Books are vehicles of insight

If it seems odd that I would defend print media by using this digital media that you read on a screen, let me explain.

Conceptual Books

We might be reading less print media but we are not reading fewer words says Dr. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We are reading more than 100,000 words a day,” she told CBC’s Spark, “but it is fragmented; not the immersive, sustained, deep reading of our past”

According to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” and internet media are designed to be distracting through the interjection of various animations, popups and social media that create a “cognitive storm,” says Dr. Wolf. Kindle and other book readers are a bit better but not as good as the immersive media of a book.

Media on the internet involve an evolutionary mechanism of “what’s next.” It’s a state of mind that’s useful in scanning our environment for potential dangers and opportunities. In evolutionary terms, it’s useful to know when food becomes available or when a poisonous snake is on the path. But multitasking is not a good mental state for quiet contemplation.

Reading is not something we have evolved to do. We are not born to read, Dr. Wolf told TVO on YouTube. A child will naturally develop other skills like vision and speech but reading is an acquired skill in which mental circuits have to be reassigned from vision and language in order to read. It’s a window that opens to take us beyond what we were originally programmed to do.

Because reading is not innate, it requires effort to develop. Even then, there are complications. As the mother of a dyslexic child, Dr. Wolf is acutely aware that reading development of cannot be taken for granted. Parents have to expose children to books at an early age. By ages five to seven, mental circuits have been sufficiently integrated to develop an automatic system that accesses the deep reading process.

Slow, deep reading requires focus.

“The book is an amazing vehicle for the elicitation of our critical intellectual processes and our own, if you will, vehicle of insight,” Dr. Wolf says. “It’s an amazing invention because the book as we know it is something that we can turn to, and be completely by ourselves, and with nothing else be transported literally, emotionally, socially, intellectually, into the perspective of another.”

Writing is the opposite. In preparing this column I listened to a radio program, watched a video, and read online references. That these words on your screen have any meaning at all is a testimony to the power of the written word. If all goes well, the ideas will unfold as you read.

While these ideas may be thought-provoking, I have no illusions that this column requires deep concentration. The value of short articles such as this is to introduce ideas that can be explored at depth in books (which I don’t read enough of). From my own experience of reading online, I suspect that you are already looking for “what’s next.”

 

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The trouble with Steven Galloway

Award-winning Kamloops author Steven Galloway has problems of his own making. They could have been avoided.

Penguin Speakers' Bureau

Penguin Speakers’ Bureau

Galloway was raised in Kamloops and attended the University College of the Cariboo in the 1990s before it became Thompson Rivers University; where I taught for twenty years.

Galloway is best known for his 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo which sold 700,000 copies, was translated into twenty languages, and had film options. His career took off and he became chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia on July 1, 2015.

A year ago, Professor Galloway was dismissed from the writing program and has since been fired by UBC, which cited “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members.”

His firing set off a storm in Canadian literary circles. University of Victoria faculty of the Writing department signed a letter critical of the firing process, a letter also signed by literary heavyweights such as Margaret Atwood. UBC’s faculty association said it has serious concerns with the administration’s “misleading public and private comments regarding Professor Galloway.”

Former students don’t see it that way. They say he fostered a sexualized atmosphere, drank regularly with students and played favourites –bringing some students into his inner circle while casting others out.

Reporter Kerry Gold investigated some of those misadventures in her feature-length article in The Walrus (December, 2016). Galloway would convene Thursday-night sessions in a local canteen known as the Legion with up to ten students. “The group would stay late, consuming alcohol at a pace that made some uncomfortable,” says Gold.

Galloway’s former teaching assistant, Erin Flegg, says the sessions became an informal part of the curriculum. Participants would vie for Galloway’s approval and the rewards it could bring: references, teaching positions, introductions to agents and publishers.

One night in 2012 was particularly rowdy when they met after graduation. It wasn’t late but Galloway had quite a lot to drink, a witness told Gold. “It’s time,” Galloway said, as he got up and slapped the face of a female student next to him. It was revenge for what she had said in class –that she didn’t like Galloway’s writing. Galloway then responded that he would like to slap her face but that he would wait until she was no longer a student.

Partying with students is a bad idea. As a high school teacher and later an instructor at TRU, my policy was never to date or revel with students. The obvious problem is the power differential. Teachers have the power to promote students and advance their careers.

Another student hoped to get into Galloway’s writing class and was drawn into to the struggle for his attention. “He invited her to come drinking,” says Flegg, “That’s how the relationship began. The power dynamics were there from the start.” The two had a relationship for three years.

Intimate relationships are a temptation for teachers. For me, I only had to remind myself that I had been placed in a position of trust: the betrayal of which would diminish me and my profession, and would harm my students.

Supreme Court backs B.C. teachers

The government of B.C. has lost its battle with teachers and education will improve as a result. Education spending in B.C. is now the second lowest per student in Canada.

BC education spending is 2nd lowest (CCPA)

BC education spending is 2nd lowest (CCPA)

It was an irrational battle. When Premier Clark was education minister, she tore up the contract with teachers that allowed for bargaining rights related to class size and composition.  It’s galling to think that a member of the government’s government would brag about an bill of parliament that would break a legal contract but here’s what she said in Hansard (January 26, 2002) in support of the bill:

“I am so proud to speak in support of this bill, and I look forward to getting on with the job of building a top-notch education system for British Columbia (Vancouver Sun).”

How could a reduction in spending improve education, you might wonder. Other than a vague suggestion that “choice” was the answer, under-spending and quality education remain contradictions.  Faced with a loss in the Supreme Court, now she is now ready to bargain:

“We’re going to sit down and talk about two really important clauses in the contract, the contract stays in place, labour peace stays in place,” she told CKNW.

With a looming election in B.C., I can understand why her priority is labour peace. But if she’s really keen about resolving the issue quickly, bargaining would not be necessary says BCTF president Glen Hansman:

“Either we reopen bargaining with the restored language as the floor from which we are negotiating – or the government could take a more reasonable approach and say, ‘Let’s proceed with the language restored’ and put the funding in place so we could hire those people and get them into schools,” he told the Globe and Mail (November 10, 2016).

As well as being contrary, Clark is sometimes disingenuous. She extols the virtue of school boards while scapegoating them. She told parliament in 2002:

“And I should point out to the House that school boards, as you know, are locally elected by people in their communities. Their purpose is to reflect the needs of their local communities.”

Clark knows full well that school boards are the ones who must bear the brunt of underfunding. They may be elected by the people but they can be fired if they don’t do the government’s dirty work. The B.C. government has downloaded a whole array of costs, which the government controls but doesn’t provide funding for such as increased BC Hydro rates, MSP, Employment Insurance, WorkSafeBC, the carbon tax, and most recently the teaching of computer coding which will require more equipment –a doomed plan as I outlined in an earlier column.

Clark might argue otherwise, but we can afford to bring funding up to national levels. In terms of GDP, funding has actually dropped in B.C. despite claims that it is at “record levels.”

We can’t afford not to spend money on education. Real estate is worth more now to the provincial economy than the B.C. forestry, natural gas and mining industries combined but eventually we will have to rely on a well-educated work force. Why delay that inevitability?

Is spending on B.C. education really at “record levels?”

The BC Liberals claim in a fact sheet that spending on education is at record levels. A reality-check shows otherwise. Sure, spending is up if you consider only dollar amounts. When inflation is factored in, a different outcome emerges: there is no increase at all.

CCPA on Twitter

CCPA on Twitter

For example, from 2009 to 2013 B.C. education spending increased by 5.6 per cent which is almost exactly the rate of inflation. Across Canada, spending is actually increasing. It’s up by 12.3 per cent according to the Canadian Centre for  Policy Alternatives. Their assessment of the BC Liberals’ claim is blunt:

“As much as government may like to brag about the dollar amounts of funding, ignoring the basic inflation rate and other cost pressures obscures the meaning of those numbers.”

Spending is not at record levels and spending per student is dismal. Compared to the rest of Canada. B.C. is second last with PEI at the bottom. Alberta is second highest with Manitoba at the top.

However, Premier Clark can truthfully boast about record spending in one area. Funding for private schools has increased at more three times the rate of public schools over the past ten years, and is now projected to reach $358 million in the 2016/17 school year.

Premier Clark clearly likes private schools: she sends her son to St. George’s School in Vancouver at a cost of about $20,000 per year. In welcoming a new parliamentary secretary to the minister of education for private schools, she said: “I’m pleased to have him joining our excellent team of parliamentary secretaries, advocating for independent schools throughout B.C.”

She is mistaken in the belief that private schools are better. Student performance is affected by their parents’ socioeconomic status. In a study by Statistics Canada and reported by the CBC, the success of students is a result of resources at home.

“For example, compared with public school students, higher percentages of private school students lived in two-parent families with both biological parents; their total parental income was higher; and they tended to live in homes with more books and computers,” the report says.

Premier Clark makes it evident that she no intention in catching up with the rest of Canada on spending. In her mandate letter to Mike Bernier, Minister of Education, she instructs him not to increase spending:

“1. Balance your ministerial budget in order to control spending and ensure an overall balanced budget for the province of British Columbia.”

At first glance, the plan to close underutilized schools seems perfectly rational until you consider the details. They count computer labs, art and music rooms, as “empty” because they are shared by all students. By this warped calculation, a school with seventeen full classrooms and three “empty” rooms would be only 85 per cent full.

Despite all the perky talk about how great Clark’s government is doing, the real agenda of the BC Liberals is clear: keep spending on public schools low and ensure that private schools are available to the deserving rich.

The PMO and the government of Canada

Immigrants are not getting a whole story of the way our government works. They are given a study booklet called Discover Canada, the Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship in preparation for becoming citizens.

democracy

The booklet describes the traditional branches of government but fails to mention one of the most powerful agencies of government, the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s not even mentioned in our statutes or constitution. The rise in power of the PMO can rightfully be labeled a coup.

For your enlightenment, future citizens of Canada, here’s what the government’s booklet is not telling you.

The Prime Minister’s Office is not a spot where the prime minister has an office. Rather it is a powerful agency staffed by approximately 100 people from the prime minister’s party. They are loyal to the prime minister alone, certainly not to elected members of parliament and not even to minsters of state.

The PMO does the bidding of the prime minster, to shape the PM’s public image and to tell ministers of government what to say and do. This is the opposite to what you are told in the booklet which suggests that ministers of government advise the prime minister on important matters.

Like members of the senate, members of the PMO are not elected. Unlike members of the senate, they do not represent regions of Canada, do not necessarily have any experience in business or politics, and are not even a mix of appointees from past and present governments.

Their lack of experience can lead to tensions. Such tensions came to light during the investigation of a senator accused of taking a bribe. Loosened from the bonds of loyalty, Senator Mike Duffy told the Senate:

“Today, you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO. That’s what this Senate’s about, sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

You will rarely hear such candid remarks from members of the government because, you see, the prime minister will fire them if they get out of line. It’s the kind of fear you would expect from an employer/employee relationship but it’s no way to run a government. The prime minister should take direction from his party and parliamentarians.

The PMO has become so powerful that it can act without even the knowledge and approval of the prime minister. The extent of this power was revealed through the release of emails in the investigation of alleged bribery by Senator Duffy. It turns out that many members of the PMO knew about the payoff to the senator but not the prime minister. Even the prime minister’s close friend and chief of staff knew and never told the PM.

This is only one case that we know of where the PMO acted independently of the prime minister. It’s a dangerous subversion of parliamentary democracy. There may be others.

The growing power of the PMO illustrates how unelected agencies can wield power and run out of control of their supposed masters.

Strive to restore democracy to Canada, future citizens! Restore integrity to our democratic institutions.

History: what is it good for?

      “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there (L. P. Hartley).”

The past seems mysterious. Noble savages appear as apparitions out of the mist. Prairie schooners drift across the cloud-strewn horizon buoyed by waves of grass.

Or, maybe not. Maybe the past is ancient history: over and done with. Get on with life.

what_is_history

History is a bore. That’s how some students in Professor Tina Loo’s UBC class feel. Their comments are hardly uplifting. “Professor Loo tries hard, but what can you do with Canadian history” and “Wake me when it’s over.” The end of history can’t come soon enough for them.

What do we want from history? “A lot, as it turns out,” says a weary Loo in Canada’s History magazine.

A safe point of agreement is that dry facts are ancient history. At one time the recital of dates was used to test history.  Now they are no more history than arithmetic is part of mathematics. “The Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867,” may be true but without the context of our territory being swallowed by the U.S. the fact is meaningless.

We expect history to be a teacher. If we don’t learn from history, the saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it. Without any real evidence to back the claim, the past can apparently predict the future. True, current events may have echoes in the past but do they predict the future? Stock market investors sure hope so.

“Or it’s a judge,” offers Loo. Is Stephen Harper the greatest prime minister that Canada ever had? History will be the judge. History as judge evaluates the legacy of leaders in the context of a larger narrative. History, like hindsight, is 20/20.

History is reconciliation. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission has wrapped up after touring the country for 4 years, listening to stories of cruelty and abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care.  The effect has been cathartic. “A lot of people got healed just by telling their story,” said 80 year old Vicki Crowchild of the Tsuu T’ina Nation, just outside of Calgary.

We want history to tell us who “we” are. Canadian identity is shaped by historical events. The struggle of the prairie populist Tommy Douglas to bring universal health care is a story we take pride in telling.

We want to be amused. “Finally, and not least, we consume history –literally as heritage foods, and figuratively, as entertainment, whether in the form of documentary films, historic sites, or museum exhibits,” says Loo.

While we may want history to teach and judge, are we prepared for the lessons and judgments that history offers? What we find might not be flattering such as the settler colonialism that stole the land of indigenous people, or the racist policies that ended in Japanese internment camps, or discriminatory Chinese head taxes.

What history has to offer is an argument, not a quarrel, not just the facts. “We should expect — even demand — of history and historians is an argument, and interpretation based on evidence and a deep understanding of context.”

Prime Minister’s Primer on Parliament

I notice that you keep butting heads with the Supreme Court, Prime Minister, so I’ve prepared this little guide on the role of the court in government.

Governments are made of three parts. It’s a system that goes way back to the Greeks. Each of the parts is purposely separate from the others to provide a distribution of powers. It’s preferable to an absolute monarchy in which one person runs the whole show. It’s a messy way of doing things, I know, but it safeguards democracy.

separation

We don’t have to go all the way back to the Greeks to understand the system. Since you value the family, let’s go back to your childhood growing up in the suburbs of Toronto and imagine that your rotten sister has taken your Etch A Sketch and won’t give it back.

Your dad told her long ago that she can’t take things that don’t belong to her. This is an example of the Legislative branch of government. In Canada, parliament makes the laws.

So you tell your big brother and he goes to your sister to get the Etch A Sketch back. This is an example of the Executive branch of government consisting of the prime minister and cabinet who control the army. Your rotten sister says that she didn’t steal your Etch A Sketch; that you lent it to her.

The dispute is brought before your mom who listens to both sides. Can you imagine what branch of government this represents, Prime Minister? That’s right, it’s the Judicial branch. Your mom weighs the evidence and decides that the rotten sister has, indeed, taken your Etch A Sketch. As punishment, she will not be allowed to watch her favourite TV show “Leave it to Beaver” for two weeks.

All kinds of bad things can happen when one part tries to control the others.

Look at what happened last year, when the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected government and threw everyone else out. Your attempt to stack the Supreme Court with your appointees is not quite the same, but you get the idea: don’t mess with the independence of another part.

When you try to affect the outcome of the Supreme Court, that’s an example of one branch (the executive) trying to influence another (the judicial). The lack of separation of powers is bad for  Canada.

Not only is it a bad thing to do, Prime Minister, it doesn’t even seem to be working. Even though you appointed the majority of justices to the Supreme Court, they keep ruling against you: a total of six times recently.

Now, pay attention to what I’m about to tell you. Your latest plans to invade the internet privacy of Canadians (Bill C-13) will bring you more grief. This bill collides with a recent court ruling that says you can’t search Canadians’ internet use without a warrant and yet your bill proposes to do exactly that. Withdraw the bill or face the consequences of another court challenge in which the outcome will almost certainly go badly –again.

I hope you liked my little primer. As a retired teacher, I’m always ready to help.