The recent release of the GPI Atlantic report, whichasked “How Educated are Nova Scotians?” reminded me of my favourite quotation from communications guru Marshall McLuhan. “School is the advertising agency,” McLuhan wrote, “which makes you believe you need the society as it is.” I learned the truth of McLuhan’s saying during a full year of teacher training and 15 as a journalism professor. I also learned, as the GPI report points out, that teaching and learning are complex, unpredictable and mysterious processes full of paradoxes. Good teachers, for example, often learn more from their students than their students learn from them. This is especially so in journalism education. As j-school students struggle to fit into the media world as it is, their best profs are learning why it’s so important not to fit in. Why not fitting in, in fact, is at the heart of good education and good journalism. The fancy name for it is “critical thinking,” which simply means practising the difficult art of questioning what’s around you. “We don’t know who discovered water,” McLuhan quipped, “but we know it wasn’t the fish.”
“Education is about a lot more than schooling,” said GPI executive director Ron Colman as he released his latest report on February 19th at the Dal Student Union Building. GPI stands for Genuine Progress Index, and for the last 12 years Colman and his team of researchers have been trying to identify and measure what contributes to our health and happiness. Colman is firmly against the conventional notion that economic growth alone is the best measure of progress. High rates of cancer for example, may generate fat profits for drug companies, hefty pay cheques for doctors and steady revenues for the funeral industry, but no one in her right mind would argue that cancer contributes to our social well being. Similarly, Colman argues that a school system that trains students to make a good living, rather than live a good life, would not contribute much to social progress either. The GPI report defines educated people as those who have the knowledge and skills to live healthy lives, hold decent jobs, participate as citizens in their communities and understand the need to protect the natural environment. In other words, Colman contends that education is more about acquiring wisdom than earning diplomas and degrees or scoring high marks on math and reading tests.
In this respect, GPI Atlantic is light years away from another local think tank, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, which champions standardized testing as a key measure of how well schools are performing. Colman points out that standardized tests are used in math, reading, writing and science. But why, he asks, are these subjects necessarily more important than art, history, music or social studies? Michael Corbett, a professor of education at Acadia who supports Colman’s work, argues that school rankings based on standardized test scores treat education as a form of industrial production. Assembly line teaching and learning, certified by standardized testing, is supposed to produce workers who can help Canadian companies compete globally. Thus, education’s main purpose is to contribute to a booming economy. Another example of the flawed idea that economic growth leads to social progress. Another illustration of McLuhan’s observation that schools are advertising agencies designed to make us believe we need the society as it is.
So, how educated are Nova Scotians? After three years of study, Ron Colman can’t really say. We’re so hung up on test scores, high school graduation rates and the number of people with degrees and diplomas, he suggests, that we’ve lost sight of how well our institutions are performing in helping us become wise---not just schools, but also our political, economic and religious institutions, our families and social networks as well as the media. How well are these institutions really doing in helping us master the difficult art of questioning the world around us?