Bewildering Stories

Good Questions

by Don Webb

You bring up a couple of good questions, Jerry. I don’t have easy answers, but I can offer a way of looking at the questions.


Is there a difference in education between the States and Canada? There is, to the extent that the two countries have discernible cultural differences. And of course they do, even though the U.S. administration’s position at UNESCO firmly opposes special consideration for national cultures.

What about primary and secondary education? My impression is that Canada has more uniformity of quality than the States. You’re less likely to find great disparities of funding between school districts in Canada.

Why should that be? Well, it may depend on your definition of “community.” In the States, if you live in a well-off neighbourhood, you can normally afford good schools. If you don’t, you can’t. Of course, you can always move, provided you can find something you can afford to buy or rent near the school of your choice.

Would vouchers make a difference? I don’t see how. Private schools would treat them as profit, which is only logical economics. And in California, at least, pupils can already attend any school within the district where they live.

Canada’s focus is much broader: it’s more in terms of individual provinces. And those provinces are huge in area: for example, Quebec is larger than Alaska, and Ontario is as large as western Europe. Does that make Canadian elementary and secondary-school students brighter than Americans? No, but it does give them a head start on those “south of the border.”

What about higher education? Do Canadian universities compare to those in the States? Well, sort of; but for a long time now, American universities have been the best-funded in the world. Whose can compare in number and size?

And the U.S. has always been committed to a democratic view of general education: if you can earn a university degree, then you deserve a chance to do so. Canada is much more slowly coming to terms with the realisation that its citizens expect the same, and it has become a sleeper political issue here.

Which is ironic, since the States have been shifting politically and culturally in the opposite direction since the 1980’s. Many people may not foresee the consequences, but they could afford an education in the 1950’s through the 1980’s that — all things being equal — their children and grandchildren cannot. How long before those who want vouchers for elementary schools begin to demand them for universities, as well?

In the end, do I see better-prepared students at the University of Guelph than I did at California State University, Sacramento? Of course. But I get the crème de la crème at Guelph. Students whose marks are in the 80’s rather than 90’s could also do well here, but there’s only so much room. Sacramento’s students came from the middle and lower-middle class. They could afford to come, even though three-fourths of them had to work part time.

All in all, both countries seem to be approaching the question of access to higher education from opposite directions. Canada has traditionally viewed universities as educating graduates for the professions. Now the questions are: Is that all there is to it? And: how can the students afford it? The U.S. has traditionally viewed universities as educating good citizens. Now the questions are: Is that a good idea, and can we afford it?


The second question ties in with the first, but I’ll leave it to you to make the connection: Is the Internet a gigantic “slush pile,” to pick up on Terry Pratchett’s idea?

Well, yes, it is. My response is: Is that good or bad? Look at it from the American viewpoint: cost. The Internet is remarkably inexpensive. In that way it’s a kind of Gutenberg revolution in literacy. Look at it from the Canadian viewpoint: quality. You’re not in a jewelry store any more; you’re in a diamond mine, where gems may be few and far between amid all the rubble... and among all the other gems.

The trade-offs were summarized long ago by the French Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny: “Equality is less pretty but more fair than inequality.” Which I would adapt in response to Terry Pratchett by asking a political and cultural question: Who do you want to make your choices for you?

I think Terry Pratchett’s outlook is quite humane: he wishes the rubble were diamonds. Alas, it is not. And I think he’d agree that we’ll all have to do as he did: pick our way through the rocks and discover — or create — our own gems.

Copyright © 2003 by Don Webb

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