What we are losing in BC schools. Parents need to know…

What follows is a letter written by Garibaldi Secondary School’s English Department head, Steve Moore (reprinted with Steve’s permission):

Among the cacophony of axe-grinding and mud slinging on both sides of the Bill-22/BCTF debate has been lost a very important point: the parents of BC are largely unaware of the erosion over the past 5 years of the varieties of courses their students take in secondary schools.

Due largely to funding deficits, coupled with declining enrolment in many districts, the loss of courses in the arts, technology, manual skills, languages, academic specialties, and other electives has gutted most of our secondary schools.

Only seven or eight years ago, a secondary school could run specialty electives (often called “singletons,” because they usually had only enough students for one class) with 15 students. Currently, in most mid-size secondary schools, courses are routinely cancelled because they do not reach an enrolment of 25 or more.

This has led to a climate in secondary schools wherein students who have, for example, studied drama and acting since Grade 8, reach Grade 11 and are told that they cannot move on to the higher levels, because “only” 20 students signed up for Acting 11/12.  Similar situations exist every year – and, in fact, increase yearly – for students of literature, music, visual art, technology, and second languages.

This is a political issue, but we are not writing to blame anyone.  We simply wish to activate one of the strongest untapped powers in the province: the parents of our students.  How many parents have been told their artistically-motivated student cannot continue in her field, and must fill up her timetable with courses that do not hold her interest, and are really just “filler” courses?  How many students excel in French or Mandarin and are told in Grade 12 that the final level is not available, due again to a “small” enrolment of 18-20 students?

We know the Ministry of Education thinks that distributed learning (or online learning) can solve the problem, and that may be the case with something like English Literature or French 12, but we still shudder to think what sort of “education” one thinks a student receives in a literature course that they take online: where are the discussions, debates, immediate feedback on ideas and essays?

However, we are especially worried about the arts, which cannot be taught from a distance.  The arts are not immediately pragmatic, so they often fall into the background as people argue over “success” and finding a career, preferably in a lucrative field.  This conversation – over the pragmatic “relevance” that so many shallow, short-sighted people think should be a part of all courses – is a dead end.  Successful people are the ones who have the creativity to see the worth of things others take for granted; they are not the automatons formed by a limited, rigid education.

Instead of listening to the blatherings of the “relevance” crowd, we should notice what all educational theorists have in common: their unanimous respect for the social, intellectual, and creative importance of the arts.  Sir Ken Robinson – currently one of the more popular thinkers in education – has built his whole theory of education around the need for creativity and the freedom of thought that arts brings to all students, regardless of their ultimate career choices.  Similarly, high level business executives and CEOs routinely mention their desire for creative and well-rounded employees, as opposed to narrowly trained dullards.

In short, for five years, we have steadily eroded the options for students in secondary schools, all the while feeding them the lie that the world is their oyster, and that we are here to make sure they at least have the opportunity to explore all forms of knowledge.  The actual state of affairs is the opposite: the world (through the aegis of the Education Ministry) has been made to appear as if all it cares about is students’ future earning power, and the schools facilitate this by severely limiting students’ learning horizons.

Ulysses famously exhorted us all to “follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”  Today, we are making that impossible, by sending kids away from the very courses that lead to the bounds of human thought and creativity, all because districts cannot fund many courses of fewer than 25-27 students.  In turn, this is the case because of the funding given to the districts from the Ministry.

Thus, good, well-meaning people (administrators) are being forced into the role of supporters of a system they cannot legitimately support, and do so only out of fear of retribution from their superiors.

So, what we are left with are the “basics:” the standard three Rs, and science courses, with a few lucky elective survivors. Is this what we want for our students – the future leaders of our world?

The time for parents, students, and the general public to fight for a well-rounded education is now. We cannot do it for you. Contact your school, your MLA, or the Minister of Education, when your son/daughter is told their education is going to be limited to a few courses, none of which are in the arts or other creative electives.

We all owe it to the students, and the future of our world, not to be silent in the face of this wholesale stripping of education to its bare bones.

Unless, of course, we are happy to encourage our students to aspire only to a limited life of “hoard[ing], and sleep[ing], and feed[ing].”

But I do not think we, as a society want this. We want, instead, to inspire our students to “drink/Life to the lees,” and to do “some work of noble note” in their lives. The arts and creative courses are the paths to this lofty goal, and we must demand for them their rightful place at the centre of any education worthy of the name.

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