How to Create a Lesser People

For a decade we lived in British Columbia, a province which mandates all the elements of the school curriculum even in private schools, uses standardised tests (“Foundational Skills Assessments” at Grades 3 & 7, and “Provincial Examinations” at Grades 10 & 12), and insists that certain subjects cannot be dropped.

My children went to a Montessori School (private), a Gifted Childrens’ School (private), Public Schools (ordinary neighbourhood elementary and middle schools), a special high school program taught on the University of British Columbia campus and a special “school within a school” Arts School. We also home-schooled our son for one year.

My daughter has struggled (successfully) to overcome her BC education. My son still wrestles with its effects as he finishes high school in Ontario.

While we were in British Columbia as well, I was Parents’ Advisory Committee Chair at two of the schools my children attended, and sat on the Board of the Gifted Childrens’ School.

I have never felt so helpless to stem the tide of a disaster unfolding…

When you come to British Columbia from outside of it, you are often and repeatedly told about the “BC difference”.

People in this province truly believe they live in a paradise.

To be fair, the natural setting is delightful; it is the human one that is less so.

They also believe (a far worse obsession) that the area has the best of everything.

For instance, a friend of mine, who has a daughter who is on track for a career in ballet and was offered the opportunity to attend the Royal Ballet School, Covent Garden (one of the world’s top three or four ballet educational institutions) received, in BC, the dismissal, from a community arts centre programme, that “we can teach your daughter everything”, with a bit of a sneer to say “…and better”.

For years this friend has enrolled her daughter in private schools that promise, before they cash the tuition cheque, that they will happily create a schedule that fulfils the academic requirements in the morning to leave the afternoons free for the girl to take her dance instruction, and to gain credit for this in lieu of the provincially mandated physical education and electives. Once paid, these schools fail to fulfil their end of the bargain, pointing out that provincial mandates preclude them changing anything.

My own daughter, who, having completed high school at the age of 14 decided to turn down her university acceptance at the University of British Columbia and sought employment to save the necessary funds to fulfil her ambitions.

She wanted either to go to university to study as an osteo-archaeologist, a subject not taught in Canada as a scientific discipline, or to act by seeking training (there is a minimum entry age requirement of 18) at either the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts or the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (again, globally top echelon schools), was berated by the instructor at a drama intensive she participated in in BC for wanting to go to London: “you’ll never succeed there and besides, we can teach you everything needed locally and you’ll get parts here, maybe even in Los Angeles”. This, too, was a community theatre summer project with no substantial track record to justify the claim, despite having a couple of “name brand” actors leading the workshops.

She graduates this June from Durham University in the UK, in her chosen field, and is seriously considering applying to RADA or LAMDA alongside the Cambridges and University Colleges London for graduate work in her field — after taking a year to work (money and experience) and breathe. Certainly she discovered how poorly prepared she was for her Bachelor’s programme requirements upon arrival with her British Columbia education, despite having attended classes in Classics at the University of British Columbia during the gap between high school and full-time university overseas.

It’s not that what is done in British Columbia is bad (other provinces have their problems), just that it’s not quite at the standard being claimed for it — but the goal of these beliefs is to convince people here that there’s no need to look elsewhere, and many don’t.

But it is the foundational attitude that has led to the sloppy school system of this province, fed more of the attitude out of it, and created a feed-back loop that successively “dumbs down” the people of British Columbia.

Pointing to the <5% who break the mould and excel on the global stage hardly makes up for a 95% that is significantly worse off than many other regions of North America.

To dumb down a people, you need only do the following:

Make sure you divert them from core knowledge.

Go to school in British Columbia, and Grade 4 will be “First Nations Year”. (So will Grade 10.) Every subject will be taught through the prism of the First Nations — not even of the country (the Iroquois Confederacy, the Sioux after Little Big Horn, etc. would have useful lessons) but only of the province.

The Haida, Sto:lo, etc. may well be interesting, but so much so that all mathematics for the year, all science, etc. is forced into a framework? By spending a year in this way, there is make up work in further years.

Which means, of course, that you don’t move on. Add to this that, for instance, Grades 5 through 9 mathematics repeat the same curriculum over and over — the provincial bureaucrats believe this is necessary as “studies show the middle year students don’t retain enough” — and not only do you lose valuable teaching time, but you kill the subject completely for 80%+ of the students.

Both my children have some mathematical ability. Both tuned out completely by Grade 9, bored out of their minds by this. Neither is willing to look at the physical sciences as a result. After this point, to learn any maths has required that I find other ways (with my daughter, for instance, I taught her the rudiments of Grade 12 calculus by appealing to the Patrologia Latina and the writings there of Buridan and Grosseteste: formulae like dx/dt=0 were pushed away completely.

Make sure you make them ignorant of their history.

Canadian history is mostly ignored. So is anything remotely resembling Canadian governance (on the other hand, in an election year, popularity contest electoral politics is played in the classroom).

Then, since Canadian history is not really comprehensible without knowing the broader history of Western civilisation, ignore that, too.

Downplay it, give it limited air time, put attention elsewhere. Don’t forget to play the “multicultural” card and rub in the notion that everyone else’s past must be respected other than your own.

Pander to popular “knowledge”.

When, for instance, the 20th century is taught in Grade 12, adopt the American view of the universe, as did my daughter’s teacher, himself a product of the local system.

(I later discovered that this is actually what is in the Instructional Resource Plans for Grade 12 history.)

World War I begins in 1917 (not 1914) — ignore Vimy Ridge, the making of the Canadian identity.

World War II begins at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Not 1939.

Spend 90% of the time on the Pacific island-hopping campaign, dismiss 90% of Europe, ignore the Canadian presence in favour of the American one (so skip Anzio, Dieppe and the Netherlands in favour of Torch, the Bulge and an Amero-centric view of D-day).

I’d point out how insidious this is by simply saying that it’s not about Canada — the Russian view (the Revolution is triggered in World War I; the Great Patriotic War keeps the Soviet state alive for another 40+ years) is equally missing.

And why is this “media opinion”? The texts are mostly American in orientation — Vietnam was something Canada stayed out of, and the country benefitted in many ways from American immigration, yet these people are portrayed in a semi-traitorous fashion.

So is the television — and the videos used in the classroom to avoid reading sources. Disney’s Pearl Harbor is a mandatory teaching resource.

So, too, are the referred websites. It all adds up to acculturation to a foreign land.

My daughter argued in class that World War II could probably be seen to start even before 1939 (Japan in China, the Spanish Civil War warmup, the Rhineland, etc.) but in any event 1 September 1939 (invasion of Poland) and 10 September 1939 (Canadian declaration of war on Germany) … and why our declaration came a week after Britain’s and why that mattered.

She was told she was wrong. She answered test questions this way, and got zeroes. She answered this way on the Provincial Examination for Grade 12 History, took the zero proudly.

I got a lecture from the teacher and school administrator for “failing to support the system” (since it was inconceivable that a 14-year-old could have the moral conviction necessary to stand up to them).

Then there is language itself.

Don’t spend much time on it in the early grades. Keep the works simple, don’t stretch the students.

Don’t teach how to structure an assignment, or do research, until high school — then expect that everyone “knows how” — then refuse to mark spelling, grammar, logical argumentation, etc. so that “the age cohort” stays together and passes through.

I was a sessional faculty member for four years at the Masters’ level at UBC. I read paper after paper where words could not be even misspelt consistently, where sentence structure was lacking, where an argument couldn’t be phrased. My course attracted an average age above 35. Meanwhile part of the cohort was international, and UBC had a partnership with TEC de Monterey (México): the Mexican and international students did superior work to the British Columbian ones.

I could go on, but I hope you get the picture.

What this turns out are people who don’t know that references pre-date 1994 and the invention of the HTML page and web browser (besides, there wasn’t any money for school libraries of any consequence, anyway).

They become people who can parrot the phrases of the zeitgeist (so they’re right up on their “Inconvenient Truth” phraseology, often spoken as they jump in their Hummers, Navigators, etc. and drive a block to their next stop).

They become people who believe that only professional degrees matter (e.g. law, MBA, doctor), and people who live in the most geologically active and varied terranes in the country but know nothing about them (or the risks involved in living on major earthquake faults, subduction zones, a volcanic rim, etc.).

They become people who can’t calculate without a calculator or computer (because they’ve always been allowed and encouraged to use them in classes).

They become people who can’t spell or form a coherent sentence (because it would have damaged their egos to be criticized for their command of English).

They become people who never learn French despite twelve grades’ worth of classes in it (what else can you expect when you use the first seven of those to repeat exactly the same minimalist curriculum each year).

They are people who have spent one of the lowest number of hours per year in school, lose more hours to social construction (e.g. three consecutive 70 minute periods on plagiarism) rather than learning, and find, should they move to another province, that they mustgo back at least one grade due to curriculum differences that underload material.

These are the people, of course, supremely convinced that this is “the best place on earth”. Why not? That’s about all they’ve been told – and, without learning how to think, repeating slogans is the best they can do.

These problems, of course, are not simply found in this one jurisdiction. They are, to a greater or lesser extent, the common lot of North American schooling today.

But these were my children who suffered this.

The real question now is: can we climb back out of the hole we have dug for ourselves?

After two generations, that may well be a challenge, indeed.

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2 Comments

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  1. Wow, Bruce, I am really shocked. How do you feel this compares to education in other parts of Canada? Is B.C. education much worse than the rest of Canada’s?

    • I don’t know the Atlantic provinces’ situation, and Québec’s system is very different in structure and content.

      I hear good things about Manitoba. I get no news on Saskatchewan.

      Ontario is a shadow of its former self, but still better than BC, based on having a son in the system still.

      At least Ontario still teaches history, hasn’t gone down the environmental or First Nations primacy holes, doesn’t mandate as many diversions of class time.

      Alberta’s system intrigues me, if only because they are quite successful at selling it to other countries around the world (turnkey instructional plans, texts, etc.). But it is the stylistic base that BC uses.

      One last point: I was a sessional at the graduate level at the University of Toronto in 1993-4, and again last year, both times in professional faculties. The quality of written work from the North American undergrads who came through has dropped a lot, the internationals have held up.

      So something is badly wrong at the core across this continent, not just in one place. But I have to start with what I’ve actually seen and been involved with, eh?

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