I was attending on behalf of my friend Chris DiCarlo who had to be out of town. He (and I) are promoting the concept of critical thinking; specifically, the idea that it needs to be explicitly taught in a high school philosophy course.
The Minister of Education (Liz Sandals) and several of the senior members of her ministry were there. They told us that today's students are facing unprecedented changes and that the Ontario education system has to change in order to cope. They were mostly thinking about technological change and the possibility that today's students would have new types of jobs and careers.
I'm certain that we can improve our education system but I'm not sure it's helpful, or even correct, to focus on the idea that the next generation will have to cope with situations we never faced in the past. If we could show that our existing education system did a pretty good job of preparing students for change then maybe we should turn our attention to problems other than job training and technological innovation?
That generation coped with enormous economic and social change of the sort that none of us can imagine. One of my grandfathers was born into a family of serfs in Russia and ended up working as a steam engineer in a hospital in a Saskatchewan city. Rapid urbanization and technological change meant that millions of school children in Canada were born on farms but grew up to become car salesmen, telephone repairmen, insurance brokers, teachers, hospital nurses, department store sales clerks, secretaries, and lawyers. Some of these jobs didn't exist when they were born and most were not ever available to their parents.
Some of the men of that generation didn't get jobs like that. They died in trenches in Europe.
Then came World War II and the holocaust. If you think it's tough for children graduating today then imagine what it was like in 1910 or 1938.
My generation is the Baby Boomers. We went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. We grew up with technological innovations like television, air conditioners, computers, the birth control pill, transistor radios. cassette players, space flight. It was the time for rock-and-roll, Viet Nam, assassinations, and the conquest of smallpox and polio. The social changes included the civil rights movement in the USA, drugs, the peace movement, sexual freedom, the rise of feminism and McDonald's.
Their public school and high school education was perfectly fine for getting them into university and preparing them for all kinds of news jobs.
My grandchildren will be going to school in the 2010s and 2020s. I don't know what kind of change they will face but I don't see any reason to think that it's going to be any greater than the changes faced by me, my grandparents or my children. I'm pretty sure that we will see further decline in religion and the dismantling of the Roman Catholic Separate School Board in Ontario but, surprisingly, that's not the kind of change that was discussed at yesterday's meeting.
Some people talked about the high unemployment rate of today's high school graduates. They need to think about the 1930s if they want examples of what unemployment really means. Besides, there's nothing we can do to high school education that will fix that problem. But, if we try, there's lots we can do that will wreck the system for future generations.
A good "traditional" education with an emphasis on basic knowledge and critical thinking is probably the best way to prepare students for an uncertain future. It worked in the past—that's why we've seen so much change driven by those who graduated from those schools. If the world really is going to be different for the next generation then we should recognize that the change was brought about by the previous generations2 and we should be proud of the fact they received a good education.
1. Conservative Premier of Ontario in the 1990s. He tried to destroy the Ontario education system and very nearly succeeded.
2. In spite of what they might think, the internet and Facebook were not created last year by 14-year-olds. It was their parents who did it. Today's high school students are users, not innovators.