Lest history repeat itself, Ontario has laid the educational groundwork for a new generation of students who appreciate the perils of interest rates and debt, and know the real cost of borrowing money.
The province's Ministry of Education has released comprehensive teacher guidelines that identify places in the Grade 4 through 12 curriculum where financial literacy can be inserted into classes as varied as mathematics, computer science and native studies.
Ontario's is one of a number of education systems across the globe that, in the wake of the recent financial meltdown, were forced to take a hard look at how debt and personal finances were treated inside the classroom. Many Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario, have since been looking for ways to inject financial literacy into their curriculums.
The question is, will it be enough?
Probably not, says Gail Bebee, the author of No Hype: The Straight Goods on Investing Your Money, who also teaches night courses on investment planning for the Toronto District School Board.
Ontario's new guidelines are "just a resource guide, what the teachers can use if they want to … which is all well and good, but what I couldn't see was a list of the core competencies which the education system is trying to impart on students by the time they graduate," she said.
She pointed to Utah as an example of a better system. Since 2008, high-school students in that state have been required to complete a half-credit course called "general financial literacy" to graduate.
In mandating the course, the Beehive State has taken a stronger tack than Canadian provinces, which have generally stuck to sprinkling financial literacy throughout existing courses.
Ontario, for example, suggests that in high school, "when studying classical civilizations, students could address aspects of trade, economics and use of money in ancient times," according to the new teacher guidelines.
The idea is that by spreading the financial lessons out, they'll reach more than just those who are already inclined toward math and business courses. There's also an advantage to disguising the lesson, said Casey Cosgrove, director of the Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy.
"If you don't call it 'financial literacy' it seems to be quite appealing to kids," he said. "I think Ontario's taken a huge step in the right direction."
Devan Aris, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Thomas A. Blakelock High School in Oakville, Ont., thinks finance is fascinating. He understands mortgages and interest rates and how they contributed to the recent recession, but he says he gained that knowledge through a combination of part-time jobs, his parents and an optional Grade 10 business course.
"There's lots of kids who don't have jobs and they just use their parents' money so they don't get too concerned about how they spend it," he said.
Data support his claim: In a 2008 survey by Credit Canada, only 13 per cent of teens said they knew a lot about managing money, and they ranked taking a class in school as the best way to learn about it.
Financial literacy has become such a hot topic in education that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is investigating the best ways to learn about it. Next year, for the first time, when 15-year-olds across the globe write the OECD's math, reading and science tests that are used to rank the world's education systems, some will also be tested on financial literacy. Eighteen countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, have decided to participate, but Canada opted out.
In Ontario, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky said she was confident that the new guidelines would inject more personal finance into the classroom.
"There are lots of opportunities that I think that teachers are going to be able to introduce the concept of borrowing money and making payments and how the interest adds to the overall price," she said. "I think that concept is really important."