Disrupted Rhythms

September has changed

Our age has robbed millions of the simplicity of ignorance, and has so far failed to lift them to the simplicity of wisdom.
— Robertson Davies

When your annual rhythm is shaped by school semesters, September marks a change in pace. The edges of leaves crackle just a little, the wind shifts, and the morning rush replaces the laziness of August evenings. For as long as I can remember, early fall has brought an anticipation of fresh starts and new opportunities. By the time I stopped teaching at university, my stepson was already in junior high. His Septembers became an extension of mine.

But recently something turned, and now I sense an irritation in the air, like the high-pitched buzz of a cathode ray tube. I look for the source and begin to suspect it’s the static of society’s shared cognitive dissonance: as we resume our routine lives in a world that’s coming apart at the seams, we’re bound to feel unsettled and to wonder what, exactly, we’re doing here. The more perceptive (or hypersensitive) children around us surely have picked up on our worries — if they haven’t acquired them first-hand already.

Anxiety is common, especially at threshold moments like the start of a new grade, but we often don’t know something is truly wrong until the symptoms become debilitating. Since schools are where young people spend most of their waking hours, it makes sense to look there for clues, and academic decline is a big one. Catherine Haeck, a co-director of the Observatory for Children’s Education and Health, in Montreal, conducted an extensive study that compared results from Quebec’s 2019 and 2021 grade 4 reading exams. Scores fell by 10 percent overall and by 20 percent among pupils who were already struggling. In the United States, The Atlantic published a provocatively titled essay, “Kids Are Far, Far Behind in School,” that probed similar territory. In it, the economist and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, Thomas Kane, cited anecdotal experience and plenty of statistics: he, too, found “a large decline” in overall achievement as well as “a historic widening in achievement gaps by race and economic status.”

The same thing is happening in universities, according to Jonathan Malesic, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas. In a New York Times op‑ed, “My College Students Are Not OK,” he observed that, even after returning to in-person learning and even in elite institutions, the majority of undergraduates are disengaged, as if they “thought they were still on Zoom with their cameras off, as if they had muted themselves.” This isn’t entirely surprising, since widespread apathy predates the pandemic. In a Los Angeles Review of Books essay from 2015, Ron Srigley, who now teaches at Humber College in Toronto, described a visual phenomenon now familiar to most teachers: “bluish, illumined faces” bowed over smartphones. A lecturer can call out the behaviour, sure, but the response is often more distressing than the trigger: there’s no denial, no remorse, no protest. Just a meek apology. “These people look like students,” Srigley wrote. “They sit in a class like students used to do; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students anymore, and you are not a professor.”

So many young people have checked out, it seems. Parents and education professionals watch, collectively biting their fingernails, as test scores tank like a bear market. And it’s not just academic indicators. The pandemic exacerbated an already unsettling increase in anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Beyond that, so many children and teenagers now seem woefully underprepared for the demands of adulthood: they’re disconnected from the world and unable to concentrate; they’re not achieving developmental milestones at the expected ages; they’re ill. But whose job is it to help them prepare for life beyond the classroom?

Many adults wonder what will happen when their children graduate and leave the regimen and structure provided by schools. In what’s become something of a typical response to our concerns, Ontario’s education ministry has announced a revamp of its science and technology curricula at the elementary level “to ensure students have the critical life and job skills to compete for the jobs of the future.” This coming term, kids aged six to twelve can look forward to mandatory coding classes and projects like building robots. I like languages and Lego, so lines of code and robotics sound like fun to me. But the way it’s all couched should give us pause: the provincial education minister, Stephen Lecce, predicts with unbridled optimism that the future will be brighter, thanks to these curricular changes in STEM. He doesn’t say how coding leads one to “dream boldly” and “think critically,” but his ministry is adamant that such additions “will ensure Ontario’s students are at the forefront of emerging innovation, thought and able to compete in the global economy.”

Not everyone is a fan of predictions and bullish investments. To understand the so‑called preparedness problem, it’s worth considering what got us here. Paul W. Bennett, the director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax, did a lot of this legwork with his 2020 book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, which traced the impact that policy decisions and pedagogical movements have had on public education over the last century or so. The data reveals that the perceived gap between graduates’ skills and those sought out by employers is a recurring, if not constant, theme.

The obsession with employability spans decades and continents. Consider the Programme for International Student Assessment, which, in Bennett’s words, furthers “a global education race.” Schools all over the world devise innovative programs and curricular changes in an attempt to get ahead. One of the most popular tactics is to partner with private technology companies, but ed tech — like social media or video games — often comes with a neurochemical price. In a recent essay, “How Many Words Does It Take to Make a Mistake?,” the British critic William Davies argued that the implementation of these products, which are designed to stoke competition, has corresponded to an uptick in anxiety among schoolchildren in the United Kingdom. Students in Canada, meanwhile, routinely score at the top of PISA ratings. That’s supposed to bode well for them on the international job market, but the actual track record hasn’t allayed anxieties about downward mobility.

The fact is that we don’t know what work will look like in the future. Nonetheless, the past has some lessons to offer. In the late 1970s, for instance, youth employment in Canada took a downturn, in response to which policy makers encouraged young people to pursue higher education in preparation for the “new economy.” The results were not great, as Anton Allahar and James Côté detailed in their 2007 book, Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. Those who did not or could not acquire post-secondary degrees were “at a disadvantage far greater” than before. Underemployment also grew, as those with degrees increasingly took on work for which post-secondary schooling was unnecessary. By the 1990s, there were twice as many university graduates as there were new positions that required their academic credentials.

Maybe things are looking up, though? In Nothing Less Than Great: Reforming Canada’s Universities, Harvey Weingarten acknowledged the continued employability problem yet remained confident that higher education is an “investment in Canada’s future.” (John Fraser reviewed Weingarten’s book in these pages, in the November 2021 issue.) That future is one that thrives on “our competitiveness as a country in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.”

Such sanguinity aligns with the vision sold to the public by Ontario’s Ministry of Education and by many a university administrator. But this doesn’t seem like a vision of the future to me. Rather, I see a snapshot of the hopes, fears, and ideologies of today — or maybe even of yesterday. In a CBC Radio Ideas episode from October 2021, “The University Crisis,” Weingarten portrayed contemporary students as those who “don’t want to be the bank teller anymore, they want to be the executive assistant to the president of the Royal Bank.” That ambition is something society has valued for a long time, but it might more aptly apply to people of my generation than to my stepson’s. And then there’s the unpleasant reality that there aren’t enough EA and CEO positions to meet the demand.

Let’s assume that most kids want to be rich someday. Not all of them will get there, and our reserve army of labour is vast. People aged twenty-six to forty-one are disproportionately overeducated and underemployed, and their younger siblings (or their children) have grown up witnessing the consequences. What’s the point of all that competition and all those degrees if there isn’t a decent job at the end or even, perhaps, an inhabitable planet? Ominously, there’s not a single mention of climate change in the news release outlining Ontario’s new STEM curriculum.

There aren’t many things we can predict, but an increase in catastrophic weather patterns is one of them, and most young people are wise to that fact — hence the Fridays for Future school strikes that emerged in 2018. The pandemic quashed some of that energy, and now more students than ever are struggling with what their elders think of as valuable skills. What exactly is all the coding and competition for, a young person might wonder. Shutting down and falling behind begin to look like appropriate responses to a world racing, cheerfully oblivious, toward ruin. And who would want the overwhelming responsibility of repairing the damage wrought by previous generations? It’s easier to turn off the camera and stay on mute.

This sounds mightily depressing, but learning and teaching are inherently optimistic pursuits: they can’t exist without a sense of futurity and a trust in the value of legacy. Those who have lived longer than others pass on what they know and hope it will do some good. But there’s a fine line between hope and the legerdemain of downloading one cohort’s problems onto the next.

Schooling was not always directed toward competition in a global economy. Kindergarten has long been a place of playful exploration, and universities used to be dedicated (at least in theory) to rigorous intellectual probing, not market trends. The Enlightenment philosopher and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt — who developed the “research university” model — saw education as a public good and advocated for state-funded, comprehensive institutions, at the core of which were two ideals: academic freedom and Bildung. According to the former concept, scholars could pursue and teach facts and ideas without fear of repression. At a more basic level, in the words of the Canadian Nobel laureate John Polanyi, “The notion was, you can’t tell somebody what to discover — if they knew, it wouldn’t be discovery.” Similarly, Bildung referred to a kind of self-cultivation that prioritized freely chosen engagement and study of various disciplines. It was different from but complemented Ausbildung, which encompassed practical training and vocational skills.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the distinction between Ausbildung and Bildung began to collapse at the institutional level. In Canada, colleges specifically geared toward job training were converted into universities, and university departments assumed the nearly impossible task of guessing which skills employers would find valuable. This development coincided with other changes: decreased public funding and increased privatization; administrative expansion; fewer faculty hires; and a surge in tuition fees. In 2016, tuition for public higher education in Canada cost on average 263 percent more than it did twenty-five years ago. Ironically, it’s now nearly impossible to get a well-paying job without a degree, but that piece of paper costs a lot of money. Even the engaged students need to be more calculating than curious.

Institutions and values change, of course. In the case of schools, years of policy decisions and political rhetoric like Lecce’s have shaped the content and goals of education: When kids graduate, they should be employable. If they aren’t, then we need to rejig the system. Similar economic imperatives have affected the university, leading to a proliferation of certain programs and the decimation of others, particularly in the liberal arts. Departments that haven’t yet come under the axe are changing the core of their disciplines to meet “demand” and avoid cuts. Simple intellectual curiosity becomes increasingly untenable.

Take one recent example: This past May, the Daily Northwestern published an article about the private research university in Illinois and its updates in the humanities. The student newspaper announced: “English Department Changes Degree Requirements to Make Programs More Accessible, Inclusive.” This sounded promising, until it became clear a few paragraphs later that the changes would involve not an expansion but rather a contraction: the survey courses in English and American literature — those introductory classes that look at shifting traditions and ideas over hundreds of years — were being cut because they “did not make use” of the department’s collective expertise, “as few professors could teach these courses.” By including feel-good words like “accessible” and “inclusive” in the headline, the editors glossed over the fact that the school’s highly paid professors ($224,409 a year, on average) cannot teach outside of their narrow fields of expertise. This is depressing.

The survey course ought to be an opportunity for faculty to show some humility, to step down from the podium, mix with the academic tenderfeet, and say, “I may not be an expert on all of these topics, but I recognize their importance. Let’s explore this together.” When we get rid of chances to think historically, make connections, and discover old and new narratives, we do not make education more accessible. We dilute it.

I often recall my undergraduate experience in New Brunswick. I think mostly of the books I read, the people I met, and the conversations I had. I remember hating Augustine’s Confessions, only to realize later, with the help of my professors and classmates, that my reaction was biased, uncharitable, and, frankly, inarticulate. I look back on the intellectual growing pains and the awkwardness of trying to follow the ideas beyond my comprehension level or the topics I wasn’t interested in, until I learned more. The patience of my teachers still astonishes me, and I wonder: Have I been misremembering all of this? Did I really experience something like Bildung ?

Then, not long ago, I read The Elective Mind: Philosophy and the Undergraduate Degree, a short book by Réal Fillion, and I realized that what I had experienced was real, or at least it was possible. As a philosophy professor at the University of Sudbury, which was federated with the now bankrupt Laurentian University until last year, Fillion has witnessed the “increasing pressure on university study to be relevant to certain exclusively market demands, thereby reducing the interest in what is ‘unfamiliar.’ ” This pressure has made it difficult to cultivate the titular “elective mind,” an intellectual attitude “distinctly one’s own” that can engage with the world and “stand back and assess that engagement and the many different kinds of demands being placed on it.” But who, among all the anxious and unhappy young, has the kind of freedom, resources, and patience to be inquiring or imaginative in an educational setting?

My stepson will not be attending university this year, and, honestly, I’m relieved he won’t add to the crowd of vacant bluish faces. Maybe he will find his curiosity awakened elsewhere, at some other time, when he’s ready. Maybe his happiness will come not from a paycheque but from what George Eliot called the “unhistoric acts” that add to the good of the world. Times change, and I can imagine better ones. Still, I do regret that, of all the things my generation will pass down to his, those spirited Septembers I loved will not necessarily be among them.