Some comments on the Supreme Court education decision

On Thursday, November 10, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision from the bench only 20 minutes after final arguments in the long standing dispute between the BC government and the BCTF. Here is my contribution to Vaughn Palmer’s first article on the teachers’ victory:

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Can you imagine if a new BC government unilaterally ripped up a long term communications contract with Telus, arguing that it could get a better deal with Bell and so it shouldn’t have to honour a contract signed by the previous government? There would be howls of outrage from Howe Street and Bay Street, and instantaneous court cases. And quite rightly, too: total chaos would ensue if a new government could arbitrarily end its contractual commitments.

But here we have seen BC’s government unilaterally ripping apart another contract, this time with a union, and the corporate elite and their supporters are, well, not too interested in the rule of law. The hypocrisy is incredible.

Thankfully, Thursday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada has reinforced the rule of law and delivered a stunning indictment of both the BC Court of Appeal and the BC Liberals. The SCC has recognized the constitutional rights of unions in many recent court cases, but the conservative (and stacked) BC Court of Appeals apparently didn’t get the memo. The BC Liberals, in turn, are now learning that massive financial giveaways to corporations – reckless tax cuts that never did improve productivity or employment – should never have been paid for by BC’s children and the people who educate them.

The Liberals were quiet in the aftermath but I’m sure they’ll get their communications strategy figured out soon. Seriously, they have so many corporate media types working for them that it shouldn’t take too long. I look forward to the spin they provide on this debacle.

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See also:

 

Choice and flexibility: some thoughts on the new curriculum

The latest drafts of the grades 10-12 English and social studies curricula and the recent announcement of BC’s new graduation requirements confirm what many secondary teachers have feared: the continued (and perhaps accelerated) slide towards a consumer-oriented education system that offers little accountability.

Let’s start with the new curricula. [Because I am a secondary humanities teacher, I’ll confine my remarks to English and social studies; from what I can see, these two disciplines appear to be at the bleeding edge of this general curricular shift.] The central, recurring motif of the new English and social studies documents is choice. In the latest English draft, for example, we see choice as the key to student motivation:

Enabling students to be active participants in their learning is well-recognized as a powerful motivator. For this reason, choice is provided to students early in the Graduation years, as a testament to their capacity as young adults to make judicious selections from a variety of English Language Arts Options and to allow them a sense of agency in their own education. This is consistent with a strength-based rather than a deficit-based approach to education.

Leaving aside the horrifically loaded jargon of the final sentence, it’s clear that this is a system full of choosers. Choice is “powerful”, leads to “judicious selections” and provides “a sense of agency”.

Given this core value, both curriculum proposals have been adjusted to maximize student options. The latest English proposal offers a Core course and five different optional courses: Composition; Creative Writing; Focused Literary Studies; New Media; and Spoken Communication. According to the latest proposal, students entering Grade 10 will choose two of the five “Optionals” via two half-year (i.e. two credit) courses; this will equal the four credits that students currently receive for English 10. Students in Grades 11 and 12 will select one of the Optionals in a presumably more advanced four credit version, and take the four credit Core course, “which represents ‘essential learning’ in language arts, including reading and writing, speaking and listening, viewing and representing.”

The commitment to choice is even more pronounced in the latest social studies draft. First, the curriculum has been revised and condensed downward. Social Studies 9 and 10, ironically, are positively crammed with content, quite the opposite of what teachers were seeking. However, the solution is obvious: pick and choose your content to reflect thematic Big Ideas. Want to discuss “conflict” in the new Socials 9? Sample some of these topics:

  • Opium Wars
  • Boxer Rebellion
  • Boer War
  • wars of independence in Latin America
  • Armenian genocide
  • Chilcotin War
  • Fraser Canyon War
  • American Civil War
  • Franco-Prussian War of 1871
  • Russian Revolution
  • Crimean War
  • Russo-Japanese War
  • Chinese Rebellion of 1911
  • World War I

As we can see, these topics are not listed chronologically or even alphabetically, but that’s on purpose. Traditional historical thinking concepts like continuity and change, or cause and consequence, are largely supplanted by sampling, as if history is a potpourri of exotic ingredients mixed into a thematic soup.

Social Studies 11 will be eliminated. In its place, secondary students will choose a final course from a veritable smorgasbord of optional secondary titles. At the time of writing, there are a staggering 17 secondary options, with “more more courses in draft form”. Many of these courses are reboots of existing offerings (Law 12, History 12, etc.) but most of them look like 1st year university survey courses. Whether all of these could be realistically available even in the largest of schools is a matter of debate, though students moving between schools or taking online courses seems like a likely solution.

So we’ve established that choice is a foundational concept in the curriculum revisions and that the new drafts have responded in kind. Yet one question continues to come to mind: Is this faith in choice justified? Worryingly, only one piece of evidence (in the English draft document) is provided:

The aim of the ELA 10-12 curriculum structure is to maximize students’ chances of success by allowing them to choose the Optional courses that are most engaging for them and to achieve deeper learning. Because the curriculum has been redesigned to be less prescriptive and more flexible, there are increased opportunities for students to pursue their interests, aspirations, and passions and to benefit from more specialized areas of language arts study. Choice also includes encouraging increased opportunities for students to select the types of texts they will use, such as a variety of text types in the context of literature circles, particularly in the Options (e.g., Focused Literary Studies or New Media):

“Research has demonstrated that access to self-selected texts improves students’ reading performance… This is especially true for struggling readers….” (Krashen, 2011). From: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar12/vol69/num06/Every-Child,-Every-Day.aspx

After reading the article above, I’m a little perplexed. It refers to children (apparently of elementary age) who are choosing books within a classroom. But how does this apply to adolescents choosing courses for an entire year? I really don’t find this reference particularly convincing, and it seems like another example of “progressive educators” building an edifice without a solid base of research. Speaking of research, I’m reminded of John Hattie’s work, in which he concludes that the positive effect of “student control over learning” is almost negligible.  One synthesis of Hattie’s research explains that the effect “of student choice and control over learning is somewhat higher on motivation outcomes than achievement outcomes, but neither have major consequences on learning and too many choices can be overwhelming.”

Perhaps the Ministry of Education will eventually buttress its curriculum with more evidence, but in the meantime it’s probably more fruitful to see this commitment to course-based choice as part of a larger commitment to neo-liberal education reform. Much of this is inspired by GELP, a corporate sponsored global education reform organization connected to BC’s Ministry of Education, and manifested in the current government’s BC Edplan. At its most ideological level, GELP aims to “to design public services that deliver different and better outcomes at a lower cost”. At its most benign level, the GELP approach is designed to “create better opportunities for parents to engage in their child’s learning with more flexibility and choice with respect to what, how, when and where their child learns”. Even here, though, the policy above is preceded by a chilling notion that “parents and students still have choice and opportunity to decide which school their child attends within the public and independent school systems”. Given BC’s current discussion about a two-tiered education system, it’s a little disconcerting to hear our current Minister of Education defend private school funding with similar language: “When we look at education in British Columbia, I would say we don’t fund private schools. We fund students. We fund opportunities for students and those opportunities are chosen by parents.” At this point, it sounds awfully similar to the logic that undergirds the voucher system.

Overall, we seem to be facing a curricular worldview in which students are viewed as consumers rather than citizens. Consumers choose their preferences; citizens work together for a greater good. In the fragmented (or, rather, “specialized”) market place we see above, there doesn’t seem to be much space for common cause or a common narrative. I’m not saying choosing courses necessarily leads to vouchers and market-based schooling (after all, this might simply be another example of BC’s obsession with improving the graduation rate) but surely there’s an affinity between course choice and a funding system that encourages parents to “decide which school their child attends”. And if we accept the former as “common sense” or “obvious”, then the latter becomes much easier to introduce.

Is a teacher’s knowledge tacit or just uncomfortable?

The following is a response to a post by Carl Hendrick, an educator who writes about education theory and practice.

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I enjoyed another thought-provoking and thoughtful post, Carl!

In terms of tacit knowledge, however, I don’t believe that most of what we know is tacit. I think, in fact, that much of what we learn as teachers is actually quite coherent and articulable. The problem is that few people in power want to hear what we have to say. As a teacher of 23 years, I feel quite ignored, and whenever I or other veteran teachers speak up about teaching practice and learning, our leadership gets quite uncomfortable. I once led an after-school collaboration group on direct instruction. People higher up the food chain were almost apoplectic, and they let me know about it. I was Satan’s seed.

When it comes down to it, what I have to say is not “innovative”. I refuse to accept the paradigm of constant change and innovation, particularly since it’s usually a variation of Romanticism. My pedagogy is based upon the refinement and deepening of good teaching practice, and much of that practice, in my opinion, has remained stable for centuries. And that is what I offer to new teachers if they’re willing to listen.

Of course, this is not what the “movers and shakers” want to hear (or offer) as they ascend the hierarchy. Refinement of existing teaching practice doesn’t get anyone out of the classroom and into the school board office. It’s definitely not sexy, and it definitely cannot be packaged within the realm of “constant change and innovation”. It also doesn’t give the careerists power over the rest of us; indeed, a pedagogy that values refinement reverses the locus of control and places knowledge and its power squarely back in the hands of front line practitioners.

The Politics of Curriculum

Tonight a parent on social media asked if teachers were concerned about the BCTF’s collaboration with the government regarding BC’s new curriculum. Here’s my response:

As a secondary teacher, I can tell you that many, many teachers disagree fundamentally with the direction of this new curriculum. We don’t feel there has been much substantive input, and the feedback we have given certainly isn’t reflected in what is now being published. To me (and to many other teachers on the BCTF discussion forum), the process has appeared very obscure and it looks like teacher consultation was controlled by the BCTF, PSA leadership and a relatively small group of teachers with a very particular philosophy.

By the way, there is a substantial amount of research that supports direct instruction and a careful, scaffolded approach to mastery learning. This seems to be ignored whenever popularizers like Sir Ken assure the masses that the research clearly supports his Rousseauian values. For your own edification, please take a look at some of the research I’ve collected that favours a more traditional, whole-class, and teacher-centered approach to pedagogy. Believe me, progressivist assumptions are not a slam dunk:

http://lexiconic.net/pedagogy/index.html

At another level, people should indeed be wary of teachers taking the blame if this “innovation” goes the way of Year 2000. To believe at any point that the government would ever properly fund this change is, frankly, unbelievable. I’ve been teaching in the BC public school system for 22 years. When has a government ever properly funded new curricula? As a result, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to be surprised at the current lack of government support?

Well, it’s too late now. The fix is in, and we will own this if there is a backlash from the public.

Notes and commentary on Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (Part 1)

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We all have those books – the ones we know are good for us but have remained on the bookshelf for years (or decades). Thankfully, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is now one of those books that I can return to my bookshelf with the satisfaction that I’ve finally read one of the masterpieces  of economic history. The following is not an exhaustive summary of Polanyi’s text, but it does represent what I take to be the most salient and resonant points of his elegant argument.

 

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The Double Movement

Polanyi’s book surveys the history of the Western economy, roughly from the last 500 years. He is particularly concerned with the hegemonic concept of the “self-regulating economy”, which he defines as

an economic system controlled, regulated, and directed by market prices; order in the production and distribution of goods is entrusted to this self-regulating mechanism. An economy of this kind derives from the expectation that human beings behave in such a way as to achieve maximum money gains. (71)

His central thesis is that the idea of a self-regulating economy is “a stark Utopia” (3). In the long run, a self-regulating economy is not sustainable. It demands a complete reorganization of society that society cannot allow. In the pivotal 19th century, for example, the remnants of a feudal society were transformed into a capitalist system. Yet as workers and politicians discovered, an all-encompassing free-market system

could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. (3)

As a result, an inevitable social reaction comes to life. In this “double movement”, society must take “measures to protect itself” (ibid) and strives to ensure the transformation is never complete. Polanyi explains that this tension and resistance – predicated on the need for human beings to be more than mere economic pawns in a free market system – explains much of the conflict of modern history, including the rise of fascism and the two world wars.

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The Essential Connection Between Politics & Economics

Another key point in Polanyi’s book is his insistence that economics can never truly be separated from the rest of society, despite the attempts mentioned above. Indeed, much of The Great Transformation explains that economic behaviour has historically been embedded and subordinated to the political and cultural institutions of all known human societies:

[A]ll economic systems known to us up to the end of feudalism in Western Europe were organized either on the principle of reciprocity or redistribution, or householding, or some combination of the three. These principles were institutionalized with the help of a social organization which, inter alia, made use of the patterns of symmetry, centricity, and autarchy. In this framework, the orderly production and distribution of goods was secured through a great variety of individual motives disciplined by general principles of behavior. Among these motives gain was not prominent. Custom and law, magic and religion cooperated in inducing the individual to comply with rules of behavior which, eventually, ensured his functioning in the economic system. (57)

This does not mean that market behaviour is unknown to pre-modern societies; it’s just that such behaviour is minimal or tangential.

No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. In spite of the chorus of academic incantations so persistent in the nineteenth century, gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy. Though the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age, its role was no more than incidental to economic life. (45)

However, a full-blown market economy cannot easily be embedded within more traditional forms of society. A market economy is almost an all-or-nothing proposition, and demands a reversal of the its typical subordination to political and cultural institutions:

The market pattern, on the other hand, being related to a peculiar motive of its own, the motive of truck or barter, is capable of creating a specific institution, namely, the market. Ultimately, that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system. The vital importance of the economic factor to the existence of society precludes any other result. For once the economic system is organized in separate institutions, based on specific motives and conferring a special status, society must be shaped in such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws. This is the meaning of the familiar assertion that a market economy can function only in a market society. (60)

So where has market behaviour – selling for profit, haggling, trading, etc. – actually come from? Certainly not from any inherent genetic propensity, according to Polanyi. He offers a more historical and geographical argument, one where the development of markets and trade is exogenous. As populations grew, contact inevitably brought different peoples together with different goods :

Markets are not institutions functioning mainly within an economy, but without. They are meeting place of long-distance trade… The orthodox teaching started from the individual’s propensity to barter; deduced from it the necessity of local markets, as well as of division of labor; and inferred, finally, the necessity of trade, eventually of foreign trade, including even long distance trade. In the light of our present knowledge we should almost reverse the sequence of the argument: the true starting point is long distance trade, a result of the geographical location of goods, and of the “division of labor” given by location. Long-distance trade often engenders markets, an institution which involves acts of barter, and, if money is used, of buying and selling, thus, eventually, but by no means necessarily, offering to some individuals an occasion to indulge in their propensity for bargaining and haggling. (61-62)

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The Centrality of Politics to Capitalism

Adding to the necessary connection between politics and economics is Polanyi’s analysis of the rise and continuation of modern liberal capitalism. Here we see why a market society is so destructive: labor and land are not created to be sold as commodities; they are not harvested resources or manufactured items that can be purchased, traded and disposed of. Yet, land and labor need to be transformed into commodities to allow a market economy to function. The same can be said of money. Paper or coin or a metal needs to become a commodity in order for its function as currency to be realized.

The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them. In other words, according to the empirical definition of a commodity they are not commodities. Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance. None of them is produced for sale. The commodity description of labor, land, and money is entirely fictitious. Nevertheless, it is with the help of this fiction that the actual markets for labor, land, and money are organized… (75-76)

This process of transformation demonstrates not only the violence of the last 500 years but also the intrinsic role of government within the capitalist system itself.

There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free markets could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course. Just as cotton manufactures—the leading free trade industry—were created by the help of protective tariffs, export bounties, and indirect wage subsidies, laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state. The [eighteen] thirties and forties saw not only an outburst of legislation repealing restrictive regulations, but also an enormous increase in the administrative functions of the state, which was now being endowed with a central bureaucracy able to fulfil the tasks set by the adherents of liberalism. To the typical utilitarian, economic liberalism was a social project which should be put into effect for the greatest happiness of the greatest number; laissez-faire was not a method to achieve a thing, it was the thing to be achieved. (145)

And again,

Economic history reveals that the emergence of national markets was in no way the result of the gradual and spontaneous emancipation of the economic sphere from governmental control. On the contrary, the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends. (258)

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I’ll post Part 2 tomorrow.

Finding Alternative Media

What exactly is the “mainstream media” (aka MSM)? According to that paragon of media sensibility, Keith Baldrey, the MSM is the mass information apparatus that upholds standards and supports democracy. It apparently does not include bloggers and “citizen journalists”, who are part of an emerging trend called “alternative media”:

Less credulous minds see things differently. In “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream”, Noam Chomsky argues that mainstream media is defined by the corporate interests which financially underwrite the vast majority of Western media organizations.  This ownership ensures that “[p]eople who have independent ideas or who think the wrong kind of thoughts are cut out”. Chomsky argues that direct, day-to-day control of news and entertainment by capitalist censors is beside the point (though it sometimes is); what matters are the systemic restraints that ensure mainstream media organizations instinctively remain – in the long run – within the narratives of the corporate worldview. For example, the careful, hierarchal selection and promotion of employees  – from news reporters to general editors and producers – helps guarantee that “the product of the media, what appears, what doesn’t appear, the way it is slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the institutions, and the power systems that are around them. If that wouldn’t happen, it would be kind of a miracle.” As a result, the “standards” of the mainstream media pitch democracy as a contest between one elite group and another, chosen by a passive audience that normally sticks to the sidelines. Democracy, in other words, is highly attenuated and ritualistic, and is profoundly hindered by a corporate media that reflexively elides any challenges to the status quo. In British Columbia in particular, and Canada in general, it’s difficult to see much beyond the corporate ownership of our media.  There is no non-corporate, non-profit “large tent” print news service in sight. And while the publicly-owned CBC has some relevance on the radio and Internet, its impact on television – aside from hockey – is negligible. Moreover, its reputed left wing bias is increasingly suspect. That leaves us with an overwhelming degree of corporate ownership over our mass media, particularly in terms of television, radio and print news:

As Ross Howard, a journalism instructor from Langara College, laments, “My God, we have the most narrowly-controlled print media, probably among western democracies. And we’re getting dangerously close to risking the loss of the independent watch-dogging role by journalists.”

So what can we do if we are interested in “independent ideas” or “the wrong kind of thoughts”? Luckily, despite the mainstream voices that still dominate news aggregators and social media, the rise of the Internet and alternative media provides a plethora of  “fringe” voices, and provides Canadians with a more complete understanding of their world. True, these voices are usually small, disparate and hard to find, but what else can we turn to in a country without a single progressive daily newspaper, or with many cities offering two daily newspapers, both owned and editorially controlled by the same corporation?

The following is an annotated list of alternative media sources that I regularly peruse. Indeed, since I no longer subscribe to The Vancouver Sun, The Province or The Globe and Mail, these alternative sources are essential to my understanding of the world. I hope the list offers some new ideas and inspires you to think outside the claustrophobic Canadian media box.

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National News:

Canadaland
Jesse Brown made his name by breaking the Jian Ghomeshi story, albeit via the Toronto Star. Nevertheless, the notoriety gained from this story helped him establish Canadaland as the go-to site for Canadian media analysis. Brown is an engaging interviewer and raconteur, and his ability to excite the very thin skin of mainstream journalists is very commendable. Despite his central Canadian sensibilities and a quaint belief that the CBC still matters, I look forward to his weekly podcasts (which are available on podcast apps in all smartphone OS’s). I always learn something new about Canada’s media and political landscape, and I would make his podcast show my number one recommendation for a new alternative media experience.

Rabble.Ca
In the past I found its stories to be uneven and loaded with boilerplate socialist rants, but in the last few months I’ve enjoyed many of Rabble’s stories, including this cogent account of the Laura Robinson saga.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
If you want a progressive alternative to the many right wing think tanks so beloved by Canada’s MSM, the CCPA is a good bet. Its articles are occasionally obscure or very local in nature, but the CCPA does a good job of analyzing Canadian politics with credible empirical (i.e. StatsCan) data. The same cannot be said for the Fraser Institute.

iPolitics
I’ve just started to read this site. Though it’s sometimes an aggregator of other news sites, and some of its best content is hidden behind a paywall, iPolitics offers a wide range of interesting stories from Ottawa. I wouldn’t call it progressive, but I think iPolitics aspires to a “big-tent” reputation. Fair enough.

 

BC News:

The Tyee
Perhaps Canada’s greatest alternative media success story, The Tyee offers a broad range of stories on British Columbia issues. Like many of the other sites, I find certain stories unappealing, but the writing and level of detail are consistent enough that I support it with an annual contribution.  The Tyee’s in-depth coverage of BC education issues is laudable, and I’m happy to see the return of Will McMartin and his analysis of economic policy.

The Georgia Straight
The Straight’s editor, Charlie Smith, demonstrates a healthy disdain for BC’s corporate commentators (especially the aforementioned Keith Baldrey) and provides some good articles on Vancouver and BC politics. Just watch out for the sex advice columns.

The Common Sense Canadian
This site’s best-known commentator is Rafe Mair, and it features stories from both sides of the spectrum. Its (non-corporate) conservative contributors have written some excellent pieces on BC’s not-so-hidden debt problem. Also look for its analysis of environmental and energy policies.

Northern Insights
Norm Farrell’s blog proves just how unfair Baldrey’s dismissal of bloggers actually is. Farrell’s work on BC’s oil and gas revenues has been splendid, and contrasts favourably with BC’s status quo commentators like Baldrey, Michael Smyth, Vaughn Palmer and (most pointedly) Tom Fletcher.

  • Farrell’s site is a mess, I’ll grant you, but he’s apparently upgrading his website in the near future. Scroll down to the archives to find what you want.

BobMackin.Ca
The master of the FOI request, Bob Mackin has stirred up quite a few hornet nests in the last few years. Given the BC government’s atrocious record of deleting emails and hiding information, Mackin plays a vital role in keeping the government’s feet to the fire. If only the corporate media in BC worked as hard as Mackin does.

The Hongcouver
This is a recent discovery via Canadaland. It’s basically a blog written by a Vancouver-based employee of the South China Morning Post, Ian Young. He appears to have a high degree of freedom; the SCMP, after all, wants to sell copy and advertising to people in Asia, not Vancouver. Young’s insightful and provocative pieces on the Vancouver real estate market (like this) would likely never be posted in a PostMedia paper.

 

International News:

Vice News
Vice News is the news division of Vice Media, and offers an eclectic and fascinating mixture of global news stories. Vice News features a large reporting staff who go places and cover stories that are often ignored by other international media companies. In many ways, it’s what CNN should have become. Vice is so adept at creating interesting content that Canadian media giant Rogers has signed a contract with Vice to create original content for Rogers’ mobile, Internet and TV holdings.

Alternet
I pick and choose my stories carefully on this site, but it refreshes frequently and there’s always something of interest. Consider it Vice News Light.

McClatchey News
McClatchey News was one of the few American news groups to consistently oppose the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Its website always has engaging articles on US and international topics.

Mother Jones
It’s been around forever, or so it seems, and it’s a standard bearer for American progressive journalism and opinion. I subscribe to the print edition, which I find superior, but the website certainly wins for its sheer volume of stories.

The Nation
Very similar to Mother Jones; always reliable though a little predictable.

The New York Review of Books
Probably my favourite print magazine of all time, the NYRB offers a number of beautifully written free articles every month on its website. I subscribed to the magazine for years, but gave up after I moved back into the classroom. I simply didn’t have time to read all the stories! [Unfortunately, it seems very difficult to purchase individual editions of the NYRB in Canada. Chapters Bookstore no longer seems to carry it.]

Greg Palast
I’m not sure I believe everything this guy writes, but I do enjoy his bravado and gonzo style of journalism. He talked about voter suppression in the US long before it became fashionable.

Gwynne Dyer
Despite Dyer’s unnerving fondness for predicting the future, and a frustrating distaste for supporting evidence, I enjoy his far-ranging examination of the world. Rarely does he accept the “accepted wisdom”.

The Guardian
The Guardian’s fearlessness regarding Rupert Murdoch and Edward Snowden has made it an essential site for British, US and European news. If Canada had a daily newspaper like this, I’d subscribe to it in a matter of nano-seconds.

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Do you have any suggestions? Are there other alternative media options you would recommend? I’d love to hear from you.

The Basic #BCEd Statistics

The debate over public education in British Columbia is often a heated struggle of ideologies and partisan beliefs. Thankfully, Statistics Canada has published some helpful data in a publication called “Summary Elementary and Secondary School Indicators for Canada, the Provinces and Territories, 2006/2007 to 2010/2011”. [Unfortunately, no newer comparative evidence exists, but the publication is due to be updated next year.] The evidence therein provides the basis for an informed discussion about education policy and funding, and a means by which the competing claims of the provincial government and supporters of public education may be judged. I’ve often referred to the data in piecemeal fashion, but I thought it would be helpful to compile some of the key charts in one post.

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1. Overall operating expenditure for public education as of 2011 is $988 less in British Columbia than the Canadian average, and significantly below BC’s neighbouring provinces.

1000_less_underline

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2. After the 2006 contract, it became clear the settlement would not be fully funded. The key evidence for this conclusion is the change in the student-educator ratio. Despite other provinces facing the same demographic and economic challenges, only BC’s SER climbed after 2006. By 2011, BC had the worst SER in the country.

13.2

13.1

(For a fairly definitive look at the effects of class size, this recent meta-data study doesn’t mince words:  “All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.”)

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3. Are BC public educators paid too much compared to other provinces? It’s difficult to make this comparison, because each province has its own pay scale and criteria. But according to Statistics Canada,  the average educator pay per student metric demonstrates that BC teachers are not overpaid. Between 2006/2007 and 2010/2011, per student “remuneration” increased the least in BC, and by 2011 was the lowest in Canada.

payperstudentchange1

ed_renumeration1

(Given that BC public school teachers faced a three year wage freeze after 2011, it’s hard to believe anything has changed with regard to pay per student.)

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4. The BC Liberal government often proclaims that student outcomes are excellent. Aside from dubious improvements to the graduation rate (which is fairly easy to manipulate) the BC government often points to the high PISA scores achieved by BC students. While technically true compared to other jurisdictions, these scores have rested on the laurels of previous governments and actually declined during the BC Liberal era. Moreover, PISA scores are the result of many factors, and may not be particularly representative of educational effectiveness, but even if we take them at face value it’s hard to see why they allow the BC Liberals to justify under-funding.

mathreadingpisaBC1

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Have I cherry-picked the data? Well, it’s difficult to be neutral about such an important topic, but please let me know if there is any other data you think is crucial for the debate.

Reforming BC’s Scholarship Program?

The BC government recently stopped accepting online submissions to its review of the BC scholarship program, but I had a chance to reply before it closed. The rationale for the review was well stocked with the 21st century jargon that Ministry of Education apparatchiks so adore:

British Columbia has one of the best education systems in the world. But it’s a world that is changing rapidly, and we owe it to our students to keep pace. This review of the Ministry of Education’s scholarships and awards is an opportunity to ensure they align with the new directions in education transformation as outlined in the BC Education Plan. The plan’s vision is to create a more flexible and dynamic education system where students are more engaged and better prepared for life’s journey.

I decided to ignore the change-for-the-sake-of change ideology inherent in this statement, and its typically gratuitous use of “transformation”. Instead, being the team player that I am, I thought I would play along and offer a brief critique of the provincial scholarship program.

….

The dollar amounts for provincial scholarships are, frankly, a pathetic joke. A $1000 for a top academic student? That’s chump change. The amount hasn’t changed in decades and doesn’t come close to addressing the crushing burden of university. If the government is going to starve the post-secondary system and embrace user-pay costs on behalf of failed corporate tax cuts, the least it can do is raise its support for British Columbia’s brightest students. To be honest, many academic students don’t even worry about the provincial scholarships. Instead, they find an after-school job. They’ll make more money that way. If they earn a provincial scholarship, so be it, but it makes almost no difference in the larger scheme of things. Indeed, my school district doesn’t even make an effort to promote the provincial scholarship program. What’s the point?

And then there are the community scholarships, a pool of money that, in my district at least, offers much more money to students than provincial scholarships. Every year, huge amounts of local scholarship money based on community service go unused or are under-utilized; community service students, whose volunteering can be very mercenary, often don’t survive past the first semester of post-secondary education. To be blunt, they aren’t academically strong enough to hack university.

The painful reality is that many academic students are already very jaded. They live in a province where academic performance is treated as unimportant. Many are angry about all the fuss that’s being paid to vocational students, for example. Then, on top of that, they can’t afford to go to university. Finally, the scholarship money they need is either insultingly small or not even geared to them.

Given the loaded language of your survey, nothing will likely change.

Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 7

foucault7After equivocating over the necessity of an Objective stance, Veyne returns to a more consistently skeptical position in “The Physical and Human Sciences: Foucault’s Programme”, the seventh chapter of Foucault: His Thought, His Character. The central question of this chapter is the degree to which Foucault is epistemologically confident in his analysis of discourse, an analysis that makes little distinction between the so-called hard sciences and the human, social sciences. The answer, according to Veyne, is that Foucault believes in the scientific validity of his project, but that this “scientificity” can only be understood within the contingent realm of discourse. In other words, claims to knowledge, and knowledge about knowledge, can only be tentative and local.

This chapter also reinforces Veyne’s insistence that Foucault is both a philosophically aware historian of thought and a neo-positivist. Time is an intrinsic element of knowing, and within time, knowing is an embrace of particularities: “the ontological principle of Foucauldism [is] the principle of singularity (78)”.



The Hard Sciences, Like all Thought, Are Discourse

Using the term ‘discourse’, Foucault detected in human thought and action that which, for their part, present-day historians and theorists of science detect in the evolution of the physical sciences, using the expressions ‘paradigms’ (Thomas S. Kuhn), ‘research programmes’ (Imre Lakatos) or ‘styles of scientific thought (or reasoning)’ (Alastair C. Crombie and Ian Hacking). (80)

Science, as we have said, is maintained and endures with no help of ideas from heaven, which [sic] does not exist. Foucault tells us that this is because science is elaborated within the constraints of an institution, that of university research, and has to conform strictly to a certain programme, for fear of being represented as not telling the truth. It depends upon a set-up which, as we already know, is composed of rules, traditions, teachings, special buildings, institutions and powers, etc., and which sanctifies and perpetuates the prescriptions of science, ‘the rules for the formation of statements that are accepted as scientifically true’, and the scientific ‘game of truth’, that of successes and discoveries and also errors that are rectifiable and may be rectified. (87)


For Foucault, Genealogy Is A Science

Historians write history using other means. The semi-proper nouns that they use can likewise possess a scientific rigour, a rigour peculiar to the human domain. They attain that identificatory rigour by ‘densifying’ the description of the semi-proper noun in the same way as a realist novelist or a reporter, multiplying cogent details and relevant features that lend precision to the portrait of the referent and make it possible to distinguish it from events that present a misleading resemblance to it. Thanks to that densification, that intermeshing of tiny true facts, one avoids drowning in summary essentialist artefacts such as race, national genius, and so on. (79)

It is true that Foucault does not seem to be sure of himself. ‘I know perfectly well that I am inserted into a context,’ he writes. I nevertheless think that it is impossible to doubt the great, silent hope that sometimes buoyed him up…

As he saw it, a genealogical critique, as practiced by him, possessed – as did Galilean physics – all the scientificity of a well-founded empirical project. It sometimes happened that he made mistakes and he acknowledged the theoretical errors he had committed in The History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic; but his undertaking was, nevertheless, ‘into the truth’. The resolute tone of voice, that of a declaration of faith, in which he one day told me that Nietzschean hermeneutics had engineered a decisive break in the history of knowledge, showed clearly that he believed this and was hopeful. (82-83)

But the question of time and truth still remains to be resolved. For Foucault, the answer seems to have lain in two convictions: genealogical history is not a philosophy; it studies empirical phenomena and makes no claim to discover the whole truth. Furthermore, it ‘is related to the sciences and to analyses of a scientific type or to theories subject to rigorous criteria’. It can lead to detailed conclusions on ancient love, madness and prisons that are both scientifically established and perpetually provisional and revisable, just as are discoveries made by other sciences. Sooner or later, someone will do better than Foucault and people will be amazed at his short-sightedness. But, for him, it was enough to dispel the four illusions that, as he saw it, were correspondence, the universal, the rational and the transcendental. (83)


Genealogical Science: The Discomfort of Provisionality

If genealogical archaeology is a science, a successful enterprise, each of its conclusions, taken one by one, possesses a truth that is not relative, but is provisional. (84)

Unfortunately (and Foucault is almost obsessively aware of this), the impossibility of rising above and looking down on thought means that even the most revolutionary of thinkers can never escape from our little world of ‘discourse’. (84)

When he tries to shed light on this ‘thought that precedes free thought’, in other words a ‘discourse’, he thinks of himself starting from ‘a thought before thought, thought that is anonymous and constraining’. Stepping back from the space from which he was speaking, he positions himself, ipso facto, within another ‘discourse’ with which he is not familiar ‘and which will recede as fast as he discovers it’. The unease that those quotations reflect is characteristic of modern thought over the past two centuries. Is it any safer to believe in human rights than it was to believe in the god Jupiter? Here, again, our attitude is twofold, as it was when faced with Daphne’s bay tree. We are sure that our convictions are true and would be indignant if the existence of that truth was brought into question. Meanwhile, though, it is with a certain unease that we wonder what future men will think of our thoughts.

..[T]hat kind of unease tends to be buried deep in silence. (85)


Provisional Empiricism Is Not Relativism

At least, unlike Spengler, Foucault could not be and never was a relativist, since, in default of totality and truth that corresponds to reality, and without things in themselves, he did, after all, lay claim to scientificity and empirical truths that were provisional in perpetuity. Relativism – if it ever existed except as a breastplate to cleave in twain – was, despite its name, a doctrine that aspired naively to total truth. This distinguished it from historicism, for which the truth mattered less than the richness and diversity of Life and the ‘solemnity of becoming’ of which Simmel writes: for this suggestive and sympathetic thinker, there was a psychological a priori, just as there was a historical a priori for Foucault – each type of mind engendered a particular vision of the world. (86)

Relativism presumes the truth to be true, since it asserts that, in possessing its own truth, each epoch possessed not just beliefs, but the truth (which, however, was only true for that particular epoch). Its aspiration to total truth despite time is such that it is ready to do anything, even to the point of chopping it into pieces, each for a different epoch, in order to preserve it, albeit in pieces, since each of those shards of the truth are said to form a partial totality, if I dare risk that oxymoron. (86)

 

Power and Truth

Throughout the world, whatever is held to be true in a set-up has the power to win obedience and trains human beings to be obedient. It is true that the power of the prince is legitimate and it is true that one must obey one’s prince, whose faithful subject (in both senses of the word) one thus becomes. (88)

All power, all authority, whether practical or spiritual, and all morality claims to stem from the truth, assumes this and is respected as being founded on truth. (89)

The vast majority of truths are due to ‘a collection of procedures organized for their production, establishment, circulation and functioning’. These truths are linked in a circular fashion to the systems of power that produce them and uphold them and that reconnect them with that power’. So the great political problem is not error, illusion, alienation or ideology: it is truth itself – which is why Nietzsche is so important. (89)



What is to be done?

Some of you may find this a bitter pill to swallow. If you think that not all truths should be expressed and that values need to be saved, as the geese saved the Capitol (with the best of intentions), this is the point at which we must part company: for we have nothing left to say to one another. We are back with the old battle between, on the one hand, philosophy (unless it is Platonic), which desires at all costs to tell the truth, even at the cost of life itself and the world as it is; and, on the other hand, rhetoric, in other words propaganda, which, in order to be more convincing, bases itself on all the nonsense that people have in their heads, as Aristotle ironically put it. (90)

But where does that leave ourselves, we moderns? What are our ‘discourses’ on the various objects that make up our actuality? That is something that will only be discovered by those who, one day, will find themselves to be different. They will discover what was modern about us. We ourselves, meanwhile, cannot foresee ‘the figure that we shall cut in the future’. However, what we can glimpse is, if not what we are, at least what we are no longer. (90-91)

Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests

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Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph is an essay as insightful and thought-provoking as it is elegant.  Hirschman’s Passions is a timeless classic that gracefully explores the intersection of economic, social and political thought, and provides a perceptive understanding of the Western world’s intellectual accommodation and acceptance of capitalism.

Hirschman’s central thesis is that, at the dawn of the modern era, there was an emerging belief that the pursuit of economic interests would stimulate the “benign human proclivities at the expense of some malignant ones” (66). Of course, before the dawn of capitalism, the pursuit of economic interests was considered one of the worst passions; avarice was always a foe of the Platonic conception of Reason and the Christian view of the Truth. Nevertheless, with the decline of feudalism and the rise of absolutist monarchies, the great concern of thinkers like Hobbes was the rising power of the state and the passions that led monarchs into ruinous external and civil wars. In this context, the pursuit of wealth was transformed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the pursuit of material interest. And money-making – now defined as interest – became a sort of mid-way mode of thought and motivation that, since it was “exempt from the destructiveness of passion and the ineffectuality of reason”, provided “a message of hope” (43-44). Positioned half-way between passion and reason, in other words, interest had the politically salutary effect of restraining the more destructive vices of “ambition, lust for power”:

[M]oney-making activities were approved in themselves [because] they kept the men engaged in them “out of mischief,” as it were, and had, more specifically, the virtue of imposing restraints on princely caprice, arbitrary government, and adventurous foreign policies” (130).

Two eighteen century thinkers at the center of this argument were Montesquieu and Sir James Steuart. The former proposed that a laissez-faire economy softened and refined the passionate and violent excesses of man: “It is almost a general rule that wherever the ways of man are gentle (moeurs douces) there is commerce; and whenever there is commerce, there the ways of men are gentle” (60). The pursuit of wealth, Hirschman argues, was thus rehabilitated into a “calm desire” that “acts with calculation and rationality” (65). Steuart built upon Montesquieu’s insights and provided an argument that made the connection between a capitalist economy and a temperate state. “Monied interests” are mobile and less tied to land; as such, rulers who seek to arbitrarily seize the wealth of their lands or debase the currency will find such moves difficult to achieve and self-defeating if they do. As Hirschman summarizes, for “Steuart, it is the overall complexity and vulnerability of the ‘modern oeconomy’ that makes arbitrary decisions and interferences unthinkable – that is, exorbitantly costly and disruptive” (87). Overall, the pursuit of individual interest was therefore assigned the role of a mid-way countervailing force, a force that contained the passions of humanity, and particularly the passions of political leaders.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the “Montesquieu-Steuart vision” disappeared, and new lines of thinking emerged. The “idea that men pursuing their interests would be forever harmless” increasingly appeared to have “an air of unreality about it” (126). Adam Smith, at the dawn of industrial capitalism, was disturbed by the psychological implications of the division of labor, in which, according to Smith, “the heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished” (107). [Thereafter, the Romantics and Marxists of the following century, albeit in different directions, would expand upon the view that the pursuit of material interest was now the primary scourge of human existence.] Adam Smith, as we all know, is still considered a proponent of capitalism, but he turned the “Montesquieu-Steuart vision” on its head. The pursuit of wealth lost its moderating role; it was once again considered a passion – indeed, all passions were collapsed into the “augmentation of fortune” – but now this passion worked like an “invisible hand” to meet the needs of society (108). Put another way, making money was no longer considered a purposeful bulwark against excess, but an ironic and unseen force of social stability and peacefulness.

In the end, Hirschman provides a salutary lesson for the history of ideas: it’s not enough to recognize the unintended consequences of intended outcomes. If we are to better understand our past, and escape Santayana’s warning about repeating history, we must also remember that sometimes the intended consequences succeed, but in ways we don’t appreciate. Thus, Hirschman contends that “capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature” (132). Let us finish with Hirschman’s own elegant conclusion:

For as soon as capitalism was triumphant and “passion” seemed indeed to be restrained and perhaps even extinguished in the comparatively peaceful, tranquil, and business-minded Europe of the period after the Congress of Vienna, the world suddenly appeared empty, petty, and boring, and the stage was set for the Romantic critique of the bourgeois order as incredibly impoverished in relation to earlier ages – the new world seemed to lack nobility, grandeur, mystery, and, above all, passion. Considerable traces of this nostalgic critique can be found in subsequent social thought from Fourier’s advocacy of passionate attraction to Marx’s theory of alienation as the price of progress to Weber’s concept of Entzauberung (progressive disintegration of the magical vision of the world). In all of these explicit or implicit critiques of capitalism there was little recognition that, to an earlier age, the world of the “full human personality,” replete with diverse passions, appeared as a menace that needed to be exorcized to the greatest possible extent (132-133).

Hirschman, in other words, is a voice for moderation and mindfulness. Instead of simply oscillating between one extreme and the other, we should recognize that our current discontent may in fact be the result of attempts to resolve older problems, and that by abandoning current policies we may unwittingly return to an older but nevertheless still unsatisfactory paradigm. [One wonders, for example, if critics of “New Deal” reform capitalism really understand what existed before.] Hirschman, in the end, reminds us that the continuities from the past still have implications for the future.