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School CP - October 1996
Alberta Report, Edmonton, 21 October 1996
Do our new-found ideas on children maybe explain the fact we can't control them?
By Ted Byfield
The same scene was repeated hundreds of times: the parent or parents whose urgency of voice betrayed sheer desperation; their indolent son, 13 or 14, striving to affect boredom but exuding anxiety. His school work, it seemed, was steadily declining; three words -- "Could Do Better" -- appeared on every report card; he had become lazy, disobedient, mean to his siblings; every parental suggestion brought a sneer; he had acquired decidedly unsavoury associates. Could "St. John's" be the answer?
St. John's was a church boys' school near Winnipeg, named for the Anglican cathedral out of whose youth program it had emerged. I was one of a half-dozen lay people who had established it in 1962 in an abandoned Indian hospital. Everything about it was what could be called "traditional." Mathematics was taught from pre-Second World War textbooks which advanced from arithmetic to calculus, relentlessly testing progress with pass-or-fail rigour. English grammar was drawn from texts even more venerable, requiring detailed analysis of sentences with six or more subordinate clauses. History required hundreds of pages of reading from Thomas Costain to Francis Parkman. The school taught its own French course, developed from French-Canadian history and reinforced orally by various requirements. If you wanted to watch the hockey game, for instance, you had to do it on the French channel.
The outdoor program also echoed the past. Every winter, to make real the hypothetical values implicit in the academic curriculum, there were weekly snowshoe treks of 25 miles or so across the windswept, trackless prairie. Summer expeditions in big seven-man canoes traced the old routes of the fur trade, following its regimen: up at 4:30, break camp at 6:00; lunch stop at noon; make camp at 8:00; 50- or 60-pound packs on the portages; out three to four weeks; distances covered, anywhere up to 1,300 miles.
Most traditional of all was the discipline. Rules were enforced with a flat stick across the seat of the pants -- failure to complete an assignment, four swats; late for a work detail, three swats; caught smoking, six swats. Compared with what would follow over the next three decades, it was barbarous. Compared with what had gone before, over the previous two to three millennia of human history, it was unremarkable.
So they came, and you watched the change. Not always, but nearly always. First the shock. Rules were rules; assignments were assignments; chores were chores. You could have your opinions, but no one was interested in them. Realization rapidly dawned that here was reality, and it wasn't so bad. You might fail, but could try again. You could work without shame. You could trust the guy beside you as never before. Soon the eyes would clear. The head would lift. The boy, by realizing himself to be a boy, had begun the process of becoming a man.
They came and they left -- some after a year, some after two, some after three or four. Did it work? By the changes we saw, we were persuaded it did. And when they returned as men, they almost always reassured us that St. John's was the best thing that ever happened to them. Without it, goodness knows where they would have wound up. But how much of this, you had to wonder, was true, and how much simply generosity?
Probably the only detailed study was provided by, of all people, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. About seven years ago the CBC at Winnipeg, understandably suspicious that here might be yet another church residential school scandal, exhaustively interviewed about 60 St. John's alumni for evidence of "sexual abuse." They failed to discover a single instance of it.
They found instead that all but one of the interviewees supported the school program with varying degrees of enthusiasm, many extravagantly. So the CBC had a story: "Victims" of "barbarous" school overwhelmingly endorse and recommend it. But this was not the story they wanted -- it backed the wrong case. If the CBC were operated by journalists, of course, they would have run it anyway. Since our government network is in fact operated by propagandists, however, they put a different spin on it. By judicious editing they produced a supposed "controversy." The sole critic was juxtaposed against the myriad of defenders, so that a 59-1 verdict was made to appear closer to 30-30. Exhibitions like this have endeared the CBC to a whole generation of Canadians -- which is why they now quietly cheer as the government cuts it to pieces.*
What brought all this to mind last week were two news stories. The Canadian Pediatric Association declared that most parents no longer spank their children, and proceeded to officially condemn the practice. And the Economist disclosed that across the western world boys have slipped behind girls at every educational level, that female students now outnumber males in university, and that there is gathering around us an increasing mass of unemployable young men, psychologically alienated from the social order. To this may be added the rapid rise in juvenile crime, almost all of which is committed by males.
What we did not learn, naturally, is to what degree the first of the above disclosures accounts for the others. Is our new "non-violent" attitude towards children producing a population of increasingly undisciplined and unsocialized males?
How many marriages fail because one parent or the other, having followed all the directives of the experts, discovers that he or she simply can't stand living with the children?
One would expect that as our society rejected "violence" as a means of discipline -- on the basis of the unsubstantiated dogma that "violence creates violence" -- we would find ourselves, as we had been assured, living in a world in which males became increasingly serene, unaggressive, cooperative, and ready to assume all social responsibilities and civilities.
Instead we discover ourselves in precisely the opposite condition, where more and more young males opt out of the system, refuse to work in school, becoming uncontrollably aggressive and far more violent than anything we have hitherto encountered. The obvious conclusion -- that what we've been doing just doesn't work -- is never reached, however, because the question is never allowed to arise.
But we should recognize what's happening. The educator who eliminated "coercion" from the schools was not warring with the previous generation, but with all previous generations. Neither was the criminologist who eliminated retribution, prevention and deterrence as factors in a criminal sentence warring with his immediate predecessors. He was warring all his predecessors back to the time the first man was arrested for the first crime. And the expert who warns the parent against "spanking," of course, does not challenge the grandparent. He challenges all parents back to the beginning of man.
What we're watching, in other words, is a generation standing before all prior generations and declaring: "We know better than you do." The arrogance is monumental. So too may be the consequences.
* Three St. John's schools were established in those years. St. John's in Manitoba closed after 25 years' operation; a similar school begun in the late '70s in Ontario survived a multiple drowning accident, but later closed through lack of staff. St. John's School of Alberta continues to prosper near Warburg, its program evolved out of the original Manitoba endeavour, its senior staff graduates of that Manitoba experience.
Copyright (c) 1996 United Western Communications Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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