University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario

Canada consumes well over twice the electrical energy per capita that Western Europe does, but much of our consumption is wasted, due to a history of over-abundant supply provided at a subsidized cost (consumer electricity prices in Europe are twice as expensive). The David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Club of Canada, Greenpeace Canada, and Ontario Society of Professional Engineers all advocate conservation as a solution to our energy crisis.

The Pembina Institute, which promotes sustainable energy solutions, and Torrie Smith Associates, a Cobourg, Ontario-based consulting firm, both estimate that Ontario could reduce demand for electricity by 40 percent by 2020. Pembina says that the net cost of achieving this reduction would be $622 million?—?$3.50 per person in Ontario, per year. This includes both public and private-sector investments.

Wind turbines, which are often thought of as a solution to our electrical-energy requirements, generate electricity only about 30 percent of the time, without any certainty that it will be available when needed because storage of wind power is not generally feasible on this scale. Therefore, we need an equivalent amount of additional generating capacity?—?hydro, nuclear, oil, coal, or gas?—?to be operational. In Germany, where extensive wind farms have been built, substantial net decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants and coal burning plants has not occurred. This is perhaps one of the reasons why renowned environmentalist Dr. James Lovelock rejects wind farms as an alternative energy source for Britain.

Wind power in Canada does have an important role to play for individual residences in rural areas, farms, industrial plants, and remote communities where energy storage is feasible (today in batteries, tomorrow in hydrogen for fuel cells). Storage capability, in combination with solar power, decreases dependence on wind conditions. But these alternatives are for local consumption only, not the public power grid.

For the foreseeable future in Canada, conservation is the most viable solution. Conserving energy is environmentally friendly, cost effective, and buys us time to improve renewable energy technology.

Kent Hawkins
Picton, Ontario

Blood Work
Philip Berger’s email diary entries and Steve Simon’s photographs (“Re: AIDS/Africa,” December/January) were poignant, painful, and sad. I was shaken by Berger’s account of a four-month-old girl too weak to cry. In 1981, I worked at a missionary hospital in Katete, Zambia, and on occasion travelled with the surgeon to remote communities where I photographed many villagers. There were no reported cases of aids in Zambia then, and the mood was hopeful after the brutal war in neighbouring Zimbabwe ended. Yes, there was hunger and poverty, but the orphaned babies I encountered were of healthy weight and had big voices. I shudder to think of what befell the families in my pictures when the aids epidemic hit. After reading this article I decided to donate this year’s Christmas present-buying funds to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. My friends and family understand.
Andrée Gagné
Toronto, Ontario

Family Ground
The term “family farm” always strikes me as a work of public relations (“Funny Farms,” December/January), conjuring up warm, nostalgic images of “Good night, John-Boy.” In fact, aren’t all jobs “family jobs” and isn’t Canada one of the most urbanized nations in the world, with the agriculture industry employing just a small percentage of our country’s population? Where are the articles about the terrible loss of decent-paying family jobs in other working sectors? Almost daily I read of the “downsizing,” “rightsizing,” or whatever the politically correct buzzword is, of hundreds, even thousands, of family jobs. Where are the cries of outrage from conservative pundits who claim to espouse family values when the most important family value is a living wage? Good night, Joe Hill.

Vern Huffman
Burnaby, BC

Grizzly Reaction
As much as I enjoyed Marni Jackson’s proposal for a new book prize (“The Grizzly Prize,” December/January), my own preference is to divide up the money from the literary awards we already have in Canada. For example, nominated authors who don’t reach the podium must feel terrible at the $40,000 Giller Prize, sitting alone and forced to swallow their disappointment while the crowd enthusiastically applauds the winner. Clearly the audience, so quick to jump on the winner’s train, was never on their side. And the loser is expected to applaud! I would not celebrate my instant loss of $37,500.

What if book-award prizes were treated like harness-racing purses? The winning horse receives half the money while the rest is usually split among the next four runners-up in 25-, 12-, 8-, and 5-percent shares. In the Giller’s case the breakdown would not be $40,000 to the winner, and then $2,500 for the runners-up, but $25,000, $12,500, $6,000, $4,000 and $2,500.

Everyone would go home happy. For a Canadian author, $25,000 is enough. Isn’t it dangerous to give them too much money? Would they know what to do with it all? It’s not like harness racing, where an abundance of money means buying another horse.

If I publish a book, sell enough copies, and make some money, I promise to endow a new book prize. It might not be glamorous but it will be fair?—?and the winner won’t have to travel to Charlottetown and dress up for the ceremony. I’ll just mail out a cheque accompanied by a nice letter.

John Eldon Green
Charlottetown, PEI

Marni Jackson responds:
I like your notion of treating authors like harness racers. It is so often how they feel. I know from friends who have been on the losing end of things at The Giller that it takes a lot of grace to prepare to lose, and then to respond publicly?—?on live TV!?—?to that loss. Your suggestion would both encourage heavy betting (proceeds to libraries, of course) and spread the joy around. Regarding your own PEI book prize plans: have you considered a competition limited to books with “Anne” in the title?

Born To Be Wild?
The children described in Adam Gilders’ excellent essay (“The Wilderness Within,” November) don’t sound like wild children in the true sense of the word. They may be autistic, abused, or abandoned as the essay suggests, but certainly not wild. If they were truly wild, I doubt they would be so lacking in empathy or social intelligence.

A truly wild human would be “wild” like the social animals we know: elephants, dolphins, wolves, and other creatures living in what seems, to modern humans, like a state of grace. Wild animals are attuned to the forces of nature. They are co-operative, resourceful, unrestrained by ideology, and live in social groups where the young are cared for.

What defines humans as a species is not so much our intelligence as the fact that we have decided to live apart from nature. We look back at our ancient beginnings with a mixture of longing, conceit, and occasional confusion.

If anyone wants to study wild humans, I understand there are a few left in the Amazon, quite aware of what’s going on around them and not too happy about it.

Peter Bromley
Vancouver, BC