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

3 comments on “Mutterings on why Public School shouldn’t be Vocational School

    • Oh, and, fascinating article!

      That interdisciplinary thing is what I’ve always thought was necessary – and it’s the way scholars always worked until very recently. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that as an early teen I discovered the poetry of Yeats through Carl Sagan: And, of course, Canada’s own Chris Hadfield would never have inspired so many if he were not himself a Renaissance (Space)Man. Most of the powerful people of science are connected to the Humanities still today: Stephen Hawking appeared on Star Trek for goodness sake! What I hope more than anything is that those working in the Humanities will remain connected to Science.

  1. For the record, Joseph, my schools were unremarkable, although a few teachers were something else:

    Kindergarten & Grade 1 – Walford Road Public School, Sudbury, Ontario
    Grades 2 & 3 – Gatchell Public School, Sudbury, Ontario
    Grade 4 – Laval Street School (Now Walford Road School Annex) Sudbury, Ontario
    Grades 5 & 6 – John McCrae Public School, Windsor, Ontario
    Grade 7 – Edith Cavell Junior High, Windsor, Ontario
    Grades 8 & 9 – Clover Bar Junior High, Sherwood Park, Alberta
    Grades 10-12 – Salisbury Composite High, Sherwood Park, Alberta
    Undergrad & Grad – University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

    Looking back, I see that the thread running through it all was giving the kids some basic skills of intellect and habit and interesting materials to noodle around with 🙂

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