Quick Notes on “Romeo and Juliet” at the Citadel Theatre

I’ve been a little hard on The Citadel Theatre (and its audiences)  and Tom Woods in the past, but, I have to say, the current staging of Romeo and Juliet is a tremendous, thoughtful romp.  Sadly, there are only a few days left in its run — could one imagine it being held over?

Wood’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream two seasons ago was a pleasant enough treatment, a painless entry to Shakespeare for school kids and those wishing to avoid challenge.  It was comfortable.

Wood’s Romeo and Juliet also has a degree of comfort, but it is, thankfully, and in spite of the youth of the characters, a fully adult outing.  In the opening slow-motion melee of Capulet and Montague women and men, blood is drawn front and centre, by a dirk to the eye, no less.  Mercutio’s (Jamie Cavanagh) life’s blood oozes from a belly wound, Tybalt’s (Nick Abraham) face is beaten in, and Friar Lawrence (Jamie Williams) delivers his opening monologue on herbs from a very unusual position.  Wood has given an interesting subtext to the relationship between Tybalt and Lady Capulet (Mabelle Carvajal) – they got a thing going on – which perfectly emphasizes the youth of the Lady — she is roughly twenty-six as written.  There is  desperate clutching for life in deadly feud- and plague-ruled Verona.

The matinee show I saw featured Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Shaina Silver-Baird, the “young Romeo and Juliet” – two pairs of actors alternate in the roles.  McMurtry-Howlett, all wiry and hopped up on youth and love with golden curls on top, put me in mind of young Brent Carver in the same role in 1976.  Silver-Baird, perhaps not everyone’s idea of Juliet, is a head-strong fire-plug, controlling her situation – and the stage – with an unexpected certainty.  In short, a teenage girl.  Any idea that these are two foolish, mooning, love-struck youth is immediately erased by Silver-Baird’s Juliet’s determination.  Indeed, because Wood has banished the Chorus from the opening, replacing him with a plainsong choir, Romeo and Juliet are not “star-crossed” on this stage. The sole cause of their tragedy is that Friar Lawrence’s letter did not reach Mantua.  We believe their love will last.

A technical note:  I was pleased, particularly after the over-amplified but spectacular Mary Poppins next door, that for Romeo and Juliet the Citadel set aside the microphones.  It was so good to hear the actors voices coming from where the actors actually stood, instead of them all being gathered in an unidentifiable place somewhere over my head.  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve always felt that, given a space with appropriate acoustics, actors should use their talents and their actual voices to reach the audience.  It was gratifying to see this cast reminding us that whatever technical wonders are available, theatre is at its essential, an actor and an audience.  With just their voices, Tom Wood’s direction, and Shakespeare’s words, the cast from the Robbins Academy held us spellbound for three hours – no small feet in our 140 character world.

Romeo and Juliet will be at the Citadel Theatre on the MacLab stage until April 27.

 

Just for fun, when I got home, I rooted around and found my copy of the poster from the 1976 John Neville directed production starring Brent Carver:

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A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”

Here the great age opens.  Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of science — no, more than that, the great collective work of art of the twentieth century.

J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 330

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When I was twelve years old I watched a most remarkable television program.  This program did not so much change my life — I was twelve, just barely conscious of a life as something my own — as it set the primary intellectual course of my life.  My parents generously bought me the big book that was basically a transcript of the show.  I have treasured that book for forty years.

I’ve recently finished a reread of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and I found it an exhilarating, inspiring experience again.  But the sweetness is tempered by a sad and tragic bitterness on which I will touch.  Bronowski’s gentle, wise voice confirms the reality of what I am always nostalgic for: a time when the “developed” world valued science, when evolution was not a battle ground, when pseudo-sciences like astrology were a joke or entertainment, like today’s reality television or Fox News.  I am always nostalgic for a time I remember when knowledge was something to be strived for through science, and belief was expected by all to be challenged.

I’ve mentioned to friends that I feel today as though at the moment I started studying the Middle Ages in 1980, the world around me began an intellectual rush backward to that very time.  This backward rush is exactly something Bronowski dreaded and perhaps expected:

 

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts.  Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.  You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.  That is really crucial today.  You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming.  And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.  The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, an that is what we are engaged in.   p. 436-7

We sit now with eleven years left in the half-century Bronowski mentions.  Will the schoolbook commonplaces be those necessary to our existence?  I wonder.

If it were to be dropped by his own, Bronowski expected the torch to be lifted by another culture:

We are a scientific civilisation: that means, a civilisation in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial.  Science is only a Latin word for knowledge.  If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China . . .  p. 437

When I look around the world today, I’m not sure the torch will be held high again any time soon, anywhere.

 

Science as Art

In Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul cautions us all of the rise of the technocratic class, the Men of Reason who have come to be humanities actual rulers.  It may seem that Bronowski, in his celebration of the great discoveries of scientists, is promoting the sort of technocratic rule Saul asks us to struggle against. But, The Ascent of Man is not some sort of technocratic celebration of the rise of white coated analytical Man.  Rather, Bronowski is emphatic that Science is nothing, cannot exist, except as engagement with humanity as a whole:

the aristocracy of the intellect is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation we know.  If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect.  We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed.  And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.  p. 435

And:

. . . the intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists.  And that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness.  But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism.  We shall be left without belief, because no beliefs can be built up in this century that are not based on science as the recognition of the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works.  It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.  p. 429-432

I can’t help but notice that today there has been a resurgence of belief not based on science, but in rejection of science, from anti-vacciners, to climate change deniers, to chem trailers and to all the various shapes and stripes of New Age philosophies, health plans, diets and conspiracy theories.  Bronowski warns us against such rejection:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.  That is false, tragically false.  Look for yourself.  This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was not done by gas.  It was done by arrogance.  It was done by dogma.  It was done by ignorance.  When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.  In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness.  We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.  We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.  We have to touch people.  p. 374

 

Science is not absolute knowledge. In fact, Bronowski argues that the method of Science is the method of Art, indeed, in the epigram at the head of this post, that Science is Art, that Art is Science.

. . . We are aware that these pictures do not so much fix the face as explore it; that the artist is tracing the detail almost as if by touch; and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but never makes it final.  We accept that as the method of the artist.

But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge.  There is no absolute knowledge.  p. 353

As long as I can remember, I have felt no distinction between art and science, these two unnecessarily separated fields of human, endeavour, exploration and discovery.  Reading The Ascent of Man today is like tasting again the intellectual mother’s milk that fed the child that is the father of this man.

I’ve mentioned, probably too often, that as a child I discovered the poetry of Yeats in a book of science by Shklovskii and Sagan.  Just today I discovered that the BBC producer, Adrian Malone,  and one director, David Kennard, of The Ascent of Man a short time later produced Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Another piece of the puzzle of my own intellectual development fell into place.

The 1970s, the years of all but the first, childish part of my schooling, were years of Science as Art as Science and Art as Science as Art.  And they were years of hope.  Humans walked on the moon, space stations, Salyuts and Skylab, were in orbit, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had shaken hands in the Apollo-Soyuz docking adapter.  In my little world, I watched Residential School survivor Alex Janvier paint a magnificent mural in the government building across the street from my school.  In that same building I learned the rudiments of television production.  Paolo Soleri’s monumental, inspiring, and perhaps absurd Arcology: The City in the Image of Man was on the very full shelves of my High School Library.  When I was able to, I bought my own copy of Soleri’s book:

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Here, in this scientific/artistic ferement of hope for humanity, my intellect was formed.  Sometime later I discovered the work of Hugh Ferriss, a purveyor of human scientific/artistic hope of a previous generation to mine.

A few years before the revelation of The Ascent of Man I had watched Lord Clark’s Civilisation.  I’m watching it again now as I write.  Although I later studied and published on the very periods Clark discusses in his series, I don’t think it was then, and it certainly is not now, in any great way, inspiring.  Why is it that Clark’s Civilisation, while a brilliant presentation of culture, has so little to inspire the child I was and perhaps still am? And why is Bronowski’s program, in spite of a few flaws of prejudice or fact, such a powerful spur to my desire to learn in every waking minute?

My immediate explanation:

Bronowski provides a play-by-play of Humanity’s physical and cultural evolution, with the clear emphasis being on the fact that the life of Humanity, the Ascent of Man, is a never ending game.  Meanwhile, Clark gives a dry description of the footprints and blood stains in the sand after the players have gone to the dressing rooms in the completed stadium we call Civilisation.  The game that continues in Bronowski’s world is long ended in the world of Clark.  Perhaps it doesn’t help that Lord Sir Kenneth Clark is a stiff and stuffy Englishman of ossified privilege.  Dr. Jacob Bronowski, on the other hand, is a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who, in spite of the horrors of his century, retains a stunning, arresting hope in the continuing rise of human knowledge, wisdom, and morality.  Interestingly, the great art critic seems cold, to have little human sensitivity while the mathematician/scientist excudes wisdom, hope, generosity, warmth and, in all of the best ways, humanity.

Whither the Humanities?

There has been much soul-searching of late in the Academic Humanities about the supposed fading of the importance to society at large of the arts of living in a free society — the Liberal Arts.  “Where is the Niel DeGrasse Tyson of the Humanities?” is a question that was asked after the launch of the new, Tyson-hosted, version of Sagan’s Cosmos.  Well, if a previous generation’s experience is any indication, the Humanities’ Tyson today will be a Bronowski rather than a Clark, perhaps a scientist rather than a cultural scholar.  If the Humanities want to inspire they must tell the world what they drive Humanity toward, not just whence Humanity has come.

Bronowski shows us a glow of this future road.  But, I feel, with horror, that we seem to be heading down a dark turning he anticipated:

And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into — into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.  They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it.  An understanding of man himself.  We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.  Knowledge is our destiny.  Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.  p. 437

Knowledge, ever broadening but never complete, is our destiny, if we don’t lose our nerve.  If we lose our nerve, if we become complacent in our ignorance, or worse, in a feeling of absolute certainty, then we are lost to the rule the dictators, the autocrats and the technocrats who have concerns far different from the well-being of humanity.

Brownowski concludes The Ascent of Man with a behind-the-scenes note on the making of the television series.  On the morning of the day the first words of the series were to be filmed, a camera plane crashed.  Remarkably, the pilot, cameraman and sound technician emerged shaken but unhurt.  I will close with Bronowski’s words of hope for our continued progress into the future, despite the momentary set backs of ignorance, reactionarianism, or plane crashes:

 

…naturally the ominous event made a deep impression on me.  Here was I preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put its hand through the printed page of history and said, ‘It is here. It is now.’ History is not events, but people.   And it is not just people remembering, it is people acting and living their past in the present.  History is the pilot’s instant act of decision, which crystalises all the knowledge, all the science, all that has been learned since man began.

We sat about in the camp for two days waiting for another plane.  And I said to the cameraman, kindly, though perhaps not tactfully, that he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air.  He said, ‘I’ve thought of that.  I’m going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I’m going to do the filming. It’s what I have to do.’

We are all afraid — for our confidences, for the future, for the world.  That is the nature of the human imagination.  Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.  The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.  p. 438

#AStatueForAlex

 

I’ve known the story of Alex Wuttunee Decoteau for quite some time now. A Cree Survivor of one of Canada’s now infamous Residential Schools.  Son of one of Poundmaker’s Northwest Rebellion warriors.  A superb athlete.   Canada’s first Aboriginal police officer – a constable and later Sergeant in Edmonton’s early police force. An Olympian. That time he met King George V and received the royal pocket watch from the king’s own hand. And, finally, dying, shot down in the mud of Passchendaele just short of his thirtieth birthday.

I realize that Alex has been honoured by induction into the Edmonton and Alberta Sports Halls of Fame, that the Edmonton Police Service continually honours his memory, and that Edmonton has already memorialized him in the naming of the Decoteau walking trail in Aldergrove.

But. . .

In this Year of Reconciliation declared by Mayor Don Iveson at the final National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in this centenary year of the start of the war that killed so many so young, what could be a more appropriate gesture for our city than to erect a prominent monument – I suggest a statue in Churchill Square or in the plaza in front of City Hall – honouring a Residential School Survivor, an Olympian, Canada’s first aboriginal police officer, and a fallen war hero?  Each November we repeat the words “Lest We Forget” as we consider the Cenotaph and the Fallen it represents.  I think of the words of Justice Murray Sinclair as he opened the final day of the Edmonton TRC National Event: “Never Forget.”  What better way to mark Edmonton’s Year of Reconciliation than a monument to an inspiring survivor of the Residential Schools? An heroic survivor to remind us of the quiet heroism of all the survivors, and in memory of all the children who were taken.

When I had the idea of #AStatueForAlex a few nights ago, I did what any Edmontonian would do: I tweeted it!  I stuck Mayor Iveson’s and Councilor Oshry’s handles onto the tweet and was gratified by the positive response:

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But I fear Alex won’t get a statue if there isn’t a buzz generated.  If you think #AStatueForAlex is a good idea for our Year of Reconciliation, share the idea wherever you can: Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, the comments sections of news sites.  And emails, letters, and calls to city hall, the Edmonton Arts Council and anyone else you can think of.

And learn, and share, and celebrate the story of Alex Decoteau far and wide!

“Just Get Over It!” A Brief Thought Arising From the TRC National Event in Edmonton

 

Call and response:

 

Remembrance Day?

“Lest We Forget”

 

9/11?

“Never Forget”

 

Holocaust?

“Never Again”

 

Canada’s Indian Residential Schools?

“Why don’t you just get over it?!”

 

The above is a rephrasing and expansion of something Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission gently pointed out as he began the closing day of the Commission’s final National Event in Edmonton. Justice Sinclair did not have any anger in his voice or his words as he told the story of being in New York last September for the commemoration of 9/11 and hearing the words “Never forget”. He did mention Remembrance day, but the above reference to the Holocaust is my addition. He was directly addressing his expectation that many at the Event had heard the words “Get over it” in conversation about the Residential School experience.

Why is it, I wonder, that so many can say “Get over it” to victims of childhood sexual abuse, victims of rape, survivors of attempted genocide, and those struggling to be parents when they never knew parents of their own? Why is it that so many Canadians can say “Get over it” to aboriginal people when they would never imagine saying “Get over it” to survivors of Rwanda, Bosnia, Apartheid or the Nazi death camps?

Is it simply racism?

I wonder.

I suppose Canadians like to think that “We” helped to bring down the Nazis, “We” refused to play Sun City, “We” were peacekeepers in Bosnia, “We” and our General tried to stop the genocide in Rwanda. . .

But “We” stood by as the children were taken to the schools. “We” were the police who forced them from their parents’ arms. “We” were the staff who ate well while the children starved. “We” sent the children out to the unmarked graveyard to bury their schoolmates.

Maybe many of us say “get over it” because we have barely begun to confess to ourselves our own complicity in the catastrophe.

It’s long past time for the rest of us to acknowledge our own guilt and racism. Once we have done that, maybe we can ourselves work to get over it.

In Memory of a Man with a Cheetah on a Leash I Saw when I was a Boy

When I was a kid in Sudbury, in the evening, after a day of running through the forest and swimming and canoeing in Lake Ramsey, I went with my father to one of Al Oeming’s travelling conservation outreach presentations. I seem to remember my dad being upset at seeing a cheetah on a leash.  My father has always been a little ahead of his time on questions of universal justice, I think. I remember reading in my elementary school “reader” (I wish I remembered the title of that book!)  about Oeming’s boyhood dream of one day having a natural space to house animals, where the cages would be around the visitors, not the animals.  I remember vividly the image in the story book of young Al tripping over a root as he walked through the woods, picking himself up, and realizing that this patch of land in the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton was what he’d been dreaming of.

A number of years later, I found myself living in Sherwood Park, east of Edmonton. As a teen I went with my family a few times to Oeming’s Game Farm.  Oeming’s park was past its prime and perhaps past its time already.  I remember my father being again uncomfortable in Oeming’s presence.  Perhaps it is witnessing my father’s discomfort with Oeming’s captive animals — for all the sophistry of the cages being for visitors — that has left me with a lifelong dislike of zoos.  Whatever the reason, I have as long as I can remember, felt that humans really should set aside huge areas of the planet as “no-go” areas.  I have a dream of an extension of Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks across Southern Alberta to the Cypress Hills, and in my dream, we wouldn’t be allowed to enter that huge park except for scientific study.  I think I actually dream that park boundaries should be the bars of humanity’s cages.

Whatever the shortcomings of his GameFarm/Polar Park, Al Oeming inspired a love of nature and wildlife in a couple of generations of Canadian kids, making a whole lot of environmentalists who might never have existed.  He may well have inspired some of the very people who ultimately — correctly — shut down his Polar Park.  Oeming with his work and the animals with their sacrifices, had served an educational purpose which just might be the seed of a better world.

If I am in any sense an environmentalist, it is, at least in part, due to Al Oeming.

Al Oeming died a few days ago, asking that there be no funeral, no memorial, only his ashes mingling with the spruce roots he tripped on as a boy in the woods.

Rest in Peace amongst the spruce, Mr. Oeming.

My Favourite Symmetry in the Nadeau-Paquette Mural Project at Edmonton’s Grandin Station

After a tiring evening of gallery openings and late night reading, I dragged myself (and a sick daughter) to Grandin LRT Station for the official unveiling of the updated and finally symmetrical murals at the platform.  It was good to visit briefly with Aaron Paquette in person again (and humbling and flattering to be introduced to Silvie Nadeau as “a very good man”).  The warmth on the platform was remarkable in the few minutes before the official program began and that warm feeling continued throughout.

But I’m not going to detail extensively the activities or the murals just now.  I’m sure others in the crowd will do so on television, radio and internet in a number of languages quite soon.  What I do want to point out is a single and I think powerful symmetry I noticed toward the North end of the murals, a symmetry of celebration and endurance. One of Nadeau’s new panels shows in the mid-ground a modern-day rounddance.  On the opposite wall, in one of two cave-like petroglyphic panels in Paquette’s mural, there is an ancient and timeless rounddance.  I see this small symmetry of detail as an acknowledgement and claim of endurance and hope, stretching from the most ancient times of Pehonan, through tragedies and triumphs to today, on the eve of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s welcome to Edmonton.  Those two circles of unknown dancers are met together across time in this meeting place of travellers just up the hill from the ancient meeting place of Pehonan.  They dance together in the past and the present. We on the platform, on the trains, sitting beside strangers, striking up conversations, smiling as we share our journeys — we are dancing into the future together.

Please forgive my crappy photography!

Mutterings on why Public School shouldn’t be Vocational School

Above all is the need for a thinking education in the humanities.  This need not be at a university, after all there are countless educated fools and many wise illiterates, but we ignore the experience of the ages at our collective peril.  A thinking education can reveal the arrogance of the categorical, demonstrate the insight of nuance, and stimulate a healthy skepticism of ideologues of whatever stripe; political, economic, religious, philosophical, whatever.  It can provide an escape from the necessarily limited bonds of individual experience to peer into the vastness of human diversity over time and in space and provide understanding of how the other guy thought and lived, thinks and lives.  A thinking education can, should, must lead one to penetrate the cant and doublespeak of much discourse, question the premises and assumptions of any assertion and assess its veracity accordingly. . .

Bill McAndrew, “From Mars to Clio: A Personal Journey” in Canadian Military History, Volume 22, number 4, Autumn 2013, p. 92.

I don’t think I can add much of importance to what McAndrew writes in the epigraph.  What follows is almost wholly anecdotal, and so, as I learned in school, of little evidentiary value.

I went to the public school in my neighbourhood in Ontario and Alberta in the 60s and 70s.  My grade three teacher had “B.A.” as well as “B.Ed” after her name.  My mother told me this was a good thing.  In school I learned how to speak and read French.  I learned grammar and spelling and arithmetic.  I learned algebra and geometry.  I learned about the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat. And I learned about the Jesuits.  I learned about the French and the English, about the fur trade, about those early Capitalists, the coureur des bois.  I learned about the structure of our Westminster Parliament, about our Constitution, about rights and responsibilities.  I read Shakespeare and Steinbeck and Blake — standards had dropped since my father’s school days: he read Shakespeare and Homer and Milton.  In grade 11, a brilliant English teacher (while completing his Masters thesis on symbolism in Hawthorne) structured the entire year around Star Wars, giving those who paid attention a fascinating grounding in source criticism.

At the University of Alberta I studied English although many friends had expected me to go into Science.  I began Old English and Latin in my second year.  My Old English professor was also in charge of developing the remedial English courses for first year students entering from Alberta high schools.  It seems that in those days far too many high school graduates couldn’t read their way out of a wet paper bag.  My professor would start each day with anecdotes about meetings with students or Department of Education officials.  The best one was when the officials told him educational standards in Alberta were as high as they’d ever been and he responded by pulling out archival departmental exams going back to the 20s.  There it was in black and white: in the old days High Schoolers were working in language and literature at a high University level compared to the early 80s.

So, at 21, in the summer of 1983, I had a Masters Degree specializing in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, I knew a good bit about the literary sources of Star Wars, I had been given a life-long love of Shakespeare, I knew how our governmental system worked, I had a fairly good grounding in the history of our country and the world at large, I was more or less bilingual and could read Latin and Old English and puzzle my way through Italian, Spanish and maybe one or two other languages if I had to.  I could also handle a shovel, pick, hammer, axe and, through no fault of the school system, I could milk a goat.

At no time in my primary or secondary schooling was I trained for any vocation (except that one typing class in grade ten).  Some of my fellows in high school took a vocational path and studied auto mechanics, welding, hairdressing, etc.  The rest of us were given a general, liberal arts education.

Now, more than three decades later, what has that undirected, non-vocational education done for me?  Well:

I’ve worked.

I’ve served people drinks, cooked them meals, sold them products, built things, repaired engines and hydraulics, mowed grass, calculated fertilizer levels, pruned trees, made porchetta, sourced products for businesses, made art and been paid for it, published scholarly articles, published non-scholarly articles and been paid for them, read a hell of a lot. . .

And, every day I use my high school mathematics, throw out a line of Shakespeare, build on the history and geography and civics I learned in school.

Some people argue that the Public School system was developed to serve Capitalism so it has always been a vocational school system. Well, I think a more correct view would be that the Public School system was developed as a way of producing citizens who would maintain a society in which they could thrive .  Who would argue against such a thing?  When leading citizens of Edmonton and Strathcona got together to create the first public schools in the two cities, guess what? Those leading citizens were capitalists.  They were real capitalists, not corporatists.  They were business owners risking their capital on ventures with no guarantee of return.  I don’t think that form of Capitalism, the real Capitalism, should be a dirty word.  That’s the kind of Capitalism that all the #BuyLocal #HundredMileDiet #FarmersMarket #Vegan #Freegan #Occupy people are screaming for.

And that’s the kind of Capitalism a general liberal arts education prepares a person for.  That’s the kind of education I had.  And that’s exactly the kind of education that Corporatism is uncomfortable with.  How many times have we heard Ministers of Education saying “We’ll be taking best practices from around the world to ensure outcomes which prepare our students for their place in the Global Economy!”?  No longer do they want to help our children to be good citizens, to be successful in their neighbourhood, town, city.  No longer is there even a desire to simply give our children something interesting and challenging to think about.  When people asked me what I was going to “do with” an English degree. I always said “I’d rather drive a taxi with a Masters degree than without.”  I don’t think many of them understood. Those who would understand the answer wouldn’t ask the question.

One morning all those years ago my Old English professor said wistfully “It used to be that a business leader would look at a B.A. as proof that a person had the flexibility to be trained for any position.”

Update, March 13, 2014: I forgot to mention that something that seems lost in all this discussion is that the term “Liberal Arts” simply means the basic knowledge and skills necessary to living as a free individual in a free society. If our political and educational leaders were truly interested in maintaining a free society and preparing our children to live in that society, they’d be working hard to have the Liberal Arts as strongly supported, fundamental parts of every child’s education in every grade. The fact that our leaders don’t do that work really says everything about their agenda for our society