Category Archives: Education

The life deeply lived

After decades of taking names and kicking ass in universities around the world, Halifax-bred oceanographer Anya Waite comes home to launch her next, excellent adventure on the high seas of academe


Once, many years ago and for no particular reason, a Portuguese cop proclaimed that the future scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute in Halifax was a prostitute.

“I was 20, alone in the Azores, waiting to join a five-week research cruise of the North Atlantic,” Anya Waite recounts. “Suddenly, this guy grabbed my arm and started dragging me down the gangway. He saw I was the only woman among 100 scientists and crew on board. He was sure I was. . .well, you know.”

Then again, people have been saying strange things to the good doctor, about the good doctor, for as long as she can remember.

There was that time, for example, when an academic superior tried to corner her by insisting: “Feminism is over; stop fussing and get back to work.”

There was that other time when a lab supervisor attempted to compliment her by professing: “Your data set gives me a hard on. Thanks.”

And how can she forget the moment when the new dean of one university, which employed her as the sole female acting head of school, commented that it did not, in fact, employ any female acting heads of school?

It’s not that she goes out of her way to attract the attention of weirdos, she says. It just seems to come naturally (like the violin, which she plays avidly when she’s not examining the biological-physical couplings of marine organisms).

Or maybe it goes with the territory of having worked on almost every continent, doing some of the most prestigious academic jobs, in oceanography and environmental systems engineering, the world has to offer.

“You have to put yourself in the way of things,” she smiles broadly. “It’s about the life deeply lived.”

That should come in handy now that she’s at the helm of one of Canada’s more intriguing and recent experiments in public-private sector collaborations. Part think tank, part incubator, part Dragons’ Den, the Ocean Frontier Institute came to life 28 months ago thanks to a $227-million investment from the feds and various non-governmental agencies to push the limits of collaboration between marine researchers and the rest of us.

Global warming has started the countdown on sustainable innovation in ocean sciences, where practical applications already affect everything from offshore fisheries and aquaculture to transportation and renewable energy. The Institute, which is led by Dalhousie University and its partners at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Prince Edward Island, aims to cultivate the best, newest ideas for everyone, everywhere.

According to Waite, who became its science head only last year, it’s exciting, timely and necessary. “We’re trying to move ocean studies to a more useful place in the conversation,” she says. “Historically, research is an ivory tower, and we’re really working to break that down; to make the dialogue easier between academics and their potential stakeholders, which include governments, industries and communities. In fact, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be a straight line.”

That, alone, may render her the perfect candidate for the job.

Born and raised in Halifax, the youngest daughter of a famous historian and a woman who had once been arrested for anti-Nazi agitation in her native Croatia, Waite’s early life wasn’t exactly placid or predictable.

“Dad taught classes and wrote books, but most of all he loved to just get up and head out the door and into the woods,” she says about her father P.B. Waite, now 97. “My sister Nina and I would put on back packs and go with him when we could. He was passionate about conservation. He actually wanted to be a forester. In fact, he was one of the reasons Crystal Crescent Beaches became a provincial park. He and three of his walking buddies from Dal arranged to have the land purchased from the owner – who had wanted to turn it into a gravel pit – and put into the Province’s hands.”

Her late mother Masha, meanwhile, was a force to be reckoned with. “She once hosted a delegation of Chinese economists in the 1970s before that country’s markets had opened up,” Waite says. “At one point during dinner, my mother blurted, ‘Chinese economists, eh? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ To their credit, they loved it. The thing about her was that you couldn’t really get away with anything. She expected us kids to perform academically, engage with the world, stay fit, and, above all, challenge shoddy thinking wherever we encountered it.”

It was a tall order, and Waite did her best to fill it. After high school, she studied violin, thinking she might become a concert musician. She switched to English because, she says, she loved to write. In the end, though, biology grabbed her and held on tight. And she was good at it, though that did not always guarantee smooth sailing.

The thing about inheriting both your father’s and mother’s passions and principles – in this case, and in equal measure, wanderlust and intellectual honesty – is that you tend to invite a certain amount of disruption into your life. So it was for Waite in the early 1990s, when – having earned a BSc from Dalhousie and a PhD from the University of British Columbia – she entered a post-doc program at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. She hated it. “I left because I was devasted that the conversation there wasn’t about science anymore,” she says. “It was about money just when funds were shrinking.”

She thought about becoming an orthodontist because, she laughs now, “At least I’d have a dental plan.” Instead, she took a job running a microscopy lab in New Zealand. Then, after conducting a seminar for that country’s National Institute for Water and Atmosphere, she fell in love with oceanography all over.

She embarked on research excursions, honed her academic skills and credentials, published original papers on complex topics, and embraced the rigours of teaching and training young minds. In 1997, she moved to the University of Western Australia in Perth, where she rose to the lofty position of Winthrop Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering. Still, eventually, she ran afoul of that institution’s old boy network. “I was there for 17 years, most of them good ones,” she says. “But, it sort of closed in on me. There were serious gender issues. As I was getting more and more senior, I was getting more and more push back to the point where I was worried about my career.”

Then came an offer in 2014 from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, of section head for polar biological oceanography to lead studies in, among other things, the micro-environments of the tiny marine plants and animals known collectively as plankton. The move was a sea change, both figuratively and literally. “I thought here’s a spot where I can actually say what’s on my mind. I came from a place that said, ‘Please do sit down and be quiet,’ to one that said, ‘Speak up, we hired you for your brain. . .der kopf.’”

As chance would have it, that cognitive derring-do was precisely what Halifax’s Ocean Frontier had been searching for. So far, Waite has not disappointed. “From the moment she arrived last year, her enthusiasm at being back in Atlantic Canada and for ocean research were immediately evident,” OFI’s chief executive officer Wendy Watson-Wright (who holds a PhD in Physiology from Dalhousie) says. “Her abundant energy and ideas will certainly help us achieve a lasting legacy.”

Adds Waite’s long-time colleague Paul Snelgrove, OFI’s Newfoundland-based Associate Scientific Director who undertook his own post-doc at Woods Hole when Waite was there: “Working with her again, I can see her passion has not diminished whatsoever. It’s great to have her back playing a critical role for ocean sciences here in Atlantic Canada. She is already making a difference.”

Waite admits she wasn’t looking for a move back to her origins. But the timing seemed as irresistible as the opportunity. After 30 years abroad, here was a chance to bring it all home – to square the big, broad circle that has been her life.

Now comfortably ensconced in her hometown with her husband and kids, in a job she’s frankly crazy about, is she worried that things will get strange again – that the weirdos will come out to play again?

She shrugs and smiles slightly.



She hopes so?

After all, it’s about the life deeply lived. Is it not?

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019


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When people are strange

Almost nothing about her job as the new president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design is familiar, but Aoife Mac Namara wouldn’t have it any other way


In the vestibule of the downtown Halifax campus of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design the commissionaire is telling Aoife Mac Namara about a book. He doesn’t remember its title, or the author’s name, but it has something to do with 10,000 hours. “That’s how long it takes to get good at something,” he says.

The new president of the university is hanging on his every word. She grips the corners of his desk. She shuffles her feet. She nods enthusiastically as if they were dear, old friends. They’re not. They just met.

Or maybe they met a few weeks ago when, on her first day of work, she paused briefly to introduce herself and pronounce her name – which is Irish for “radiant” and sounds like “ee-faw” – before bounding up the stairs to her new digs on the fourth flour.

Her office is sparse. Sticks of furniture rest by a window that affords a view of Historic Properties and the harbour beyond. She has spent the past four years as Dean of Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications, Art and Technology in Burnaby, B.C. This, too, is very strange. The space is queer. She’s not used to it. She likes it.

“We have to get used to the unfamiliar,” she says, not actually referring to the room where she sits or the man in the lobby. “We have to embrace it, be happy with it. That’s how we make ourselves more open.”

In fact, that’s been her signature move for most of her life. Born in Amherst, N.S., her Irish parents moved the family back to their homeland when she was three. As a young woman, she received two masters degrees and a PhD in fine arts before climbing the academic career ladder and eventually returning to Canada as Dean of Visual Art and Material Practice at Emily Carr University in Vancouver and then to Simon Fraser.

“She’s a visionary, and students are at the centre of this,” Ellen Balka, Associate Dean of SFU’s communications faculty, says about her old boss. “But she also has a very strong understanding of structures and how they work. She’s not afraid to jump right in and figure things out, and that means she knows how to make change.”

She’ll have to as NSCAD endures one of its existential moments. Students fret about purpose and prices. Faculty (who went on strike earlier this year) worry about workload and wages. Administrators deliver balanced budgets to their Board of Governors, while outsiders question whether the 132-year-old institution can stomach the pressure to become more “market-savvy”, more “job-preppy”.

Mac Namara insists she packs no silver bullets. But she does have a plan, of sorts. She wants to know what, exactly, students hope to pull from the place. She’s keen to understand what, precisely, teachers need to cultivate imaginative thinking. She’s determined to meet with and hear from as many citizens of her college as she possibly can, and to fold their promising ideas and inspirations into the school’s curriculum.

She also wants to know who isn’t there. Who is, well, unfamiliar. “Why, for example, are other people not partnering with us?”

By “partnering”, she means with the big, wide world beyond the university’s doors. “We must demonstrate the impact that cultural industries have in different ways on the economy. It’s actually huge.”

She’s not wrong. Canadian Heritage estimates that in 2017 creative industries accounted for $53.1 billion, or 2.7 per cent, of national GDP, and more than 600,000 direct jobs. That’s bigger than mining and agriculture, combined.

“Ask anyone, though, and they won’t believe you,” she says. “So, we need to have better alliances. We we need to go out and talk to our neighbours, to strangers – to all of the people who are building partnerships and enterprise in the knowledge economy, in the ocean superclusters right here. It’s our job to help them comprehend us.”

She wouldn’t be the first head of a fine arts university to throw down this particular gauntlet. Today, as she moves from her seat to take in the view of an alien waterfront, she just sounds like it.

“I don’t buy this whole arts versus the rest of society argument,” she says. “It’s a false dichotomy. But I can sympathize. People believe that stuff. The story goes that you’ll never get a job and that universities don’t add value unless they provide clear programs that lead to existing, traditional employment. That’s disingenuous. We are living in a time when even the most stable professions are beginning to lose massive numbers of workers. Automation is completely changing the workplace.

“What I do buy is this: Students need to talk to people they don’t know. Teachers need to do the same thing. We all need to do this – to be open, to be empathetic, to learn, to collaborate. That’s how, when we walk out these doors, we’re all going to be future-ready.”

Ready, indeed, for the unexpected, which can be as exciting as getting to know a new job brimming with boundless creative possibilities, a different sea bound coast on the other side of the country, or a stranger who shares the same tastes in reading material.

Ten-thousand hours to get good at something? That’s from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Aoife Mac Namara is not familiar with the book. But, chances are, she will be.

For: Halifax Magazine, September 2019

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Invest in kids, period

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m banging the drum slowly. What better use of public money is there than spending bucks on early childhood education? After all, the evidence is plastered on the faces of every citizen in this democracy of ours.

New Brunswick is doing its level best to reconcile education with cost. Still, policy makers here have not yet recognized that the price drops later when the investment arrives earlier.

Here’s what a recent Conference Board of Canada report says, according to the nation’s public broadcaster:

“Canada is lagging the world in spending on early childhood education – and it’s going to cost the economy in the long run, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada suggests.

“In a paper published (late last month), the think-tank argues that for every dollar spent on early childhood education programs, the economy gets about $6 worth of economic benefits down the line. Not only do such programs give kids a head start, but they free up parents to work and increase the family’s income, too. ‘The science is unquestioning,’ said Craig Alexander, the group’s chief economist and one of the authors of the report. ‘There’s clear evidence that kids develop better and stronger essential skills,’ he said, ‘and we can basically show that this does act to reduce income inequality.’”

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Does this sound oddly familiar at this time in the recent history of western civilization?

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail two summers ago. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education is teaching empathy to preschoolers: Putting oneself in another person’s shoes; coping with strong emotions; understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

We become what we learn in this province. Let’s make that lesson endure.

Open season on public servants


As you scroll through certain toxic sectors of the Internet, the narrative is both acidic and familiar. Watch for them, you are told. You will know them to see them: lazy, wasteful, incompetent and, most importantly, egregiously acquisitive.

They are, of course, civil servants, public-sector employees, blithely leaching the economy of its essence, its ineffable grace. As the argument goes, never have so many done so little for so much moola.

But, wait, what about a fellow like Michael Ott? He’s a federal government scientist currently on leave from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. According to news reports, his bosses have erroneously paid him something like $30,000. What does he do? Pocket the cash with a wink and a nudge? In fact, a CBC item reports, “Ott has been putting aside every penny the federal government is mistakenly paying him.” His reasoning: “I’m more worried about the fact that in six weeks, if I haven’t paid it back, it’s going to be mess on my tax return.”

In other words, Mr. Ott is chiefly interested in doing his job and the right thing at the same time, which is the default position of virtually every civil servant in this country, in this region of Canada, I have ever known. And I have known more than a few.

Still, public-sector employees are the easiest targets in society for governments seeking to shift the blame for their own shortcomings and cowardice. They use words like “efficiency” and ugly tropes like “right-sizing” to justify their measures to voters who have been led to believe, staggeringly, that cutting jobs in one sector will help generate new ones in another.

“The Gallant Liberals will forge ahead with planned cuts to the number of people working for the New Brunswick government, believing there is still work to be done to ‘right-size’ the public service,” a Brunswick News item reported last week. “That’s despite a report that has found recent efforts have been successful in slimming numbers below the national average, defying a regional trend of a ballooning public service, and saving the province roughly $100 million in the process. . .The current Liberal government has already announced a plan to cut roughly another 1,300 positions from the civil service over the next five years.”

Why? Because it’s easier to pander to the popular and politically productive myth of the overfed public employee than it is to grapple with the inconvenient truth of a private sector that is no longer producing the good, sustainable jobs it once did.

Is this what’s behind the Nova Scotia government’s bizarre treatment of its teachers of late? The CBC reports: “All public schools will be closed Monday (yesterday) as the Liberal government throws a wrench into teacher plans to take job action over recently failed contract negotiations. Education Minister Karen Casey has decided to close schools province-wide but teachers are still expected to report to work. The Liberal government says it intends to try to impose a contract on the union.”

Added Casey with what must be the most disingenuous rationale by an elected official in recent memory: “Job actions could put students in unsafe environment. That’s unacceptable.”

Rejoined the province’s teachers union president Liette Doucet: “I would characterize (the move as) a means to create some division with the public. . .to make it seem like teachers were not going to ensure student safety. We’ve made it pretty clear that our first priority was student safety.”

And so it goes in this winter of our discontent: open season on public servants.

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Teach them young and well


When former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick Margaret McCain talks, people tend to listen. And why not?

She was not only the Queen’s representative in this fair province for several years, she is an internationally recognized expert in, and advocate for, early childhood education.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that whenever she swings through these parts, media outlets bend over backwards to lend her their ears.

According to a CBC report last week, Mrs. McCain says, “If the provincial government is serious about fixing its literacy problems it needs to make radical changes that could mean an expansion of public education. (She) said it’s time to adopt the Finnish model and expand public education to include four-year-olds and then three-year-olds. The Finnish model integrates early learning and care within the public system, which McCain said she feels is the best strategy. ‘If we want to reach all children, the public education system is a well-established system where there’s room for extending education downward,’ she said.”

In fact, she added, “You provide equal opportunity for all children. Public education is well-funded, well-structured, well-respected. It’s available, it’s affordable, it’s accessible and most of all there would be consistency of curriculum for all children. . .this is how you give every child an equal opportunity.”

Indeed, there’s little doubt now that around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report states that in Sweden “The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public. In each of these categories, the word ‘respect’ appears. There was trust in children and in their abilities, trust in the adults who work with them, trust in decentralised governmental processes, and trust in the state’s commitment to respect the rights of children and to do right by them.”

In Finland, the OECD concludes, “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

All of which confirms that early childhood education is not the expensive experiment that cynics decry. On the contrary, it is a plausible, workable application for meeting some of our hoariest, long-term social challenges.

The sooner our governments understand that this nation is not, as some political operatives like to assume, a blank canvas for partisan portraiture, the sooner we can get on with investing good money where it belongs: In the future of our kids, who will return dividends that our various adherents of the status quo can’t begin to imagine.

Naturally, as Mrs. McCain states, “There will be some resistance because everybody fears change. And there is a sector of the daycare sector — which is a for-profit. . . If there is an early childhood education sector that wants to remain private then in my vision we have to see them as we do our independent schools. They have to meet certain standards.”

Still, the future of this province’s economic fabric relies on literacy. That’s a project that must begin early in every child’s life.

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Teaching our children well


It is an article of faith in public-policy circles that pigs fly more reliably than do governments seeking to improve the educational systems under their aegis. Sometimes, though, porcine wings do flap and take to the sky.

A rare case in point was last month’s announcement in Fredericton that, henceforth, the New Brunswick government will cover the cost of tuition not already insured by the feds for students attending post-secondary institutions in the province – those whose families earn $60,000 or less in any given 12-month period. Enthused Premier Gallant: “We, as a province, will be able to tell those children, ‘Work hard, do what you can to get into a university or college and we’ve got you covered. . .Of those New Brunswick students who apply for student financial assistance, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent will qualify for this program.”

Indeed, this measure, at a cost of roughly $25 million to taxpayers per academic year (at least, initially), effectively delivers something akin to free higher education to as many as 7,100 aspiring scholars in humanities, sciences, business, and trades in 2016-17 – not quite, though, given that the new Tuition Access Bursary doesn’t pay for books, fees and living expenses.

Still, it’s better than a kick in the pants. And, as the former CEO of my own private bank of student bursaries, I’m not alone in thinking so.

Says Travis Daley, vice-president external of the University of New Brunswick’s student union: “This is a momentous move forward by this government. It allows for higher education to be a reality for students who might not have considered it before.”

UNB president Eddy Campbell agrees with the student advocate. (When, in fact, does that ever happen in the fractious arena of organized academe)?

“Roughly half of the students at UNB today are the first in their family to go to university,” Dr. Campbell told reporters after a news conference. “We know those are the students who often need extra help to be here, and I have no doubt a whole bunch of those students will qualify for this program. . .(The government) is doing the right thing.”

University of Moncton economist and author Richard Saillant also concurs with the prevailing opinion. In a radio interview, he noted, “We’re talking about enhancing participation in post-secondary education and we’re talking about fairness and future prosperity. . .I don’t think we can afford to dither any longer on that file. . .This measure will enhance participation in the labour market, so it’s good economic policy, it’s good social policy and it’s also good educational policy.”

Here, here!

Still, enlightened public policy is one thing. Effective program delivery is quite another. The difference between the two is what usually keeps pigs firmly rooted to the ground.

What protocols and protections have the Gallant government installed to ensure that low-income students need not wade through myriad bureaucratic pens before they receive their benefits? What red tape and paper-burden have public officials decided are in no one’s best interest?

The history of student funding in Canada is a litany of nightmarish anecdotes, invariably invoking both federal and provincial funding agencies and, in the worst cases, the big banks and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Will the New Brunswick government accompany its new, well-intentioned policy with the streamlined apparatus to keep from harm those it now purports to help – the most economically vulnerable, attempting to dream, to do, to achieve, perhaps beyond even their own expectations?

Let us hope so.

Let us hope that pigs fly.

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Are our universities failing?


In the seven years I spent at Dalhousie University, fairly sailing through my class load, I took my share of ‘bird courses’, never thinking about a job.

I spent some time examining the effect of Beatles’ music on popular culture. I worked on an essay about the geography of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ and how this represented the Bible’s ‘End Times’.

No one in my cohort of students in the 1970s shall ever forget the ‘nature versus nurture’ arguments that dominated the lecture halls of academe.

Now, a University of Prince Edward Island professor of religious studies posits some fascinatingly angry points about the condition of his craft, his institution and his passion.

Says Ron Srigley in a recent edition of The Walrus: “I teach mostly bored youth who find themselves doing something they neither value nor desire . . . in order to achieve an outcome they are repeatedly warned is essential to their survival. What a dreadful trap. Rather than learning freely and excelling, they’ve become shrewd managers of their own careers and are forced to compromise what is best in themselves – their honesty or character – in order to ‘make it’ in the world we’ve created for them.”

The good professor worries that kids, insuffienctly equipped to embrace the arduous task of actually learning something worthwhile, will become the new vanguard of blunt, meaningless mediocrity in society. Worse, we parents, educators, university administrators are grinding down the edges of their intellects with every utterance we make about “relevance” in higher education.

“A couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview,” Professor Srigley relates. “I was trying to make a point about the limits of human aspiration, a theme discussed in one of our readings, and I’d found an interview with Woody Allen in which he urged that we recognize the ultimate futility of all endeavours. The moment the lights went down, dozens and dozens of bluish, iPhone-illumined faces emerged from the darkness. That’s when I understood that there were several entertainment options available to students in the modern university classroom, and that lectures rank well below Twitter, Tumblr, or Snapchat.”

Frankly, nothing in this 5,000-word piece is unfamiliar to me. This stuff was happening with nauseating frequency when I was an undergraduate 35 years ago. What’s troubling, if we are to believe Mr. Srigley, is that conditions in academe have deteriorated to the extent that young ‘scholars’, their parents and university administrators now regard faculty members with advanced degrees as nothing more than handmaidens to the callow, vapid career aspirations of those who hold enough coin to buy a piece of commencement paper.

If Mr. Srigley overstates his case, it’s not by much.

The last time I suggested, in writing, that this region’s university presidents (read: CEOs) were more interested in the condition of their institutions’ bottom lines than they were in the state of their students’ capacity for critical thinking, I was called on the plush, red carpet of the Association of Atlantic Universities (The Inquisition’s bureaucratic arm, perhaps?)

In the seven years I spent at Dalhousie University working to understand Socrates, Aristotle, Hobbes, Mill, Hume, Bloom, Faulkner (and not Tolkien or C.S. Lewis), I learned how to think and, in my own way, how to teach.

I also learned how to tell the truth to myself and to my children about the way the world – sometimes corrupted, always promising ­– works.

So has, in his own life, Professor Ron Srigley.

Time will tell, of course, if he still has a job.

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Smart money from slow learners



New Brunswickers should harbor no doubt that Premier Brian Gallant, with the best of intentions, wants to transform the province into an oasis of educational innovation and attainment. But where’s his plan?

Some intrepid reporting by Brunswick News reveals that there isn’t one – or, at least, not much of one. A big chunk of the $261-million ‘smart-province’ initiative has yet to be assigned.

In fact, so little is known about the government’s priorities on this file that a legislative committee convened to review spending plans at the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour has been adjourned until more information becomes available.

Predictably, this has aroused the ire of the official Progressive-Conservative opposition. “The education minister (Serge Rousselle) could not answer the simplest questions about the premier’s new education and economy fund,” Tory Leader Bruce Fitch thundered.

For their part, Liberal spokespeople are buttressing the ramparts. Says one Molly Cormier, a mouthpiece for the province’s rather attenuated departments devoted to education (there appear to be many): “Senior officials as well as the minister are meeting with stakeholders in the post-secondary sector. . .The (new education and economy) fund was created to ensure government makes strategic investments into New Brunswick’s priorities of jobs and education.”

Fair enough. But Mr. Fitch and his colleagues across the aisle also make a decent point: If education is so important to the Gallant government – if, indeed, it is the architecture necessary for creating a brand, new, economically productive society in this part of the country – then why doesn’t it know what it’s doing, down to the penny, with $261-million in scarce, publicly raised capital? Why can’t it answer the questions its laudable ambitions have raised?

Some months ago, Premier Gallant told me: “I am a huge proponent of the role that education can play in developing our economy, and, of course, what it does for every individual in giving them opportunities in our province. So I am very happy, despite the fact that we face many challenges both fiscally and economically, that as a government we were able to prioritize education to the extent that we did, increasing the budget by $33 million.”

Still, specificity is the jewel in the crown of democratic leadership.

What value does the Gallant government assign to publicly accessible early childhood education?

How much money is it willing to designate to the training and support of early childhood educators?

As it cuts primary and secondary-level teaching positions, how much material value is it investing in literacy, numeracy and critical thinking to benefit the flower of New Brunswick’s youth?

Should all of this cost $100 million, $200 million, $300 million? Shouldn’t we know that $261 million in a government spending priority is properly appropriated before it’s charged against the taxpayer’s ledger?

Or, if this government doesn’t have a smart-money fund to build an innovative, creative province, then say so. And say it now.

I have heard this sort of tripe from our provincial leaders almost daily and for years: “Fellow citizens, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We must embrace the better angels of our own nature. . .blah. . .blah”.

I would rather hear honesty, however brutal, from Freddy Beach.

“Fellow New Brunswickers,” Mr. Gallant might say. “I made a mistake. I should have done my homework before I decided that $261 million was sufficient to meet my ambitions for a smart province. I should have figured out what that sum was supposed to do. I didn’t. Now, though, I will.”

Then, perhaps, we’ll have a plan we can trust.

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The reading solution


The other day, I counted the number of hours I sit in front of Netflix every week, live-streaming old movies. Then, just to ensure that I became genuinely depressed, I tallied the same roll on my iTunes account.

Let me just clarify that I read thousands of words a week from every genre, from every source available. (I also write a few).

My point is I’m not sure when was the last time I read a real, paper-bound book – the type whose spine I sniff to get a real sense of its provenance: from whence it came and how far it has had to travel to my nose.

Was it at least as long as I’ve held Netflix and iTunes accounts?

At the risk of boring those who still read (at least, this column), I profess that I, growing up in rural Nova Scotia and the “big town” of Halifax in the early 1970s, consumed books as if they were candy at Halloween, Christmas and Easter, and any other high holiday in the offing.

I would trundle down to the local purveyor of second-hand folios (of which there were many) and happily plunk down my pennies, dimes and quarters to purchase a well-thumbed, evidently well-loved, copy of “Brave New World” or “1984” or “The Stars My Destination”.

I would grip these works to my adolescent chest, flee home to my sparsely appointed bedroom, and read them ravenously until Morpheus lulled me into a long, happy, dream-filled sleep.

Lately, New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor Jocelyn Roy-Vienneau, issued what the Saint John Telegraph-Journal termed as a “challenge to New Brunswickers aimed at moving the dial on the province’s stubbornly low level of literacy.”

It is a good and noble effort, and perfectly appropriate to their stations in the province’s pantheon of influential people.

But it won’t work – at least, not from her vaunted perch.

Until New Brunswick’s parents, the literate and the illiterate, alike, build a groundswell of support for reading, mathematics, philosophy, and a broad curriculum devoted to critical thinking, nothing will change low rates of literacy – which now hover at between 20 and 60 per cent, depending on the demographic and geographic slice of the population ­– in this province.

The people, who are all of us, must understand that literacy is the road to economic renewal. Knowledge of the world and our place in it is the path to enlightenment, tolerance, and vigorous, durable happiness.

When we reside in the dark, we stay there, munching on our grievances, believing to the depths of our decaying souls what others tell us is true or fine or mundane or simply unachievable.

When, however, we occupy the light, we pursue it, delighting in ideas and opportunities we hadn’t conjured before, inventing new futures for ourselves and our fellows, extending our hands like tethers of hope to our brothers and sisters around the world, building communities.

That’s what literacy does.

Still, the reading solution in New Brunswick will take more than a challenge from privileged readers, such as the province’s L-G to achieve.

It will take a far more concerted public policy effort by this provincial government to convince the people who put power into its parlors where Netflix and iTunes run daily that literacy is not merely a fine idea – it is the only engine of economic development that will return productivity to the private sector, tax revenues to the public sector and opportunity to a province where, once upon a time, all of Canada’s most heroic stories once began.


Are the kids actually all right?

Whence the minions came to me, seeking my munificence as laird of Bruce manor, I said unto them: “Daughters, kneel close, for I shall not sayest unto thee again.”

And so they did.

“Uh, Dad,” one queried, “What do you want?”

The other one, loaded with homework, merely uttered, “I don’t have time for this. . .Can you write me a letter, or something?”

I bellowed, as befits the King of the Castle, Nay! “Now here’s the deal: I command you both to become print journalists. In this way, you will carry on a valiant tradition – now three generations in the making – of making no money, subjecting yourself to the whims of editorial style, and becoming a self-loathing supplicant of various chain-store media flavors. Oh, and by the way, you should go to college poste haste, rack up enormous debt to prepare yourself for the life of which I speak, and spend the rest of your productive careers looking for good gigs interviewing rappers and garden ladies on CBC. Sound like a plan?”

Oddly enough, my minions don’t remember any of this – most likely because none of this actually happened, except, perhaps in my own feverish brain on a night when I had hoped that I would be heard, considered and then, finally, dismissed as any kind of example.

Indeed, if you read a recent RBC report you discover that “parents underestimate the influence they have over their children’s education. . . While 28 per cent of students say they chose the program they’re in to please their parents, only 21 per cent of parents think they have this influence. What’s more, when it came to deciding whether or not to go to post-secondary school, 10 per cent of students made this decision to satisfy their parents, but half as many parents felt the same.”

I’m reasonably certain that when I decided to go to Dalhousie University and study geology, physics and math in the late 1970s, it was not to please my artistically inclined, journalistically bent parents who – upon hearing my freshman-year course selections – could barely contain their mirth. As it happened, within a year, I had joined them in the general, family giggle.

Yet, I do remember my father and mother encouraging me to follow my dream, whatever it was, in my young life.

I also remember telling my own kids to do the same. One is now an analyst in early childhood education. One is a practicing veterinarian.

Says Mandy Mail, director of Student Banking at RBC Royal Bank: “From choosing which school to attend to selecting a program, students are making decisions to please their parents. It’s important for parents to maintain an open line of communication to ensure students are being thoughtful with their approach and to help ease the stress and encourage a more optimistic outlook on their future.”

Well, Mandy, with all due respect, that just sounds like another speech from another throne situated on a podium to which both students and their parents come to worship, hoping to score the bucks necessary to fill the banking industry’s notion of mortgage-worthy success.

Here, young ones, have another interest-free credit card. Do your university courses dovetail with our actuarial tables predicting income success? If so, have another credit card. Have three.

Come minions; come to us. We’re not your mum or dad. Worship at the feet of the real King of the Castle, mammon.

Unlike your parents, who love you unconditionally and support just about any direction you choose, we’re simply waiting at the crossroads.

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