The lesson lost on Rae

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 16, 2005

Ontario universities and colleges like the provincial government’s Rae Report on education. They’re even planning a media campaign to make sure the provincial government in its spring budget begins to spend the $1.3-billion in additional funding that former NDP premier Bob Rae recommends they get by 2007.

The unions like the Rae Report, too, because it “validates what front-line faculty and support staff have been arguing for years,” says the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), namely that Ontario needs more unionized full-time faculty members.

And the essay-writing industry likes it, because the schools will soon step up their marketing to process ever-more students – Ontario will double its number of graduates, if Rae’s hopes are realized. Because these new recruits for what Ontario touts as “higher education” will overwhelmingly be mediocre students, even less able to write their own essays than the current class, and because they’ll be well funded through the student assistance programs Rae touts, tomorrow’s students will be ever-more receptive to outsourcing their school work to Internet services that charge as much as $100 per hour for essay writing.

A good many students, of course, are honest, hard-working, and competent. The research foundation that I work for has hired dozens with talent over the years. But for every good application we have received, perhaps 10 or 20 more have come from students or university graduates who can’t spell, punctuate or reason from sentence to sentence. Little wonder that university professors report the majority of their first-year students cannot string a few paragraphs together without error.

The appalling state of university grammar is ubiquitous, present not only in university basket-weaving courses but also in the province’s elite schools.

“At Elizabeth and I’s next meeting . . .” read one note from a University of Toronto law student who was working with us. The school system’s failure to graduate high school students with minimum levels of proficiency, and the universities’ willingness to then accept them, reflects one problem above all: an emphasis of quantity over quality, stemming largely from the conventional wisdom that everyone benefits from a formal higher education. In Rae’s words, “Learning is a value in itself. The capacity to be curious and reflective is what allows us to grow as individuals. To be moved by an eloquent passage or poem, to be relentlessly inventive in solving the riddles of natural science, to be learned and practised in a body of knowledge or a skill, to understand the time and discipline it takes to do something well: these are indispensable cultural values that need to be championed.”

His views betray an unthinking bias to credentialism. Formal education can stifle as well as stimulate the human capacity to be curious and reflective. An unschooled farmer or factory worker is no less capable of growing as an individual than the schooled professional. Most people, even with university degrees, will not prefer soliloquies over the Super Bowl, no matter how much do-gooders try to force-feed them an academic diet.

Worse, such thinking implicitly ranks a mediocre middle manager or stock broker above an extraordinary gardener or mechanic, devaluing manual workers’ social status and their sense of worth. Knowing this, our youth shun manual occupations in which they might shine, and instead consign themselves to the book learning that society expects of them.

All society then suffers. Schools are dumbed down to accommodate the unmotivated – a B.A. or B.Sc. no longer conveys any academic standing, having been cheapened to the value of a high school diploma of a generation ago. Only now students must spend an additional three or four years in school to end up with the same social status. As for those who are motivated by book learning, they become warehoused at university, sharing teachers with dozens if not hundreds of others, largely on their own in an unstimulated sea of students.

The solution should be self-evident. Raise the bar to admission in academic institutions, to ensure that only those with drive or talent can qualify. Ensure that loans and scholarships are available for those without financial means. Value people for their character and their abilities, whether or not they have initials after their name. Loosen the grip of the unions and the government over the school system. And shut down many of our so-called institutions of higher learning, so that those remaining can restore the dignity and loft that was once the hallmark of academia.

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