In These Historic Times: What’s the purpose of public education in B.C. today?

Equal opportunity, a public service, the place to park the kids while we go to work.  Each of our understandings about the purpose of public education is as varied as who we are and from which experiences we have emerged. In light of the political and scientific dilemmas we face today, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, we have an opportunity to revisit the role and importance of public education in society.  Spoiler alert.  It is far more than a child care service for the economy.  

One thing we all agree on in B.C. is that education is a fundamental right. Some of us might agree a person should be able to pay for an upgrade, in the form of private schools, more of us believe in equal quality, and access for everyone. We reject the notion that amassed personal wealth should control access to educational opportunity. 

Of course, Canada did have a few ties to the recent American college admission scandal.  David Sidoo, the businessman from Vancouver pled guilty to paying $200,000 for someone to take his son’s SATs in 2011.  This incident stands out, however, and is far flung to the fringes of what is deemed acceptable access to education in B.C. In 2019, a poll commissioned by the Institute for Public Education/British Columbia and First Call:  B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, found that two-thirds of respondents opposed public funds going to private schools. The vast majority of Canadians still believe in the value of public education, in much the same way they defend universal healthcare.  

When public education first emerged en masse to Canadians (with Ontario first in 1871) we were still a new founded, fledgling democracy.  It was largely recognized that sustaining and nurturing that democracy, required a common commitment to public education for all citizens.  “Citizenship” in this period was largely restrictive.  Women were not considered “persons”, until 1929, and First Nations were not allowed to vote federally, without giving up their treaty status, until 1960.  

A century after Ontario’s bold move to introduce public education to Canada, on October 8, 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau announced multiculturalism as an official government policy. Responding to the changing face of the country through immigration, the resettlement of refugees, and an increased migration of Indigenous Canadians to urban centers, the policy was implemented to promote respect for cultural diversity and grant ethnic groups the right to preserve and develop their own cultures within Canadian society.  Public schools became key institutions in promoting respect for cultural diversity in the much broader realm, and a means of removing some of the barriers for minority groups to fully participate in Canadian society.  

Public education became, and was recognized as a critical institution, in fostering harmony, cooperation, and economic growth amongst Canada’s increasingly diverse population.  Equal opportunity through education was the value and belief of the time. While today, this is still a defining Canadian value, somewhere in the last half century we seem to have forgotten the importance of public education in shaping our country.  We have looked at it more as an expensive apprenticeship to employment.  

Education funding has become seen as a burden and the policy creep towards privatization is now found in almost every province and territory.  Alberta has established thirteen charter schools. During the past round of teacher bargaining in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford embarked on a plan to reduce the number of teachers, by forcing high school students to take courses online.  He proposed removing teachers from Kindergarten classrooms all together.  Here in B.C., education funding increases to private and independent schools has outpaced that of our public schools.  

No one feels this neglect more than those working in the system, especially teachers.  We were the ones who built and supported the system from the beginning.  We are the ones who despite all the neglect, are holding it together through our sheer will and diligence, and we have never forgotten its role in shaping our communities, province, and country.  

The aims of teachers are often dismissed as too lofty. Perhaps, this is why our advocacy for funding restoration goes unanswered. But of course, we MUST believe in our work.  We are the keepers of the knowledge of how important a universal public education system is to building a better Canada, for everyone. Not just here, but globally as well.

We are preparing our students to not just use their own judgement in the world they choose to build, but to make it a judgement that is compassionate, responsible, and informed by knowledge and understanding.  

Contrary to the recent reform movement in B.C. Education, teachers know content matters.  Developing empathy in students can only come from their understanding of the painful past of colonization on indigenous communities in Canada. This might change the perspective used in a Canadian history lesson, or the choice of book for a novel study.  

Our globalized world can no longer be escaped.  We need to understand the outrage, protests, and pain the death of George Floyd has caused in the U.S., and why that pain overflows here into Canada.  Teachers know there is a history to teach, a book to read, a conversation to be had.  The same is true in learning about the cause, spread, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  We know there is context, narrative, and difficult truths to uncover relating to economics, the environment, capitalism, and politics.   

Our news feeds are filled with the questions of how we can do better.  How do we end racism?  How do we end misogyny, and patriarchal structures?  Is reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians possible? If so, how do we get there? How do we avoid another world wide pandemic?  How do we reverse the catastrophic ravages of environmental degradation, and loss of biodiversity across our shared planet?  

These shared problems we have today, are in fact bigger than they have been in the past.  Where once we only had to worry about our own families, communities, provinces, or country, we now have to worry about the entire globe. That is the true weight and responsibility of globalization.

Strong and sturdy public education systems are needed more today, than ever before.  They are the  hope that we can as a species answer the above questions, and restore a sustainable equilibrium to our coexistence together on this planet. We need future generations that know how to talk to one another, learn from one another, and care for one another. This starts in the places we enter as children.  Where we expand our bubbles beyond the familiar. Our public schools are often the first place we encounter and spend sustained time with others different from ourselves.    

We also need to reawaken our understanding that democracy will cease to function without an educated, literate population that is able to engage in it, at all levels. Sure, we complain about Canadian politics all the time.  We should, and we should also seek to improve upon it. But, as  Churchill said in 1947, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”  I tend to agree with Churchill on this one.  

History looks upon Churchill as a deeply flawed man.  He believed in eugenics, and racial hierarchy.  His policies as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, led to the starvation of thousands in India during the Second World War.  Yet, I am reluctant to allow my contempt of many of his beliefs and actions to erase the bits of wisdom that were also present in this complicated man. There is no better way to clarify and learn to justify your own beliefs, then when encountering those in opposition to them. Confronting the thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of those you don’t agree with is where learning happens.  We learn better, when we find learning difficult.  Psychologists call this “Productive Frustration”.  We also surprise ourselves sometimes, finding points of agreement.  This helps us resist the urge to “other,” one another.  

Divisiveness in our world today, is palpable.  We are forgetting how to talk to people unlike ourselves.  We are too ready to cast aside the voices of our past for not meeting the moral purity tests of today’s standards.  The result is a world we have created with more polarization, inequality, anxiety, and depression than ever before.  Our public schools are the primary place for citizens to begin, as students to wrestle with these issues, especially the uncomfortable ones.  Together we must learn to not only ponder a desire for a more peaceful, and compassionate future, we must also address the lingering problems in our way to achieving it.  

Bending towards common goals in our classrooms, seeking the greater good, and allowing room for the productive frustration of learning to understand one another.  This is the foundation on which strong communities are built.   This too is the foundation of what should be the most important intention of our public education system going forward in our post pandemic world.