Friday, October 18, 2013

Reflections on philanthropy and education in Canada

It was with mixed feelings that I watched a brief episode of "Dragon's Den" on CBC last night. In this episode a British Columbia man introduced his company, Wealthy Schools.ca, to the panel of potential investors. His idea, currently endorsed by some 100 schools in his home province, is to bring a variety of "household items" to the list of previously banal products offered to schools to  raise additional funds to enhance their ability to operate. Two "dragons" partnered and signed on to the project, elevating its initial value considerably.
On the one hand, bringing products that all homes require repetitively and consistently, and not just the usual chocolate bars and greeting cards that have little to no "repeat value" as purchases and thereby as funding sources for schools, is ingenuous, and probably long overdue.
The individual making the "pitch" indicated that there was also a profit side to his venture, thereby convincing the dragons to engage.
On the other hand, the public purse, so strained (or should we say drained?) by such mounting costs as health care, social services, education and infrastructure, is unable to provide adequately, apparently, for the approximately 116,000 schools across the country. And that dismal landscape includes the revenue from the granting of licences for casinos to operate in most provinces and territories, sadly, too frequently on First Nations' reservations.
Would I purchase margarine and butter from a source donating 10% to the neighbourhood school? Probably.
Would I purchase the bread and peanut butter, the lasagna and vegetables for our diet, from a school supplier in order to move some dollars into the school council coffers? Again, probably.
Would  I consider this a philanthropic gesture of which I might be proud....well...not so much.
Would I volunteer at the neighbourhood school to help launch this project? Probably, because I can see that schools needs have to be met using whatever resources are available (within obvious parameters of legality and ethics) and the local community's daily needs are one innovative route to those funds.
However, the larger question is what kind of society are we becoming, even with projects like Wealthy Schools?
Everyone knows that fundraising has become increasingly competitive, increasingly almost desperate, and that family budgets are growing strained, if not in many cases broken, through the combined forces of higher prices and lower wages, salaries, fees and benefits for too many workers.
Fifty years ago, as a member of student government at an Ontario university, I recall a discussion among council members over whether or not to endorse and engage in a fund raising initiative, for an outside charity, separate from the normal fees at the university, like athletic fees, book store costs, cafeteria costs, and housing costs. Naturally, university students' pocket books are not replete with excess cash, in most cases. And naturally, also, the university student body is a vineyard ripe for the picking of ready, available, articulate and often potentially committed volunteers eager, especially today, to pad their resume with philanthropic initiatives.
So there is a potentially rich resource ready to be tapped among the student body, while at the same time, we see, in such cities as Kingston, where this is being written, the local council having passed a resolution effectively eliminating the student body of Queen's University from the opportunity to vote for the local council and mayor candidates. The matter is being appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, for hopefully, a needed over-turning. Charities both need and welcome their student volunteers, as cities need to build bridges between their municipal operations and their campus colleagues, so that both benefit from the relationship, both formal and informal.
Long ago, in another life, I listened to the then Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, Stephen Lewis, addressing a group of OSSTF members in northern Ontario, on a professional development day. He lamented in his address, the reduction of education to two sets of numbers: how many dollars are being spent, and how many students are graduating.
Seemingly, in the intervening half-century, we have moved much closer to a world in which those numbers, and the numbers that support the reduction of the first and the increase in the second number respectively, have reduced even further the educational operation in Canada, to the objective analysis of how to achieve those goals, without considering the even more important and much more challenging task of "educating" the young people who inhabit our classrooms. They see individual competition at levels our generation could not have imagined; they see corporate largesse on their campuses to a degree we could and would never have anticipated. There is a significant difference between the "Metras" stadium, potentially named for the famed coach of the Western Mustang football team, and the TD stadium, its current public moniker and the difference is not merely in the  size or number of the letters. Of course, the TD bank wants to sell bank accounts to every student attending Western, and all other campuses and of course, there is a considerable tax benefit for  paying the fee to have their name on the football stadium. And, also, of course, the university benefits directly and immediately from the "donation"....
And, one has to wonder if too many of us, in too many educational institutions, have not succumbed to the "direct and immediate" seduction of the flow of instant cash, no matter the source or the long-term implications. Our students are not merely numbers to be exploited by campus career counsellors, or their corporate hiring agents. Yet, from all reports, our universities have become little more than vocational training schools, leaving the liberal arts, including the performing arts, on the sidelines.
In the course of that headlong pursuit of corporate dollars, have we not lost more than the "public" contribution to the development of those students? Have we potentially lost the perspective that we really are all in this together, and that such a phrase is not merely a political slogan.
Are we losing, or have we lost, the perspective that philanthropy benefits both donor and recipient, as well as the society and culture at large? Are we in danger of looking for, needing and developing only models that are based on profit, when their ultimate purpose is philanthropy?
Are we in danger of ceding to the profit motive the higher ground above and beyond the ground allotted to philanthropy? Perhaps....and while we wish "Wealthy Schools" success, we hope that public educators will not witness a further decline in their resources from the public purse, and thereby an even more dangerous decline in public participation in the education process, as money and the objective parameters swamp what have become "less aspirational" personal and community goals.

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