A Voice from the Past

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The Article

As the first week of school is upon us, I thought it might be helpful to have an educational “reality check”, and ask an expert from long ago what they think of our educational system. So I called up my grandmother, even those she’s been gone for over 14 years. Here’s what she said.

Well golly! These schools sure are pretty, aren’t they? They’re so big, with so many windows, and all that play equipment, that’s just lovely!

But it seems to me, Sheila, that schools must be for something very different than in my day. We had to sit straight and behave or else we would regret it! I guess today people have decided that the teachers don’t have to be in charge anymore, eh? I didn’t see any teacher punish a child, though I saw many children who needed it, I can tell you! I’m not sure how all those other children were supposed to learn with kids yelling and being rambunctious around them. Maybe I’m missing something.

And just look at how they teach them to read! When I was young we learned phonics. They drilled those rules into our heads and pretty near everyone could read, even those whose parents couldn’t. Unfortunately, by the time my own girls went to school just after the war, schools had switched to that whole language “look-say” approach with those awful Dick and Jane books. I thought the school system would have realized by now that straight phonics works, but it seems they haven’t. All the tutoring services have, though.

Another thing I wonder about: are today’s schools afraid of males? I hardly saw any male teachers at the elementary schools, and very few fathers, especially at some of the schools in poorer areas. Even most of the stories and pictures in the books were of girls! Why, I hear they’re changing that great classic, Winnie The Pooh, which was named after my hometown of Winnipeg, so that Christopher Robin is a girl in the updated edition! And I heard of several schools that have banned playing tag because it’s too competitive. Have boys changed that much since I went to school, or do schools just not understand them anymore?

I also found it strange that there was hardly anything patriotic. I remember sitting in school the day World War I ended, and the party we had! But you don’t celebrate your soldiers, except for one ceremony on November 11. And there’s very little explanation of what is great about Canada and worth defending. My school was filled with immigrants speaking all different languages, but we learned what it meant to be Canadian and we were proud of it. Your textbooks talk more about the good in other cultures than they do about the good in yours.

But then, we also had prayers and faith. You have lessons about character. I hate to seem narrow-minded, dear, but our generation learned character just by reading the classics and having good moral teaching. I’m not sure how you can have “character” classes and expect children to be nice to each other if at the same time you’re teaching kids that there’s no such thing as absolute right and wrong. Seems a little fishy to me.

It also seems to me—and I don’t know how to say this nicely, dear—that children have become, well, stupid. I’m not sure if those funny computer things have anything to do with it, but little attention is being paid to actually learning the English language. Let me give you two vocabulary lists. List 1: aggression, divergent, prestigious, bizarre, cogent, propagate, ambiguous, exonerated. List 2: illimitable, coquetry, impudent, undulation, stalwart, monolith, dissipation, variegated. The first list is for high school seniors today preparing for their SATs in the United States. The second list is from an old textbook of my own father’s for 11-year-olds.

Something else occurs to me. My school was cramped, with plain books with no colour pictures. We had large classrooms with young teachers. But the children I went to school with ended up living through the Great Depression, and many fought heroically in World War II. I wonder, what are you preparing your students for?

And she waved good-bye, and wandered off.

S. Wray Gregoire
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