Educating for the Future

Novelist, playwright, and critic, ROBERTSON DAVIESis one of Canada’s most urbane and scholarly writers. His novels, TEMPER TOST and LEAVEN OF MALICE,are masterpieces of wit and satire, and he has done several plays for television and the stage. Mr. Davies is Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.


WHAT would you say was the underlying philosophy of our Canadian education?” I asked the V.I.P. from a great English university. He was a specialist in that realm, and had been taking a long look at our country.

“The Deweyism of the twenties, considerably tempered by Scottish pragmatism and Scottish dourness,” he replied.

Ah, those Scots again! They are indeed a dominant force in Canadian history, beginning with that Scot in Wolfe’s attacking force who was first to scale the Heights of Abraham, and in response to the sentry’s cry of “Qui va là?” summoned up sufficiently good French to disarm suspicion. This unknown bilingual Scotsman was first among thousands of his countrymen to come to Canada, each convinced that education was, after the fear of God, the foremost of obligations, and equally determined that education was a matter of the uttermost solemnity. Education as a refinement of the intellect, education as an adornment of life — these were Frenchified notions, and in Canada to this day they are found chiefly among the French-speaking population. But education that a man might better himself was understood by the Scots and is a force in modern Canada, though people of Scottish descent are no longer a majority.

The idea of bettering oneself through education persists in form, but its content has undergone marked change. The nineteenth-century Scottish settler wanted some intellectual substance for himself, as well as a farm, shop, or mill; further, though he was too much a pragmatist not to keep one son in the family money-making business, he wanted another son for the church, or to be a professor; this was the son who showed how far the family had traveled from the croft in the Highlands. The greatgrandsons of this man frankly want professional status for the reward it brings in money, and it is law or medicine that claims them rather than the pulpit or the lecture room. Education is estranged, if not positively divorced, from intellectuality.

What has brought about the change? In 1784 not one man in five hundred in Canada could read; one hundred and eighty years later less than 4 percent of the total population cannot read. For the first century of that period, reading, writing, and simple arithmetic were the staples of education, with splendid flights into Latin, Greek, and Hebrew for the learned; but at about the turn of the present century the concepts of Froebel training were adopted, to give place in time to what educationists believed to be the theories of John Dewey.

All of this is in tune with what is perhaps the greatest revolution of our time — the establishment of universal literacy. A measure of the success of that revolution is the quality of the discontent that great numbers of people feel about it. Forgetful of how new this widespread literacy is, they find fault with it because it has not brought about a revolution in taste. Everybody can read, they say, but great numbers of people do not read, and of those who do, a majority read trash.

These disillusioned idealists apparently expect that instruction in reading will set free some inborn desire on the part of every citizen to read what is of literary worth. This is a hangover from eighteenthcentury idealism; instruction in reading enables every citizen to read what appeals to him, if anything in print does appeal to him, which cannot be guaranteed. The horse has been led to water, but he must provide his own thirst. Those who hoped that universal education would immediately bring about a revolution are blinded by their disappointment to the real progress the revolution has already made.

The revolution progresses in Canada along lines so similar to those understood in the United States that it would be tedious to describe them in detail. The British North America Act, which brought Canada into being as a united country in 1867, established education as a provincial concern; the Dominion might intervene only to safeguard the rights of minorities. Therefore, we have now ten provincial systems of education in Canada, and if we take heed of the fact that Quebec has virtually two systems — one for the French Catholic population and one for the English-speaking Protestants — the number increases to eleven. The systems are much alike on the elementary and secondary levels. Of the teaching body, about three quarters are women. The most significant difference from the U.S. systems is that in Canada, three quarters of the English-speaking pupils learn French as a second language, as opposed to about one eighth of the students in the United States.

We are officially a bilingual country. It is desirable that every Canadian should be able to speak French, and virtually all children are given instruction which would enable them to do so if they wanted to speak another language. So far, however, their desire to speak any language, including English, well and eloquently has not been overmastering.

THE defects of the eleven systems are obvious, and everyone concerned has a favorite illustrative story. In his recent book about his childhood in Elgin County, Ontario, J. K. Galbraith writes: “Once we had a good teacher, but she was an accident. All the rest were young females diligently but incompetently filling in a few years between puberty and the best available marriage.” But of course! It is unreasonable to expect a female Socrates, or even an educated and cultivated woman, in every classroom; nevertheless, the well-meaning girls from the teachers’ colleges made it possible for hundreds of children — few of them of easy temperament, and some of them ineducable in any formal sense — to read and write and do sums, and for J. K. Galbraith to make a start on a distinguished career. They raised those children immeasurably above their grandparents. This is not the perfection of instruction, but for an unwieldy and expensive structure, it is not a despicable result. Too many critics of education in Canada and elsewhere forget that it works upon the most intractable and varied sort of raw material. They forget that universal education is still an experiment and an unproven one. Within the next century we shall undoubtedly be driven by experience to recognize that no single system of education fits all children, and that some need training so radically different from anything offered now that it cannot be called education in the present sense at all.

What is the present system? “The Deweyism of the twenties,” said the V.I.P. Professor John Dewey might not recognize it, and before he died, he disowned some aspects of it, but the root of his educational philosophy lies buried beneath it and in some measure nourishes it. Dewey turned away from a dead system in which facts were imparted by repetition and little value was given to reasoning. Some facts can be acquired only by memorizing, and the reasoning of children has to be guided if it is to reach conclusions about which there can be no dispute. Therefore, an elaborate teaching method had to be devised and tested in practice. It was inevitable that in this process much of Dewey’s valuable work became distorted or vanished altogether.

Dewey’s ideas were constantly developing and changing, and he was often far ahead of his best pupils. He was intellectually fearless, and often wrong; this did not matter for Dewey, because he could abandon a wrong path and clash off on another. But his less agile followers, seeking a method among his intuitions and brilliant insights, were sure to make mistakes. What were essentially the deeply personal reflections of a brilliant mind were somehow compressed into a methodology and an educational philosophy which could be grasped and put to work by minds which were not always brilliant and were in some cases inferior to those found in the middle ranks of business and the professions.

In Canada, where the world of primary and secondary education tends to be a closed one — for the movement of teachers from province to province is not easy, and study outside the country is discouraged — it was not long before teachers who had themselves been schooled by the methods of Canadian Deweyism were giving instruction in the same general way. No wonder that the infiltration of other educational ideas is slow, and that there is occasional sharp criticism of Canadian university teaching by the teachers in primary and secondary schools. The professors have no method, cry the teachers. The teachers have method, but they don’t understand the subjects they are teaching, reply the professors (who do not have to undergo specific instruction in a methodology). Teach the professors method, and university education can be reduced in length and improved in quality, say the teachers. Put teachers who are educated men and women in the schools, and the first year of university will not be wasted in teaching grammar, elementary logic, and good habits of private study, say the professors. It is a dispute to which there can be no end. It serves, however, to bring us to the third area in Canadian education, the universities.

THERE are thirty-seven Canadian universities,varying greatly in academic standing and range of instruction. The best are by no means wealthy institutions; indeed, their combined endowments do not exceed a billion dollars. It is the more remarkable, therefore, that they exercise a dominant and, some people insist, disproportionate influence on many aspects of the national life. Among our small population it is not altogether a happy thing that so many writers are also academics, and that of these a great number are critics as well as creators. On the other hand, it may be argued that in a land where there is no acknowledged literary capital, and where literary matters do not interest a large public, the universities serve, as did the monasteries in the Middle Ages, to cherish an art that would otherwise languish. Although music has a strong university association, painting has not, and those who talk of university domination assert that it is in painting, of all the arts, that Canada has most distinguished itself. Those who believe that there is some way of comparing achievement in unlike arts may be convinced by such argument.

There can be no doubt that in public affairs Canadian universities have a large and growing influence. It is to them that the Dominion government and the provincial legislatures turn when they want investigation and appraisal in economic and scientific matters, and in some universities there are professors so taken up with this sort of work that it is hard to say whether they are academics or civil servants. The link between our universities and the arts and government is thrown into relief by the smallness of our population. It may also be said that the Scottish pragmatism mentioned by the English V.I.P. as a dominant element in our education extends beyond it, and that Canada feels that the logical place to look for expert appraisal and advice is among experts. More than do some of our sister democracies, we mistrust amateurism.

If this sounds like undue praise of Canadian universities, other facts must be brought forward to establish a balance. In the words of Dean Ernest Sirluck of the graduate school at the University of Toronto, Canada has been “bumming a free ride” too long in the academic world. U.S. foundations have been expected to show a concern for our university welfare not less great than for that of their own country, and in 1962 only 62 percent of the staff members engaged by Canadian universities were Canadians, trained wholly or in part in Canada. We have depended too long on university teachers from Great Britain or the United States. This was chiefly the result of the disparity between university salaries here and in the States, which meant that some of our best young academics went across the border in the old Scots search for betterment. In recent years Canadian university salaries, like those of teachers in primary and secondary schools, have improved, and we are holding more of our own promising young Ph.D.’s. But there is still a great gap to be bridged.

There is also a historic reason for our dependence on Britain and the United States. Not only did we welcome young men from Oxford and Cambridge, and later from Harvard and Yale; we thought them a cut above our home-trained academics, and in most instances we were right. They were better trained, and they brought with them a breath from a larger academic world. This is so no longer. The unusual man who has established himself in some realm of research or scholarship is still sought from abroad, but the Canadian academic, who has probably done some part of his training in the United States, in Britain, or in Europe, is not the backwoods pedant of an earlier day. He must be induced to stay in Canada for pragmatic reasons, not by appeals to patriotism. A Canadian academic knows that, all other things being equal, he serves his country best by doing pretty well for himself; his country will reward him neither with riches nor with a title. It must reward him, therefore, with a decent salary and conditions in which he can do work he believes to be valuable.

What are such conditions of work? Usually they are opportunities to pursue research, with the assistance of a number of capable graduate students, in the laboratories or the libraries that such work makes necessary. In many Canadian universities little or no work is done at the graduate level, the laboratories are for undergraduate instruction, and the libraries are miserable. It is not solely lack of money that creates these conditions. It is often the concept of a university as essentially a school for professional training which quickly established itself in a new country where there was no tradition of scholarship and where hardheaded taxpayers and private benefactors expected that every student should “go through” for something.

For hundreds of years universities have been centers of professional training, in that they gave a man as much as he could absorb of the classical learning which was considered a necessary beginning to any learned profession. Classical learning has lost its prestige everywhere, and in Canada it is little regarded except in Quebec, where French traditional respect for it maintains a lingering influence. Certainly technical training in Quebec lingers far behind that in other provinces, but Quebec universities are still recognizably universities: in the rest of Canada they wear too often the sullen aspect of trade schools, except in the cases of a few large universities where active graduate schools tip the balance in favor of scholarship as opposed to marketable skills.

There is an interesting revolt against this attitude in some of the new universities that are being established, principally, though not wholly, in the East. They are insistent that academic values must be foremost in determining their growth, that a personal relationship between faculty and student must be regained (sometimes by the adoption of a modified tutorial system), and that, whether a student be studying arts, science, or some professional course, he must attend special lectures in the humanities, which expose him to a larger intellectual world.

Although the impetus in this direction has come from the academics, it was warmly approved by many industrialists who have found that technicians may maintain a business yet not have the intellectual training to foresee its future or control its development. In their phrase, “know-why” is of greater value even than “know-how.”

In addition to the formal provincial systems of education and a number of private schools which range in quality from excellent to mediocre, there are three other educational forces at work in Canada which should be mentioned. The first is the National Research Council, founded in 1916 as a Dominion body, which directs research and makes available scientific advice and findings on the highest level which are relevant to Canadian needs. The second is a complementary national body, the Canada Council, founded in 1957 to encourage the arts, humanities, and social sciences by means of grants to institutions, publications, and individuals.

The third educational force continually at work in Canada is its press. To see what it does it is necessary only to compare a newspaper published in a town with a population of 100,000 or less in the United States with a paper in a community of similar size in Canada. The range of news and opinion, international and national, is vastly greater in the Canadian paper.

IT IS difficult for a Canadian to write of Canadian education without falling to some degree into the national habit of discontent because impossibilities have not been made possible. Perhaps, as an indication of the standard reached at matriculation level-grade thirteen in the high schools, in which boys and girls are usually eighteen years of age — the following examination questions may be of use. They are drawn from the history examination put to this group in Ontario last June.

It has been said that the United States Constitution was designed to protect propertied interests. Discuss this view by referring to (a) the underlying weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, (b) the circumstances surrounding the replacement of the Articles of Confederation, and (c) the relevant provisions of the new constitution. . . .

Discuss the role of the protective tariff in United States federal politics beginning with the American system of Henry Clay and continuing to the adoption of the Underwood Tariff in 1913. . . .

Comment briefly upon any five of the following episodes in Canadian-American relations, particularly from the standpoints of the matters in dispute, the means pursued to attain solutions, and the settlements reached. (1) The Maine-New Brunswick Boundary; (2) The Oregon Boundary; (3) Compensation for the Fenian Raids; (4) The Alaska Boundary; (5) The Reciprocity Agreement of 1911; (6) The St. Lawrence Seaway; (7) The North American Air Defence Command (NORAD); (8) The Columbia River Power Project.

These questions are chosen because they relate to matters which are likely to be familiar to U.S. readers. How do you think you would do on an examination of this sort, remembering that the standard of marking, though not cruel, is exacting?

What is Canadian education doing? At the primary school level it is persuading the child that learning is not necessarily disagreeable and that the acquirement of some skills is a part of growing up. In the high schools it is deploying the two main branches of learning, arts and science, and encouraging the pupil to find his bent, without allowing him to specialize in any serious way. In the universities it offers specialist study up to and beyond the graduate level, including much specific professional training. It is performing these tasks in a way which leaves the Canadian citizen, whether he attends a university or not, at no practical disadvantage with a person educated to the same age in either Great Britain or the United States. But Canadians are not satisfied with their education. What can be done to improve it?

My own suggestion is that it might attempt to produce a much greater degree of excellence in a single but important area of study in every child who attends a school, beginning in the earliest grades and continuing straight through the universities, in science as well as in the arts. There are many fancy names for the branch of study I would thus elevate to first importance, but let us call it simply the intelligent use and understanding of language.

All teaching is done by means of language, even when what is taught is in effect another mode of expression, such as mathematics or music. In Canada our particular version of embalmed Deweyism has all but banished the study of grammar, and the haste with which demanding courses of study have to be covered has made the carefully written essay a rarity in school experience. Teachers do not have time to mark such essays, and teachers of subjects other than English are often ready to ignore bad writing because they have to give their attention to so much bad thinking and muddled understanding.

Such abdication of responsibility for teaching good English is excused with all the usual nonsense: “popular usage is the true law of grammar,”“no language can remain static,”“rules crush spontaneity,” and so forth. But no answers are given to the questions raised by the excuses: Whose usage is to be taken as a model? Is comprehensibility indistinguishable from stasis? How do you distinguish spontaneity from anarchy? The essential point is avoided: agreement about meaning is necessary to thought, and critical understanding of language is a means toward evaluation of the thought of others.

English as Canadian students use it, up to university graduation and beyond, reflects this neglect of language in all the familiar ways. Where grammar is shaky, thought is woolly and expression ambiguous or cumbrous. As other languages cannot be learned without some attention to their grammar, foreign grammar —often Latin grammar — creeps into written or formal spoken English with effects comparable to the use of imitation marble in shoddy architecture. In universities students eager for means of expression seize on the jargons of science or criticism and use them inappositely. Such commonplaces of good speech and writing as congruities of vocabulary are strangers to them. An intelligent group of first-year scientists presented me, in an examination on a survey course in drama, with such nuggets as “humour wants [once] more enters the picture,” “Boyle is funny in that he has no shame in lying on the Bible,” “she was pregnant for a child,” and “the Widow Quin speaks only of the mundane things of life (e.g., dung).”Of a class of forty, five could not distinguish between “no” and “know’.” They were not stupid but victims of a system that thinks language is taught by nature. Such a system condemns any of them who are not geniuses to a position in the world far below their true capabilities. And part of the wry comedy is that in later life they, as university graduates, will be accepted by many people as leaders, and their opinions heeded in fields far beyond their specialty.

Perhaps what is wanted is a return to the study of rhetoric, and a fresh consideration of what rhetoric means, for the word has taken on a bad color with the passing of years. But it is not too much, surely, to expect a child in grade four to understand the difference between “Come in, Barney” and “Barney, come in”? If such a child matriculated at the age of eighteen with a competency in grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the result within a generation would be a revolution in politics, in journalism, in theology, and, of course, in education.

The V.I.P. who was quoted accused Canadian education of lacking a clear philosophy; at present it aims at development but not at concentration of intellectual power. Insistence upon skill in the use and appreciation of language would tend toward clarity of information in those subjects where information and deduction from language are the principal aims, and clarity of opinion in those subjects where personal opinion is of value. But its greatest influence would be as a check upon unexamined thought.

This sounds like a demand that all Canadian children come out of school with the elementary equipment of philosophers. Well, why not? Every great system of education has had some clear aim. Jesuit education aimed at making children clear-minded and subtle within specific limits; Thomas Arnold’s system of education aimed at producing Christian gentlemen who knew how to rule. Why should not Canadian education aim at producing a nation of people who know what they are saying and what is being said to them, and who cannot be deceived by the insincerities and fatuities of scoundrels and fools?

Is there any educational aim more desirable for a democracy? Is there any principle more important to a nation made up of many races, which officially has two native tongues and practically has a ravaged and half-crazed version of one of them? Has there ever been a time in history when it was so necessary to know what a writer or speaker hoped to achieve by his utterance, how his aims chimed with his assertions, and what the outcome might be if he got what he wanted?

But how can so great a demand be made of an already burdened system? I think the demand may reasonably be made, if first things are to be put first in Canadian education. If it involves retraining of teachers, or a new sort of teacher, and if it explodes some of the gaseous twaddle that has crept into our curricula, that would be no bad thing. The Deweyism of the twenties has had good innings, and on the whole it has served us well; it would be foolish to throw it over. But Scottish pragmatism and Scottish dourness might well be given even greater weight than in the past, and I can think of nowhere that they might be more effective than in demanding a new approach to the study of language. It is the primary instrument of education, and the key, if not necessarily to truth, at least to a superior version of common sense.