A few days ago, on April 10, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt tabled the Canadian government’s long-awaited First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. Not all aboriginal leaders were happy with the proposed Bill C-33, though, despite Minister Valcourt’s insistence that it addresses the five conditions stipulated by the Assembly of First Nations and national chiefs. Manitoba Chief Derek Nepinak, for instance, called it “an attempt to create the illusion of First Nations control over education.” Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo is more optimistic, if cautiously so, saying that he sees “movement,” and encouraging all First Nations leaders to take the time to examine the bill and analyze it based on their five key principles.
I am in no position to judge whether the bill adequately addresses those principles (control, funding, language and culture, reciprocal accountability, and meaningful engagement). It may do so, and it may represent a step in the right direction, an improvement over the status quo. But even if it does, the idea of devolving control of education from the leaders of a large group (Canada, or Canada’s provinces) to the leaders of a smaller group (the Assembly of First Nations, or even individual First Nations) does not go far enough. What we really need is an Individual Control of Individual Education Act.
It’s certainly easy to understand why First Nations leaders in Canada, and many of the people they lead, want to control their own education. There is some disagreement over the precise extent of the suffering experienced by aboriginal children in this country’s notorious residential school system, but it is undeniable that some of them suffered a lot. It is also undeniable that attendance was compulsory, wrenching children away from their families against their wishes. While the residential schools are no longer, many scars remain.
But there is a deeper and logically prior issue than which leaders will control education: Do we need leaders to control education at all? Why can’t individuals have control over their own educations? Of course, in practice, for children not yet old enough to guide themselves, their parents would have to exert this control in their stead, relinquishing it gradually as their children become more and more capable of self-guided learning. But what is wrong with letting a thousand flowers bloom, and letting the best schools and educational systems rise to the top, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor?
One concern is that left to their own devices, not all parents would insist that an important common core of subject matter is learned by all. Language skills are incredibly important, as is basic numeracy and certain more advanced mathematical subjects like statistics. Some knowledge of science is surely also crucial in this modern world of ours, and those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, right? Who said that again?
This concern is misplaced for two reasons, however. First of all, who’s going to deny that reading, writing, and arithmetic are important? Who does not want their kids to have an understanding of the natural world, of technology, of history? And second of all, our current, top-down, one-size-fits-all systems do a terrible job of making sure everyone has a firm grasp of this basic core. I encounter examples every day of people who can’t write a grammatical sentence, who can’t spell, who can’t multiply, who have no grasp of statistics, who are just shy of thinking the sun revolves around the Earth, and who have no clue how arbitrary and fleeting international boundaries are. And our current system not only fails to transmit this core of knowledge; it actually kills the love of learning in far too many of its survivors.
Change Is Coming
A truly worthy piece of legislation would abolish government control of education altogether, do away with a centrally planned curriculum, and return the money expropriated to pay for public education to the taxpayers who earned it. At the very least, it could allow parents to opt out, and offer tax credits to those who do.
But although neither of these things seems likely to happen anytime soon, this does not mean that things are not going to change. They are already changing. They are changing not because of any government fiat, but because education is finally, belatedly benefiting from innovation that until recently was held at bay by sclerotic bureaucracy. With the advent of innovations like Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, and the Internet itself, the ground is shifting. As in any other industry, change is being spearheaded by private initiative and the setting up of parallel institutions that offer better services and products for lower prices, making these new alternatives worthwhile even if one doesn’t get any taxes back for not using public schools. The best thing governments could do—as with so much else—is simply get out of the way.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.