Thursday, May 23, 2013

A rejected Op Ed

The Canadian Senate is a cozy Valhalla for political warriors who have fought sometimes brave and often dirty battles on behalf of their parties. It’s no surprise then that some of these Machiavellian types feel they are entitled to every privilege our paltry tax dollars can provide them. They view their prestigious positions as an opportunity not only to enrich the nation with their worldly wisdom, but also to enrich themselves via some poorly enforced entitlements.

Many ordinary Canadians are fed up with the wasteful vanities of these unelected gluttons. Unfortunately, constitutionally speaking, our hands are tied. The senate cannot be disbanded without a great deal of political will on the part of all the provinces and the federal government. But as nasty as some senate scandals get, few are worth the decade or so of wrangling and back room deal making it would take to amend the constitution and shutter the upper house permanently.

Stephen Harper’s government has been floating the idea of an elected senate. But the unequal geographical distribution of seats, combined with the fact that an elected senate would be expected to be more than just a jolly-old rubberstamping club, makes this option seem as untenable as the first.

The problem with Canada’s senate is not that it does next to nothing. The problem is not that the upper house is filled with unelected partisans who have served their party faithfully. The problem is that Canada’s senate is an extraordinarily wasteful institution that offers modest returns in exchange for massive perks and salaries paid to its members. Therefore, the solution is simply to purge its budget and strip away many of the entitlements today’s senators enjoy.

Currently, the media is focused on the inappropriate claims of housing expenses made by several disgraced Conservative senators. Such controversies could be avoided entirely with a bit of creative thinking. For example, if the government built or bought a modest hotel in Ottawa, and converted it for use by non-resident senators attending Parliament, they could avoid paying out housing costs altogether. When Parliament was not in session the rooms could be let to tourists, foreign dignitaries and the like. Senators who did not fancy this style of living need not accept their appointments.

The pay of senators has always been a sticking point. But since senators are supposed to be serving the greater good, and since they are appointed, not elected, it seems as though there need not be a great incentive in terms of salary.

Suppose a senator’s annual salary were based on income testing, sort of like a senior’s Old Age Security payments. If a senator is independently wealthy, and/or has a healthy MP’s pension, then he or she gets a fancy title and a lovely hotel room and perhaps the occasional invite to a parliamentary luncheon.

If they are a member of the working class, unlikely as that seems, then by all means pay them appropriately for the time they spend in Ottawa. It would be worth it just to see a tradesman, teacher or unemployed Poli. Sci. grad sitting in the upper chamber.

The mantra of conservative governments from time immemorial has been to eliminate in government deficits and reign in wasteful spending. The current focus on senate corruption will eventually spin itself out, but the opportunity for the Harper Government to do something useful, and not altogether wishful, about senate reform exists. Slashing the senate’s budget would not by itself solve the federal government’s financial woes, but it would prove to be massively popular with Canadians. Maybe not enough to win another majority, but you just never know.

Ryan Kinrade, a Victoria writer, would gladly serve on the Canadian Senate for a deeply discounted annual salary.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Moralizing is not a solution

This is an unpublished letter to the editor sent to the Winnipeg Free Press.

I was disappointed to read that Stephen Fletcher indicated housing projects for homeless people should be dry because “a majority of Canadians would agree that homeless people should be clean before they're given somewhere to live" (Booze battle over Bell Hotel, Apr. 23).

Whether or not public opinion is as Mr. Fletcher contends, it clear from his statement the federal government is morally opposed to allowing homeless drunks to live off the public dime.

I have a problem with this because real evidence suggests that giving addicts a home can, in many cases, help them turn their lives around. The ancient practice of moralizing, on the other hand, has never done anything but fill the streets with more despair. I realize that there is a very sizable segment of sanctimonious people out there who don’t care a whit for the drunks that populate Winnipeg’s downtown, but it saddens me to know that a federal representative would endorse their ill-founded righteousness so publically while committing funds to this initiative.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Raw Milk is not Poison

This Letter was Published in the Victoria Times-Colonist print edition, but for some reason did not make it onto their website.

Minister Chong’s response to a recent editorial about over-regulation of food production refers to a “widely recognized” threat of illness and disease represented by raw milk, using the image of children dying as a defense.

What she does not bother to address in her haste to arouse fear is the reason why people would choose this “dangerous” product over the widely available pasteurized variety. People choose raw milk because it has not been subjected to the negative effects of making milk “safe”. The process of pasteurization kills the good bacteria along with the bad, making milk a far less healthy product than it has the potential to be.

Similarly, governments that issue blanket edicts about what is safe to consume based on the opinion of a few “experts” remove choice from the market and demonize wholesome, centuries-old ways of living for the sake of political expedience.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Grading Schools

This is an unpublished letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

It may be that the provincial government is pandering to the Manitoba Teacher’s Society and protecting schools from public scrutiny, as your editorial “Schools need to be graded” states. Yet in your vehement rush to condemn you fail to acknowledge that the kind of accountability that can be measured in standardized testing only validates a fraction of what public education is and is meant to be.

Publishing scores focuses the public attention on a school's ability to teach concrete facts and figures—the reasoning, critical-thinking and deeper understanding we expect of students is harder to test. On the important but impossible to test end of the spectrum we have things like: the spirit and dedication (or lack thereof) of the school’s staff, the capacity to transmit and inspire genuine feeling and the ability to help students develop a positive sense of community and self.

Public discourse tends to devolve into a shallow dialogue about academic achievement when accountability is raised in the media because that is the only thing we can reliably measure. However, a good education is not just about the A, B and C’s.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cancelling the weekly flyer stuffed weekly

Dear Victoria News, Please stop delivering your paper to 558 Sumas Street (all suites). The obscene amount of print advertising you include with your weekly may be beneficial to your bottom line (and indeed your very lifeblood) but we find it offensive. We do not want to contribute to environmental degradation just so you can get paid. The amount of paper and ink you waste on flyers we have absolutely no interest in is astonishing. I am very sorry that new technologies are killing your industry and I know you are doing what ever you can to survive, but creating more useless waste is an ultimately futile practice. It is absolutely bad business to deliver these products en masse, any benefit you are delivering to the community in the production of your news must be weighed against the amount of waste you are generating. Think about it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reading Response to Harold Entwistle's: The Relationship Between Educational Theory and Practice

(I've been too busy to blog for quite a while, so here's my first philosophy paper. Plenty o' reading here ladies and gentlemen, though perhaps not as entertaining as some of the other stuff.)


In this essay Entwistle attempts to come to an understanding of how educational theory informs practice. As a former practitioner Enwistle is well aware of the reticence many educators feel to applying academic theory, in his own time teaching he shared this opinion. Now, as a theorist, Entwistle has a different perspective. Here he sets out to devise a compromise between the two concepts he once found to be completely incongruent. His argument centres around the position that whereas practitioners misunderstand the application of theory and theorists often abet this misunderstanding through obtuseness and idealism there is value in a theoretical view of education, if only it can be properly construed.

Entwistle begins with his personal connection to the subject. He has been on both sides of the argument, and after significant reflection about the contradictions he has come to believe that an elemental difficulty in the debate is that the problem is often framed incorrectly. He agrees with practitioners’ claims that theorists ivory-tower outlook is often lacking in the specific details that apply to daily life in the “real world,” but then suggests that practitioners also are at fault for expecting too much of theory.

Entwistle's first task is to delineate the misconceptions that exist on both sides. He starts with the assumptions of theorists. Theory, he contends, often idealizes the classrooms and learners that teachers know to be far from flawless. He raises the example of the “perfect learner” a curious, innocent and highly motivated student with a thirst for knowledge and an enthusiasm for learning. Some theoretical concepts use this model of students despite its distance from the reality most teachers know. To the contrary, he explains, man's distaste for organized learning is as old as organized learning itself. The utopian view of education is a “moral fiction” and is not at all reflective of the public school system where most practitioners toil.

He then explores the theorists' propensity for treating learners as individuals, for focusing on the needs of the single student when a teacher's job revolves around engaging and managing groups of students. Further, he identifies socialization as one of the fundamental goals of schooling; why else, he argues, would people who have the resources to educate their children individually choose to expose them to institutional learning. Although a focus on individual learning is logical and in many senses highly desirable, the exclusion of the social context can be seen as a fault of theory.

The third point he makes about theory's removal from the realities of practice is its failure to address the complexities of the systems of schooling. Theorists, he claims, tend to view teachers as independent actors when the truth is that they are beholden to many outside influences. Theorists seldom account for the impact of economic, legal and social restraints on education in their treatises. Entwistle provides the example of a teacher who must prepare students for testing. In some kinds of testing rote learning is the most effective strategy although it is known to be a dubious practice with little long-term value. The measurable goals that external overseers have for schooling can be very different from what theorists and practitioners envision as the aims of education.

Entwistle then turns his attention to the misconceptions of practitioners. The first point he makes here is that practitioners must realize that theorists are often aware of the problems of public education, even if their work does not always indicate such a sensitivity. A theorist does not claim to speak to individual cases but to generalities, and the practitioner must adapt theories to his or her circumstance. A successful merger of theory and practice can only take place when there is compromise. Even the most well developed and logical theories, according to Entwistle, must be applied with discrimination. Wholesale adoption of theory is bound to create problems because theory by its very nature is unable to predict the highly individual nature of classrooms and learners. A theory needs to be applied with creativity, reflection and a willingness to adapt. Theories are not designed to be magic cure-alls, but are prescriptions that must be weighed carefully prior to being administered. The critical thought of practitioners is key in the application of theoretical concepts.

Entwistle proposes that teachers must develop a wilful praxis of reflection on the value of theory in practice. They must enter into the realm of theory without viewing it as idealism or dogma, but rather as an essential tool in their ability to grow and adapt to new challenges as practitioners. The wisdom offered by theory can help practitioners to see a larger dimension to their profession than pure reliance on experience and one’s own beliefs. He cites the example of an Alberta teacher who may have been competent as an educator but made the fatal mistake of teaching hateful subject matter to students to give an extreme example of how an unreflective practitioner can get his role horribly wrong.

Entwistle agrees with Peters' assessment that Liberal Education is not a destination but an opportunity to see the world in a different way. Educated people are not just men and women with a set of practical skills and knowledge but individuals with the ability to enrich their lives through reflection. In this sense theory is not a practical mechanism for achieving specific ends, but a tool to allow practitioners to make finer distinctions, analyze situations critically, understand moral implications and adapt to evolving ideas within their worlds.

He ends his treatise by mentioning some of the ideas of Schön. Schön says that teachers think in terms of individual situations and learners, therefore their strategies are crafted to serve individual needs. Further, Schön argues, teacher’s reflections will always be in conflict with the aims of bureaucracy and will conclude that practice is not compatible with public education. Given these objections one can give up entirely on reflection or settle for compromise, wherein teachers adapt thinking to suit the situation at hand.


It is apparent from the language, as well as the content, that this essay is written for teacher candidates or novice practitioners. Entwistle aims to enlighten the reader as to the value of theory because as a teacher turned academic he sees the importance of reflection and wisdom in the profession. He is attempting to speak to this mostly young and sceptical crowd his essay and succeeds in making it accessible to readers without a background in Educational Philosophy. Because Entwistle assumes limited knowledge of the debate on the part of the reader he takes pains to describe the most salient points of contention, especially as they apply to the novice practitioner’s opinions of theory.

One of the most elucidating comparisons that Entwistle makes in this essay is the correlation he sees between the relationship of teacher to scholar, and that of student to teacher. His point is that a lot of what we learn in classrooms can seem esoteric or useless to us, despite the fact that it seems valuable enough to the professor/teacher to impart. Although he is speaking in terms of school teachers who become Education professors it is possible to see his point from the public school student/teacher perspective. This creates a very interesting juxtaposition because it shows the practitioner―who constantly hears complaints from his students about how his lessons have no practical application―that his objections to theory are quite possibly as mistaken as his students' are about the value of his teaching. This assessment instantly gives the reticent teacher grounds to reassess his stance on theory because in it he must acknowledge his own bias, while recognizing that he may be unaware of the value of what he rejects.

Entwistle’s candid discussion on the faults of theory also gives the reader food for thought. As Simpson mentions in his essay The Relationship of Educational Theory, Practice and Research Entwistle’s willingness to dismiss bad theory invites the practitioner to view theory with a critical eye. He advocates for a measured and mature response to theory, placing the onus on teachers to become reflective rather than reactive. As Simpson relates, just as some practice is bad, so is some theory. One does not cease to practice because his methods are ineffective, rather one reevaluates, and this is precisely the time when a bit of theory becomes a valuable asset.

An important and perhaps overlooked aspect to theory that Entwistle entreats practitioners to consider is to what extent it can ever be personalized. Teachers, he says, are apt to dismiss theory that does not pertain to their particular circumstance, complaining that it is too general or dismissive of the context that they may find themselves in. However theory can never hope to specify a method for every particular educational setting, because if it were to do so its application would be extremely limited. For this reason it is not the job of theory to predict every contingency, rather it is the work of the practitioner to ask questions when things go wrong and then to seek guidance from theory. This is a very sensible approach, especially if one considers how a person with problems might address them in other professions. For example, if a responsible physician has a patient who is not responding to a particular medication he does not continue to prescribe it, he seeks other remedies to the problem. If the advice of his colleagues bears no fruit he delves deeper into medical literature and continues to ask questions. He may, if all else fails, try an experimental procedure, but he will only do so after having applied his judgement to the situation and taken the patient's medical history into consideration. Similarly, a teacher must be willing to stop using methods that are ineffective and be open to exploring other approaches. A foundation in theory allows the teacher to seek new remedies, whereas a wholesale dismissal of it yields nothing.

Entwistle does not do a very good job of selling this point however. The examples he uses are not particularly useful, and he seems to lose the focus of his argument somewhat. The elementary teacher his friend observed seemed to be preoccupied with everyday things rather than big-picture theories on education, but one can hardly blame her. For one thing the observer is explaining what the teacher is like during school hours a time when she is in the midst of trying to manage the very things Entwistle chides theorists for being dismissive of (i.e. the day to day worries of a teacher confronted with multiple individual needs in a highly bureaucratic environment.) To use another metaphor, if one hopes to gain insight into the intellectual processes of a soldier he does not ask questions in the midst of battle. His characterization of teachers being unreflective based on these observations is unfair, and quite possibly inaccurate. Most schools mandate (or at the very least make available) a certain amount of professional development and there are probably a good number of teachers who take this opportunity to reflect and to grow. Likewise, his mention of Jim Keegstra is a bit of a head-scratcher. For one thing it assumes a knowledge of the case which younger practitioners or candidates will not possess. One has no way of knowing if Keegstra was, as Entwistle suggests, someone who was “reflective according to his own lights.” He may have been a complete kook, the uninformed reader has no way of knowing. Ironically, in raising these examples Entwistle exhibits the danger of applying specifics to a general point, he is stepping outside of the theoretical realm to present concrete examples that seem to bare little relation to his central arguments. These examples undermine the credibility of the article because they do little to amplify his points, and to the contrary, create a seed of doubt about his thought process.

A more useful set of examples might have attempted to describe some situations where a reflective teacher, armed with theory was able to face a major challenge to his profession or career, that would have been difficult to address with self-reflection alone. For example, a brief discussion of desegregation in the United States. How would a teacher, trained and experienced only within a racist framework adjust his teachings and address his students prejudices based only on his past practice? This is an extreme case to be sure, but the point is educators have been forced to address radically different conditions during their career, and the odds of it happening again are very good. The political world outside the classroom is constantly adjusting its assumptions and expectations with respect to the realm of public education. A contemporary example of this would be the adoption of standards testing across the United States and in many (if not all) Canadian provinces. These measures are intended to hold teachers accountable in a very strict fashion and go against the model of Liberal Education that most teachers were schooled in, whether or not they have a clear conception of that model. The educator with a foundation in theory is in a much better position to understand the forces that have shaped this new dimension, and also is more capable of adapting to the new order that it imposes. Entwistle’s work would be enhanced by providing some historical and contemporary context for the role of theory in education.

Entwistle does offer some words of advice for theorists as well as practitioners. His primary complaint is that theorists tend to overlook the need for compromise in the field of education. He goes as far as to suggest that this should be a separate area of study. Everyday life, he explains, is full of compromise and creating theory that does not account for this basic reality is bound to chase away practitioners who must make concessions daily. This too is highly sensible. A theorist who cannot modify his thinking to account for some of the realities of the classroom is doomed to be disregarded. After all, one hardly needs to consult a theory if everything is perfect. Theory must be devised for the situations in which it is the most useful. A private teacher of a small group of ideal students does not need theory as much as someone who has a large group of unruly kids who would rather be anywhere but in school. Although he does not say it outright, one gets the impression that Enwistle is suggesting that a theorist may become insulated and egotistical, that he may forget that his job is not to prognosticate from on high, but to use his wisdom to inform the practitioners who will benefit most from it.

This essay itself is essentially a theoretical attempt at compromise. Entwistle, in admitting the limits of theory and outlining the responsibilities of the reflective practitioner, is mapping a route for convergence―creating a space where the seemingly separate realms of theory and practice can co-exist. He is presenting himself as a humble theorist, not an ivory tower academic with a reputation to uphold. Theory, he admits, will never walk hand in hand with practice, it is an impossible wish. But that does not absolve theorists from attempting to wed the two, nor does it excuse practitioners from gaining a knowledge of the concepts that underpin their profession.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Words to Consider

“No nation can donate liberation to another nation. These values must be fought for and won by the people themselves. They can only grow and flourish when they are planted by the people in their own soil and watered by there own blood and tears.”

“Dust has been thrown into the eyes of the world by your governments. You have not been told the truth. The situation now is as catastrophic as it was under the Taliban for women. Your governments have replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords. (That is) what your soldiers are dying for.”

“There is no difference for ordinary Afghans between the Taliban and the equally fundamentalist warlords. Which groups are labeled ‘terrorist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ depends on how useful they are to the goals of the US. You have two sides who terrorize women, but the anti-American side are ‘terrorists’ and the pro-American side are ‘heroes.’”

~Malalai Joya Member of Afghan Parliament