Education and Social Policy: a Jubilee for Children Leading to a Democratic Future by Michael Zlotnik, PhD
A couple of days ago, the President Dalton character (from Madam Secretary) said, “The shifting baseline syndrome – each generation accepts their version of nature; plunders it; then leaves the next generation to accept the depleted version; and so on.” The episode dealt with climate change and political tactics of denial and obfuscation. Since 1969, when landscape architect Ian McHarg coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome,” that expression has extended to all aspects of change. It is a way to lose track of the aspirations of each generation. I suggest we British Columbians (and Canadians) are losing our sense of what justice is, of what democracy is and what equality means; and thus what the transformative purposes of public education should be.
Consider the Canadian political scene. Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau says this year's budget is about “creating good middle-class jobs.” This is a change in the political rhetoric of our country. Following World War II, we moved toward a more democratic society where every young person would have opportunities to flourish, learn, grow and take a participating role in the society. We aimed for a more equal society where children whose parents were poor or undereducated would have public support for their education and be provided with the essential goods and services children require. Canada was to be a land of mutual freedom and open opportunity.
In practice, we fell short of that democratic vision. Still, from the early postwar years until the 1980s, we made progress towards a more equal society; with public services, public health care, social security, public pensions, workplace pensions and public education. But recently, class divisions have sharpened. The rich are getting proportionately richer and far too many children and young people are living in substandard housing, on inadequate incomes, and sometimes in unhealthy neighbourhoods.
Equal opportunity has not only failed to arrive but is receding as a goal. The rhetoric of support for the middle class ought to be unacceptable, suggesting as it does a paternalistic government that will look after only a section of Canada's people. It signals the acceptance of class differences and it marks retreat from the goal of social equality.
Moreover, as the social and economic opportunities of children have become more unequal, public education has been underfunded and the provincial government has funded and supported private education – policies which undermine the social equality which is the bedrock condition for a democratic society.
On the provincial scene, we have seen a whole generation of K-12 students pass through an underfunded public education system in British Columbia. It is good that the Supreme Court has ruled against the province but the denial of adequate funding afflicted and undermined the work of teachers and, more importantly, the learning and opportunities of public school students. Despite those setbacks, the promise of democratic freedom and equality should remain the goal of educational, economic and social policy. Canada is still one of the better countries in which to live. But the baseline by which we assess who we are is retreating to the caste-and-class systems of some countries in Europe and elsewhere. We’ve lost a strongly democratic aspiration.
Our political priorities have shifted to the rich, the comfortable and the privileged. We are agonizingly slow in redressing the unjust treatment of indigenous peoples, many of whom do not have the necessities of life such as clean drinking water. We do badly by our children! UNICEF says Canada ranks 24th out of 35 economically advanced countries in relative child poverty (relative poverty is defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income). The United Way says that one in five British Columbia children live in poverty. In the wake of the neoliberal counter-revolution that has reshaped the global social, political, economic, religious and cultural world order, too many governments are trying to bribe their citizens with tax cuts that come at the expense of justice. It has become more important for the upper class and the middle-class to have luxury items than for the poor to have the necessities of life and equal opportunities to learn.
That is enough talk along the lines of…“ain't it awful.” Let's see where to go from here.
As a youngster, I had opportunities to attend wonderfully supportive camps, which were heavily subsidized. My mother said she could not afford to feed me and my brother for the amount she paid to send us to camp. One of the camps, Camp Jubilee, is still operating today. I suggest that public education can and should be a Jubilee opportunity for all children and youth.
In the Hebrew Bible, Jubilee is a year that proclaims liberty throughout the land. Jubilee ends slavery. It ends the dispossession people may have suffered from their land or family. Although we have abolished chattel slavery, some of our Canadian citizens are still subject to wage slavery and debt slavery. The Hebrew Jubilee recognized that society and the economy tend to drift towards inequality; wealth gets concentrated, which splits a society into classes. On another occasion, we might explore the devastating costs of class divisions to a society in, for example, the alienation of people, in wasted human potential, in conflicts that prevent us from working together to solve impending catastrophes, among them environmental destruction and climate change.
Class divisions mean we are a house divided. The feeble current efforts to address environmental destruction and climate change show our distrust of one another and our lack of shared purpose. In our society and economy, in what some call turbo-charged capitalism, things get out of alignment much faster than in the ancient world. We need a public sector and a government that is concerned for all of the people and for the public good to ensure that things stay balanced and especially that children shall not be sacrificed on the altar of private wealth, greed, property or tax cuts.
Children do not deserve to be born into poverty. Children do not deserve to face discrimination on the basis of their gender, parents' or their family's race, sexual orientation, religion, culture of origin, geographic locality, etc.
When children grow up in a class-divided society, when their family life, religious instruction, schooling, media and political deliberations presuppose a class-divided social order, the inequalities, injustices and foreclosed opportunities become normalized. They are seen as natural or necessary. While Canada has never yet accomplished a fully democratic, just and free social order, after World War II, the experience of uniting to defeat fascism and win freedom and democracy, after so much bloody and costly sacrifice, emboldened Canadians to strive for an equal opportunity society. Now, after several decades of neoliberal globalization, the idea of a hierarchy of socio-economic classes has been pressed forward as the new normal. Selfishness and consumerism are the gods of many.
But a society where the few rule is not a democracy. If wealth can buy political power, democracy is stifled. Today, we are much richer economically and financially than the generation that survived the Great Depression and fought for freedom and democracy in World War II. Yet too many of us have an impoverished sense of our obligation to serve the common good and to ensure that Canada provides equal opportunities to all its children and youth. We do have the economic and financial capacity to abolish the poverty afflicting so many children. But to do so we would have to care for our neighbours' children as we care for our own children. We would have to use our taxes and our public political power to make Canada a place where every child and young person has equal access to the conditions for a flourishing life and a high quality public education. That would be an even more beautiful, loving, just, peaceful and free British Columbia and Canada.
The Charter for Public Education, reflecting a consensus heard during public hearings across British Columbia in 2002-2003, states, “Public education is a sacred trust. As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nourishes their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.”
In this post, I have emphasized the economic, social and financial conditions necessary if all children are to have equal access to high-quality education. I leave for another occasion the discussion of what is required pedagogically in classrooms, schools and homes so that all children and youth will learn what they need to learn.
As we enter another provincial election campaign, we must renew our commitment to a baseline of equally high quality learning conditions for every child in our province. Let's not continue to oppress thousands of children for want of a sufficiently just and ambitious aspiration.
PS: I concur fully with Bill Bruneau's call for a royal commission. In an earlier post, Noel Herron
rightly stressed the problems of poverty and hunger. Thus the terms of reference of the royal commission should include the conditions of life for children who are being educated.
Michael Zlotnik, PhD, is a philosopher of education. His ongoing field of study and struggle is the relationship between the pedagogy of public education and the democratization of society.
Welcome to the PENS Blog on public education! Our bloggers include parents, teachers, education researchers, and other strong supporters of public education in BC and in Canada. Taking the lead is Bill Bruneau, Professor Emeritus UBC, ex-Vancouver School Board trustee, ex-President of his faculty association, and ex-president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.