It’s time to walk the talk on education

 

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Fisheries and Oceans minister Gail Shea’s heart is in the right place when she says that education is the key to Canada’s long-term prosperity.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heart (such as it is) is likewise in the right place when he urges the international community to emulate this country’s commitment to improving maternal and child welfare around the world. 

Still, actions always speak louder than words, and when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are here at home – where functional illiteracy rates are among the highest in the industrialized world and the federal government’s conception of early childhood education is nothing more than a grab bag of measly tax giveaways to individuals and families – national leaders are mute to the point of perpetual silence.

“A skilled workforce leads to a stronger economy with more and better jobs,” Minister Shea told a graduating class of Holland College in Prince Edward Island last week. “For governments, more people working means more people paying taxes. Taxes are necessary for providing things like health care and education. So, it is an investment in the future, it is an investment in you, and it is an investment in the province and the country, as well.”

She added: “Everybody graduating here tonight has recognized that having a better education and greater skills will help you achieve success.”

Elsewhere, Prime Minister Harper told participants in a three-day summit of maternal and child health, “It’s a philosophy of our government, and I think of Canadians more broadly, that we do not measure things in terms of the amount of money we spend but in terms of the results we achieve.”

Later, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, he elaborated: “We’re in a truly global world. So I do think it is in our broader, enlightened self-interest to make the world a better place. But I also do think some of these things are just worth doing in their own right. We are a very wealthy and lucky people. . .Most of us were fortunate to be born at this point in history and in this particular country.”

But how will history and this country’s future generations judge this particular point in time? 

Mr. Harper is absolutely correct. On a per capital basis, Canada is, compared with its trading partners, awash with cash. The country is set to return to surplus within the next few months and, barring unforeseen events (such as those that afflicted world financial markets in 2008), natural resources development will buoy the economy, injecting sustainable volumes of black ink into federal government coffers for years to come. 

What should we do with that boon? Should we instruct our elected leaders to return it to our individual bank accounts? Or should we take a longer, more considered view of our nation’s true source of wealth and economic durability? 

Universities and vocational colleges consistently complain that our children (when these institutions get their hands on them) are woefully ill-equipped to compete in the labour markets of the world. The kids are, in fact, not alright. Higher education scrambles to undo what lower education has done to little Johnny and Jane. 

Meanwhile, the pressure to train young people to fit existing job roles mounts, even as advanced disciplines in critical thinking, communications and cultural awareness fade to the vanishing point along the horizon most other – and less economically promising – economies as ours, dutifully chart. 

A half-century of hard-won experience in places like Norway, Sweden and Finland convincingly argues that state investments in national early childhood education programs are the best hedges against illiteracy, lassitude, crime, and social dissolution among young people.  

And yet, with few exceptions, Canada – with all its money and resources, with all its hearts in the right places – chooses to spend the money it hasn’t promised to return to taxpayers on prisons, military aircraft that don’t fly and staged commemorations of wars it may or may not have won two centuries ago. 

It’s long past time to put our money where Gail Shea’s mouth is.

 

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