Friday, October 23, 2009



Your guest, Leonard Sax, only proved how little genuine scholarship and hard thinking often go into discussions of education.

First he told us of research showing the differences in brain development between boys and girls at a young age – actually pretty fatuous research since the difference is a practical reality that any person of moderate observational powers, having passed through public education at any time over the last century or so, took for granted.

When your interviewer remarked that such research would seem to say that segregated classes might then be necessary in general, we got a cotton-mouth response typical of the education establishment, “No, I wouldn’t go that far in making a generalization.”

Of course, the sad truth is much of what passes for scholarship in education is extremely feeble stuff.

I remember when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto reading announcements of PhD theses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. There was always some genuinely comical stuff, virtual parodies of serious scholarship, Monty Python does educational research. Many professors then at U of T actually objected to the University’s granting degrees for OISE because of its poor standards of scholarship.

And I’m afraid this is a general condition. Even at a world-class institution like Harvard, a prominent member of the education faculty expounds a notion of multiple intelligences, a notion having absolutely no science to it. Many public schools in the U.S. actually have posters in classrooms proclaiming the notion of multiple intelligences as though it were education’s equivalent to Maxwell’s Laws on Electromagnetism.

Of course, for years, education faculties quoted the University of Chicago’s Bruno Bettelheim as though he were an authority - that is, until we discovered the famous child psychologist was a fraud and an abuser of children.

There are endless examples of this sort of thing in education, all tending to point to the fundamental truth that teaching is neither a profession, in the sense that there is a basic body of knowledge and standards, nor a science. It is a skill, and the way to hone a skill is to get on with it, not to talk about it.

Ontario’s public education establishment has done nothing but flip-flop decade after decade, going from one half-considered notion to another.

First, tests were important, then they were not so important. First, plenty of homework was vital, then it was not so vital. First, there was zero tolerance for violence, then not really. First, report cards were important means of summing progress, then they were reduced to bland phrases from a computer. First, failure was an important tool, then everyone passed. First, teachers were authority figures, then they were mere facilitators. One could actually write an embarrassingly long list of such complete nonsense.

Any other institution which behaved in such a wildly erratic manner would become the butt of jokes and would fail utterly.

The only difference for our schools is that no one is allowed to say they are failing, but they are, because Canadians are not genuinely competitive in international comparisons, and, in a globilized world, there really is only a world standard for our children’s future opportunities.

One suspects that all this meaningless arm-flapping represents an ongoing effort by “professional educators” to avoid true responsibilities and the hard realities of education, regularly announcing a new notion as a solution, much like still another new elixir from yet another quick-money quack rolling his travelling road show into town.

Fill the classrooms with competent teachers – there are many, but there are also many incompetents protected by their union.

Give them a reasonable curriculum – the current one in Ontario is also right out of Monty Python - and the resources they require, especially libraries and computers.

Then give them the authority they need – authority against the many politically-correct principals and, importantly, against whining, overly-interfering parents.

Stream kids according to their proven abilities, kids having no talent for academics only clog the classrooms and themselves miss alternate forms of education – e.g., shop - that might excite them and give them something of value for their futures.

Open teaching up to all talented and interested people – retired professionals, artists, musicians, businessmen, and others wishing to teach full or part-time – without the need for that most discreditable of all academic documents, a degree from an education faculty which is a guarantees of no hard knowledge or skill or even affection for teaching kids.

Those and a small number of other measures would increase the effectiveness of our schools immensely. As trite as it sounds, we really do need to emphasize basics.