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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future

Institutions

KATHLEEN GOW,
Sociologist, Educator, Author

Until fairly recently, most Canadians have believed in the inevitability of progress in this country.

This belief was based on the assumption that a combination of high tech electronics and scientific management would accomplish the triumph of objective, critical intelligence over ignorance; sophistication over simplicity; human beings over nature, and abundance over scarcity. Much of the confidence in this assumption centres in the computer and its' revolutionary capabilities.

Less heeded are warnings that our ability to think creatively about our world may be undermined by the very information that is supposed to help us understand it. For instance, minute by minute, eye-witnessing of the Gulf War computer strikes, and the subsequent non-victory of this war, has given a sharper focus to the warnings about man and machine.

Our institutions have recognized the increase in crime, substance abuse and the numbers of disenfranchised, but overall we have assumed and counted on the fact that this could be handled by the appropriate organizations employing the appropriate experts. This has given rise to an ever expanding class of professionals.

But, there is a restless nagging, a sense that our primary social institutions — family, education, law, religion, media and government may not be holding.

They are, after all, a reflection of a society's consensus about their norms, their goals, their values, and to the extent that society's norms and values are unclear and dissociated from each other — and from implementation in practice — day to day living in this society becomes idiosyncratic and fragmented.

Let's examine the state of some of these institutions.

Our education system is often called upon to be a surrogate parent.

The statistics on functional illiteracy among second and third generation Canadians cause business to despair of our ability to compete in the global market.

We have one of the best health care systems in the world, but it is showing every sign of running out of money. Patients are discharged from hospital without community supports in place. Patients complain that they are treated as machines, and in disenchantment are turning, if they can afford it, to alternative forms of medicine outside the mainstream.

Economically there is an increasing pull to move south of the border.

Our political structures and the very future of our country is at stake.

Loss of institutional control over the backup in our courts is such that hundreds of serious cases were dismissed before coming to trial.

The family, often a one parent family, juggles burdens which are almost overwhelming at times. Our service organizations cannot provide adequate care of facilities to abused children, women, elderly, the homeless.

In fact, many agencies tell us that they are operating in a perpetual crisis management mode.

Clearly, there is a lack of consensus about directions and values across our social institutions and this is reflected in frustration — often anger and despondency — on the part of individuals and groups which, in turn, feeds back into the institutions.

Well, where does that leave us in relation to our statement about disassociated values and delivery in practice; that is values that we talk about and values that are actually lived out?

Some people paint the scenario that truth in our social institutions has a bad name, as it has so often been used as the rhetoric to the mask the half true or the untrue. What does it mean to give one's word anyway? To give one's bond?

It is said that virtue doesn't work. It is not realistic, it is not rewarded in our society and, after all, one has to survive. So we compromise.

I am painting a rather negative picture, but at least it gives us something to bounce back and forth on.

Given this scenario, what's the result of the inconsistency between what we say and what we do?

Let's take an illustration from education and the teaching of values to children.

The Moral Values Education Movement started in the late 60s and is still going strong in the elementary and secondary schools to teach about values.

This approach is rooted in the belief that to teach such moral principles as honesty, justice, compassion, is to deal in indoctrination and totalitarianism. Each child, the movement believes, should be free to choose and create his or her own moral values; we are talking about justice, honesty, cheating, lying, stealing.

Whatever you choose will be right for you because you chose it.

This approach dogmatically asserts that the teacher should avoid giving values or evaluating, must exclude all hints of good or right or acceptable or their opposites. It is a wide open system, choose your own moral values, self serve moral cafeteria.

They say that, if having gone through their seven steps to clarify his or her values, a child decides that he values intolerance, we respect his right to decide upon that value."

This approach is not just a passing whim. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education found in 1978 this values clarifications approach was by 10 times the most popular.

Contrast this The Ontario Education Act and Acts across Canada with very similar wording, which stipulate that the teacher will, by precept and example support, the highest regard for truth, justice, benevolence, etc.

One has to ask: Can an educational theory produce an intolerant, dishonest person, then merely say that the choice of dishonesty, or intolerance, is a legitimate expression of individual preference?

Theft and intolerance and other moral issues must, of course, be faced and examined realistically with children. There is a difference between totalitarianism and rank moral vacuum.

However, almost without exception everyone of the Ministries across Canada bought and endorses this approach, even though it contravenes the Education Acts which support the teaching of honesty, justice, compassion and so forth.

This approach appears to have become popular because it would have a neutral stance; that it would offend no one, and would be construed as therefore consistent with our pluralistic society.

The approach produces the illusion of freedom for the child, but workers in training schools and other re-educative institutions comment that they are seeing an increasing number of children who have no sense of right or wrong regarding date rape, gang rape, even murder. There is no guilt, there is no conscience, no basic principles.

There are spokes for the wheel, but there is no other rim to contain them and no centre or hub of meaning.

History tells of many civilizations that opted for the attitude of what is good is what is good is good for me and what is good for you. History also reveals that civilizations which have tried to sustain themselves by moral relativism or individual utilitarianism have simply not survived.

This isn't a matter of conjecture, it is simply historic fact.

In many ways, we are an anti-historical society or ahistorical, We don't want to look at history and we have a particularly jaundiced view of anything that is traditional in education certainly, and in some of the other institutions. If we can label a value as traditional, we will almost automatically ensure its demise; to be modern is not to be traditional.

The prescription that a pluralistic society has no choice but to deliver moral relativism, is yet another false association of ends and means, of fact and value.

There is a middle ground between totalitarianism and moral vacuum and, surely, pitting the modern against the traditional is simply a manipulation of words.

Let me offer another illustration.

There is some concern being expressed about the Politically Correct Movement, which would dictate as you know, would dictate there is a right way to think, to feel, to act.

Time recently reported that in California it is required — by law — that textbooks not just exclude "adverse reflection of any group....in texts on history or current events or achievements in art, science or any other fields, the contributions of women and men should be represented in approximately equal numbers."

A respected female historian says she is, "beginning to think that in the future it will become impossible to write a history textbook and satisfy these kinds of demands. After all, how do you right a history of the Bill of Rights giving equal time to the contribution of women?"

I am not antifeminist, but do we want to manipulate history often for our own ends?

The critics of this movement say that many of these groups believe that male dominated Western civilization is the source of almost every evil in society, from violence against women to environmental pollution.

There are certainly some positive to this movement, but, I am zeroing in on their answer to the belief that male-dominated Western civilization is the source of almost every evil in society.

Their answer is to withdraw great books, including those by Plato, Aristotle, all the way up to Kant. The movement would simply lift those out of all University curriculums, and supplant them with women's studies, studies of racial minorities and so forth.

Why should it be either or?

It seems a particularly unfortunate dissociation of means and ends.

One of the tools that the new reformers in the movement use to attack, again traditional culture, is a technique known as deconstructionism, which holds that there are no truths, only rival interpretations.

This raises the question of whether our social institutions are supporting or can afford to support what is basically a moral vacuum type model.

What do we do about all of this?

If this is a realistic picture of what's going on in our social institutions, it's no wonder individuals and institutions devote so much time to developing this skill and the insight that it requires. It is exceedingly easy to direct our problem solving activities only to the visible manifestation of the problem, rather than tracking the root from which it springs.

The visible problem is the material problem, the invisible root, one would argue is the spiritual.

It is encouraging, therefore, that in the midst of all the mis-connection and disassociation and polarizing of scenarios that we have just talked about, that there is a growing recognition of the spiritual as a reality in our world.

A few years ago this wasn't considered even acceptable to speak about. Now there is an acceptance that our search for meaning is deep within each one of us that we don't grow out of it and that it is not childish or immature, much less traditional.

Real engagement with the integration of mind, body and spirit is not for cowards.

It requires digging and perseverance and, most of all a willingness to lay aside our own personal agendas of pride and power and control. It entails willingness to penetrate the truth, rather than to speculate on our own terms as we define them or to be defined or misinterpreted by our children, our parents, our friends.

We may be angry with the way that the so-called truth is, and has been, articulated or mis- articulated by many of our social institutions.

But, if we look inside perhaps we will see a parallel with the pain that we have suffered in various relationships. It is all there, reflected from individuals and groups, back to the social institutions that feed it back to us.

When Bob Dylan received the lifetime Grammy award, he offered this thought: "My Papa told me, `son it is possible to become so defiled that even your mother and father will abandon you, but God will never stop believing in your ability to mend your own ways'."

That is a lot of love. All it takes from us is the humility to receive it and the trust that we will never be left alone.