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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 15, Number 3, Jan./Feb. 2003

The new class system at Canadian high schools

In my current incarnation as a columnist with The Globe, the three pieces to elicit the most passionate reader response have been:

  1. A pipe smoker questioning the amount of public deference we accord religious belief.

  2. A cultural gripe suggesting that Yesterday isn’t really a very good song.

  3. The piece that appeared last week concerning proposed changes in British Columbia schools.

Make what you like of it, but what astounds me is that the latter column was about what I thought to be a local issue.

I have always found it puzzling that education is a provincial responsibility; all very grassroots, but it also localizes an institution that affects the country as a whole—at least as much as, say, agriculture—so that by the time we acknowledge a national trend, it may be a done deal.

My complaint had to do with a B.C. initiative in which children at the age of 16 choose Pathway Concentrations focussing them in a specific career direction and putting behind them other interests they might have pursued, such as fine arts. To me, this presented the ominous spectre of a class system based upon artificially induced personal horizons.

In response, a writer from Quebec wryly observed that, as a more advanced province, its education department introduced a system virtually identical to the B.C. proposal some 20 years ago, entitled Collège d’Enseignement Général et Professionnel. Apparently it’s a disaster, in which only about a quarter of students in the General program graduate on schedule. Remember the old days when General was a euphemism for Stupid? Talk about self-fulfilling.

Next, I hear that Ontario has created something called Destination Streams—which are like Pathway Concentrations, only more wet and subject to the pull of gravity. Apparently, Ontario students who reach Grade 8 must decide whether to take Applied or Academic courses in Grade 9. However, if the student’s chosen Destination Stream is university, he/she will need at least an 85% average to get in—if the family can afford it at all. (I went to Mount Allison on 65% in 1965.) Meanwhile, about 20% can’t cope with the curriculum as it is.

Which means about 63,000 kids currently in high school have no hope of graduating, to accompany B-average academics with no hope of getting into university. Perhaps they can team up on the planning and execution of bank heists and break-and-entry—there’s a Destination Stream for you. What’s going on? Is this an attempt to lower wages through supply and demand, by flooding the market with labour? Or does the concept that individuals can slot into denominations like coins in a vending machine represent the one model our provincial politicians understand?

I’m reminded of the Laffer Curve, an elegantly simple economic model whose only drawback is that it is false. Nonetheless, the Laffer Curve formed the basis for Reaganomic—because it suited Reagan’s personal ideology, and because he could get his head around it. Just as the Laffer Curve appealed to Republicans in the 1980s, just as phrenology and eugenics appealed to conservatives of the last two centuries, I wonder if the theory behind this trend in education represents a similar attempt of conservatives to remodel Canadian civil society from the ground up. After all, many prominent and vocal Canadians don’t like Canada much. Their arguments are well-represented in The National Post. And if you want to change a country, get them while they’re young.

At the same time, given that we live in a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, how in hell do these people think Canada got this way? Was it our natural resources? Russia has plenty of natural resources, as do Brazil and Argentina. Proximity to the United States? So has Mexico. Is it our social cohesion, our huge population base, our brilliant leaders, our military might? Oh, please. What has set Canada apart, especially since the Second World War, has been a relatively egalitarian public-school system—a relative meritocracy in which, by effort and talent, it’s possible for a person to choose and excel in the field in which he/she is interested, whether or not he/she chooses the right parents. Something wrong with this idea? A bit messy for some people? Too many arrivistes hopping onto the class above, lacking proper table manners, accents, skin tone? Where are we going here? Do we want to be like France, where positions in the bureaucracy are bequeathed like heirlooms from one generation to the next? Or the U.S., where it’s not considered the least bit strange to name a future industrialist Henry Ford III? Do we want a British-style aristocracy, whose offspring develop underbites at the right schools, with positions of privilege awaiting them like seats at the opera?

Of course I may be biased. My great-grandfather was a farmer; my grandfather was a yardman for the CNR; my father worked for an insurance company; my siblings include two musicians and a teacher. Not so upwardly mobile on the income scale perhaps, but in terms of personal horizons, it represents an expansion I had always assumed to be the Canadian way.

If this is no longer the way things work, someone should at least explain why.

Source: John MacLachlan Gray, The Globe and Mail, November 26, 2002, jmgray@globeandmail.ca