For generations, education has been a primary means to make countries like Canada and the United States stronger, more productive, and self-confident. Now the education system is not only failing to perform its primary mission for young people, but increasingly works to undermine and divide nations.
The decline of effective schooling, once identified with the U.S., has spread to other countries, including places like France and Germany. In Britain, reading and math scores continue to decline steadily while almost one-fifth of the population is “functionally illiterate”. Much the same is happening in Canada.
Once Canada seemed distinct from the long flailing American system. When my wife moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in junior high, she felt about a year-and-a-half ahead. This might no longer be the case, as Canada’s primary school performance has declined markedly. Math, English and science scores plummeted during the pandemic, but were already falling before that; math scores have been decreasing for two decades for 15 year olds. Rising expenditures seem to have made little difference.
Equally disturbing may be the content being taught. In Canada, as in the U.S., primary school curricula are becoming increasingly politicized. There’s a sense, derived from the universities, that Canada’s past is essentially a record of evil and that the country is itself fundamentally illegitimate, the product of colonial political oppression rather than a flawed, but ultimately successful nation. Canadian children are in danger of losing their own heritage, of being deprived access to anything bright in their history. “We are in danger of ‘mass amnesia,’ being cut off from knowledge of our own cultural history,” noted the late long-time Torontonian Jane Jacobs 20 years ago.
The roots of this decline stem from the universities, which train school teachers and administrators, and the educational fads they proffer. We may think of schools as incubators of thought and technology, but they can also serve as tools of autocracy, as was clear even in Medieval times. One of the first great higher education institutions, the University of Paris also served as a staunch guardian of orthodoxy, and in the 1300s it held a conclave to affirm the reality of demons that were supposedly infecting society. The historian J. B. Bury, in 1913, described the Middle Ages as a time when “a large field was covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground.”
This return to a Medievalist approach has been evident for years. Orthodoxy increasingly elbows out free speech and open inquiry. Free speech has been under assault on Canadian campuses for years, notes a report from The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Attempts to force Universities to allow for diverse, even unpopular opinions, as done last year in Alberta, have incited strong opposition from faculty, students and educrats. One college president in Canada has even justified efforts to tamp down on “free speech” by saying it was intended to encourage “better speech” and to protect “the humanity of students, faculty and staff.”
Read the rest of this piece at National Post.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.