For the last 60 years or so, a raging storm of controversy has hung over public education in Canada. It has also pitted some educators, often called “traditionalists,” against others, often called “progressives,” and it has been affecting the way children are educated in public schools.
The disagreement can be clearly seen in the way people answer the following questions:
- Should the curriculum be standardized for all students?
- Should schools implement standardized examinations?
- Should parents have the final say in the schools their children attend?
If you answer “yes” to these questions, there is no doubt you are a “traditionalist”; if you answer “no,” you are a “progressive.”
Teacher education programs have been training teacher candidates in radical progressive methods, and teacher unions have been bargaining—and even striking—to get benefits enshrined in the progressive ideology.
The progressive perspective is derived from the writings of Karl Marx and his followers. Today, this perspective is called “critical theory,” “critical race theory,” “critical gender theory,” or more broadly “constructivism.” This theory is based on Marx’s idea that people in capitalist societies, like Canada and the United States, belonged to one of two classes: the Bourgeoisie or the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie oppress and exploit the Proletariat.
In education, the argument is a little more complex. Progressive educators see democracy as fundamental for teaching and learning, and to liberate students from servitude, classrooms need to become democratically organized. Progressives believe that students need to experience democracy so they can help transform Canada into a true democracy where all people are equal.
To get to this outcome, each teacher must be a “guide-by-the-side” rather than a “sage-on-the-stage,” as most teachers have been in the past. Students then have a much larger say in what goes on in classrooms. In fact, in some classrooms, teachers are relegated to the margins as students design their own education curriculum, teach themselves material that interests them, and determine the grades they receive on their transcripts. Curricula content is increasingly not being mandated by departments of education, but even if it is mandated, it is often not taught.
Public school students are increasingly learning that they are members of groups based on the amount of oppression they experience. This is an idea taken from the neo-Marxist playbook called “intersectionality.” In this conception, there is a hierarchy of oppressed groups depending on the number of characteristics students attach to their “identities.” Students who attach three characteristics are more oppressed than students who attach one or two characteristics.
In this hierarchy, females are more oppressed than males, blacks are more oppressed than whites, and black lesbians are more oppressed than most other students.
Students with more characteristics representing oppression attached to their identities are more deserving of attention, privilege, and the right to express their opinion. Consistent with each individual’s “tag value,” members from oppressed groups become elevated while members from oppressor groups are devalued.
As well, students are assumed to have knowledge derived from their lived experiences as members of specific groups, and this knowledge—presumably reflecting “truth”—is not shared by students belonging to other groups. Hence, truth becomes dependent on the person’s group membership.
Simply put, students are believed to live in self-contained silos cut off from other students and therefore able to gain truthful insights into the world that remain inaccessible to other students. This is why we often hear high school students prefacing their verbal claims with “As a Black female…,” or “As an Indigenous two-spirited female…”
Such claims are a way for students to state their ideological position in the hierarchy of the oppressed, and, more importantly, for them to assert their superiority over others.
Obviously, advancing an argument with such a preface conflates the speaker’s identity with the substance of her argument. Such arguments become ad hominem statements of truth: “This is my truth and it has special significance because I am a member of an oppressed group.”
It is practically impossible for students (or teachers) to refute statements advanced in this way—including false statements—put forward by the students from highly oppressed groups. To question these students’ claims is to question their identities, which is now seen as being judgemental bordering on violence. No one wants to come across as being either “violent” or “judgemental.”
But even if someone dares to correct an obvious error in what an “oppressed” speaker says, more often than not, the speaker’s response is that she is being violently oppressed by people who do not share her racial, gender, or intersectional identity. Consequently, the speaker thinks that her identity, her “truth,” is being denigrated.
It becomes clear, therefore, that truth is no longer a universal concept in Canadian schools, something that everyone agrees is fundamental value to a civilized society. Increasingly, truth is seen as being specific to one group and not to all students.
In fact, Canadian public education has sacrificed a universal conception of truth for the ideological claim that groups have their own truths and the degree of truthfulness is dependent on the group membership of the students.
A few examples from a three-page March 21 Winnipeg Free Press article of interviews with students, teachers, and parents may help clarify this rather abstract claim.
- The author of the article, Maggie Macintosh, reported that education is full of “popular buzzwords and phrases include[ing] ‘inquiry,’ ‘project-based learning,’ ‘student voice and choice,’ and ‘math talk.’”
- Kelly McLure, a grade 1 teacher at Dawson Trail School in Lorette, Manitoba, said, “It [education] was more teacher-led, and now it’s more student-led. That’s what the inquiry does; kids are doing the wondering and we’re helping guide them to answers.”
- Bobbie-Jo Leclair, an Indigenous education consultant from the Louis Riel School Division, said, “It’s important to look at structures, practices, policies of school to see who’s being heard and reflected.” Macintosh reported that Leclair has “seen divisions slowly adopt First Nations education ideologies during her 17 years as an educator.”
- Geret Coates, a grade 11 teacher at St. James Collegiate in Winnipeg, told Macintosh that “rather than study Shakespeare this year, his students are flipping through pages of suspense novel Killing Mr. Griffin, first-person narrative The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey…”
These examples reveal that students are in control and teachers are responding to their specific interests. Teachers are no longer considered to be experts in the subjects they teach, the curriculum is not tightly mandated by the department of education, and teachers are no longer being monitored to ensure that they teach the proscribed curriculum.
This 60-year trend towards progressivism in public education raises at least three important questions:
- How can this process be called education if there are few—if any—standard curricular expectations for students? Wouldn’t it be better to call the process “self-actualization”?
- How can schools honestly report that students are ready to take a place in the working world or in post-secondary institutions if they have not mastered a set of necessary prerequisites?
- Why should taxpayers support this “self-actualization” process?
For far too long, progressive educators have been winning the education war in Canadian public schools. Traditionalists who think that education should be standardized, students should be formally assessed, and if students do not understand the curriculum they should not be promoted, have been losing battles.
For them, education has been debased and the authority of teachers has been undermined.
Traditional educators think that it is time to re-establish substance in the curriculum and bring back formal assessment of students, professional authority to teachers, and accountability to departments of education.
Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus of sociology of education at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. (email@example.com)
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.