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The Doctor's Corner

Dr. David Harley B.A.,M.A.,M.A.,Ph.D.

Dr. Harley completed a Master’s degree in Philosophy specializing in analytical philosophy and philosophy of mind as well as a Master’s degree in History specializing in early 20th century intellectual history.  He completed a Ph.D. degree in Education at the University of Toronto specializing in educational theory in general and the educational theory and practice of the noted British philosopher Bertrand Russell in specific.  His thesis research employed the assistance of Bertrand Russell’s daughter to track down ex-teachers and ex-students from his experimental school Beacon Hill.  He was awarded a Canada Council Doctoral Award as well as a Canada Council Post Doctoral Award.  He has over 30 years of direct experience as an educational consultant, principal, school administrator and researcher.

The purpose of his blog is to present various opinions, articles and book reviews related to the current state of education and the changing challenges presented to students, teachers and parents. 

Some Fallacies of Modern Education or How to Lose While Winning

When I first started my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Education, the great rage at the time was the ‘Moral Education Project’.  A psychologist at Harvard had come up with a theory of moral development whereby as a result of answering a series of questions, an individual could be categorized as being in one of ten moral development stages.  Some came to believe that if the educational curriculum could be so modified so as to promote answering these questions in an appropriate manner, a higher ranking could be achieved.  In this way, it was believed that moral development could be taught and encouraged.  There was immense excitement around this project and great optimism expressed as to the possible outcomes.  However, shortly after an abortive launch, it was brought to an abrupt stop and not only passed out of memory but also out of history.

From the outset, a collective enthusiasm surrounded this project and not getting on the band wagon implied that you were not being a team player.   As in other movements that were to follow, each new orthodoxy marginalized non adherents.  These attitudes have tended towards the creation of a professional climate in education whereby criticism or dissent are not only unwelcome but aggressively dismissed. This monolithic and unquestioning approach to educational beliefs could be said to preclude any use of the term ‘philosophy’ of education in favour of another term such as educational ‘fashion’.   Just as fashions eventually fade into dismissal and possible later ridicule, recent approaches to education describe much the same fate. Being more a matter of taste than intellect, they spread through a desire to conform to the latest approach and use of catch phrases.  Adherents like to view themselves and to be seen as part of the new wave of modern reform.  If pale blue is the new spring colour, it simply ‘is’ the new spring colour by mutual consent.  It is a process conspicuous in the absence of thinking or intellect and characterized by a kind of ‘ good taste’.

Needless to say, it is invariably beneficial to look critically at any set of ideas or approaches to problems in terms of their coherency, practicality and ultimately, if applied, if they work.  By looking carefully at ideas before implementing them, it is possible that mistakes can be either prevented or minimized.  Moreover, if claims are being made, then there should be some measure by which results can be assessed rather than acting in the blind faith that positive results must necessarily follow.  This approach if applied to the moral education initiative would have encouraged questioning along at least two different lines of thought, the one being theoretical soundness and the other being practical applicability. 

Regarding the former, it was never readily apparent that there was any necessary relationship between how a person verbally answered a question about a hypothetical situation involving a moral choice and how they would actually act in the real circumstances.  Most human beings ‘know’ what they should do.  The difficulty is in getting themselves to do it.  Moreover, many ‘know’ what they should do but have no intention of acting in this manner unless it is to their immediate or long term advantage.  Finally, there are those who will respond in accordance to what they perceive the expectations of the response are.   Considerations of appearance often outweigh issues of substance. 

Regarding the latter, it was and remains as less than obvious that morality could be taught or that from a political point of view there were those who would want morality taught within a secular setting.  Indeed, in the final analysis it was the unanticipated political consequences that brought about the end of this initiative.  Religious organizations were virtually unanimous in their adamant opposition to what they felt was an inappropriate incursion into what was their unique area of influence and expertise.  Atheists and agnostics were equally resistant to the idea of a public or government operated educational system taking on the role of moralist. 

Aside from these political considerations, there remained the practical question of whether morality could be meaningfully ‘taught’ in the classroom or indeed even from the pulpit through either reasoned argument or indoctrination.  Moralists from all backgrounds have invariably invited the cynical observation that whereas they may talk the talk they invariably did not always walk the walk.  In the final analysis then, it may be said that morality has more to do with actions than words.  That being said, there is the final issue to be raised which would be that of the possible verifiability of the theories put forward.  In the context of moral choices this would involve witnessing individuals in real life situations to see if the choices actually made corresponded with what they said that they would do.  Given the fact that this would not be possible, the theories involved become unverifiable and as such unaccountable in any real sense.

The point to be made therefore is that a careful review of issues and sober reflection before hand might have saved a great deal of time, money and effort.   However, the Moral Education Project was somewhat unique in that it died a quick natural death.   Other educational initiatives that have come and gone have been more akin to General MacArthur’s speech that old soldiers never die but simply fade away.  Most waves of reform fade into each other and with time fade further away having never been accountable with respect to their claims either in terms of success or failure to achieve their objectives.

Educational movements or fashions include a reliance upon feel good rhetoric that embodies and embraces resonant assumptions together with the free usage of important terms not accurately defined.  Words like ‘morality’, ‘freedom’, ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ are used daily by people as if their meaning is self-explanatory.  However, when pressed to define the terms, it is surprisingly difficult to accurately state what is meant and it invariably arises that the same word can be used despite the fact that assumed meanings are quite different.  Such is the case with the current stress in education on the importance of success.  Unless terms such as ‘success’ are carefully defined from the outset, their inherent ambiguity leads to profound differences in interpretation and meaning.  Indeed, they may lead eventually to the conclusion that the discussion is rendered nonsensical given that there is no common ground of agreement.

The current fashion of stressing success and eliminating failure from the educational vocabulary has emerged as a kind of logical progression from the previous movement emphasizing self-esteem.  Self-esteem came to be simplistically defined as feeling good or happy about yourself.  Furthermore, feeling good about yourself was presented as a desired state of mind in and of itself irrespective of issues of worthiness or context.  Clearly there is a difference between being happy about passing a math test and being happy about getting away with a murder. 

The view that everyone has a right to be happy provided a platform to the further claim that everyone has a right to be successful since happiness and being successful were presented as being interchangeable.  These assumptions have helped to shape current educational practices and as usual have been presented as being cutting edge and progressive.   This latest educational fashion has like its predecessors required compliance.  In so doing, it has undermined and discouraged critical thinking as to its meaning, logical coherency and verifiability.

It is a consistent feature of every ‘current’ practice that it is always presented and seen as an improvement upon what came before. Equally, what came immediately before is never discarded as having been wrong, flawed or in error but rather as being less evolved or less ‘perfect’.  However, as you go back far enough,  the more unacceptable those practices are when viewed through the lens of modernity.   Regardless of how they were regarded at the time, they can be discarded or ignored now with little consideration as unacceptable or even absurd.  So there seems to be something implicit in the here and now that assumes progress and increased sophistication based solely upon the passing of time.  Unfortunately such an attitude also ignores the fact that at any period in time, the same can be said of contemporary attitudes towards those views now being discredited. 

With regard to the current prevailing educational movement stressing success, this shift in focus has also involved a shift in language from the development of particular skill sets to the achievement of specific outcomes.  This was  coupled with a resistance to any attempt to measure success in terms of standardized testing unless such testing allowed for a shifting in the ground rules to adjust the outcomes or to bell curve results to create desired results.  From the point of view of standardized testing, such measures rendered it as being far from standardized.  Raw standardized testing not only presents a means whereby to measure student learning by making them accountable to a set of universal standards but also implicates teachers in that process by involving teachers within that process of accountability.  This shift to a focus upon outcomes while adjusting the methods, means and accommodations in place to secure them can be seen as being derived from a number of sources.  Some of these are political in the sense of trying to make clients happy or to minimize criticisms and others are motivated by a push to avoid accountability for all stake holders. However, it is clear that if the means can be adjusted to secure the ends then the outcomes themselves become questionable.

There is also a more insidious aspect of the movement stemming from an underlying set of beliefs that equates equality with making everyone the same as opposed to treating everyone equally.  The arguments presently used to support this inherently political position are not political but psychological.  Lack of success is presented as being psychologically damaging to the individual student.  Therefore, it is important to modify the process wherever possible in order to secure the outcome to make them happy and avoid sadness.  Sadness, it is maintained, is psychologically damaging and will lead to depression, withdrawal and a disengagement from the educational process.  Therefore the word ‘failure’ is to be removed from the educational vocabulary and all comments about student performance should stress positives and avoid any criticism or negativity.  However, if the objective is to  ensure that everyone is successful, in the final analysis the emphasis upon successful outcomes can be seen as being secondary to the ultimate quest for equality of outcomes.

Greek mythology tells us of the story of Procrustes otherwise know as “the stretcher”.  He was a bandit and rogue blacksmith from Attica who lured travellers and then murdered them by either stretching them to fit the size of an iron bed he had constructed or cutting off limbs to achieve the same purpose.  Procrustes was eventually killed by the Greek hero Theseus who subjected him to his own iron bed with predictable results.  This early example of ‘same size fits all’, underscores the perils of stretching or shortening the person to fit an arbitrarily imposed size or standard both for the subjects of the operations as well as for the practitioner.  In the case of modern American and Canadian educational approaches, that arbitrary standard is the achievement of ‘success’.  To secure this objective, modifications of curriculum, approach, expectations and standards are shifted to achieve it.  As such, ‘success’ is not a concrete thing or entity but a moving target adjusting in relationship to the individual but nevertheless assuming a standard of fixed comparative meaning relative to anyone else.   For example if individual archers were to have targets moved closer to ensure hitting the bullseye in accordance with their skill level, it would make little sense to claim that they were each equally successful in hitting the bullseye despite the fact that the statement is strictly accurate.  Clearly how the successful hitting of the bullseye is viewed must be contingent with the terms and conditions whereby this is achieved.

This brings me to the core issue here which is that educational environments and indeed society at large should only legitimately offer equality of opportunity but should not take measures to ensure equality of performance.  To do otherwise is to undermine the concept of a meritocracy upon which any liberal democracy ultimately depends for its survival.  Arguments to secure ‘fairness’ by means of changing the playing field to specific individuals, result in undermining the theoretical foundation of any meaningful definition of success.  For example, students not performing as well as other students or possibly not performing much at all can be excused by way of a range of explanations including diagnosed learning ‘disabilities’, family environment, mental health etc.  However, in each case, the explanation implies that there are reasons for the individual’s lack of performance as a result of factors beyond that individual’s control.  The individual is merely a passenger on the ship and clearly not the captain.  As such, the individual is presented as not being ultimately responsible for their lack of performance and so the requirements and delivery must be adjusted in an attempt to secure the outcome.  In this way, the desired outcome now takes the form of a moving target referred to as ‘success’.

However, the reasons that are beyond the control of the individual for any ‘dysfunctions’ are equally valid for functional or highly functional students namely that the reasons or predetermined factors for any individual being able to achieve this state must logically dictate the outcome.  If none of us are captains of the ship, then it follows that all of us are passengers and have no control ultimately as to the direction that the ship takes.  Therefore, if a person is not ultimately responsible for their ‘dysfunctions’ they cannot ultimately be responsible for their functioning as well.  To praise both the former and the latter equally is to render praise meaningless. More poignantly perhaps, if everyone is a winner then there is no winner since losing does not exisit.  In like manner, if individuals who commit crimes are predetermined to do so as a result of factors beyond their control, then equally those who do not commit crimes are not responsible for having behaved in this manner as the conditions of their upbringing have also predetermined the outcome.  The reductio ad absurdum inherent in this line of argument becomes apparent insofar as if applied, it would result in the collapse of any concept of morality or personal responsibility.

As is the case with much language use, the term ‘success’ is not as self-explanatory as it may at first be assumed.  To begin with, used as a noun it is hard to designate any ‘thing’ associated with it.  Used as an adjective, it must be used to qualify or describe something. In short, the term is normally used to described a specific activity and outcome whereby its use means to have not failed in reaching a specific outcome or meeting a specific standard.  In general usage, the term is of indeterminate meaning often forming a value judgement such as the statement “he is a successful person”. 

To achieve success, is therefore an entirely subjective statement that is largely meaningless unless pinned down to specifics and which in common usage either implies or assumes that all parties understand the same thing when using the term.  Are people successful because they are rich, happy, drive an expensive car, have a happy marriage etc.?  Is hitting the bullseye with an arrow at a hundred yards a successful outcome and does this make someone successful in any meaningful sense.  Can you equate that successful outcome with another  person hitting the bullseye with an arrow from a distance of 5 feet?  If you then say that both cases are those of ‘success’ relative to the archer’s abilities, what meaning does being a success have?  In short, there would appear to be an inherent consideration of difficulty and a competitive standard implied in our meaningful use of the term.   If you require successful archers to form an army to win a war, is there any sense in accepting any skill level to avoid hurt feelings?

To be successful in a test, exam or subject has nothing to do with being ‘successful’ in general and to be successful in general is determined entirely by the measure against which it is compared.  It is possible to be successful in school but not in life and equally possible to be unsuccessful in school and a success in life.  The view that everyone should be able to be successful at everything is as absurd as is the view that everyone deserves to be successful in anything.  As success is an achievement that must involve the possibility of failure in order to be meaningful, then it also follows that some people must fail in order for that achievement to have meaning.

The less than immediately obvious political ramifications of the stress on equality of outcome as opposed to the equality of opportunity is that it suppresses rather than fosters the concepts of freedom and responsibility at both the individual and collective level.  The American Declaration of Independence may well declare that all men are created equal but it in no way states or implies that they are all created the same in other regards including ability.  They are created equal only in the sense that they have certain inalienable rights specified as being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These rights can be seen as supporting and promoting individualism in terms of enhancing opportunities for personal fulfilment. Nowhere is it stated or inferred that the outcomes of such a process should or could be the same or that guarantees exist to ensure outcomes as rights. 

Interestingly enough, in a current political environment in which the virtues of ‘diversity’ are trumpeted, a mantle of uniformity appears to be working against any genuine respect for personal differences.  Diversity involves more than diversity of culture, race, religion or sexual preference, but also diversity of talent, ability and personality thereby inevitably leading to different and varied outcomes.  These outcomes when compared can be viewed as lesser or greater and correspondingly graded to include the notion of being above or below a given standard thereby introducing the concept of ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

The only way that one could legitimately ensure that outcomes were the same would be to make everyone the same and that would be Procrustian.

An educational philosophy that declares that every student has the right to be successful is in fact attacking the very foundations of liberal democracy which would instead determine that every individual should have the right to have the opportunity to be successful.  Respect for genuine diversity of personality and ability must imply an acceptance of different outcomes and performances.  Any effort to adjust the latter implies a denial of the former.  The acknowledgement of this is an important issue to bring attention to.  It is a discussion worth having in terms of the dangerous and implicitly anti-democratic and anti-individualistic thrust of this initiative.  Ironically, therefore, the proponents of this educational philosophy and approach are actively undermining the very principles and values that they purport to advance.  Schools are often seen and criticized for pursuing mediocracy and the lowest common denominator.  Even if this is an unintended objective, it presents itself as an accidental consequence that should be addressed before it undermines the aspirations of the very political environment that gave it birth.

So what then should be the objectives of education if not success?  Perhaps the answer is as simple as the ability to enjoy such rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The ability to thrive in such an environment is based upon an approach to education whereby the individual is given free licence to grow and develop not as they will but rather to provide them with those skills necessary to respond to and perpetuate those values.  Central to this is the formation of a foundation of knowledge necessary to make intelligent life choices as well as the development of the self-direction and self-control required to follow through with those plans, directives or decisions once made.  Political freedom can only be of benefit to the individual if he or she  is not ultimately enslaved by their own limitations which then become matters of character.  As such, personal freedom and political freedom make each other possible and must in the final analysis either perpetuate each other or embrace a natural death.

The goal of education should therefore be to provide the individual with the tools for success whereby his or her unique abilities and personality can find expression and fulfilment.  Education’s ultimate objective should then be to focus on the means rather than the ends.  Those means involve a structured and consistent educational environment and approach that will provide the basis for self-realization through self-direction.  Neither of these are possible without a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding coupled with the ability to set goals and objectives while having the self-control and strength of will to pursue them.  Such a programme necessarily involves meeting challenges and surmounting difficulties through genuine effort,  fostered and upheld by the encouragement of mentors.

The current practices of adjusting the school environment and expectations to the individual student is maladaptive to the adult world into which they must eventually enter.  Equally, the removal of negative or unpleasant consequences related to performance are equally maladaptive and will inevitably contribute to a loss of any sense of reality.  The removal of natural consequences from actions leads to a removal of the mind from its contingent circumstances. The magical thinking that will result undermines the ability to make rational choices. Once the same cause same effect rule is eliminated, the outside world is ruled by chaos.  When people live in their own world ignoring the realities of the world outside of them, they invariably will be considered insane.  Equally, those who pursue behaviours that do not yield the desired results represent a cognitive dissonance that transcends stupidity and enters the realm of mental health.

Modern therapeutic models including cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness all involve the building up of behaviours where actions are directed by thinking in addition to feeling rather than on emotions alone.   The stress upon learning outcomes is to miss the entire thrust of education which is not to produce outcomes of learning but to encourage and foster the abilities so as to produce outcomes.  An education focused upon the fixed results of thought as opposed to the quality of thought itself is an exercise in propaganda.  The ability to live a rewarding life resides in part in the growth of wisdom derived from experience as well as the ability to give and receive love.  Individualism in this sense is not equated with selfishness but rather with the currency of uniqueness which in a life well-spent benefits all.

Message to Parents January 31st, 2020

Message to Parents January 31st, 2020

As indicated in the previous two communications in this series,  this year we have started a new practice of messaging all parents and guardians with some advice and encouragement from our consulting psychotherapist Mr. Mauro Di Lorenzi (who has many years of experience counselling parents and families) and myself.  We hope that this will prove to be of benefit and would welcome your feedback.  The intention is to provide these messages at key points throughout the year addressing issues specially pertinent to the time and season that we find ourselves in.  

The current  message is intended to address some of the issues that arise at the end of the first semester and as parents begin to consider renewing enrolment for next year.  It is at this time that many boys begin the process of negotiation and intensify pressure to get their own way, which invariably involves a return to a more comfortable existence. 

Our present society tends increasingly to regard good parenting as giving children what they want.  Added to this is an undercurrent belief that children and adults have the same rights.  Such rights are also seen to imply that that they have the same rights as adults to make their own decisions. 

Few would deny that children should have the right to make some of their own decisions.  However, when it comes to important decisions with life changing implications there remain serious questions as to parental responsibility and parental rights.  From any third party point of view, if parents allow children to make bad choices that will seriously impact their lives, there are few who would not blame the parents since they would be viewed as the more mature players.  In such cases the  allocation of responsibility for the outcome falls squarely on the shoulders of the parents rather than the child. 

Clearly, it is one thing to disapprove of a choice or decision and to intercede and another thing altogether to disapprove of your child’s choice and feel powerless to act.  So often however, feeling powerless makes us powerless. If we doubt our ourselves, then acting ineffectually renders us ineffectual.  Disapproving of choices accompanied by the ability and desire to influence them, can make many parents feel confused and torn as to the right course of action.  It is always important to realize that as adults any freedoms that we enjoy are invariably matched with and curtailed by responsibilities.  It is natural for children to insist upon freedom but bypass issues of responsibility. In childhood you can do so at your peril.  As an adult it is difficult if not impossible to separate the two.   Mark Twain described freedom as the ability to move easy while in harness.  As adults we all understand the harness part of this quote but children rarely do.

Clearly, it is always advisable to think before we act.  In virtually all human decisions, it is best to stand back and attempt to as much as possible look at issues dispassionately before proceeding and carefully weighing the consequences both in the short term as well as the long term.  It is with our children more than with any other relationships, that emotions cloud judgement and this is true on both sides of the equation.  Children want their own way and appeal to their parent’s emotions rather than logic.  Parents instinctively want to make their children happy.  All too often this can  be equated with giving them their own way.  Human wants, we are told, are apparently limitless and expand like gas to fill available space.  In short, they tend to escalate with time and reduced resistance.  It is therefore important to regard wants with regard to character development.  Dealing with frustration is so much more difficult when you rarely encounter it .  Invariably giving children what they want will build the expectation that all of their future wants will also be granted.   Once firm lines of conduct and expectation melt away, it is often nearly impossible to re-establish them.

It is understood that the programme at Robert Land Academy is intended to help boys to make changes and redirect their behaviours along positive lines.  Part of this involves an environment that eliminates many of the choices they would be confronted with and expected to make outside of the Academy.  Another part involves providing consequences both positive and negative intended to encourage or discourage certain choices, behaviours or actions.  Clearly, such an environment is artificial  and insofar as it is, it involves therapeutic objectives.   The very presence of boys here involves the recognition that they are prone to having made poor choices in the past or may be at risk of doing so in the future.  These poor choices may present as either a foreboding sense of future poorer choices or as having precipitated an immediate crisis.  As such, parental enrolment of their sons at Robert Land Academy is largely along either proactive or reactive lines.

If the accusation is made that presenting boys with an artificial environment intended to stimulate and develop certain behaviours is a poor preparation for the outside world, let us be reminded that the family invariably provides an equally if not exaggerated form of the same thing.  The often repeated statements making reference to the ‘real’ world out there or the ‘jungle’ that exists outside of these comforting walls underscore the artificial environment that we accept as being required for the incubation of the young. 

Inherent in this process is the understanding that children are to absorb and internalize the values inherent in their upbringing and not merely appear to embrace them until other options present themselves.  It is not enough to be content with appearances when it is substance that is of utmost importance.

The fact that so many boys arrive at the Academy and make rapid improvement provides indications of what they are capable of.  Knowing that you are capable of doing things that you previously doubted is an important step forward and can neutralize the damaging effects of insecurity.  However, without understanding and processing the circumstances that have made this possible, it is easy to loose any ground gained.  Having made rapid advances, insecurities can often be replaced by an excessive amount of self-confidence.  It is for this reason that we repeatedly emphasize that we provide a living and learning environment that takes place on a 24 hour 7 day a week basis.  It is also for this reason that we stress to parents and students alike the importance of their internalizing the lessons learnt here.  Central among these lessons is that personal success depends upon gaining self-discipline as a means of harnessing self-direction.   Both are necessary and one without the other will most certainly lead nowhere. 

The Academy’s ultimate objective  is to produce in boys the skill set required to support their future success.  Like the training wheels on a two wheel bicycle, the intention is to support forward movement until the rider is capable.  However being capable and feeling capable are not necessarily the same thing and it should become the decision of the adult and not the rider to determine when to take the training wheels off.

The majority of boys admitted to the Academy demonstrate remarkable progress and so this should provide good reasons to have your son return.  If your son is not doing as well at the Academy as you would like, there will be ample evidence that the programme has at least been addressing those behaviours as opposed to merely accommodating them.  In the former case the objective is to support and maintain positive behaviour.  In the latter case, the objective is to continue to address negative behaviours with a view that success can be achieved through persistence.  In realizing our objectives, few would maintain that we are less stubborn in pursuing them than our boys can be in resisting them.  We realize that parenting is more difficult now than it has been before and that these problems are increasing rather than decreasing with the passage of time.  Challenges require proportionate resolve.  Parenting, as one sage put it, is not for sissies.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. David B. Harley

B.A.Hons., M.A.,M.A.,(McMaster) Ph.D. (Toronto)

Deputy Headmaster and Director of Admissions

Book Review: Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates And What You Can Do About It

Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates And What You Can Do About It Gabor Mate, M.D. New York: Dutton, Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999. 348 pages.

Although this book was first published in 1999 it remains currently available in a paperback edition and its history of being reprinted bears testimony to its ongoing sales. It is n interesting addition the ever increasing library of books on the subject. It is penned by a physician who at the time of writing had only recently determined that he was an example of adult ADHD and had apparently restructured much of his practice around the needs of ADHD clients, both young and old. The book presents the current trends towards the diagnosis of ADHD moving beyond children to adults and the apparent appeal that many feel to being so labelled.

The author treads a careful line by advocating the judicious use of medications while at the same time indicating the perils of over diagnosing the condition. He argues that whereas there may be a genetic predisposition toward ADHD, environmental factors can be equally important. Whereas the behaviours associated with it might be said to predetermine certain dispositions, the ability to address and respond to them remains pretty fairly within the domain of personal responsibility. This is a particularly important argument within the context of the popular narrative on the subject given that it seems that one of the attractions of receiving the diagnosis in the first place is the transfer of responsibility. Any explanation that involves genetic determinism supports this process. At the same time, it was Aristotle who argued over two thousand years ago that potential for existence must logically predate its actualization. In short, it can be argued that any human behaviour must involve the previous potential for such behaviour but it is another argument altogether to argue that any behaviour is genetically predetermined as this would undermine any pretence of free will and any attempt to introduce responsibility for actions with a moral context. In this sense, the use of “potential” is the grey zone in which environmental factors of the individual choice of response comes into play.

The identification of ADHD is based upon an assessment of behaviour that is both quantitative and qualitative and to a lesser or greater degree, subjective. As behaviours are attributable to subject, agent or author, they are not free floating in a realm of consciousness unconnected with the personality as a whole. Responsibility for behaviour can be minimized through arguments focusing upon (a) genetic determinism or (b) biological determinism. The former provides the argument that a person is the way he or she is as a result of being predetermined or preconfigured genetically to be the way they are. As such, freedom of choice and responsibility are removed in much the same way as saying that a person is tall. The latter corresponds to arguments where the biological components or substructure required for some level of functioning are not present. An example of this would be colour blindness.

When ADHD is presently applied as a diagnosis, it addresses dysfunction within a school or classroom context. Reports generated and language in and around whatever actions need to be taken to accommodate the condition invariably interchange the terms “disability” and “inability” in such a manner as to be mutually synonymous. The accommodations therefore are viewed as adjustments needed to be made in terms of environment, expectations or delivery. Inherent in this approach is the assumption that changes need to be initiated by those other than the students given that he or she is incapable of making the adjustments. The advantage of this presentation is to eliminate the responsibility for the dysfunction from the individual student and to a lesser extent the teachers, parents or family context where the latter are not responsible for causing the dysfunction but have an obligation to respond to it. In short, the outside world must adapt to the student because the student is presented as being incapable of adapting to circumstances as presently configured.

The arguments presented in Scattered complicate this discussion in that the author presents examples of developmental or experiential issues that can give rise to such behaviours. Within a therapeutic paradigm this would further entail that responses to circumstances giving rise to the development of behavioural patterns are subject to control by the individual if they are able to understand and process this through self-realization. As the author states:

“There is in ADD an inherited predisposition, but that’s very far from saying there is a genetic predetermination. A predetermination dictates that something will inevitably happen. A predisposition only makes it more likely that it may happen, depending upon circumstances. The actual outcome is influenced by many other factors.”

As such, since behavioural tendencies are not hard wired then they may be subject to redirection or control by the individual and insofar as that is true they may be seen as being responsible for them.

However, it is important to note that whereas ADHD began as a diagnosis for school children, it has expanded to cover adults. In adult cases, the focus is not normally on the dysfunction in the context of school since that phase of life is over, but other behavioural dysfunctions attributable to it. You therefore end up with an adult, in this case the author of the book, who has been able to maneuver successfully through medical school and is obviously capable of more than average functioning in the skill sets regards as underdeveloped or not present in candidates for ADHD classification, being diagnosed as such. Given this, it becomes obvious that the impairments must present themselves in more ways than are normally encountered while viewing adolescent behaviour:

“The major impairments of ADD _ the distractibility, the hyperactivity and the poor impulse control _ reflect, each in its particular way, a lack of self-regulation. Self-regulation implies that someone can direct attention where she chooses, can control impulses and can be consciously mindful and in charge of what her body is doing. Like time literacy, self-regulation is also a distinct task of development in human life, achieved gradually from young childhood through adolescence and adulthood. We are born with no capacity whatsoever to self-regulate emotion or action. For self-regulation to be possible, specific brain centres have to develop and grow connections with other nerve centres, and chemical pathways need to be established. Attention deficit disorder is a prime illustration of how the adult continues to struggle with the unsolved problems of childhood. She is held back precisely where the child did not develop, hampered in those areas where the infant or toddler got stuck during the course of development.”

And again:

“In his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goldman, behavioural and brain sciences writer from The New York Times, defines this capacity of “being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and to delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think…” We have only to place a negative qualifier before “being able” in that sentence, as in “not being able,” and we arrive at a succinct description of the ADD personality.”

While discussing these issues in terms of the psycho-social or personal life experiences giving rise to behavioural tendencies, the author spares no expense in explaining the behaviour in terms of neurological terms. In furtherance of this, he constantly makes reference to the functioning of the brain as if it were a complex computer with circuits, wiring and interfaces and implicitly as if the brain was separable from the mind.

“That the infant/toddler mode is so often dominant in attention deficit disorder reflects incomplete development of pathways in the cerebral cortex, and between the cortex and lower areas of the brain.”

And again:

“In general, the functions of the right prefrontal cortex include impulse control, social-emotional intelligence and motivation. It also participates in the directing of attention. Human beings injured here, so called prefrontal patients, exhibit distractibility, poor regulation of impulses and other classic signs of ADD.”

As such there is implicit reductionism in that the mind or consciousness is reduced to “brain” and derivative from it. However analogies whereby the brain is likened to a computer tend by their very nature to be reductionist in character. Whereas in previous times the function of a human being were likened to a machine or a clockwork mechanism, we have now become computers. Ironically, the likening of a human being’s brain to a computer could just as readily be reversed to likening the computer to a human brain albeit a much simpler version. The former employs the logical form of “only just” inherent in reductionist thinking whereas the latter implies similarity but not identity.

It is however in the presentation of the brain as a thing with which I would take issue in that its growth is not merely an organic process in the same vein as the growth of a turnip. The growth of the brain may be regarded as being one and the same thing as experiential growth. This in turn is the result of conscious interactions between the individual and their environment. For this reason, if a child was placed into an induced coma and kept alive until adulthood, nobody would contend that upon being brought of this state that the subject would immediately demonstrate maturity of judgement and action. The point being that the growth of mind or brain is linked to consciousness and experience and is not merely a vegetative process as implied in the neurological examples provided.

However, I find that one of the more endearing characteristics of the book is the manner in which it presents itself as a voyage of self-discovery in which the author seems to have found answers to explain his own conflicts and life experiences by virtue of attributing a diagnosis that he or common practice has perhaps stretched to accommodate. For him, the diagnosis of ADHD explains some of his own behaviours in a manner that makes sense of them both respective of his strengths as well as his weaknesses. Indeed, this raises the larger issue of working from a “dysfunction” back to a causal agent that is assumed to exist at a cellular or biological level determining behaviour and accounting for the deficit(s). As such, ADHD is diagnosed in children based upon a perceived in ability to function with a specific context and the same may be said of numerous other diagnosed issues with their designated labels.

With adult ADHD as is the case with the author of this book, his diagnosis of ADHD makes sense of his “dysfunctions” as a husband, father and human being in general. The problem with this approach is the employment of “dysfunction” to explain behaviour that is less than perfect. That standard, I would argue, is not only irrational within the context of what it is to be a human being, but also implies a standard of human behaviour not obtainable on this side of the grave. For those who become preoccupied with the less than perfect standard, it is easy to lose track of the “better than” or “worse than” framework within which humanity resides. To focus on a model of perfect behaviour as if it was the norm of comparison is not only unrealistic but inherently distorts all that it touches.

The story goes of the patient suffering from a range of symptoms which when presented to various physicians results in no diagnosis. Eventually, the patient finds a specialist who provides a multi-syllabic term for that which is held responsible but also offers (a) that there is no cure (b) that there is no explanation as to the cause or origin and finally (c) that he symptoms may continue, get worse or inexplicably better. Other than the name that has been provided and the reassurance given to the patient, what actual knowledge has been added? Indeed, does naming anything provide understanding or power over what is referred to? Curiously, there is throughout mysticism and religious practices a magic associated with names whereby the practitioner gains power or control by virtue of being able to know them and call them out. It would appear that the same tendencies persist today in different manifestations.

Defining people in terms of what they are not, is a backwards way of approaching the study of human behaviour which should, if scientifically grounded in inductive reasoning, begin with a survey of what is, not what should be. Variations from a mean are a more realistic window into human behaviour than comparisons to a non-existent ideal. In the final analysis, I would argue that what is said about this in the context of adult ADHD is equally valid within a discussion of adolescent ADHD. The fact that somebody does not do very well at school is not a dysfunction per se but rather perhaps a lack of suitability of certain behaviours within a specific environment and having specific expectations. The assumption that there is something wrong with the person is a logical leap. The fact that somebody is not very good at something does not constitute a statement equal to saying that there is something wrong with a person. It does imply that the behaviours need to change to become more suitable to that environment whereby the changing of those behaviours resides as the responsibility of the individual to adjust in ways that will yield desired results. At present however, it is current practice to change the environment and expectations to the limitations imposed by the behaviour.

Book Reveiw: He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son To Believe In Himself

He’s Not Lazy:  Empowering Your Son To Believe In Himself   Adam Price, PhD. New York:  Sterling, 2017.  272 pages.

This book was recently brought to my attention by a parent who expressed some concerns as to its messaging.  I decided to place it on my ‘must read’ list.  The exercise proved to be informative and has given rise to the following.

The book He’s Not Lazy contains some interesting insights and some advice which if taken and then applied in an appropriate context can be of benefit.  However, it also provides enough elasticity in the reader’s possible interpretations of what, when, why and how to act that genuine harm could result.  Finally, like many other books in the same vein, it incorporates certain assumptions that though fashionable and widely held are far from being the self evident truths that they purport to be.  It is a book that in other places or at other times might be greeted with disbelief and denial.  It does however seem to fit well into the current context and fashion that frames discussions around the subject of parenting.

It is always a source of fascination to me that so much of what is currently believed is so time, place and culturally specific but externalized and universalized in such a way as to suggest that no other views are or have ever been tenable.  Having spent a significant amount of time living in Singapore and Malaysia,  I continue to be amazed at how in places where schools and parents do everything wrong according to the ‘science’ that prevails here, that they are capable of producing such excellent results.  But perhaps those children are just made of tougher stuff since the stress, competition and over parenting should by all accounts render them incapable of being happy or productive adults.  I have seen little evidence of this anticipated failure and in point of fact just the opposite appears to be the case.

One of the main advantages of living a long life or the studying of intellectual history is the experience of seeing how the assumptions of one generation can be utterly discarded by the next just as that generation abandoned those of their predecessors.  What is true of the distancing of time is also true of geographical distancing and most certainly the combination of the two cannot help but breed a sense of relativism or at the very least substantial doubt.  Each in its turn can have the effect of bringing the fact squarely home that what is held to be true really might not be true or will remain to be perceived as such.

The title of the book and indeed its main argument is that boys are not lazy but rather that their lack of effort stems from emotional confusion and insecurities.  It is therefore presented as a major parenting shortcoming to not understand this fact and to in ignorance misapply the term to an apparent lack of effort.  However, so much of current narrative seems to be in and around issues of political correctness and not stating the obvious and this presents itself as another possible instance.  The substitution of ‘harsh interrogation’ for ‘torture’ does little to change the facts but does if repeated enough tend towards an increased level of tolerance and decreased level of reaction as reality is made to conform to language as opposed to having language conform to reality.  In the same manner that some parties are arguing that the term ‘obese’ should not be used because it may offend those who experience ‘weight challenges’, apparently the use of the term ‘lazy’ is offensive and should not to be used in any connection related to academic performance. I assume therefore that the politically correct description would be lack of effort, effort deficit or perhaps in keeping with George Orwell’s 1984 ‘newspeak’ un-effort or perhaps un-work. 

If in some countries poor academic performance is attributable to either horn of the dialectic —-stupid or lazy, the now current third possibility is that of being emotionally confused.  This emotional confusion has inputs from numerous sources such that the responsibility for sorting out or creating the confusion is impossible to attribute to any given source or individual.   We should be therefore grateful to the plethora of professional experts who have emerged to meet the challenge and provide advice, recipes and mentorship.  It is perhaps not an accident that such books focus on the ‘success’ cases that one assumes have been accurately and truthfully retold and exclude those that met with little or no success.

Apart from the term ‘lazy’ another term that the author takes special attention to is the term ‘potential’. Here we learn that in his childhood significant damage was done to the author by virtue of a teacher indicating that he was not working to his potential.

“As a ten-year-old boy I received some shocking news:  I was not living up to my potential!  At least this was the report delivered to my mother, at the annual parent-teacher conference, by Ms. Beca, my fourth-grade teacher.  Although this feedback was meant to prod me to greater academic heights, it only led to confusion.  I took this to mean I was not smart enough.  Was there some unfulfilled level of accomplishment out there I had yet to reach?  Have I achieved it yet?  Have you?”

And again:

“Potential is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—it’s a term that sounds like its all about growth, but which has really become synonymous with competition.  When parent’s complain that their son is not achieving his potential, what they are really saying is “I believe he’s so smart that if he worked up to his potential 100 percent of the time, he’d be at the top of his class.”

This would seem to indicate that the author was a very sensitive little boy who arguably took great offence where none was probably intended.  It does however seem to be an experience that like the particle of grit in an oyster giving rise to an irritation, requires being acted upon over a long period of time in order to neutralize it. 

If a boy’s marks are well below the class average or of any concern, I can frankly think of no more damning a comment that a teacher could make than saying that he is working to his potential.  But since the latter statement infers the suggestion of inherent limitations whereas the former is emotionally abusive, it seem safer to simply remove this word from our vocabulary together with the word ‘lazy’ along with perhaps ‘fat’ and ‘obese’. 

The author states very clearly what the stated intention and purpose of his book is:

“By the end of this book you will have shifted paradigms to one where your son is not lazy.  Instead, you will realize that his brain is still developing; he is searching for manhood, worried about his future, and in need of great autonomy, more accountability, and the freedom to fail.  You will learn to ask different questions, listen more closely to his answers, and give him the trust he needs, so he can begin to believe in himself.”

I find that the book contains information and advice very much along the same lines as reading astrology predictions in the weekday paper. The reader is presented with a suitable level of ambiguity that facilitates varied interpretations while at the same time being largely devoid of any specific content. This is at once an appeal of the book since as a result it is possible for many parents to read into it what they wish to while at the same time being its most fundamental flaw.  While being capable of evoking different interpretations subject to specific instances, it avoids any ultimate accountability for results.

Let me start with the issue of lazy.  Yes, laziness does exist and it involves a lack of effort, not putting in effort and avoiding things one wishes to not do.  One could develop a psychological explanation for your son not putting away his socks and leaving clothes on the floor and indeed perhaps a pathology could be created around it.  However, in the practical context of everyday life, this is a result of his not doing something that he does not wish to exert himself over and perhaps even involving the expectation that his mother or the resident fairies will do it for him.  Increasingly, among many boys growing up in comfortable and supportive environments, there is an increasing sense that they should not be required to do anything that they do not want to do or that they feel that somebody else will do for them.  Effort, they believe, should only be exerted into things or activities that either they enjoy or that end up meeting their short term desires.  Intelligence, they hold, involves a conservation of energy and certainly given these assumptions the development of a ‘work ethic’ is a departure into the realm of the irrational.

Laziness is related to impulsivity, immaturity and procrastination all of which are features of living wholly in the present, not thinking about the future and often not thinking about others.  Like the aristocracies of previous ages or the ultra rich of today, many activities are perceived as being merely beneath them and should be performed by lessor mortals.  However, the most important shared characteristic is that of a lack of self-reliance, self-direction or self-control.  Each of these terms relate to the same central issue, that being the ability to relate and control present actions towards some future goal or objective. Focusing on the immediate here and now may be a desirable zen practice i.e. the eternal present, however it is neither desirable or productive in terms of maturation.  Even squirrels gather nuts for winter or face starvation.

Music lessons provide interesting examples of varying approaches to parenting.  Your child says that he would like to learn the violin.  You purchase the instrument and arrange for lessons.  After several months, the child in frustration of practicing for some weeks finds that they are not suitably proficient and abandons the instrument in favour of a flute.  You then purchase a flute and arrange for lessons only to find that a similar thing happens and that instrument is abandoned in favour of a piano.  After a number of frustrating starts and finishes and an accumulation of unused musical instruments as well as wasted music lessons, the child abandons all hope of ever being able to play a musical instrument and decides to listen to cds instead.  What is wrong with this picture?   After all, the parent is merely allowing the child to find themselves and of course to explore their individuality?  What is wrong is the magical thinking possessed by many children that they will pick up an instrument and be able to with little effort and investment play it proficiently.  When this doesn’t happen, there is clearly nothing wrong with the premise only something wrong with the choice of instrument. 

Virtually all children learning to play musical instruments go through an initial romance period to a point where it is realized that effort and sustained practice are going to be necessary to reach the level of competency that will allow them to derive satisfaction from the process.  This discipline is something that parents must normally assist in respect of commitment and follow through with a task, project or ambition that transcends the magical thinking stage to that of actual achievement.  It involves coaching, encouragement and commitment.  Whereas it may not be desirable to insist upon hours and hours of practice with a threat of regular beatings if not done, it is equally not desirable to assume that a child will continue to practice and put forth a suitable effort without the direction of a parent, teacher or coach.

Whereas it is true that there is such a thing as over parenting, there is also such a thing as under parenting.  The belief that children flourish provided that adults stay well clear and that problems with children arise only as a direct result of adult interference is one of the great fallacies of the progressive education movement.  It also underlies and supports the assumptions responsible for much if not most of current misguided educational philosophies and approaches.  The abrogation of adult guidance and responsibility fits well within this framework and correspondingly provides the opportunity to transform a defect into a strength.  Statements inferring that a child’s brain grows like a turnip and needs to be left alone to mature not only miss the point that the child’s mind and brain are one and the same thing, but also the point that mental development depends upon experience.  Nobody would seriously contend that if a boy was placed in a coma at 12 years of age, fed intravenously and then taken out of that state when 19 that he would emerge capable of immediately forming ‘mature’ judgements.  However, the argument is often framed as if that were the case by those appealing to the latest discoveries in neurology to support their hands off policies.

To go back to my earlier example of Singaporean parenting, they regard education in much the same manner as many Canadian families regard competitive sports.  If as much rigour and effort was directed towards improving performance in math as there is in playing hockey, there is little doubt that Canada would do much better in international math competitions.  However, for some reason, the principles that are uncontested with regards to the coaching and training philosophies governing sports, are considered too harsh or humiliating to be applicable to academics.  In Asia, these priorities are largely reversed with the corresponding results.

The current fashion is for parents to ‘advocate’ on behalf of their child.  Unfortunately, advocating is a legal process that involves the inherent moral ambiguity enshrined in law that guilt is less important than process.  On this basis, a lawyer knowing his client to be guilty is still justified within the framework of legal morality to do his or her best to see that the client is not convicted and can use any conceivable technicality to achieve this objective.  As a result it could be said that the means justifies the end.  In this regard, current legal proceedings are not that far removed from medieval trial by combat with swords being exchanged for pens. 

Parents employing this strategy of attempting to ensure that their child does not face the consequences of his or her actions or that every method is used to displace responsibility and blame to others feeds into the moral duplicity that will later come back to haunt them.  Parents demanding special consideration or exemptions for their child undermine the principles of meritocracy that are supposed to be an inherent component of educational assessment.  Ironically, the very people who demand special accommodations and considerations for their own child tend to be the very people who make no such considerations when dealing with other members of the human race.

Morality and ethics are based upon the principle of universality which is to say that if it is wrong for you it is wrong for me.  One of the characteristics of immature children is their dual code of conduct.  The same child who will take something from another child believing it to be a justified act will be utterly indignant when another child takes something from them.  One of the fundamental building blocks of moral development is the grasping of the concept that rules that one expects to apply to others should be also binding upon oneself.  This is a fact that is supposed to be grasped early in life but which appears increasingly to be bypassed by many functioning parents.  The two standards of moral conduct combined with the belief that it is only wrong if you get caught have increasingly conspired to bring us to the current sad state of world affairs.

Making a child responsible for his or her own actions starts early in life and must also be reflected as a value in the parents and role models that form the influences in the family,  school environment and society at large.  The problems that many parents experience with children growing up are a result of inconsistencies in the family environment over time compounded by those in the environments outside of their control.  The British philosopher and educator Bertrand Russell once stated that a fundamental rule of early childhood parenting was to allow the child to suffer the natural consequences of his or her actions whenever feasible barring of course situations presenting danger.  To not follow this practice and then support the view that teenagers have a right to make their own decisions seems to fly in the face of logic since they have been essentially unplugged from reality and have therefore been rendered largely dysfunctional.   Then of course, there is the further issue of the scale of decisions relative to their importance and potential impact on a child’s future, tending to increase in long term significance with age at precisely the time when the required levels of maturity and judgment are absent. 

The situation that I am advised of constantly by parents is the fact that they are unable to control the behaviour of their son and that he does not respond to parental authority.  Inherent in this is often a cluster of attitudes and behaviours that leaves parents both shocked and confused largely as a result of not being able to possibly conceive of themselves as having ever behaved in this manner with their own parents.  This dynamic involves not only a refusal to obey rules or follow advice but also a flat denial that the adults are entitled to or have any experience or knowledge putting them in a situation to be able to do so.  The view that adults are not grown ups but rather decayed teenagers seems prevalent.  The distractions  that abound as well as the vast quantities of information available through the internet serve to only provide a confused and distorted view of reality.  Quality of information has given way to quantity of information and with that has developed the inability to distinguish the difference.  Shrinking vocabularies combined with low literacy rates have made both the formulation as well as the expression of thoughts more problematic. The view that truth is indexed by intensity of feeling has further given rise to a lack of tolerance of the opinions of others coupled with a refusal to entertain disquieting facts or counter arguments.

It is interesting to note that many people feel that it is necessary to take a puppy to obedience school in order to learn how to become a responsible owner and how to end up with a creature capable of living within the house without destroying it.  Parenting however is a skill that few feel that they need advice or instruction with until it is often too late.  Prior to this, each parent feels that they are an instant expert based upon the experience of their own upbringing.  The solution is simple.  Duplicate the things that you liked about your upbringing and remove all of the things that you did not like or disagreed with at the time.

Unfortunately, life is not so simple and it is far too often the case that the things in life that have resulted in strengths and resiliency are those very things that we did not like or agree with or that we would have if given the choice avoided.  Character does not emerge from the removal of frustration but rather is developed through it.  The imperfections in life may provide excuses but never justifications.  In the final analysis, it is only by assuming responsibility for our own actions that we are able to gain the freedom to be able to direct them.

Parenting involves guidance and leadership.  Implicit in this is the assumption that parents and children are not equal.  A ‘grown up’ is precisely what the statement implies.  With growth and experience comes or at least should come the development of wisdom.  With wisdom and love comes the good parenting that provides not what a child wants but rather what he or she needs.

In conclusion, it is interesting to speculate about the author of the book in question and his experience of being accused in Grade 4 of not working to his potential. Would he have written the book if that comment had never been made? Would he have become a psychologist? It should give us pause to think about the positive effect some negative experiences as well as the negative effect of some positive experiences. Do we need to create a perfect environment to raise a perfect child or is it in the end character that defines us? Neither comfort or complacency evoke reaction but they can cause a reluctance to engage the world. In many cases what we become hangs upon our response to things that at the time they occured we would have chosen to avoid. The oyster forms a pearl around a piece of grit. Perhaps we have more in common with shellfish than we realized. 

A Call to Action: Academic Skill Deficiencies in Four Ontario Universities

A Call to Action:  Academic Skill Deficiencies in Four Ontario Universities. April 2019 Contributors J. Paul Grayson (York University) James Cote (Western University) Liang Chen (University of Toronto) Robert Kennedy (York University) Sharon Roberts (University of Waterloo)

This study came to my attention as a result of an article appearing in the National Post discussing it and also providing a link to the original study.  It is well worth reading in full but I will provide here an overview of its findings and arguments.

The study arose out of concerns with respect to perceived weakness in undergraduate university students and graduates.  A prior study had already been conducted by Statistics Canada indicating an alarming number of university graduates with low levels of functioning literacy and numeracy skills and the study in question was intended to further explore these results.  Four universities in Ontario were represented which together comprised 41% of all Ontario undergraduate students.  As such, the questionaires and surveys conducted in 2017 and 2018 were based upon a compelling number of participants.

The questions asked in 2017 involved self-assessments focused around abilities in writing, taking tests, analysis, time and group management, giving presentations and elementary numeracy skills.  As a result of the testing 51% scored as “functional” 27% were classified as “at risk” and 22% were categorized as “dysfunctional”.  The same testing conducted at three other universities at the same time the following year yielded 44% as “functional” 41% “at risk” and 16% as “dysfunctional”.  Interestingly, this testing revealed no variation by year of study thereby indicating that students entered and left university without mastering very basic academic skills.

Important conclusions were drawn from this data:

“Although the provincial system has clearly articulated and laudable objectives, these desiderata are not being met to the extent that most people assume.  Our results suggest that large numbers of unprepared graduates of Ontario high schools enter the provinces’ universities.  Moreover, their deficiencies are often not remedied over the course of their studies. As a result it is likely that many employers end up with new employees who are unable to live up to expectations regarding their ability to process more abstract types of information.”

And again:

“What is to be done?  Most importantly, steps need to be taken to ensure that, consistent with provincial objectives, graduates of Ontario’s secondary schools possess the basic academic skills necessary for university success, future employment, and democratic citizenship.  Once these skills are established, they need to be further honed at the university level.”

It is also of interest to note the acknowledged issue of grade inflation which the study maintains is either widely ignored or denied by school administrators.  According to the study 45% or almost half of the students in the study who were designated as dysfunctional achieved an A average or higher in their final high school year.  The study concludes “…it was possible to be dysfunctional as defined here and still pass high school courses with flying colours.”  Of the dysfunctional group 45% had received an A average or above in high school but only 5% were able to achieve a A average at university. With regard to math and science students specifically, among the students that the study identified as functional, 82% received high school grades great than or equal to an A average.  However for the groups identified as at-risk 73% received these grades and  among the group identified as dysfunctional 77% received these grades.

The rest of the study proposes various solutions or partial solutions to address the issues.  These include a standardized entrance test to be conducted at the time of application to university, offering courses at university to teach the skill sets assumed to have been taught at the high school level and revising the current high school system to address the core skill sets required.

However, before addressing the possible solution sets available to address these issues, it is important to make a digression into the material circumstances and assumptions defining the context of that discussion.  For it is abundantly clear that there are perspectives from both sides of this fence involving very different views as to the roles and priorities of each.

Having taught at both the university and high school level, I am personally and acutely aware of the growing gap between a high school and a university education.  Being old enough to have experienced an Ontario 5 year high school programme, the Grade 12 four year diploma was identified as a graduation directed either towards the work force or community college.  The Grade 13 diploma, on the other hand was invariably identified as a year preparatory and preliminary to university. Grade 13 involved the writing of standardized provincial exams that were compiled by the government and marked independently.  This ensured a more or less even playing field in terms of basic levels of competency and knowledge to be factored into the university admission process.  As of 1970, provincial exams were eliminated in Ontario and therefore the retention of standards became primarily the responsibility of individual schools. With time, this philosophy spread to most of the other provinces with only a few retaining independent examinations.

When Grade 13 was eliminated in Ontario and replaced by the 30 credit single diploma fondly referred to by some as Grade 12 ½, the Grade 13 courses were replaced by OAC credits.  These courses incorporated suggestions and input from university professors with a view to transition to university first year courses.  However, by the year 2000 when the new grand strategy to improve education in the province was unveiled, no such pretense or intention was preserved and the concept of education as a hierarchical meritocracy was entirely dropped.  During a presentation given by the Ontario Ministry of Education to private school principals that I attended, a spokesperson defiantly announced that high schools were not “clearing houses for universities” and would never return to that role.  At this point, it would seem, the entire concept of ‘higher’ education was abandoned in terms of high school to university in favour of high school and ‘other’ education with there being nothing necessarily ‘higher’ about it.

Of course in the intervening decades that have since passed, public education has moved on and continues to be viewed internal to its own operation as a story of perpetual improvement.  As such, it is regarded by its own administrative stakeholders as better than anything that has existed before.   Curiously, however, there is no tangible or demonstrable proof of these claims other than in the rhetoric of the objectives that it claims to have achieved.

My point in saying all of this is to point out there is a rift greater than the Grand Canyon between the philosophy and governance of the public educational system and universities.  Apart from not seeing their job as preparing anyone for university, the skill sets assumed by universities as being an integral part of education such as fundamental numeracy and literacy are not valued in the same manner.  Indeed, at virtually every juncture, the substantive mastery of content is sacrificed in favour of the emphasis upon the student’s own perception of their own success and finding different methods of assessment to ensure as much as possible that success.  As such, public education has assumed other priorities central to which is a process of socialization in which ideas and values are stressed and promulgated as integral parts of the educational environment.  The other purpose is to keep children off the streets as a kind of holding tank until such time as they can be either introduced to the work force or passed on to college or universities.

It is also important to note that the traditional curriculum has given way to a vast array of various credit courses that depart from core subjects and core content within those courses. In stressing specific learning objectives as opposed to the development of the requisite skills required to reach independent decisions, the inherent assumption is that it is more important that students reach the right conclusions than it is that they posses the skills to reach those conclusions themselves.  The main point to be made here is that the student centered philosophy of education that came to characterize all levels of junior, intermediate and senior level schooling became increasingly entrenched to the point that mastery of content was of less importance than attempts to make content palatable.  Arguably, the student was not brought to knowledge but rather knowledge was brought to the student.  As university level instruction is subject centered and not student centered, it is clear that as the student centered orientation of education has increased over the years, the gap arising from that difference has broadened and hence the problems with adjustment and adaptation substantially exacerbated.

Even a very preliminary study of the history of education will suffice to prove that the traditionally inherent danger in all publically funded education has been that it has not only served to provide skills required by employers but also that one of its primary functions has been to serve the interests of political orthodoxy.  As such, there has always been a good deal of  stress upon what now could be referred to as political correctness or simply put opinions deemed to be unquestionable truths.  At one point this took the form of unquestioned loyalty to the monarchy and the moral supremacy of one’s own country coupled with a willingness or eagerness to attack and kill those identified as enemies.  However many other norms and attitudes were imbedded within the content and even manner of delivery of state run education.

Examples of these things are easy to identify in the past as a result of the distancing of ourselves in time and space from beliefs and attitudes that have become outmoded.  It is less easy to do this when in this time and space because the assumptions that are now identified as being clearly wrong have now become replaced by other unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions that form our current view of reality.

Universities however, outside of fundamental issues such as loyalty to the country traditionally embraced a substantially more liberal and critical approach to subject content especially beyond the undergraduate level largely based upon three assumptions: 

  1. That a critical approach to what was taught was necessary to academic progress both in the sciences and humanities.
  2. That university educated members of society would form part of the social elite and would require the ability to think outside of the box whereas their political orthodoxy would be largely retained due to self-interest and social status.
  3. That good and bad ideas placed into an intellectual free market context would sort themselves out through natural attrition.

In the 19th century champions of free speech such as John Stuart Mill would state that he could disagree entirely with what someone said but would still defend his right to say it.  Progress, it was maintained, had come about through the questioning and re-examining of beliefs and ideas and would continue to do so.

Political orthodoxy on both ends of the political spectrum has reached new heights in present society by now not only presenting views as unquestionable facts but also increasingly denying the right of individuals to question them to the point of providing sanctions legal and otherwise.   The view that people have a right to free speech is giving way increasingly to the pressure to allow free speech only if we agree with what they are saying.  Whereas there is increasing evidence of the effects of these growing tendencies in universities, the majority have so far resisted them based upon the perceived necessity of allowing for freedom of expression filtered if not culled by reason and evidence.  It is to be understood, however, that the characteristics of a good scholar may not be viewed as the desirable characteristics of a good member of the general public.  Universally and throughout time, governments have promoted uniformity, orthodoxy and obedience to authority. 

It is also important to note that historically all repressive regimes past and present have regarded universities and intellectuals as potential threats to the social order.  People capable of thinking for themselves and used to questioning authority do not sit well with totalitarian practices on either end of the political spectrum.  As such, universities and their professors and students have been the first targets of revolutionary left or right wing repressive political revolutions.  However, even liberal democracies have their limits and despite educational theorists and philosophers stressing the importance of the relation between the ability of citizens to make informed choices and the quality of a democracy, it could be maintained that little has been done in practice to pursue these ends beyond the level of rhetoric.   As such, we are left with democratic ‘forms’ of government in which popular consensus gives way to political expediency and a top down protection of vested interests. 

Education has always been a response to societal needs which determined who, what and what level individuals received.  Throughout European history churches provided much of it and this was done to promote the values and beliefs of the church but also as a means of exercising power, influence and authority over the general population.  To this end, Sunday school was sufficient.  Most education was delivered in terms of apprenticeship programmes for more complicated and demanding professions or simply learning by doing which, as childhood had not yet been discovered, started at a very early age.  As society became industrialized the demands of skills including literacy and numeracy increased requiring higher, longer and more pervasive approaches.  Countries such as England and Germany stressed mathematics and sciences as a preparation for entry into highly developed apprenticeship and trades programmes.  Universities continued to be largely reserved for the upper classes and to a significant extent as a kind of finishing school for gentlemen who would take on commanding roles in society.  Much of this stressed the classics and it was not until the third quarter of the 19th century that sciences gained significant traction and began to eclipse that emphasis through the efforts of reformers such as T.H. Huxley. 

It was in the national interest to make use of bright and creative minds and so scholarships were introduced to help those from modest backgrounds to access university education.  One such student was H.G. Wells whose mother was a domestic and whose father was an out of work cricket player.  Wells escaped his fate as a draper’s assistant and won a scholarship to the University of London where he completed his B.Sc. but who is now known primarily for his science fiction writing such as The Time Machine (1895) The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Words (1898).

Universities increased in size throughout the early 20th century and continued to increase in their emphasis upon science and technology.  However, the vast amount of educational delivery was accomplished through apprenticeship programs with varying degrees of qualification, difficulty and desirability.  Access to universities continued to be primarily a matter of financial means to do so with some allowance for competitive scholarships to provide access to the less privileged.  It is interesting to note that Banting, the inventor of Insulin, first attended the University of Toronto as a business student and upon failing out of the programme was accepted to their medical school.  At present this could obviously never happen.  The point here being that admission to universities and programmes was very much a matter of having the willingness to do so and the financial means to make that possible—a situation that persists in the third world and developing nations and is becoming increasingly true in the developed ones. 

It was after World War II and the resulting baby boom that saw an immense increase in the size and then later number of universities.  First as a result of GI programmes that enabled returning servicemen to access retraining and free or heavily assisted university education and then as a result of their burgeoning progeny who wanted the same access.  However, even at that point, it was not perceived that a university education was a requirement for employment. Elementary teachers, for example, could take a teacher’s certificate right after high school and enter the profession and high school teachers could do the same after attending one year of university.  It was not until the late 60’s to early 70’s that high school teachers were required to go back to school on a part time basis to complete a pass B.A. and this most did very reluctantly.  As such, when I was attending a summer course in Ancient History in 1970 who was in the class with me but my Grade 11 high school teacher who hade taught ancient history having never taken a course in it?

As apprenticeship programmes have increasingly become less prominent and were perceived in part as being replaced by Community Colleges, the expectation of attending university became more prominent.  This resulted in huge increases in university enrollment which has been now further fueled by thousands of international students and the deregulation of universities in and around setting fees and offering programmes for them.  This in turn has given rise increasingly to a ‘corporate’ model of university functioning tending more towards increased size, complexity and a focus on money.  Rather than sharing in this boom, university professors have found themselves with less job security, larger classes and increasingly more scrutinizing of their political and social views.

To return to the conclusions drawn by the study in question, it is important to view possible solutions not in terms of what is logically possible but more in terms of what is practically viable.  Attempts to rein in public secondary schools to ensure master of skill sets required for higher education is not an option without a complete readjustment of the philosophies and assumptions as to priorities that govern them.  This is improbable at best.  Standard entrance exams set by and marked by universities or third party organizations is an option that is useful in the interests of fairness to applicants as well as identifying areas of weakness prior to admission.  Courses offered at the university level to specifically address these skill sets are other practical alternatives.  These in fact have already been adopted by many universities to a lesser or greater extent.  It is perhaps therefore a matter of formalizing them. 

A standard entrance test would provide a comparison of home school results with a diagnostic reference.  The universities would therefore be presented with various options:

  1. To refuse to accept students whose performance on standardized testing indicated dysfunctional skill sets
  2. To accept students conditionally with testing deficiencies but with the insistence on taking additional courses to address these matters either over the summer or even into their first year of attendance.
  3. Maintain the status quo and continue to admit students and graduate them without having ever mastered the fundamental skill sets expected of university graduates.

It remains to be seen which of these alternatives if any will be adopted. 

It should be mentioned in closing that these concerns and problems are not new.  In 1980 I was doing postdoctoral work at university and assisting with the delivery of several courses.  I was used to students submitting essays with poor grammar and spelling, but on one occasion a second year essay was submitted where the student had no idea what a paragraph was, did not know to start a sentence with a capital nor that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate.  I was unsure how to mark the paper as there was a formula given to us in terms of the maximum amount of marks that could be deducted for these issues.  I went to the registrar’s office and was able to find out that the student had attended a public high school in the area and had received a final grade 12 English mark in the low 70’s.  I found it difficult to understand how this was possible and decided to see the department chairman to seek advice.  He knowingly suggested that I examine not only the question as to how this student had passed through to university but also how they had been able to pass through their first year university courses.  The implication of this line of thought was obvious and the essay was passed.