In my career, I have asked thousands of parents what they want for their children as a result of their being educated. Invariably, the answer is "happiness," by which they meant privately content and publicly fulfilled.
Ironically, BEST (Better Education Starts Today — Putting Students First), Bill 64’s implementation scheme, implies that children — which it describes as "our most valuable asset" — exist almost exclusively as interchangeable articles of trade in the open-market economy. When education and the people who engage in it are treated like just one more plentiful commodity, our individual and collective humanity take a big hit.
According to the document’s Pillar 3, "Future Ready Students" are determined by "employer need, entry into labour market, success in tomorrow’s workplace, career-related and employment-ready experiences, and responsiveness and alignment to labour market needs." All are depictions of young people’s predetermined usefulness to the marketplace without any reference to learning how to live responsible lives outside the workplace as contributing community members.
Educating children in a democracy is fundamentally different from what is called education in authoritarian economies. That difference rests on the ideal that democracies survive and thrive only because we acknowledge, celebrate and develop the potential newness each and every child brings into the world.
Each child represents the possibility that different, more humane perspectives might be introduced into society and prevail, making the world more hospitable for everyone. It is not hard to detect the glaring absence of democratic ideals in BEST. In fact, democracy and citizenship are never mentioned.
We’re on a slippery slope when children are seen only as useful objects, commodities. They are not expendable, interchangeable raw materials, resources or products, goods and services to be refined for, and exchanged in, the marketplace. Even though they exist in abundance, they are not exchangeable and replaceable likenesses.
They are unique and valuable human beings to be cherished, loved and nurtured to flourish in their individuality and difference. These sentiments are blatantly absent from BEST.
Cliches such as "putting students first," "focused on student success" and "shifting resources to the classroom and investing in schools" have proven to be banal cover-ups. The sad reality of the "shifting resources to the classroom and investing in schools" rhetoric in other provinces has resulted in larger class sizes, fewer teachers and less money for teaching resources. Teachers and local boards, not governments, have made students and their individual success a priority, often at great personal sacrifice.
The real issues are not misplaced focus and effort. The education review’s concerns — culturally insensitive curricula, flawed assessment tools, underfunding of some schools, severe teacher shortages in some areas and lack of family and community supports — seem summarily dismissed in the BEST document. As were any coherent notions of what education and teaching are, and where they mostly take place.
Education is the way children and young people, in their own way, make meaning of their lives and the world they live in, in the hope they will be able to flourish wherever they find themselves on their life journey, amid their own frailties and life’s uncertainties. Educational journeys are unique and never-ending, informed by the people the young meet along the way.
Teaching, as all good teachers know and thinking parents and children acknowledge, is mostly about a caring relationship, which expects and supports children to learn how to govern themselves and contribute to the well-being of the community, not just how to behave and perform in the workplace. It is not a technical exercise of stuffing prearranged programs into empty minds in a predetermined sequence to be fed back on cue to create labourers.
Learning to deal with life is highly individualized and unpredictable, but when it happens well it mostly happens in a context at home or close to home, in the home school and in the local school community. Learning for the workplace shares the characteristic that it is more likely to be learned in the workplace itself.
The current school-governance structure recognizes the importance of children beyond their market value, and acknowledges everyone’s political and financial right and responsibility to participate in educating our young, a reality not acknowledged in BEST.
Instead, virtually all of the suggestions with educational merit and supported by knowledge, reason, evidence and understanding heard by the education review committee are absent from BEST.
Our provincial government has displayed a stubborn intent to wilfully destroy public education, and seemingly no idea how to plan or build up an inclusive, affirming society.
John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.