The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: education

Canada’s Kind of World

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PERHAPS THE GREATEST TEMPTATION IN THE WORLD of government is the politics of the urgent, and in a world of bad news the pressure to “do something” becomes endless. The recent incident in Strathroy, Ontario, of a man suspected of plotting a terrorist attack only provides further fodder for those concerned over the presently precarious state of the world. Turkey, Syria, France, mass shootings, individual acts of madness – all of these occurrences are pressing on the Canadian government at once, with pundits endlessly reminding us that something has to be done before our planet blows up.

But there is another world out there – a global place of collaboration and effectiveness that continues to get glossed over in favour of front page headlines. It is the kind of world that Canada excels at, and has for decades, and which runs concurrently with the other more alarming dimension that seems bent on violence and which gains almost the entirety of media coverage.

We rarely hear of the victories being won against the worst of the planet’s poverty, for instance, but the president of the World Bank, Jim Young Kim, says that it is the “best story in the world today.” In 1993, almost two billion people lived on less than two dollars a day. But as the world came together to support the Millennial Development Goals and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, in a more coordinated fashion, extreme poverty began to drop fast. And it continues to do so. Today that number stands at 700 million – a drop of almost 60% in just two decades.

How about education? According to UNESCO, the UN’s education arm, the last 15 years has seen a drop of almost 50% – 100 million to 57 million – of those children who had no access to schooling whatsoever. Before 1980, only 50% of girls in poorer countries finished primary school – a number that now stands at 85%. And where less than 50% of women could read and write, that number now stands at 93%. This is a remarkable achievement by any measure.

In a report released by Global Findex, we discover that between 2011 and 2015 an extra 700 million people from 140 countries gained access to finance for the first time. New mobile money accounts are resulting in tens of thousands of new businesses being established where before there was only grinding poverty. A portion of the success has been the access to the Internet that is presently revolutionizing the developing world through cell phones, especially in Africa, which has seen access to the Internet climb 51% in just five years. Right now, some 3.2 billion people can get online, but 2 billion of them are from developing countries. To understand the scale of this, back in 2000 only 300 million people could get on the Internet and only a third of those were from the developing world – an eight-fold increase.

The advances in healthcare are equally as staggering. Malaria cases have declined precipitously – 50% since 2000. Almost 7 billion people (91% of the global population) now are using improved clean water sources – a figure that stood at 76% in 1990. HIV cases have dropped by one-third. In 1960, 22% of children born in the developing world died before their fifth birthday; today that number is 5%.

The list of such advancements could go on and on, including income rise, the political empowerment of women, the decline of war worldwide, and the advance of democracy in developing nations. Better coordination among donor nations, improved ethical leadership in developing nations, and the success of globalization in these sectors have made the difference.

This is the world in which Canada excels and has contributed to in significant fashion. Successive Conservative and Liberal governments, with frequent insights and prodding from social activists in the NDP, Green, and even the Bloc parties have placed Canada squarely in the centre of global improvement. This is the Canadian influence Justin Trudeau inherited and must build upon. More than any other time in world history, success in these areas has risen to remarkable heights – a feat almost totally ignored by modern media.

From global emergency aid to longer-term international development investments, from micro-finance programs to Canadian business investment, and from peacekeeping to the modernization of our military – all of these are presently under an internal review in Ottawa and will take their time to roll out. In the meantime, however, Canada’s decades-long investment in improving the development of humanity is achieving remarkable heights. The Trudeau government, pundits, and Canadians, in general, would do well to keep all this in mind, even as we seek to respond to the immediacy of the global terrorist threat.

 

The Radicalization of Education

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IT WAS A WORD TOO FREQUENTLY co-opted for use in the War on Terror, yet for some reason it came to mind as I keenly watched the faces of over 300 students at Fanshawe College’s graduation.

Jane and I were deeply appreciative to be given an honourary diploma that day (the first shared diploma in the college’s history), and we talked about the message we would give to the graduates. Jane, as always, was awesome, yet when my turn came that word “radicalization” popped into my head again. “This isn’t the end of your formal education,” I said, “but the start of the radicalization of it.”

I used the word purposely because it means more than how some terrorist groups seek to recruit young members. Kenyan writer, Shadrack Agaki, has called for the radicalization of African youth into social innovation as the only way of keeping them from being pulled into something criminal and sinister. Blogger John Grant writes in Counterpunch of how he became radicalized by the extremes of America’s war on Iraq and called for key American political figures like Dick Cheney to be tried in regular court.

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines the term as, “To cause someone to become an advocate of radical political or social reform,” and gives as an example the opposition of younger Americans to the Vietnam War. At times the impulse can turn overtly violent and should be shunned, but on other occasions radicalization results when people become agitated enough to speak out against injustices or current practices that are deemed no longer acceptable.

The students seated before us that at Fanshawe College were rich in potential, coming from Autism and Behavioural Science, Early Childhood Leadership and Education, Human Services, Recreation, and Social Services. In other words, most were about to be pressed into service on the margins, in those places where so many citizens struggle to be recognized despite the many odds against them. Ironically, for many, they were about to enter fields that were in the process of getting worse, not better. Funding in many areas is getting cut, the numbers of those at risk get greater, and society’s understanding of the challenges is increasingly lost in an economic and political order that talks about human needs but refuses to adequately fund efforts to find effective collaborative solutions.

The students before us that day were about ready to enter a world of hurt – not theirs necessarily, but that of individuals and families in various and diverse kinds of conflict and scarcity. Those remarkable young women and men were heading into global service to provide essential care and understanding.

But that is no longer enough. It’s like watching poverty grow or climate change be ignored. To work in such fields is commendable, but the overall structures require fundamental reform. And so that day Jane and I asked them to use their voice, not just their hearts; to use their convictions and not merely their compassion; to fight for adequate public policy and not just public care; to fight for justice and not just charity. They must speak up before the silence becomes deafening.

Judging from their reaction during the graduation and after, many of those with diplomas were already radical in their outlook, believing in the need to fight for their clients or patients instead of merely serving them. Some, who through emotion thanked us for the speech, said they were now ready to change their world and we fully believed them.

As author and writer Derrick Bell plainly put it: “Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.” Those students are now out in a world starving for reform, equity, and understanding, radicalized in their empathy for others and determined to bring them compassionate justice.  Fanshawe had served them well.

 

 

 

Hibernating Bigotry

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WITH A FEDERAL ELECTION HEATING UP, the political establishment will come after citizens once more, asking them what they want and promising to give it to them if they would but vote. You’d think that after a time, especially following years of political dysfunction, that this being catered to every four years or so would begin to grate on us somewhat. And perhaps it has and that is part of the reason voter turnout continues to decline.

But politicians know something about us that they would never say and we would never admit: we aren’t just a people of myriad opinions, but of latent prejudices that we quietly live out each day but which we never let fully out into the open. Thus the political order, perhaps even especially in election time, plays to that part of us. ill Clinton, alluded to this tendency in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves and to work together to find common ground. And in this day, everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply can’t wait for a tornado, a fire, or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another.”

And then Clinton opened up about the prejudice politicians often have for citizens, and it wasn’t pretty: “Most of us in politics haven’t helped very much. For years, we’ve mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators, sort of political couch potatoes who were supposed to watch our political TV ads either promise them something for nothing or play on their fears and frustrations.”

And, so, there it was, how politicians see us. That sad part is that they might, in part at least, be correct. Clinton’s solution to this “silo” form of citizenship was a “New Covenant,” in which citizens get back to the prime task of getting to know one another and working together – something most Americans never got around to.

Recently, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, gave a major speech to educators, in which she called up the ghosts of what she called “hibernating bigotry.” She quoted from the book, Taking on Diversity: “We stay away from the interpersonal level where bigotry implicates us all, refusing to acknowledge it. We leave it to our children to carry our baggage on their backs.”

It is easy to spot outright bigotry, and it’s likely our kids see it quicker that we do, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s not about race riots, public violence against women, or the comments by the haters on social media. Most of us rightly avoid such things, even taking stands against them. No, were talking about the “subtle” forms of bigotry. It’s about the distance we place between ourselves and those struggling in the mental health cycle. It’s our quiet avoidance of people from ethnic populations who might make us feel uncomfortable, as we do them. It’s about how we tolerate a growing poverty in our nation, attempting to ameliorate our conscience with the odd donation. It’s the anonymous despair we feel when we increasingly learn of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women but somehow don’t get around to joining a movement to get the feds to finally deal with it.

But it goes even deeper, this legacy of taking democracy for granted without ever really entering it or truly fighting for it. It’s about how we pull back when we come to understand that the solution to poverty will involve the sacrifice of all citizens, sometimes with taxes, other times by joining together to end homelessness in our communities. And it’s when we become increasingly aware of the impact of climate change but can’t quite manage to alter our lifestyle to play our own part more significantly in healing the planet. I wrestle with all the issues within myself, so I’m presuming many of us face the same battle. Except, in my case at least, it’s not so much a conflict as it is a quiet prejudice of placing myself and my family over truly taking part in healing society and the environment at the same time.

Presidential candidate, John Dewey, put it this was in 1937: “Democracy has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every day and year, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”

Are we ready for this? Am I? Because the political order is banking on the fact we aren’t and that we can be played according to our prejudices. Perhaps this is the worst aspect of politics, but it represents the shame of citizenship if we can’t transcend our own limitations and persuade politicians to make the tough choices. If we can, though, then this next election will not only bring about a new life of democracy, but a higher kind of politics in the process.

 

 

More Than Buildings

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“A UNIVERSITY IS JUST A GROUP OF BUILDINGS gathered around a library,” wrote American historian Shelby Foote years ago. It’s just the kind of minimalist view that Socrates would have disagreed with forcefully. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” the old philosopher wrote not too many years prior to his death.

It’s likely that Shelby never took into account just what such an institution of higher learning would mean to billions around the world. To them it would be the highest of all attainments, a grand destination for all those seeking enlightenment.

In the regions of South Sudan where we have volunteered for years, there is no greater ambition, no desire higher for a family, than to see kids get to the post-secondary level. The problem is that there just aren’t those opportunities where most people live – high school is as far as they can get. It’s one of the great tragedies of our day that a people who have endured decades of civil war, completed a successful peace process, and formed their own nation (the world’s newest), can’t rise to the level of their own aspirations for lack of opportunity.

When we first adopted our kids from South Sudan, community leaders understood that something remarkable was now possible for the three kids, and so they counseled with us to do everything in our power to get them to university. We took them 100% seriously and then just a few days ago came confirmation that our son, Ater (17), had been accepted at Kings University College in London. Jane and I sat together on the couch as we heard the news and all the weight of that promise we made to those community leaders suddenly lifted from us.

I still recall the very first day we took Ater to public school. He was only nine-years old but had never had a day of schooling in his life. He was nervous and held my hand on the way there. Then he saw the other kids playing on the school ground, instinctively moving towards them in a subtle wish to enjoy a childhood that had previously been kept from him. The bell rang and he rushed with the others toward the door. Suddenly he stopped and ran back to hug me, saying words I shall forever cherish: “Thank you, Daddy. I wanted an education more than anything and you and Mom got it for me. Thank you.” With that he was gone and likely didn’t think of me for the rest of the day in his new and playful world.

But I never forgot one moment of it, even until this day. Look at the picture on this page. He carries the hopes of an entire Southern Sudanese nation in that smile, along with the heartfelt wishes of a Mom and Dad who cherish him. Perhaps even more vital, his courageous mother who gave her life in Sudan so that he might be free to have this moment must be beaming in heaven. With her life she gave him a path ahead, and with our resources we will follow through on that dream for him.

Ultimately, this is Ater’s moment. He did it, despite all the obstacles he has faced in his young life. To him, Kings University College is something far more transcendent and marvelous than a bunch of buildings around a library. It is his springboard to an enlightened life in which he will learn to help others and grow in the process.

I think of the observation of Richard Levins: “A scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” If so, then the opposite is also true: Enlightenment that can embrace a struggling humanity is the greatest service offered by any educational institution. It’s your time, Ater – take it. Build on that absolutely transcendent disposition of yours, and to it add a renewed commitment to allow your knowledge to take you where humanity requires the most hope and a sense of justice.  From heaven and earth, we’ll be watching with pride.

 

 

 

 

It All Starts With Words

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FORMER SLAVE AND ACTIVIST DURING the Civil War era, Frederick Douglass, spent much of his childhood in very difficult circumstances.  But he wanted to learn, and when he got the chance he jumped at it.  Learning to read introduced him, not only to Abraham Lincoln, but to a whole new world of freedom for himself and others.  He affirmed that very truth when he wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

I was honoured to be asked to write a guest blog for this This IS Literacy – a terrific London, Ontario organization that promotes and supports literacy for not just children, but entire families.  I wrote about my own children whom we adopted from Sudan and the challenge we faced when they first came to Canada eight years ago.  They had never learned to read nor write, but our greatest task was to help them recover a childhood they had never had, and for that it would take words.

You can link to the blog post here, but better yet, visit This Is Literacy’s website and see how a community that wishes to discover itself has to first begin with the power of words.

 

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