Category Archives: education


In the interests of full disclosure, I am an ex-CBC employee (1992-1994).

Victor Wong, over at The Phantom Observer, has, over the past few weeks, run a series of posts polling and asking for comment on the CBC and its future. For die-hard Friends of the CBC, of course, the answer is always and forever “more money, fewer strings, hands-off [and why aren’t you expanding it?]”. For many on Canada’s right, including many of Canada’s private broadcasting conglomerates, the implicit answer is “please do away with this competitor”.

I am here today to speak out for a reformed CBC; a “new” CBC. CBC Management has made many questionable decisions over the years; I do not seek to defend these. But I also think the CBC has an on-going role to play in our national life: it is not an archaic remnant of our past.

I’d also note that I am not going to speak here of SRC, the Radio-Canada family of networks, mostly because it is a rare day that I tune into any of them: a little RDI extract on a flight, perhaps, and, if a particular news story warrants it, Le Téléjournal. Let someone who knows Francophone cultural needs intimately speak up in its defence.

Content Matters

My listening and viewing pattern is typical (I believe) of what the CBC needs to become. I seldom watch any television off air/cable/satellite: hotel rooms on business trips is about it, but there my station of choice is CBC Newsworld, not the main network, and none of the subsidiary digital channels. For radio, I am (if I am tuned in, typically while driving, which I do far less of these days) resolutely tuned to Radio One, not Two. That was true when Two had its former classical-centric programming; it is true today with the new mix of genres. (Mostly, if I hear Two, I hear it in the periodontist’s chair during a cleaning and examination.)

But I also have to say that I don’t choose Radio One as my first choice, either. Partly that’s the impact of podcasts: the programmes on One that I want to listen to are all available in podcast format, and iTunes graciously delivers them daily for my listening pleasure (also my skipping pleasure if today’s topic does not deliver on its promise). My first radio choice is generally CKNW, despite the fact that the phone-in format is boring: I’m far less interested in hearing the same daily rants from the public than I am interesting guests and competent, hard-hitting interviewers. But on the private station I find more topics of interest, so I’m more likely to turn it on and leave it on.

A reformed CBC must start with content that achieves that “turn it on and leave it on” impulse, be that a radio format or a television format, if the CBC is to “find an audience”. Podcasts, PVR-based time-shifting and the like are for people who already know what they want. The goal is serendipity: to surprise and delight the listener/viewer with something they would not have known was coming.

Now, in today’s world of millions of choices — I myself avail myself of the BBC, Australia’s ABC, NPR, and other “broadcasters” programming daily thanks to podcasts, plus many independent efforts on Internet Radio channels, BlogTalk Radio, etc., plus many private stations’ pod- and vodcasts (and it is a constant challenge of finding and pruning to fit into a day) — CBC needs to refine its voice. It needs to be known for something nationally — a place to turn to.

My recommendation: take advantage of the regions. Widen our horizons, using news analysis and documentary formats.

I could see the programming on Radio One, for instance, unfold through the day as follows: Morning drive (local), a national documentary/interview programme like The Current, then a series of regional lunch-hour programmes starting with Newfoundland and Labrador and ending with British Columbia until afternoon drive (local) begins — then the national news at six and As It Happens, followed by ideas-based programming. The use of regional programming brings our various national accents, world-views and local experts to the country at large.

Such programming, incidentally, is very inexpensive, relative to sports broadcasts or dramatic/comedic productions. Inexpensive enough, in fact, to be free of advertising.

Another advantage of the use of regional programming is that the main charge levelled against the CBC in the regions — its Toronto-Ottawa (or Ottawa-Montréal) centricity — evaporates. If (and I do not say that it does — or does not!) the CBC has a left-liberal bias, it does so because that is the predominant local political culture of these cities and educational institutions, think tanks, etc. (the source of the regular talking-heads of the network). Bring on the different flavours of political thought across the country! Show Torontonians that in the West the division is often between right (Conservative) and left (NDP) — that the West is neither monocultural (as they might well presume based on an electoral map) nor “just like them”. (The same is true for the Atlantic region and for Québec — who amongst us “got” the rise and fall of the ADQ, the passion Newfoundlanders have for Danny Williams, etc.?) Paradoxically, regional programme origination rather than endless rehashing of issues through Ottawa or Toronto-based interviewers should act to tie the country together — and the diversity it unleashes makes the CBC distinctive relative to the other national networks (which are not in any way regional) and local stations (which are not in any way national).

For television, documentaries play a larger role. But these, too, need to tell regional stories. As this past week’s helicopter crash into the Atlantic off Newfoundland showed, Newfoundland’s communities are familiar with the price the sea demands, and pull together in the face of familiar adversity and loss. One might think this a simply human story. But it is not: Newfoundland’s way of doing this is a story that should be told by Newfoundlanders to the rest of Canada. Similar adversity in other parts of the country is met in different ways: some part of Canada are more private in their grief and one does not easily see the “ties that bind”.

Few amongst us, for instance, recall that the engine behind the Reform movement at its founding was as much if not more British Columbian than Albertan; that Vancouver, with its mix of Liberal and NDP MPs was the place a populist uprising in Canadian politics happened. (Many Central and Eastern Canadians of my acquaintance thought of Reform as “those bloody right-wing Albertans”, with a dismissive shrug that “they’re not really like us”.) But explorations of how Alberta politics actually works, or why the three Westernmost provinces have seen parties merge, recrystallise, etc. over the years, would show elements of the Canadian matrix of opinion not easily found working exclusively in Southern Ontario.

These need not be hyper-expensive. It should not be the role of the CBC on television to travel the world; just travel Canada’s two lane roads with people who live in those regions to talk to people of the same region. Let us hear the dialogue, focused around an issue (a six week exposé in half-hour segments of the dying bounty of the oceans and how that destroys or rebuilds communities, for instance). These, in turn, could be sold as views on Canada outside the country.

In turn, not all of CBC television needs to be CBC-produced. All entertainment programming, yes (if any). But buying in similar high-quality programmes — for both radio and television — from the BBC, the ABC, etc. also makes sense. There is, for instance, nothing in BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time that would not suit an evening’s listening on CBC Radio One. Last week’s show was on the Library at Alexandria. Previous weeks have examined issues in physics, the life of Charles Darwin, etc. Solid educational programming done in an entertaining and engaging conversational format. The ABC’s Big Ideas series would offer public lectures given by people Canadians may not have heard of, but should. Some exchanges like this already occur: Big Ideas rebroadcast the CBC-produced Massey Lectures. Let’s do much more of it.

In turn — because the Millennial Generation and their younger siblings growing up digital do not watch television or listen to the radio other than rarely — all CBC programming ought to be available as pod- and vodcasts.

Finally, other than a programme like Hockey Night in Canada, there should be no advertising on CBC Television. (Most of CBC’s commercial revenues are sport-programming related in any event.)

Radio Two? A good question. I don’t have an answer for that. I think the recent changes were a plausible thing to try. The reality is that if I want to listen to classical music or jazz — and I have an extensive library of both — I’ll put on a disc rather than turn on the radio. If I want to listen to “the music I grew up with” (1960s-1970s), it’s on my iPod. I suspect I’m not alone in these habits. (I certainly don’t find commercial AM or FM music radio worthy of my time.)

Newsworld? This — not the main television network — should be the flagship station for CBC News and Current Affairs. But don’t overlook offering diversity: most viewers of Politics with Don Newman, for instance, know what angle Don’s interviewing will expose even before he welcomes them to the “brawdcast”. (I listen to the show via podcast as the visual element offers little to nothing over the soundtrack — and the podcast is commercial free.) But why not also have a Michael Coren, and an Adrienne Carr, hosting a political show? (These are two names chosen at random to broaden the spectrum.) A Green-biased show would handle economic stories far differently, as would a right-wing Christian moral perspective. 90 minutes (three 30 minute shows) of Politics with very different outlooks on stories would be far better than 60 minutes with one (and it matters not whether you agree or disagree with that outlook).

Just don’t go down the “let’s shout each other down” format used in the US media! (Interestingly, when we lived in The Netherlands, we discovered that the main channel there was turned over to different interest spectra on different days. The Catholic right got one night, the Labour Left another, etc. No attempt was made to be balanced; fairness was achieved by allowing obvious skews of opinion to be aired. This would work here, too, where the voices of region come with different outlooks, agendas, political philosophies, etc.)

I would very much like it if Newsworld could also be free of advertising, but that is probably not possible. Still, it should be a goal — perhaps beginning with commercial free news (so adverts only go into opinion/analysis shows).

As with BBC World, Newsworld should also look to put on programmes that expose other parts of the world to our view. Not only does this make more use of the extensive field resources the CBC has already deployed, it gives people a reason to tune into Newsworld as opposed to BBC, CNN, FoxNews, etc. (Most news channel watchers turn it on and let it run in the background of what they’re doing.)

… And Some Relief

Elements of the Broadcasting Act that controls the CBC require that off-air transmission of Radio One be available to very small communities, and off-air transmission of CBC Television be available to communities that are still on the verge of towns from being villages. Given Canada’s extensive geography, this means that CBC must invest hundreds of millions in physical plant — all of which must be maintained — to fulfil this requirement. This is money that by and large could be used for programming and elimination of some advertising.

So, Government should amend the Broadcasting Act to allow satellite-based transmission, receipt via cable, etc. In addition to the CBC’s channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, it would be possible to offer a simple gadget for use in an automobile or home that received only the CBC and SRC feeds from one of Canada’s satellites. Many remote repeater towers could then be dismantled. As a one-time investment, this would make far more sense than annual capital costs.

These are just some initial thoughts. To reiterate, I believe Canada needs the CBC. But we need a CBC that measures up to the best of the world, and yet shows us the great depths of this vast country. Today we have neither. Getting to that vision would make the CBC stand out in a crowded media space. Enough said.


Skills Testing is Indicative of a Bigger Problem

The annual cycle of Foundational Skills Assessments in BC Schools has just wrapped up, with all the usual yelling and screaming on open line radio that punctuates just about everything in this province. So let’s cut through the arguments right now:

The BC Teachers’ Federation is right: Not only don’t the FSAs test your child’s skills (but instead test some “generic” Grade 4 or 7 via-à-vis the curriculum expectations of the Ministry of Education) but they don’t need to be universally administered — as with international comparisons, a random sample would be just fine and do the same job.

The BC Government is misleading parents: A school which has poor FSA results, or whose FSA results fall, is supposed to be helped to come up to provincial norms. No resources, no monies, nothing but hot air comes from Victoria to any school. So the point of the FSAs — to improve the weak schools — that parents and voters expect, doesn’t happen.

The BC Government is inconsistent: It’s all right with everyone up to the Premier that the Fraser Institute should use the FSA results to stack-rank BC schools based on FSA results. That, evidently, is considered a help to parents. Never mind that the FSA results also correlate well to issues of rural resource bases vs urban ones, to socio-economic classes in school cachement areas, and the like: pass the word, “there is greener grass out there”. Meanwhile, stack-ranking the province’s hospitals based on the standardised metrics and reporting used in the Health Care “system” by the same Fraser Institute is socially unacceptable to this government: the names of the facilities can’t be used, because then people would expect change, and issues like the urban:rural resource divide, Health Authority funding vs the growth rate in their cachement areas, etc. mean that some facilities are never going to be able to compete for top ranking.

Schools systematically misinform parents: Yesterday on CKNW the President of the BCTF pointed out that any parent has the right, under the regulations surrounding FSAs, to put a request in writing to their child’s school and the school must excuse that child from the FSAs. No reason other than “I don’t want my child writing this” needs to be given. Instead of letting parents know what their options are, school administrations stress the mandatory nature of these tests, tell parents there are no options, and bully all but the tenacious few into submission. (After all, a larger base of students writing the test eliminates most of the probability of the school moving quickly up or down the league table based on the sample size: this is particularly important where special needs students, as a percentage of the total group writing, moves above a few percentage points.)

Classrooms are taken over by the FSAs: Parents want their child to do well; so do teachers (given all the misperceptions surrounding the FSAs). The net effect is that teachers dare not avoid using classroom time to prepare for the FSAs, and it is now common (it certainly was at my son’s school last year, where he was engaged in the Grade 7 FSAs) to have two weeks of class time turned over to “FSA Preparation”. Other parents tell similar tales. (The disconnect between the FSAs and reality is even stronger when you realize that my son was, as were many of his classmates, doing Grade 8 [or higher] work in one or more of the FSA-tested subjects — FSA testing ends up being tied at that school to age more than nominal grade, typical of multi-age, multi-grade classrooms. Of course, from the school’s point of view, all this was likely to manipulate its league-table standing higher.)

So, if the FSAs become nothing more or less than a way to lead to a report by a private sector think tank that intermixes private and public schools (making private look better) and allows denigration of teachers (look at the results!) with no recourse, why are we doing them?

If we really wanted to know whether the students were mastering the material, shouldn’t we have a curriculum-ending examination that is tied to what should have been mastered? If foundational skills are so important — and, actually, they are — shouldn’t we want to know at the end of each year that “little Johnny” can read, write and numerate to grade level, so that we can take action to bring him or her up to what he or she would need to succeed in the next grade level? Wouldn’t that actually require a high standard — say, a 70%+ pass level — and an individual education plan for each student? Wouldn’t that also suggest that we’d lose the idea of “grades” as “class cohorts” and instead think of them, subject by subject, as a way to indicate when the examination would take place?

Well, that would never do! Little Johnny couldn’t be socially promoted from one year to the next “to avoid bruising his fragile ego by separating him (or her) from his age group”. Never mind that we kill initiative in learning by holding each and every Little Johnny back in boredom in the subjects they have awakened an interest in. Never mind that we shovel him or her forward, unprepared, into the next classroom — and then terrorise him or her when the FSAs come around. Little Johnny, after all, knows that he (or she) doesn’t know. Children are not stupid about these matters. All of a sudden a moment of reckoning comes.

Our educational system is designed to socially engineer children to fit into neat cubicles in life, and to lose the desire to question “why” things work (or don’t work) the way they do.

Yet parents yell and scream — in blog comments, on talk radio, in letters to the editor, and at PAC meetings in schools — that testing regimes are essential to knowing how their child is doing, and how their child’s school is doing. From the point of view of the educational bureaucracy, and the politicians it “serves”, this is all to the good. FSAs give the illusion of accountability and assessment — and distract parents’ minds from considering much of the “social values” content crammed into the curriculum that displaces real work in history, geography, the sciences, mathematics, literature, grammar, etc. A graduate of the BC school system often can’t spell in a consistent manner, can’t form a sentence that properly uses subordinate clauses, can’t read at much more than a Grade 7 level (yet they’re “university ready”), can’t do mathematics from first principles but instead only disgorges memorizes proofs, etc. — but they know their First Nations, they’ve had seven or eight years of drug and sex education, they’ve got their volunteer hours and they’ve had “green philosophy” jammed down their throats. Good to know we’re turning out people with the background they’ll need to achieve on the world stage, eh?

That’s what the quest for accountability through the FSAs has allowed to happen.

Randomly check, if you must, to assess foundational skills. That puts the Fraser Institute out of the school ranking game — the Minister of Health is right: there are other conditions that affect the results that we can’t overcome. Besides, half the institutions will be below the mid-point — that’s the nature of “averages” — and so the real reason for these tests being universal comes out.

They’re a club to use against the teachers. Parents, why do you allow this?

Acquiring a Sense of History

We don’t go out of our way to teach history. Such “history” as is taught today is really social studies: forcing the peoples of other times and places into a convenient matrix that reinforces current social norms. We’re neither interested in truly exploring other times, nor do we encourage the notion that maybe, in difference, there is something to be learned, nor the idea that perhaps to take this step forward, society also took a different step backward.

Know Where You Come From …

Western society today is anything but monolithic when it comes to religious belief — the Protestant revolution, scientism in the nineteenth century and a feeling of guilt surrounding autochthonous and immigrant communities saw to that — but the reality is that if you look back to 1000 CE you find, in the West, a compact, unified, Latin Catholic society. These are our ancestors: projects such as the combined National Geographic/IBM genographic project are demonstrating the concentration of genetic paths in Western society, not just in Europe but in the settler communities of the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. We — mostly — remain within our compact society to this day.

I bring up religion because of an experience I had in 1991. On the Côte d’Azur for the first time, my family and I made our way to a little Provençal hill village — Mougins — for a late lunch. After a fine meal on the square, we wandered across to the Church on the other side and pulled open the door. A millennium of must, dust, soot (from the candles) and the stink of people over the centuries rolled over us. (This is why I had come!)

The building was in the oldest style of Western architecture, when the West was first starting to set its own style. (This style — Romanesque — spread almost as wildfire across Europe in the space of a few decades.) This church betrayed both the recent occupation of the area by the forces of the Caliphate and the older Levantine Latin Orthodoxy that preceded the long transformation of the Western Church: it remained a “world cave” of the Levant, common to Orthodox, Monophysite and Nestorian Christians, Jews and the residual Samaritans, Muslims, Zoroastrians and Parsees, and the like, where the building is all interior (the outside merely creates the cave but is not really worthy of decoration, and windows are small, merely to allow a little light in, but not to illuminate the space). Yet the West can be seen: the ceiling was not rounded, to close the space in, but peaked and drew upward to the infinite; the interior designs drew the eye up; even in the stonework images of men, angels and the Lord appear, the graven images forbidden in the Levant and replaced by iconostases and geometric designs. This was a poor church, and had been from its creation — but it spoke to the birth of a new people. In only a century more, the foundations of generations-long projects to build soaring cathedrals would be laid.

Look how much is embedded in this simple description: comparative art and architecture, the sense of self of a people, theological history, style, substance and passion, comparisons to others who were not of this society, even though from one generation to the next, in this part of the world, Latin (as it evolved into Provençal, Savoyard and the language of the oc, then was taken over by the langue d’oil of French and the Italian dialect spoken there only 150 years ago was pushed out through centralized education) has never been lost: one generation has always understood the previous and the next. Yet the presumptions of Classical Rome in its Latin, of Levantine Orthodoxy in the Latin of, say, a St. Augustine or a St. Benedict, and of Western Mediaeval Latin are as different as night and day: each is part of a self-contained society.

For those of the Renaissance to throw away the learning of the High Mediaeval — that of our society — in favour of the works of Classical Rome simply because Cicero and his kin never said ego habeo factum and instead used feci was a ridiculous loss and rejection of self, especially since that assertion of the self and the worth of the person is part of what makes the West the West. But from then to now our society remains riven by currents of denying what it is, what makes it unique, valuable and (from time to time) great, and therefore why doing what is needful to preserve it rather than changing just anything and everything on a whim is wrong, and so the rear guard of those who would conserve the West — true Tories, one and all — against the leftward drift of liberalism continues.

… and Where You Are Going

So much political and economic writing — goodness knows, I’ve contributed my own share of it! — leaves the historical in the dust. Liberalism or leftism (at the time of the French Revolution the two would have been synonymous) is resolutely anti-historical: all that matters is the current situation, and there are no restraints other than the practical (not enough tolerance for debt “right now”, or too many other things pressing on us “right now”) placed on change.

Yet what that says is that we — and other peoples from other civilisations — are all fungible and malleable; that someone’s traditions are folklore and easily discarded. It is certainly true that individuals who emigrate and settle in the lands of a civilisation not their own by heritage can and do acculturate, often, after two or three generations, to the point where they have accepted their new home and its traditions not only as their own, but, in a peculiar sense, as their heritage. (It is what the French do with their process of educating future citizens, either in school or to prepare to take the citizenship test: one reaches a point where one can say, without irony, “Our ancestors, the Gauls”.)

Acculturation and blending in — the Diefenbakerian “unhyphenated Canadian” motif in our own national life — is one thing at an individual level. But, as George Grant, the Canadian Tory philosopher, noted, our love of the good, the true and the beautiful is rooted in love of self, of immediate family, of friends, of community, of nation … and thus of society. To reject the West and its traditions, then, is to demonstrate a lack of love for who you are. Philosophers have noted that you can have “love for the amorphous” (a “love of all humanity”, for instance), but only at the price of denying love for yourself as you are, love for friends and family, love for your community, etc.

To reach the amorphous, one must deny history. This is best done by removing it from serious study: burying it in scholastic detail where it is taught (universities), turning it into social studies (or removing it from the curriculum altogether) in the schools, treating questions of whether to preserve past buildings and existing inefficiencies in the urban fabric as an economic decision, etc. Thus we have our society as it exists today, with no concern for its past — or its future (witness that we have known since the 1970s [US President Carter was reviled for pointing it out!] that the days we are now coming into were inevitable, yet we continued to build as though tomorrow would not come).

Only through learning history fully will we find our way out and prosper again.

How Do You Teach Willfully Illiterates?

You might think, on reading the headline, that today’s blog posting might have something to do with down-and-outs in society, but it doesn’t, except tangentially. No, today’s posting is about perfectly normal, ordinary — often, quite bright — up-and-comers, who are quite competent, but don’t read, and don’t want to read.

Now, it’s not that they would have any trouble with these words on the screen. Their spelling might be inconsistent and occasionally stretched far beyond acceptable levels of error, but they have mastered reading. However, sitting and reading thoughtful articles — or serious magazines or books — isn’t something they do.

Robert X. Cringely, the pseudonym of the technology observer blogging as “I, Cringely” on the PBS web site, took time today to speak to the shifting field of education as it is assaulted by multi-tasking grazers who are masters of search: the students. Fundamentally our curricula are built, still, around reading once we get above a certain grade: typically, as elementary school ends (Grade 5-6), students are expected to read texts and supplemental materials, and to work in the milieu that was made possible within the first twenty years after Gutenberg: a milieu filled with books. Teaching, in turn, turned into a book-centred experience, reading from them when copies were scarce, and assigning them directly to be read when copies were plentiful. Slowly the older model, of the professor as one who “professes” his (and it was almost always a “he”) current research as a series of lectures, was pushed aside in favour of a repeated curriculum year after year: the divorce of teaching from research or, if you like, of education from learning.

That last statement may be surprising, so let me take a moment to explain it. Before the Renaissance, such few people as were schooled — almost always, in a school attached to a church for the purposes of handling the early stages of development of the priestly and monkish cadres — were quickly taken up to the limits of knowledge and worked, once the basics of grammar, logic and numeracy — the old Trivium — were internalised, on the frontiers of knowledge. These were the learnèd. At the time of the Renaissance, coupled with the greater availability of books and the establishment of more and larger schools for more than just the needs of the Church, the concept of teaching to educate came about. But education is always back from the edge of knowledge: it takes time to agree on a curriculum, prepare texts, etc. The divorce between what an educated man (or woman) knows and what a learnèd one knows — seen today in the gap between those who break ground and those who fill in around the edges of knowledge — was born and quickly widened, so much so, in point of fact, that Western society, as education became more common, forgot things it knew and had, several centuries later, to learn them again, all because they couldn’t be found in old Classical works. (See the out-of-print but very worthwhile Might of the West by Lawrence R. Brown for more on this — and some deep surprises!)

What Cringely has written about is the impact of the millennial generation’s — and the next generation of children’s — approach to learning. For it is an approach to learning, not to being educated. All the standardised testing, school ranking, provincial curricula, and the like that is the apparatus of the last gasp of the educational establishment (and the older generation of voters who have elected politicians promising to “bring order to the schools”) is merely the flare-out of a culture based around teaching through reading. We are returning to a culture of learning through doing — and having the tools to “look up” facts and quotes as needed rather than reading to remember them.

If this is true in schooling — and the rapid rise of home-schooling, alternative schools, and the like, along with the apparent rise in the number of “gifted” children — then so, too, it is becoming true in the workplace. It is not by accident that procedures are starting to appear written at Grade 3 levels, or issued as comic books (as has been done in Japan for many years to deal with problems of literacy in a society of ideographic language). These are not meant to be read, but to be “glanced at” for a quick reminder. In essence, the procedure is never learned, but taken in afresh as each new situation appears. The new generation knows what their predecessors had forgotten: reality never repeats exactly as before; every process cycle is similar to, but not the same as, its predecessor, and, when dealing with people, barely repeatable processes are the order of the day.

To make this work — for the pace of our world in 2008 is far faster than that of monks and priests doing scholarly and scientific work in a scriptorum in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries! — technology (as Cringely notes) is brought into play, and, with it, the “multi-tasking” instant messaging, music listening, video watching, blog reading, twittering, searching and scanning young person of today. Becoming “productive” in this sort of sensorial assault zone is more difficult the more of a reader you are. Being productive in this type of high-input world is easier the less you read and the more you take the world in scraps and dribbles. It produces — and thought occurs in — a very different mind-set and world-view, as Canadian intelligence analyst, psychologist and foreign and military affairs expert W. R. Clement noted in Quantum Jump over a decade ago.

Back to schools: I have in the past, and will again this year, teach a Philosopher’s Café for 10-12 year olds. In it, I require no pre-reading of texts, nor do I generally read from them. I will tell the great story of philosophy using its stories: one need not read Plato aloud (the language is archaic even in a modern translation) to communicate the imagery of the Cave sequence in The Republic, or the trial and death of Socrates; nor need one quote from Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Nietzsche and the rest — I need only pose their questions. Rather, we will do philosophy together. My students in the past have, without prompting, figured out the classical arguments and elements of Plato’s Theory of Forms and the rebuttals to it, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God and their counter-arguments, and are vibrant at dealing with real issues (allocation of health-care resources, for instance). They may not, in other words, read much philosophy, but they are quite good thinkers.

This suggests to me that asking for ever-more accountability, costing, and testing in schools, or layering one bit of social engineering on top of another to deal with one societal problem after another, is a mug’s game that is doomed to fail. Instead, we need much more of our classroom time to be praxis — practical work, even if it is the practice of thinking and arguing (rhetoric and reasoning, natural language logic and the like). These will be the tools of the generation that works, in real time, to deal with the barely repeatable, the both/and (rather than the either/or thinking of the past four centuries), the blended and the nuanced — these, and the open communications lines these young people build between themselves. It will be an oral culture again, even if some of that voice looks like GR8 C U L8R on a cellphone.

The reality is that unless each one, in his or her own time, acquires the spark of reading for pleasure, they will not be book- or text-centred. They are willfully illiterate (in the term of the age of the book). The question is: will we allow the world to change positively, or force new wine into old bottles — and, by doing so, break them?