Society communicates poorly on educational values

I listened raptly to CBC’s ‘Cross Country Checkup’ yesterday afternoon, a 2-hour phone-in show discussing a report released last week in Ontario in which University and College faculty opine that a majority of first-year students are poorly prepared. Specifically, the students are thought to be showing (widespread) declining writing, researching and numeracy skills, and generally lacking in the sensibility to ‘knuckle down’ and embrace the rigors of coursework. Much reference was made to students’ “increasing sense of entitlement” and their eager, hyper-active proclivity to flit from distraction to distraction, from ipod to Facebook to ‘Survivor Man’ re-runs, sometimes in the course of a single class lecture. Evidently, particularly grating is the widespread use of, and citation of Wikipedia as a research ‘source’.

I thought the show was riveting with much interesting and probing commentary from guests and callers, which included a number of students phoning in their opinions. (I recommend listening to it if you’re inclined, and it can be found here: in the archives, when it’s posted.)

FYI, here is the letter I have written to Rex Murphy in response to the show:

Dear Rex, I listened to the show today that reflected the report showing declining skills and dispositions among first year college and university students. While I valued the wide-ranging commentary, I thought one important perspective was omitted. This is a perspective I have honed over my 20+ year career as an (award-winning and innovative) educator, and it is as follows: Our society, and governments in general, does a lousy job at communicating to young people clear beliefs and values about learning and education (which, by the way, are most certainly NOT the same thing).

For example, if you were to pose a simple survey to Canadians of all ages, and ask them to identify Don Cherry vs, say, Michael Ignatieff or Roberta Bondar, you and I know that Don Cherry would win hands down. This reflects cross-generational, cultural messaging that is very effectively transmitted and absorbed. Popular, sustained messages are that all sports and entertainment celebrities (and their hyper-inflated salaries) are more important than any other professional or trades-person, and that winning a lottery will surely free one of any need to toil or endure life’s vicissitudes; it can all be bought and paid for.

These sensibilities are not new but, for crying out loud, why can’t we as a society (and in this case led by government or university faculties) create an effective social messaging campaign focused on amplifying those ‘things’ in our society that we really, really value and wish to conserve. This would illuminate both the stories of people who have done remarkable things (always characterized by sacrifice and diligence IMO), and and sensibilities like integrity, flexibility, creativity and compassion.

I think younger generations would value such messaging and we would see its positive effects as these young people merge into adulthood and choose their differing paths, whether that be post-secondary learning or something else. Like nature, our laissez-faire society abhors a vacuum. If we don’t like what’s rushed in in the edu-tainment age, then we CAN do something about it besides whine.

– Sincerely, Michael Maser


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