By Matthew Clark
During the summer of 1965 my father took on one of the most challenging endeavours he would ever have to tackle. What was it? While working at a very labour intensive position selling newspaper advertising space to large companies, compromised mostly of Large scale retail stores, he also taught me to read.
My family lived in, what was then, a small community outside of Montreal, Quebec, located alongside the Ottawa River. It was a wonderful place to live for a young boy, and that particular summer was especially enjoyable. Having just completed grade one, my first year of school (no kindergarten for me), I settled down to a summer of leisure. For the most part my parents left me alone, only requiring a few chores to justify earning an allowance. There was one exception however! Every day I was going to read a page from the book 'Clutch Hitter.' My reading skills were atrocious, to the point that my grade one marks were barely above a pass level (in an era when a student could fail a grade). Being illiterate had soured my experience at school that first year. This is a bit of an understatement. I hated school! So in teaching me to read my folks hoped to help me improve my marks, and my attitude towards education.
If I was up early in the morning dad would have me read a page of the book before he went to work. If I was asleep when he left the exercise would happen when he came home from work.
On most occasions it seemed like a futile enterprise. At least to me! Often my reading was so laboured that we would stop after one paragraph had been read. 'Clutch Hitter' had been chosen for the task because it's theme was baseball, a good choice for a sports crazy young boy. In this case it made no difference! Trying to decode the words in the baseball tale was a part of the day I dreaded. Only my father's insistence kept me labouring away.
Eventually a corner was turned. Gradually, through constant repetition, sounds, and words, started to come to me with decreasing effort. After the first month, sentences' started flowing. From dreading the idea of even looking at the book I soon found it impossible to put it down. 'Clutch Hitter' was no sooner finished than other books caught my eye. Following by even more written tales. Generally there were two topics which appealed to me. Sports, and History. Anything covering those two subjects were certain to please.
My mother and father were delighted by this changed circumstance. They reasoned my grades at school were sure to improve. It followed as a foregone conclusion that my new found literacy would result in a better attitude toward classroom learning.
Come September, and with it the new school year, the grades did, indeed, increase. Disappointingly however my attitude regarding education not only failed to improve, but actually deteriorated further. Each weekday morning I would awake, realize it was a school day, then fall into a daydream where some natural disaster occurred, which would free me from class attendance. Later, upon entering the dreaded premises of the elementary academy, knots would form in my stomach, which did not dissolve until morning recess. Fortunately, for my sanity, knowledge that that this condition would repeat itself most mornings (weekends and summers excepted)for the next ten years was denied to me.
During these years I read to learn what I desired to understand . There just seemed little value in what my teachers wanted me to have knowledge of . To the chagrin of my parents my class marks tended toward the bottom level rather than the upper. Not as pathetic as grade one, yet still poor.
Why I had these negative feelings was one of the few circumstances in life that was not questioned. It was enough that the feeling existed, and had existed since first stepping into the halls of Public Education. Only upon entering Grade 13 (which existed in back in my youth in the province of Ontario, where my family had moved from Quebec). The day grade 13 began there were no knots in the stomach, no dreaded unfathomable fears. There was only anticipation of another fine day!
Grade Thirteen was devised as a preparation for University. As a result of this reasoning the subject requirements were more fluid. What requirements there were tended to be poorly enforced. To my delight, and the delight of other students, WE PICKED THE SUBJECTS WE WANTED TO TAKE. Teachers, and guidance counsellors were relegated to the role of advisors! What transpired for me under these conditions was that the final year of high school undid all the negative impressions of my earlier education. Taking the subjects I wanted brought out the best in my academic behaviour. Study habits improved markedly, attendance improved dramatically. Each day in class was an experience to look forward too.
By the end of the academic year I was ready for college, or university. In terms of education my life was rounding out with perfect timing. More mature, better organized, and definitely a better attitude. After taking a year off to better my financial situation, a year employed in an industrial plant labouring at repetitious tasks, my attitude regarding academia improved even more.
Then I entered University! Incredibly the grade 1 to 12 routine, as in academic bureaucrats choose what you will learn, was inflicted on the student body. Even though I was going for a History Degree, there would only be two history courses, out of 5 required, allowed in each of the first two years. Year 3 would increase to 3 history courses, out of 5 total courses required, with year 4 increasing to 4 history courses allowed, out of 5 credits required. Why this strange lack of history credits for individuals who wanted to study history? One answer might be that it coerced the student body into taking subjects that otherwise they would probably not opt to attend. Thus professors, and staff, instructing in anthropology, or natural history, natural science, indigenous studies, or statistical psychology, had a guaranteed (as in captured) market. Along with that situation came job security for the afore mentioned university staff, albeit the result of blatant force used against young people trying to make their mark in life.
Contemporary education in North America is instituted against almost every child with a level of force that is disturbing. Disturbing because the coercion enacted is not only about getting the child to attend class, but also what they will be allowed to study (learn) for the next 16-18years of their lives. Choice is limited to the smallest fraction. Corporations, Unions, and Space Agencies, are given disproportionate weight by education ministries, and colleges/universities, in what curriculum will be taught. Add in the desire to give employment entitlement to professors instructing irrelevant courses, and the obtaining of the average scholastic degree is a truly torturous exercise. Incredibly many educators take some sort of satisfaction in this reprehensible condition.
Nevertheless this enforcement might be justified if it produced independent minded, prosperous citizens, happily engaged in productive lives. Evidence from everyday life suggests this is not happening. To be independent individuals in modern culture requires the ability to read, write, and count. Yet illiteracy is exploding in North America. I have recounted on how my father taught me to read. My mother, a bookkeeper, gave me instruction, very sound instruction, on how to count. If not for both parents I would most probably be illiterate. School certainly did me no favours. Based on contemporary test scores in United States schools, they are also doing their students no favours. In Canada the situation might even be worse. Testing of school children there, is such a convoluted mess, that it is difficult to ascertain at what level Canadian students are performing.
Yet for those who do learn to read, write, and count, there is no respite from being forced to participate in attending completely irrelevant subjects, which they have no interest in. The Grade 12 instructor who tells their math students that trigonometry is a necessary skill for them to acquire, is living in a fantasy land. For the few students going into math, or science areas it is a required ability. For the bulk of people the classroom hours spent learning it is a complete waste of time. General education should be limited to the grade 5 level. By the age of 1o, or 11, most students are aware of what they excel in, and what they do not. So do their parents. However it is the educators who decide what they can, and cannot, take. This level of coercion against parental, and personnel choice, by an academic cabal, is destroying learning in North America. Again observe the decrease in school performance by our youth. Teachers report on a student body growing with indifference. Somehow the students, and parents, are blamed for this situation. Educators should scrutinize the conditions they impose on these youth before absolving themselves of blame.
As mentioned one step to generate enthusiasm for classroom learning is to allow for greater choice of subjects for young people from grade 5 onwards. A failure to open up decision making for young people, and their parents, could well result in the continued deterioration of North America's banal system of public learning. On the other hand recognizing the value of free choice in academic instruction could be the tonic to renew the preeminence of North American education!