Ken Alexander’s Sightings on high-school education (“Schooling: Repeat After Me,” December/January) would have pleased professor Hilda Neatby (slumbering in her grave these past thirty years), author of the 1950s bestseller So Little For The Mind. Neatby accused education planners and teachers of pandering to mediocrity and squandering the opportunity to produce the quality graduates needed for Canada’s post-Centennial future.
Neatby called for tougher standards in evaluating student progress in the basic subjects—native and foreign languages, mathematics, science, and history. Neatby was influential in the piecemeal rejection of the 1968 Hall-Dennis report, titled “Living and Learning,” which advanced the revolutionary concept of a curriculum intended to unleash the creativity of each child while granting teachers professional autonomy, which reflected the personal-liberation dreams of the era. Since then, though, there has been repeated government meddling into the public schools system, leading to the current reality of fiscally austere bureaucrats presiding over emasculated school boards, demoralized teachers, and anxious parents, all of them stewing about the results of the latest standardized test.
Alexander’s remedy of seminar-style classes combined with stricter streaming of students?—?meaning the academic high flyers are unencumbered by the dolts?—?is an unlikely solution. The additional cost of small classes combined with the social inequalities of streaming for the meritocracy is politically unacceptable.
It is time to question the preoccupation of university teachers with the literary skills of first-year students. There are more important preconditions for success in post-secondary education, such as independence of mind, creative imagination, community awareness, and technological know-how. If college and university admissions officers paid more attention to these qualities, high schools, freed from having to cram countless facts into the addled heads of teenagers, could offer students the chance to develop into free and enquiring minds?—?the basic preparation for active citizenship in a democracy. Therein lies the perfect motivation for improving literacy both at school and through life.
Peter H. Hennessy
(Hennessy is a retired professor of education at Queen’s University. His most recent book is Democracy in Peril: Are Schools Guilty?)
Alexander writes, “Schooling, especially public high school, has become a most complicated affair.” He also laments university entrants who “will not read and cannot write.” His solution has three points?—?smaller classes, separating students according to ability, and restricting choice. As a recently retired teacher and avid reader, I agreed with many of these suggestions.
The next day, however, I read an article in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record by York University education professor Heather Lotherington. It promoted the idea that students have moved beyond understanding words on paper and producing two-dimensional print, and that modern technologies need to be incorporated into what students learn at all levels of schooling. I have heard elsewhere that researchers are studying new, post-literate, cognitive skills based on the overwhelming amount of visual information to which students are exposed.
How might we foster a love of Shakespeare as well as the ability to create animation or visual text? This is certainly a “complicated affair,” as Alexander writes, and one on which there is little consensus.