In a Staples commercial, that time isn't Christmas. In fact, Christmas seems to be a bit of a dirty word these days, even though most people I know celebrate Christmas and not primarily in a religious way, either! No, it refers to back-to-school.

Actually, autumn, back-to-school time and Thanksgiving have long been my favourite time of year. They feel like a time of renewal, even though the leaves are getting ready to fall off the trees, the geese and other migratory birds are flying south, and nature is hibernating and going dormant.

Is it a good time for most families? The implication of the commercial seems to be that the adults are tired of having their kids around, that there's been just a bit too much family togetherness for their liking.

Staples is not the only organization making the link between Christmas and back-to-school. Ottawa's Christmas Exchange has rebranded itself as the "Caring and Sharing Exchange" and started providing school supplies to low-income families. Because for most families, if fall is the most wonderful time of the year, it's also the most expensive time.

I've donated to the Christmas Exchange for a number of years now, following a family tradition. I recall as a kid, my mother would pick up a few extra packages of nylon stockings - a luxury in those days - to donate. The charity has always been non-denominational although I think at one time, they had a policy of dispensing their largesse only to the "working poor", not those on welfare - this notion of "deserving" versus "undeserving" poverty and helping those who help themselves. Or maybe I've got that wrong and the philosophy behind the policy was that the state was already looking after those on public assistance, whereas the working poor tended to get lost in the shuffle.

Although I'm still sending them annual donations, I have to say that I'm seriously conflicted about their expanded role. While it's undeniable that back-to-school can be a heavy financial burden for many families, I firmly believe that most school supplies should be provided by the schools themselves, at least for the elementary and perhaps intermediate grades. After all, half of our property taxes in this province are earmarked to support public education - and I've always considered that to be a valid price to pay to support a public good like that.

When I was at school, notebooks and pencils and paper and textbooks were all provided to us up to grade eight. They even provided ink and pens too, if you didn't mind scratching away with a straight pen - the type with cod-liver-oil on the nib that you had to lick off before the nib would work properly. In grade eight, we actually had a somewhat eccentric home-room teacher who demanded that we use these nefarious pens until our handwriting was good enough that we could "graduate" to a fountain or cartridge pen. Ballpoint pens were strictly taboo, though - perhaps not surprising since in those days, they were very messy and blotchy and leaky things. Anyway, I'm not sure what the rationale was for thinking we'd have neater penmanship wielding a straight pen than if we were allowed to use the more user-friendly fountain or cartridge pens. Whatever the case, I seem to recall he told us some time between Christmas and Easter that we could all start using fountain pens, since if we hadn't perfected our straight-penmanship by now, there was no hope for us!

Nowadays, of course, kids hunch over keyboards and no one worries about their handwriting any more. As for adults, we have fewer and fewer occasions to sign our names and more and more PINs to forget!

But I digress. By the time I reached high school, we had to provide all of our school supplies except the textbooks - but there WERE school fees to cover at least a portion of the textbook cost. And if we lost any of them, we had to replace them at our own (or really, our parents') expense. Only in grade 13 did we have to buy all our own texts (this, I believe, was a change from when my siblings had been in high school a few years earlier, and textbooks were the family's responsibility right from grade nine onwards).

If we went back to having school supplies provided in elementary school, this would make for better standardization - the kids would have the supplies that the teachers wanted them to - and the school board could take advantage of bulk purchasing and economies of scale. And there would be far less stigma and embarrassment for the children of low-income families.

But, you might protest, we don't have unlimited funds here. Well, no. So I'll briefly outline a few of my ideas as to how the school system could save money.

First of all, it's tremendously wasteful that we have TWO school systems in Ontario - one for the "public" schools and one for the Roman Catholics. But I realize that can't be changed overnight, so I'll leave it aside for now.

Secondly, what's with all the bussing? On the one hand, we lament the growing obesity rate of today's children but on the other, we bus children far from their neighbourhoods and supply the transportation at public expense. I couldn't believe it when I read that the public school board was thinking of providing those yellow buses even to high school students - as the Catholic schools apparently already do. Couldn't we reframe how we think about this, and consider it a basic right of most elementary school-age kids to live within walking distance of their schools, and high school students perhaps at a farther distance, but still accessible by public transit? That would save the boards considerable money on transportation. Yes, in some areas it would mean some sparsely-populated classrooms but given that teachers have been bellyaching about high teacher-pupil ratios for decades, is that really such a bad thing? I also think that split grades are not such a bad thing. After all, the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouses were the ultimate in split grades - the older children helped the younger ones and learned responsibility, and many subjects can be tackled by children of various ages, just with a greater or lesser degree of sophistication. I was very impressed recently, for example, with a project on photography that the students (of all ages, K-6 or possibly K-8) at Brooke Valley School in Perth had done. Mind you, I'm not suggesting a return to rote learning and corporal punishment or some of the other aspects of old-fashioned education.

I also have some reservations about full-day kindergarten. It's very expensive. Early childhood education is certainly important, but does it have to be in a classroom setting? There's probably no going back on that one but at the very least, it seems to me that it shouldn't entirely supercede half-day kindergarten for parents who prefer the half-day model. More important, in my view, is preparing teenagers for what they'll do after leaving high school. That includes possible attendance at university, although that should NOT be presented as the only socially acceptable option, and not necessarily something to be done right away, either. What about encouraging a "gap year" as they do in many parts of Europe?

Lots of issues. Lots of possible future blog entries here!
When I joined the federal public service in the mid-1970s, it was much more credentials-based than it is now. If you had a 3-year general Bachelor's degree, an honours (4-year) degree, a Master's degree-without-thesis or degree-with-thesis, or a PhD, you were guaranteed a specific minimum starting salary. And it was expected that for the first few years at least, you would have a good chance of getting regular raises and promotions based on your increasing value to your employer. Even somewhere around the late 1980s or early 1990s, I recall being asked, when I applied for a competitive process, for "certified copies" of my degrees, a request which even the degree-granting academic institutions were unsure how to handle! (The eventual solution? I was to bring the original degrees in when I came for my interview and someone from Human Resources would photocopy them and attach a note stating that she had seen the originals.)

Nowadays, it seems everyone is into "competencies". Sounds great in theory, right? After all, no one wants incompetent employees, especially when even the competent ones are stretched much too thinly to cover the work that needs to be done.

Parallel to that is the demand for "generic" job descriptions to streamline the recruitment and hiring processes. Again, most people would love to shorten the time required to get qualified staff in place. (Though as an aside which merits a blog entry all on its own,I think it must be said that safeguarding the merit principle takes a certain amount of time and energy. An equitable public service with a composition reflecting that of the country as a whole is a value worth striving to protect. Private sector employers, while they might do well to emulate the public sector in some respects, simply do not face the same constraints.)

The problem is that the skill set of knowledge workers is NOT made up primarily of generic skills, and that's precisely what makes those workers so valuable in the first place.

Faced with demands for "competency-based" recruitment and "generic" job descriptions in order to expedite staffing, overburdened human resources officers are understandably inclined to craft job descriptions based mainly on what we used to call the "soft skills", things like being a team player, having a superior service orientation, having good communication skills, being committed to life-long learning, and so on. Certainly these skills are important. But how do you measure them? And should they be valued at the expense of that body of scarce professional and technical knowledge and expertise that is implied by an advanced degree?

What seems to me to be happening is that the "personal suitability" cluster of attributes, which used to be weighted at about ten or at most fifteen percent of the ultimate hiring decision for a professional employee, is now accorded more like eighty-five or ninety percent weight in the decision. The relative weights of the "hard skills" and "soft skills" have been effectively reversed.

But is that just a question of different needs in today's workplace, I hear you ask?

Well, look at it this way. Supposing doctors were chosen strictly on the basis of their "bedside manner" with no regard to their area of specialization. It's all very well to reduce wait-times, to have doctors who truly listen to what their patients have to say, to make the patient's experience in the doctor's office a little more pleasant. But at the end of the day, if that wonderfully personable, service-oriented doctor lacks the expertise and professional judgement to make a reliable diagnosis and prescribe an appropriate course of treatment, the lives and health of the patients will be needlessly placed in jeopardy.

There is a similar problem with this emphasis on "front-line" services at the expense of "back-room" services. Fact is, front-line service is often merely the tip of the iceberg. The back-room services are the rest of it - or perhaps more accurately, the foundation that keeps the building standing and working the way it should. We've seen a few scandals over mismanagement of medical records and to my mind that can only get worse if we continue to focus only on those activities that are conducted in public areas.

A degree or diploma or certificate is, or ought to be, a shorthand guarantee that a prospective employee has at least a certain minimal set of skills and attributes - a necessary and often sufficient condition for at least an entry-level job in that person's field of expertise. And if you had to make the choice, wouldn't you rather hire people based on what they've demonstrated over a period of years that they are capable of, rather than on their bubbly personality that won you over during an hour-long interview?
Is Wi-Fi in the classroom harmful to the students' health?

If by "harmful" we mean that it poses a direct, scientifically verifiable and quantifiable health hazard, then I suspect the answer is no. Even if there WERE some risk, it would be pretty hard to protect your children from it altogether, as there are hotspots in most public libraries, coffee shops and other well-frequented public spaces. Still, a small but vocal lobby group of parents and teachers clearly believes that WI-FI is dangerous and should be banned from the classroom.

It's a nonstarter just to tell these concerned adults that they are complete and utter fools who ought to know better than to react so irrationally and subscribe to all this voodoo-magic-nonsense. Instead, we should say to them, "Tell me about these children's symptoms so we can get to the bottom of this problem." Because the symptoms, whatever their root cause, are real. If it's something ELSE (or more likely, a number of other things) that's putting our kids at risk, I sure as hell want to know about it so we can eliminate or at least mitigate that risk.

I'm reminded of the scare surrounding video display terminals (VDTs) that occurred in the 1970s and 80s when libraries were ditching the card catalogue and moving to an online environment. A majority of cataloguers were young women in their childbearing years. Rumour had it that the VDTs were giving off dangerously high levels of radiation that would harm a developing foetus and infiltrate a mother's milk supply. The doctors, particularly if they worked in the field of occupational health, were quick to dismiss these fears. Nonetheless, a certain number of young women who worked at VDTs - maybe a statistically significant number or maybe not - went on to have pregnancies or postpartum experiences which were in some way problematic.

Chances are, these experiences were nothing to do with radiation. Maybe it was the air quality in those ultra-energy-efficient office buildings of the era, where you couldn't even open a window to get fresh air. Maybe it was the insulation in the buildings that was the problem - many buildings contained asbestos or UFFI, for example. Maybe the women were simply exhausted from working full days almost up to their due dates and then returning to work as soon as their 15-week "unemployment" insurance benefits ran out, so their resistance was down and their health suffered.
Who knows?

So to go back to the WI-FI scare, we need to really LISTEN to and THINK about these parents' and teachers' concerns if we are to have any hope of properly diagnosing the problem.

There's something else too. Maybe schoolchildren really DO spend too much time these days doing things on the computer - at the expense of, say, physical activity, or reading real books made of real paper or talking to real-live people in real time about real-life issues. Maybe they should even be doing more of the things that people of my generation scorned as being too mechanical or robotic, like memorizing poetry and doing mental arithmetic.

If we could arrive at a compromise solution and balance the risks so that kids simply spent LESS time exposed to WI-FI, less time peering at a computer screen, less time being subjected to endless computer-generated worksheets, busywork, and standardized IQ and aptitude tests, would that be such a bad thing?
On the Faith and Ethics page in yesterday's Citizen, the question asked of the experts is "Should children be left to make up their own minds about religion?" The Roman Catholic priest and the pastor from the Metropolitan Bible Church came down on the "No" side while the other experts, to my pleasant surprise, seemed to lean towards a qualified "Yes".

By the time I came along, the youngest of four children, my family was not affiliated with any particular church. So until I started school, I had no exposure to religion. But in the 1960s, even in the public school system, there was no escaping it! School officials didn't believe you if you said you had no religion, so my parents taught me to say I was Anglican or, more generically, Protestant. They had come over not that long ago from England where, even if you were not devout, you could sort of say you were Church of England, and Anglicanism was and is the closest Canadian equivalent.

At school, we started each day with the Lord's Prayer and some sort of a Bible reading. We also sang hymns and had "religious education" once or twice a week. Up to about grade 5, I'm sure I won no friends in telling my peers that I didn't believe in God. Fortunately I was not one to speak up much in class, so I never got into trouble that way with my teachers nor did I have the Christian Aid Society sicced on me! Yet just as I entered the intermediate grades and was starting to explore new ideas and wonder if perhaps I DID believe in something, suddenly my fellow students were tripping over themselves to proclaim their non-belief, with Christianity (and probably just about any other religion unless it involved the Maharishi) being mocked as being as naive as believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy!

When I went to Arch Street School, I remember the principal telling us all during an assembly that if we didn't already go to church or Sunday school, we should go home and tell our parents that we wanted to start going. Nowadays, of course, he would be severely reprimanded for doing something like that but I'm sure he meant well and believed he would be saving our souls. Anyway, that was one instruction that I didn't follow because my contemporaries, even if they were believers, assured me that church and Sunday school were boring. Still, I think I did fleetingly wonder if I was destined for eternal damnation!

When I moved back to Vincent Massey for grades seven and eight, the grade seven teacher suggested that we have regular classes in comparative religion. He wasn't the most popular teacher around but in that particular respect, I think he was extremely progressive and well ahead of his time. But by this stage of our development, a majority of the students were at the all-out religious rejection stage and for lack of popular support, nothing ever came of the idea. In grade eight, our home-room teacher was atheist or agnostic and refused to teach religion in any form. But I guess maybe it was still a curricular requirement, so he went and taught a math class to some grade sevens, while the grade seven teacher (not the progressive one who had wanted to teach comparative religion) came and tried to impart his religious faith to a typical classful of smart-alec grade eights (us). I don't know what particular denomination this grade seven teacher belonged to but he WAS rather odd! I later heard he had been fired for refusing to shave off his beard but that might have been an urban legend.

But back to my religion or lack thereof. I certainly don't fault my parents for not giving me religion. In fact, I think it would have been decidedly hypocritical of them to insist I attend church or Sunday school when they themselves were non-believers. And in many ways, it was the best situation I could have been in - they raised no objections, for example, when I attended Day School Gospel League after school, or the local United Church for services or CGIT. They simply asserted their belief in freedom of religion.

Still, I AM glad that I went to school when religion was still taught. After all, religion is about much more than just saving souls! It serves a social and community function and is a crucial piece of our culture and heritage. Think of all the allusions in literature, art, music, theatre and so forth that we could not appreciate if we did not have at least a passing acquaintance with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Or mythology, which was also people's religion in earlier times. Yes, I think a comparative religion approach would have been more appropriate, at least from about grade five or six onwards. And there's no reason why we have to stick to learning about Judaeo-Christian religions either - that's all the more true as we become a more cosmopolitan and multicultural society. But I do sometimes wonder if kids at school these days may be missing out on crucial elements of their cultural heritage as we rush towards political correctness and the reluctance to offend anyone in our diverse society.



October 2017



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