Many people tell me that we really shouldn’t be sending our kids back to school. I have a lot of educators and health care types in my family and they warn darkly that the virus is bound to come roaring back this fall and force a second lockdown. I suppose this could very well happen. But all of the hand-wringing makes me suspicious, the same way the seven-year-old does when he hears the school bus rumbling down the sideroad and develops a tummy ache. The answer we give to the seven-year-old will probably serve just as well for the public health advocates: “Don’t worry, dear. I think you’ll be fine.”
After all, has anybody ever really wanted to go back to school?
We all face September with that old sinking feeling that the days are getting shorter, cooler, darker and filling up with stuff we would rather not have to do. It’s been a half century now since I graduated high school and yet I always feel a wave of relief driving by that building in September knowing I don’t have to go back.
My mother was a teaching consultant who always spoke as if she were at the front of the class and expected everyone to be taking notes. “The British have had public education for 150 years,” she said. “And it has had no noticeable effect on the population.” She thought the quest for higher education for many children was misplaced. “Give them books for a couple of years and, if it takes, by all means let them go on. If it doesn’t, send them out to work.”
Not surprisingly, a school system determined to leave no child behind became impatient with Mother and eventually showed her the door. Our educators meant well but two generations of the kind of thinking that gave us ‘whole language’ has debased the value of a degree so badly that we all now harbour persistent doubts about the benefits of higher learning. I don’t think I know a bartender who doesn’t have a master’s degree in something or other. My two older children who are still paying down university loans recently returned to on-line courses to get real-world certificates. Their two younger siblings dodged the debt trap and crappy apartments altogether in favour of straight-to-work experience and on-the-job training.
The original purpose of education was to pass on the cultural heritage from one generation to the next. The word itself comes from the Latin educo, ‘to lead out of darkness,’ but the concept goes back a lot further than that, past Confucius and Socrates to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt in 2,000 BCE. In the last fifty years in North America, the mantra has changed from educo to something mushier like “let’s just keep them out of the work force as long as we can.” High school students can still get a perfectly acceptable smattering of their heritage today, but they have to want it and be prepared to do all of the work themselves as if they were already in a university. In my own experience as a guest lecturer in various schools, only a fraction of the class fits this description. The rest are on their iPhones wishing they were somewhere else.
A public school has become a terrible place to start any discussion about risk. Our tolerance for risk has dropped to near zero in my lifetime thanks in large part to educators and young parents. Somewhere along the way we decided that if something bad happens to us it must be someone’s fault and that person or company should be made to pay through the nose for it. Cribs, playpens, toys, clothes all became subject to rigid rules. School boards systematically chopped down trees and ripped out playground equipment until kids had nothing but bare asphalt to play on. Punishing liability settlements reinforced and accelerated the thinking until it spread all through the culture. My son just brought home a new chainsaw with a manual that cautions him not to try to stop the chain with his hands.
There is probably a phrase in Middle Kingdom Egyptian that translates “I think you will be fine, dear.” We need to re-discover it and paste it on the fridge. Statistically a young person is actually more likely to die in a farm accident than die of Covid. So we need to remember that and take reasonable care. Life must go on.
So, suck it up buttercup and hop on the bus. Chances are you will survive and still have to hand in that essay.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca