A lot of persuasion is needed to make the case for community engagement by students as the best way to enhance future citizenship. For many reasons, it’s a very hard sell:
- most parents are comfortable with the status quo;
- school officials and their lawyers worry a lot about safety and security issues;
- unionized teachers are opposed to para-professionals and “ordinary” citizens engaged in any teaching role;
- the central education authorities in the provinces and territories insist on full control of the curriculum as the condition for grant support of school boards;
- businesses, community agencies, and citizens are often uninterested in having kids around to complicate their busy lives;
- school graduates can learn what they need to know about citizenship from the school of “hard knocks ” after they graduate.
These arguments for keeping students wrapped in the schoolhouse cocoon until age 18 are not persuasive. Let’s concede that most children younger than age 15, with exceptions, are not ready for organized community learning. For that large segment of students at or after Grade 10, the case for planned learning experiences outside the school is overwhelming:
- the burgeoning of private schools in Canada (more than 3,000) attests to the dissatisfaction of many parents with the character development of their children in the public school milieu;
- private school education tends to exacerbate the inequality of social classes in our multicultural country;
- democracy is a tender reed best served by excellent, inclusive public education;
- many publicly-supported-school students and their parents deplore education by numbers; (e.g., the overwhelming value placed on marks, the unseemly scramble for higher marks, standardized test results, percentages of diplomas granted, admissions to post-secondary education). None of these numbers is inherently bad. They simply over-emphasize numerical records that have very little if anything to do with readiness for democratic citizenship which should be first and foremost a matter of character development. School sports can be helpful but cannot be a substitute for broad community involvement;
- students on the cusp of adulthood are able to contribute substantially to the improvement of health services, the mentoring of younger children, the sprightliness of life in private homes where domestic skills can be passed on, where the idea of service in the company of adults can become ingrained.
As I see it, reform of public education is overdue but not likely to be achieved by the interested parties now in charge. How then to do it?