Sunday, February 28, 2016

Who Is To Blame?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a staunch advocate of critical thinking, to me a foundation for any kind of meaningful life, and essential to a healthy democracy. And, as I often note with genuine humility, it is an ideal to which I constantly strive, realizing fully that I often miss the mark.

Recently there was an article in the Toronto Star calling for testing of basic skill levels of students when they enter and when they leave post-secondary education, this is response to complaints from the corporate community:
Executives in 20 recent employer surveys said they look to hire people with so-called “soft” or “essential skills” — communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork — “yet this is where they see students being deficient,” said Harvey Weingarten, president of Ontario’s higher education think-tank.
There has been a very healthy and vigorous reaction to that article by Star readers. I reproduce the lead letter here for your consideration. I especially like his paragraph on talk radio:
I’ve taught at a Toronto community college for the past 10 years, and have come to the alarming conclusion that recent cohorts of students represent the first certifiably post-literate generation. At least, the first in several centuries.

A broad disinclination to pick up a book without being compelled to do so, alongside a stubborn disinterest in any concept of a shared general knowledge, might be blamed on any number of factors. But when a teacher has to pause to explain a passing reference to World War II, for example, since there will inevitability be people in the class who’ve never heard of it, despite their having spent almost 20 years in school already, an uneasiness begins to set in.

Perhaps these kids’ early schooling let them down, in which case we have a conveniently blameworthy excuse for the present epidemic of unconcerned know-nothingness that begins already to define our culture. Or perhaps their parents let them down, by never expressing an interest in literate pursuits themselves and consequently establishing the model of obliviousness that their children can’t help but emulate, since it’s the only example they know.

I believe, on the other hand, that it’s simply indicative of a process of atomization. How can we maintain a collective adherence to a hard-fought ideal like universal literacy when collective enterprises of any sort are routinely smeared by a ruling corporate media that’s hopelessly reliant on the dumbest common denominator for its profits and its successes?

Just listen to local talk radio for five minutes, or for at least as long as you can stand it. You’ll be treated predictably and in rapid order to a breathless rundown of the current hit parade of a carefully-tended backlash, all centred on a visceral dislike of unionism, pedestrians, bicyclists, teachers, general dissent, income redistribution, and any other concept redolent to any degree of collective social progress, even as it applies to the former generational achievements of our parents and grandparents, the fruits of whose efforts to establish an ethic of universal citizen potential and prosperity we can only thank for our own present, if now fading, economic privilege.

The motto for this cultivated fake outrage could very well be: I lash back; therefore I am.

If we want kids to start picking up books again, the only thing that might yet forestall our slide into what Jane Jacobs called the Dark Age Ahead, then we better do what grownups are supposed to do and lead by example.

Assuming we’re not all screwed already, that is.

George Higton, Toronto

Clearly, there is plenty of blame to go around.


  1. Lorne, I shy away from conspiracy theories but I simply cannot believe that this dumbing down has resulted from oversight, neglect or any form of inadvertence. We have been relentlessly conditioned to arrive at this state. Glance through the comments section of any Sun or PostMedia publication and you'll quickly wonder if these writers are genuinely deranged.

    What compounds this phenomenon is that these young people will inherit challenges that we never experienced, crisis that may well go to their very freedom and survival. These people are pure fodder for some charismatic like Trump. As Chomsky recently wrote, the rise of Trump evidences a broken society.

    It's back to Dark Mountain for me, chum.

    1. You are not the only one to harbour dark suspicions, Mound. For example, I don't know how it works in other provinces, but here in Ontario only one history course is mandatory. Why? There has never been any interest to change it on the part of the government. A truly educated population, not the trained variety sought by the corporate agenda, is potentially a disruptive one.

      I am not given to conspiracy theories either, but given the extent of contemporary corporate intrusion into and influence on government, I am not sure that really qualifies so much as a theory than it does reality.

  2. The dumbing down of the young in our culture Lorne is never accidental. I am not a conspiracy theorist either.The Neoliberal intrusion in our educational system is almost a requirement for dumbing down. You can't put a dollar value on studying literature, or philosophy or political science, or history, so they have to be greatly minimized and in some instances eliminated. If the subjects can't be quantified then they must go. We have replaced a whole philisophical system of ideas that once fundamentally defined and determined our culture with an economic , dogmatic, authoritarian economic theory called Neoliberalism. There is almost complete silence about this in the public domain. Critical thinking in many instances is actually frowned upon.I'm reading a book called "My Lunches with Orson" I have to remind myself that there was a time when conversation with men like Orson Welles were sought after and highly treasured The limited context of peoples knowledge today is a product of Neoliberalism. Once you attempt in conversation ,to expand on that context, you are greeted with a blank stare.

    1. You are quite right, Pamela, that the intangibles that give so much meaning to life cannot be quantified or measured, completely anathema to the ethos being promoted today. Personally speaking, this difficulty in finding people to have a real conversation with is one of the main reasons I limit my social contacts to only a few.