No More Teachers, No More Books

By Heather-jane Robertson

John Snobelen, formerly Ontario’s Education Minister, got into hot water last year with the comment that he wanted to “invent a crisis” in public education. The irresponsibility of such a question aside, questions remain. Is there a crisis? And, if so, what is the solution?

Heather-jane Robertson, a writer from the other end of the political spectrum, won’t admit to there being a crisis, but she does see a growing threat to public education in the influence of technology and big business.

Robertson’s beef with technology is that it has been made into a religion. Today we are servants to our computers, holding a blind faith in their seemingly limitless potential to better the human condition. In the classroom, this fetish finds expression in the elevation of data collection over knowledge, and the relegation of teachers to the role of technology facilitators.

But despite well-funded attempts to prove their value as educational tools, there is still no evidence linking the use of computers to student achievement. And the disastrous attempts to link schools together in virtual classrooms on the Internet speak for themselves (the bottom line: more expensive, less effective).

Robertson’s second point of attack is the corporate targeting of the captive classroom audience. The issue here is not force-fed advertising – kids are already at saturation levels for that. The danger lies in the influence big business can have on course content. Do we really want students studying from activity kits and textbooks that explain how clear-cutting the rain forest is good for the environment? That’s not a tough question.

The economic imperative does, however, play a key role in our thinking about education. At bottom, I don’t think any of us really believe that computers teach children anything. What we do believe, or hope, is that an aggressively hi-tech education will help them get a job. And there’s the rub.

The problem with most industrialized economies today is their inability to provide anything like full employment. Because technology is largely to blame, and because youth unemployment in particular is so high, there is a natural presumption that education is the problem and that the solution lies in more advanced, job-oriented computer training.

Our anxiety is misplaced. While most of the good jobs in the future will involve the use of computers, there is no reason to believe that this will call for an increase in high-tech specialization for the majority of workers. Computers are getting easier to use, not more complex. Meanwhile, the job boom in software development and programming has already begun moving overseas to Third World silicon sweatshops. Good jobs don’t stay good for long in a global economy.

There are problems with Canada’s educational system, but there is no crisis. And, while we should always be trying to find ways to improve what doesn’t work, Robertson’s book helps remind us that some cures can be worse than the disease.

Review first published June 6, 1998.


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