On a sunny mid-week morning in a crowded cafeteria in the former Widdifield Secondary School in northern Ontario back in the late sixties, the then leader of the Ontario New Democrats, Stephen Lewis, uttered a sentence about what was then happening to the education system in the province. The sentence, ‘that debates about education had been reduced to numbers of students (in a class) and to numbers of dollars being spent on the file’ continues to reverberate in my head.
A rifle-shot, perhaps on the surface considered a reductionism, nevertheless, carried an impact at least on this attendee.
Class size was a significant negotiating point for teachers’ federations in their search for contracts that would enable effective teaching and learning. Numbers of dollars in cost to the provincial budget were significant to the provincial “Treasurer” and the government, because that was a ‘target’ for the opposition and the public to focus on, as a minimal path to assess how important schools and teaching and learning was to the government.
Of course, there are and were other benchmark ‘numbers’ by which to evaluate a school’s performance, such as the number of grade thirteen graduates, and before that, the number of students awarded provincial bursaries for further education and the number of “Ontario Scholars” (graduates who achieved an average grade of 80%). Considered anything but a “drain” on the provincial budget, education back then was “booming” in terms of rising enrolments, teacher hires, new schools opening and new generations of students going off to university as well as to the then new community colleges.
Nevertheless, Lewis’s rifle shot highlighted something about how public discourse focuses on those empirical details, those benchmarks, and the potential implications of each depending on the perspective of the assessor(s). Public discourse depends on numbers, partly as a way to frame, (and to contain) the discussion, and also to be able to compare one jurisdiction with another. Provincial departmental examinations, another relic of the education system, were designed to provide objective evaluators from across the province, who had no knowledge about the name or location of the students’ papers they were grading. Objectivity, standardization, a level playing field…these were the objectives of the system. (Ironically, and paradoxically, one provincial examiner tells the story of a single essay from a grade thirteen student being passed between several examiners, (as a test case) that received grades ranging from A+ to F, casting considerable doubt on the depth of objectivity being achieved.)
There is so much more to the full assessment of a situation, including the process of education children, that escapes ‘inclusion’ in the numbers as measures of value. And, naturally, with the explosion of technology, we are now gathering numbers of postal codes, family incomes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, projected labour needs, literacy and numeracy rates and skill levels, and proceeding to collate and to curate, to compare and to apply both inductive and deductive approaches to the various gestalts of those numbers. So, on one level, we have many mountains of data on which to base our comparisons, assessments, and projected policy and curricular changes. Of course, curricular changes that creep from the desks and offices of the provincial bureaucrats/educationists, will quickly garner headlines especially if they attempt to ‘touch’ a hot-button’ social issue like sex education and rising numbers of LGBTQ students in the system. The intersection of such matters into the public debate seems to ignite passions like those that erupted yesterday in the corridors of the U.S. House of Representatives. One member, a mother of a transgender, installed a proud flag outside her office, only to be challenged by the QAnon-loyal representative from Georgia, who glued a sign outside her office reading “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE…Trust the Science!”
Debates and discussion of public education, vacillating between numbers and nuclear ‘epithets’, however, does not provide either a useful and creative process for adjusting social change (in both substance and speed) nor does it encourage moderate, thoughtful, and engaged parents and citizens to enter into such a ‘fray’. However, it would seem that such an oscillation (numbers to epithets) is a vernacular process that both epitomizes the ‘war-like’ culture and the paralysis that seems to have much of the political class ensnared. The media swims in pools of numerical data, especially around the pandemic, and the politicians try to navigate between mortality and hospitalization rates and vaccine production, distribution and injection rates, in a kind of public square Kabuki theatre, characterized more by showmanship than by content. Elaborate costumes and dramatic gestures, however, do not a coherent, functioning, creative and generative society and culture. Reductionisms, in numbers, dollars, quantity and demographic reach, while useful in attempting to put a frame around the worst health crisis in a century, and assert some public pressure on the ‘actors’ on the stage to address gaps in service and recovery, as well as honourable moments of “memory and honour” to the far too many deceased, put public attention on those aspects of our angst on which the public actors can and will focus.
The numbers of suicides, both successful and attempted, however, are down-played, given the perceived public danger/threat of the copy-cat syndrome. Similarly, family violence, hunger, and untreated illness, while garnering some public attention especially among “essential health and social workers,” are depicted in much smaller fonts (both literally and metaphorically). And while there is little room for the public actors to dispute numbers of cases, etc. there is a canyon of rhetorical ‘space’ in which to prevaricate, distort, dissemble, and outright lie, in order to perform the absolutely most base (and dysfunctional) attitude in many organizations, CYA (Cover Your Ass), or PYR (Pad Your Resume), or GPH (Generate Positive Headlines)….essentially self-serving words and actions that demonstrate how reductionistic our shared perceptions and attitudes are to our own well-being.
In the half-century since that address to the OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation), Stephen Lewis served the historic voice of the prophet, from the Old Testament. Whether they were ‘prophesying’ the end of an empire, the plagues of a people, an invasion of an enemy, the coming of the kingdom….voices of prophecy redound in that piece of holy writ. In a sense, Lewis was decrying the reductionism of public debate, over an issue central to the public consciousness, while the “file” remained relegated to the ‘family pages’ in the national dailies. Not only was the treatment of the anatomy, the chemistry, the sociology, the history and the philosophy of education reduced to numbers of students and dollars in the budget, but the whole public “value” of the role and purpose of education the province’s youth was considered analogous to entertainment, meal menus, theatre listings, horoscopes and the like. Pricking the consciousness of the culture, whetherd,- Lewis actually intended to or not, along with the pandemic’s devastating impact on the process of education children, and the accompanying rates of depression, anxiety and mental health issues, formerly closeted from public disclosure, has at least generated some minimal public discussion about both the importance of the educational process and system, and the need for legitimate public health measures if our culture is to retain both sustainability and vitality.
A similar case can and needs to be made about the cultural and historical uroborus* snake of the corporate and business world…the fixation on and addiction to numbers for all measurements of “issues” to be confronted, wrestled, untangled and potentially resolved. Now that public consciousness of ‘essential workers’ to provide food, mail, vaccines, hospital (and especially ICU) care and police and fire workers who provide protection and sanitation workers keeping our garbage collected, has been awakened, not only ought we all to share in a collective pain of shame, for having neglected and even decried millions of ‘servant’ workers, we are beginning to hear and see signs of an awakened consciousness among both citizens and the political class, for our negligence, our indifference, and our insouciance. Unfortunately, that same negligence, indifference and insouciance characterizes our collected attitude to the “planet” as if it were an inexhaustible reservoir of plenty, of food, water, beauty, clean air and the capacity to restore and renew itself, no matter how abusive (to the point of actual rape) we are, applies.
We are and have been gobbling up what we ‘deemed’ essential resources to fire our manufacturing plants, to fire our combustion engines, to fly our planes and our ships and buses, and to mine ‘precious’ minerals, both for commerce and for vanity, our own. Tragically and ironically, the planet has been just as, if not even more, taken for granted, abused, defaced, scoured, deforested, and even defecated in and on for centuries as our essential workers. Our for-profit business model, the core model for the operation of our public political debates, for the assessment and policy design of both our for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, relies on the same kind of reductionism that Lewis was so articulately debunking in the late 60’s. In 1989, Ed. Broadent proposed and secured unanimous consent in the House of Commons for a bill to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. How many acts of parliament have been dedicated to provide clean drinking water to First Nations communities…from all political parties, representing all points on the political continuum?
We are all complicit in our appetite for the simple, easily contained speeches, including the idealistic words of potentially lawful bills, based on a recitation of numbers. We are all, also complicit, in our swiss-cheese memory, as well as our flabby commitment to hold our public figures accountable, whether for the small details or for the humungous calamities. And our oscillation between indifference and the occasional peak of anger, rebelliousness and even public engagement, is one of those social, cultural and obviously political memes in our political history, on which our political class both depends and continues to foist on us as a “guaranteed” menu to ensure their own re-election.
It is not to expect each citizen in a democracy to become ‘expert’ in all of the government files. Not even the elected official can or should even try for that benchmark. Nor is it necessary for the media to use their air time and digital/paper space to provide all the details of each and every potentially explosive story. However, it is past time for both the political class and the reporting/editorializing professionals to make significant changes to their perceptions of our (the people’s) capacity to read ‘into’ the headline, to have an active appetite for the whole truth, including those stories, (far beyond the personal indiscretions of highly placed individuals) that offer insight into how our province, town, city, nation is not merely operating, but actually serving. And the who is being served also needs to shift from the “political class” to a much wider and far more educated bell curve that is both bored and discriminating of the cliché, the repetitive archetype (hard work, innocent victim, over-budget, under-planned) like the fast-food menus, never really nourish, but offer instant superficial gratification.
And then there is the inevitable cultural “whaling” about how we are all “going to hell in a hand-basket’ when that process is one over which we each, both individually and collectively, share responsibility.
As an astute young businessman commented recently, when envisioning how the business community (including each executive and entrepreneur) might re-invision his/her own operation, “You are the change you want to see!”
That message is a minimal move to making operative, fully incarnated and potentially planet-saving, the responsibility not only for assuring the bottom line of the enterprise, but for accomplishing that goal, while respecting the planet, the workers and the community engaged in each enterprise, and hopefully, eventually, the message will drift, like a welcome balloon of needed oxygen, creativity, courage and vision to the political class, and even to the executive board rooms. Some in those elevated suites, like Ford, Volvo, have grasped the significance of taking their carbon footprint seriously. We can only hope that taking the health of the planet seriously will also include taking the well-being of each person employed in every enterprise on the planet, will accompany that trajectory.