Irvin Studin is President of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine.
How should Canada educate its kids as it emerges from the Great Quarantine? There is perhaps no more fundamental question for our country and its future.
My answer will seem paradoxical and may sting, but it is heartfelt and considered: The primary imperative of Canadian education, post-quarantine, must absolutely not be to keep our kids “safe.”
To be clear, a “safe” education in Canada in the context of the brutal world to come will not only ill-prepare our next generation for success as citizens, but it may well spell the eventual death of our own country – a country that, for the first time in modern history, will truly need to fight for its life. “Safety” is therefore not the “objective function” that our political and education leaders ought to be maximizing as they prepare to publish their education plans for this fall. Nay, reasonable safety must instead act as a constraint on the proper goal of Canada’s post-quarantine educational posture: to ensure that a Canadian education is the world’s best – full stop, without excuses, qualification or sentimentality.
The Canada pivoting out of the quarantine will be poorer, more anxious and more surrounded by continental and global instability than at any time since the Second World War. We have a quasi-closed border with the United States – our primary economic partner and a military ally – which, in judgment, will not necessarily wish or otherwise be able to defend us in all scenarios. In population terms, the countries of which we’ve made enemies (or that have made enemies of us) are twice as great as our allies. Up to a fifth of our population may soon be unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. Interprovincial borders and restrictions suddenly physically separate our population of 38 million across the world’s second largest land mass. Countless Canadian businesses will have been forced into bankruptcy or some species of regulatory purgatory for any foreseeable future.
In short, our country is not educating a next generation of suburban children preparing to live the good life in highly stable, predictable, happy circumstances. Tomorrow is not, as it was in yesteryear, like today.
We Canadians will have to think for ourselves – with an emphasis on the word “think.” And after we “think,” we will have to know how to act with great seriousness. A serious people is one that knows in its bones that failure comes with grave, often existential consequences.
So the national posture on education this fall must be one of total excellence, recognizing that other world nations with which we will be competing – on friendly or unfriendly terms – will be coming out of the gates hard, with purpose, to win the brain games of this young century.
We must teach our kids to think and compete hard, or the kids of other countries will think for them. And a country whose future adults cannot think – or are not a serious generation, fit for challenges of the times – will, if it can even continue to exist, be operating strictly on the terms of other countries (perhaps very unhappily).
In September, then, when the bell rings, I do not want to see “zombie schools” in Canada, with students and teachers engaged in pantomime learning – online or in class – on the pretext that a “normal” education is “not safe.” The epidemiological case for grave strictures on kids is weak, and even weaker still if governments do the requisite work of testing, contact-tracing and vulnerable-population protection in the coming three months to ensure that schools reopen this fall at standards uncompromised by public paranoia, political theatre or the high policy sin of “un-thinking.”
If the present national posture on education is, understandably, an essentially “unthinking” one – captured by the general stupor of the pandemic and national emergency – then let us correct it with speed. (A frightened fighter instinctively flees when punched, but a thinking boxer knows that a punch, counterintuitively, requires an immediate counterpunch.) The current kitsch of online learning as a presumed “safe” substitute for real-life classroom, playground and school community dynamics fails to impress. If there is a movement to generalize virtual instruction as the default norm in Canada, I shall be the first to call it a fraud. Kids need not only intellectual and technical rigour, repetition, correction and collision obtained from direct contact with teachers, classmates and friends, but they learn perhaps most from the game-playing, competition, collaboration, conflict, adventure and intrigue that come from a proper school year at a proper school, underpinned by proper pedagogical choreography and intent.
Twenty years hence, we might imagine two conversations among our grown-up Canadian kids, living in an extremely complex, contested world.
The first: What high school did you go to? Was it a good or bad website? Oh, and why didn’t you get a good education? Answer: Because the government said it was unsafe. My parents agreed. They were all protecting us, sincerely.
The second: How did your generation build such an amazing country in such difficult circumstances? How is it that you yourself have achieved such great things in life? Answer: Our country gave us the best education in the world, in the face of forbidding pressures.
I much prefer the second conversation. I suspect our kids would too.
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