A standing ovation concluded His Excellency John Ralston Saul's speech, Struggling for Balance: Public Education and Civil Society on Tue., Mar. 25.
Saul took no prisoners, taking stabs at our education systems' vertical orientation; the illiteracy of the elite; citizenship and its responsibilities; rich peoples' vanity; differential tuition; and the responsibility of tenured professors. The list goes on--it truly was a great speech by the husband of Canada's Governor General.
"University is a place where you are told to narrow your specialty and come out on top," proclaimed Saul. "However, the higher a monkey climbs, the better you see its ass."
Saul told students to be wary of this trend toward specialization and vertical education. We now have the time and money to become educated not only in our own occupation but horizontally as well--education in the broad, worldly sense that teaches us to be citizens in our world. According to Saul, specialized training followed by a job in that field leads to a narrow base of knowledge.
"In a sense, there are many forms of illiteracy, the most dangerous form is the illiteracy in western society is the illiteracy of the elite," said Saul. "People are becoming functionally illiterate in a lot of different areas."
It makes sense; how many graduates from a specialized school like DeVry can discuss the international policy of the Eastern Bloc? How many English majors for that matter? Saul feels that we are going in the wrong direction when we emphasize specialized training.
"The primary purpose of public education is the creation of citizenship in society," said Saul. "Public education's secondary or tertiary purpose is training."
Along with citizenship come both privileges and responsibilities. Saul says that it is our responsibility to volunteer and become involved in our communities--no matter how rich or poor we are.
"Volunteerism isn't charity, volunteerism is citizenship."
From his proclamation that income should have nothing to do with citizenship, Saul made a criticism about the elite's materialism and aversion to taxes.
"One of the great glories of a democracy is to show your success by paying taxes," said Saul. "A nice car and a nice house can be bought on credit. But if you really want to show your success, pay lots of taxes and show people your tax bill--that shows how rich you are."
From there on the speech took a more local flavour--it turns out that Saul is strongly opposed to differential tuition.
"It's too bad that he couldn't have been here for our Board of Governors meeting on Friday," commented Students' Union External Commissioner Tyler Johnson. "He could have made a difference in the outcome."
Saul's feelings were essentially that the government is taking advice from the wrong source--outside consultants.
"Consultant is the latest word for lobbyist, which is the latest word for courtier--essentially someone who sells ideas for money."
These consultants are unfortunately drawn toward the failing American and British systems of education--arguably the worst two systems in western democratic countries.
"There are about 20 western democracies, in 18 of them post secondary education is either free or cheap--except for the UK and the United States," said Saul. "Canada is slipping toward the exception to the rule and the two worst education systems of the 20--it is a failure of our government."
Saul's last point was a plea to the tenured professors at the university to exploit their respected and secure positions and make a difference.
"There is only one purpose of tenure: to guarantee full-unbridled expression without losing your job. The purpose is not to have a nice house or to have the ability to do more research," said Saul. "Our intellectual elite must go out and spark spirited debate, they must be annoying, they must take chances."