Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Why Fear Critical Dialogue on Our Schools?

It was suggested in a letter to the editor recently that any decision worth its salt will withstand questioning.

In these words are captured the very spirit of learning itself.

In the academy, researchers and scholars train for many years, honing their critical skills, building their knowledge base, and working to steadily improve and expand our collective store of wisdom and information about ourselves as humans and the universe in which we live.

Every bit of knowledge is provisional. Every argument is open to questioning, critique and rebuttal. It’s never shameful to admit that one’s research could be improved upon, that some other perspective on a given issue may reveal the object of study in a new and valid way.

To bring this principle to the political level, we may look to city council as an example. Councillors are charged with making a huge number of decisions directly affecting their constituents, running the gamut from the placement of driveways to sweeping urban plans, from the timing of buses to waterfront revitalization. With only ten councillors plus the mayor, it’s nearly impossible for any one councillor to have all the knowledge and information required to make the best decision possible in every circumstance.

When decisions are made with which some citizens don’t agree, city councillors have shown themselves generally to be open to hearing other arguments on the subject. When councillors disagree with one another, debate is encouraged. When councillors from one ward are put in a position to make a decision affecting a different ward, they often defer to the judgment of the representatives of the ward in question. Many times Peterborough city council has reversed or modified decisions whose weaknesses have been shown by citizens. Many times compromises have been reached in an ongoing attempt to make the best choices, in response to arguments and concerns legitimately raised by citizens and citizens’ groups.

Too often Ontario school boards have assumed attitudes of infallibility. Perhaps this is the natural result of school board administration being largely comprised of former teachers trained in “classroom management” and encouraged to play the role of the authority figure before groups of potentially unruly students.

School board Trustees have been given the task of overseeing school operations in much the same way as city councillors oversee the workings of the city. As shown in previous posts, the relative size of the budgets are about the same. However, due to the Harris-era school board amalgamations, there are now far fewer Trustees than there used to be. At KPR we have only 11 Trustees to oversee nearly 40,000 students and a nearly $400 million budget. If city councillors face a difficult task, imagine how much more difficult it is for Trustees to develop holistic perspectives on a given issue.

It has thus become relatively easy for school board administrators to rule by fiat, turning a deaf ear to the concerns of school communities and pressuring Trustees to simply rubber stamp their decisions.

KPR administration should examine its own attitudes toward its constituents, and open itself to critical dialogue, rather than trying to quiet its critics as if they were a classroom full of kids running around with Hallowe’en candy. Trustees, too, should recognize that there is no shame in reversing or significantly altering their decisions when new information comes to light.

What could be the harm in taking the muzzle off teachers, who have dedicated their adult lives to the cause of education, and surely have invaluable perspectives to offer on the issues of programming, educational success, and school community development?

The true principle of democracy is not simply that everyone gets to cast a vote for a representative. The true principle of democracy is that every individual’s knowledge and imagination has the potential to make a positive contribution to social organization.

This is the Enlightenment-era concept, born of Renaissance-era  Humanism, that drove the formation of the first democratic republics in America and France. The more brains devoted to solving a given problem, the more likely that the solution arrived at will be a good one.

Aristocracies regress. Military dictatorships stagnate. True democracies thrive on critical dissent and move forward stronger.

A “father knows best” attitude may have its moments of usefulness in the classroom and the home, but it doesn’t go very far in cultivating a dynamic and progressive social organization. To stifle critical discourse regarding our education system is terrifyingly ironic, and sure to produce unwanted results.

The city of Peterborough is filled with bright, educated, critical minds.

Let’s make use of them rather than trying to shut them down.

No comments:

Post a Comment