An Open Letter to the Deputy Premier of Ontario

Dear Minister Elliott,

I am writing to you as a citizen of Ontario regarding my deep and thoroughly-examined concerns regarding the direction of this province that I love and have been, generally, proud to call home. I have a particular perspective – as a former educator (from a family of educators) and as someone who now works within the public health care system – that I’d like to share with you.

Please note that this letter is directed to you as Deputy Premier, not as Minister of Health and Long-Term Care (although that is pertinent to my concerns, as you’ll see), since I see no value in writing to the Minister of Education or the Premier, as neither has demonstrated any depth of experience or pertinent insight in the roles to which they have, beyond all understanding, been elected and/or appointed. I’ll abstain from any further comment about their lack of overall competency, since such is self-evident and clearly demonstrated every time they open their mouths.

As health care workers and community members gather in front of Queen’s Park to demonstrate their outrage at the closing of overdose prevention sites, and as Ontario students prepare to use their informed and concerned voices and walk out of classes across the province this afternoon, I feel I can no longer remain silent without asking you – an experienced public servant – to provide the rationale behind your continued support of this government’s increasingly-egregious agenda.

Despite differences in political ideology, I have held you in a position of respect over the course of your career, particularly as you acted as Patient Ombudsman for the province of Ontario. In that role, you acted as a non-partisan representative of the people of Ontario, providing us with a strong voice to express concerns about the direction of our public-funded health care system. I watched the leadership race last year with the hope that your experience and preparedness would assure us of competent direction (despite our differences of opinion – the carbon tax, for one) as we entered a sure-to-be-contentious election.

I was dumbfounded and disheartened by your defeat – not least because, as a resident of Toronto I have far too much experience of the type of politics played and the “leadership” displayed by your opponent. The lack of relevant experience and sound-bite-based campaigning, along with ill-examined irregularities in the voting system, permitted a questionable ‘businessman’ to lead the Ontario PC Party to the Legislative Assembly.

I admit that I, like many who found this turn of events inexplicable, took some comfort in your appointment as Deputy Premier and Minister of the MOHLTC, counting on your knowledge and background to mitigate the most dangerous planks of the newly-elected Premier’s heretofore unexpressed platform. It has taken a remarkably short time for such hopes to be dashed, and I, along with much of the rest of the province, are left to wonder, with concern, at the silencing of the integrity and ethics you demonstrated previously as a long-time participant in public service.

I could go on for page after page regarding my concerns about the policy decisions this government has made (the change to our license plates would barely merit a paragraph – nonsense of that nature is hardly worth the effort of commentary – although I’d like to propose DoFoMustGo as an alternative to the crassly-commercial and self-interested ‘open for business’, since one is as nonsensical as the other), but I will focus on those two perspectives I referenced above – education and health care.

It is more and more apparent that this government is interested in preparing our children for futures that seemingly require no exposure to higher critical thinking skills or to a balance of STEM courses and humanities classes that teach important values that help to describe our society and to highlight the places that call out for improvement. In making cuts to university funding, and imposing online courses for high school students, this government seems to be supporting the creation a future population that would be disconnected from the larger community and what it means to be citizens of Ontario, Canada and the wider world, and blindly accepting of the political rhetoric used to defend policies geared toward the benefit of a minority of citizens.

In my time teaching undergraduate courses at a number of Ontario universities, I saw a steady decline in some basic skills – reading comprehension, argument-support, effective citation of sources, as examples – with the removal of grade 13/OAC under a previous Conservative government. I fear that the results of your government’s proposed changes to our education system will have deeper and more problematic consequences than even that decision.

That said, the students are best-placed to vocalize their concerns about their education, and, despite the claims of the Premier that the walk out is a political contrivance of ‘the unions’, they are making it clear that they will not be ignored when detrimental decisions are being made on their behalf. They demonstrated that with a similar walk out to express opinions regarding the province’s health education curriculum. They were heard then, and once again they are saying ‘no’ – emphatically – and if Ontario Conservatives decline to hear that declaration, I don’t believe that this government’s relationship with the people responsible for the education of our children – or the children themselves – will permit anything other than considered and intentional regression.

I ask you, as Deputy Premier, to ensure that this government starts listening to the relevant stakeholders – with the most to gain or lose – regarding changes to education in Ontario. It seems that the Premier and Minister of Education are unwilling to do so, and it is increasingly apparent that they do not have the expertise to guide progressive reforms without more informed – and educated – support.

With respect to changes coming (regardless of input) to our health care system, I have only one request to share at this time. Please uphold the necessity of consultation with relevant stakeholders prior to the institution of Bill 74. Two-days notice (I’m being generous there) for public hearings – ONLY held in Toronto – is appalling. As is the fact that over 1400 requests to present were received, and 30 representatives were invited to participate. And the fact that the rush to pass this legislation seems unprecedented in its haste. To say more than that may endanger my current job, and being jobless in this government’s Ontario is a terrifying prospect.

I ask you, as one professional, engaged Ontarian to another, to hold to account the Premier and his Ministers in the same way that you have done in your past, much-appreciated, public service incarnations. If you cannot do so, I’d appreciate hearing your reasons why, outside of the environment that requires standing ovations and toeing of party lines, regardless of evidence-based assessment.

Many thanks for your time,

A concerned citizen of Ontario

 

‘The world spins, I’m part of it’

‘But I cannot make no sense of it…’

(this line, and the title, borrowed from Eddie Lundon and Gary Daly, from a song I have on a playlist I called ‘September Tunes’)

It’s true. I can’t. If there is sense to be found in most of what is happening around me right now, I’m sure as hell not seeing much evidence of intelligible reality. What I am feeling is lost – amongst the credulous, self-serving, soporific-imbibing portion of the population that saw/sees the current POTUS and Premier of Ontario as viable candidates for leadership. I don’t like feeling lost. It makes me angry.

I don’t think I’m alone in that since the world of social media is mostly vitriolic ranting these days. Some of it, to be sure, is justified. We need to rage against inequity in all its forms and the normalization of criminal behaviours and the spread of hatred. Most days it feels like demoralizing shouting into the void. Evidence piled upon evidence that we remain in the Age of the Selfie – encouraging the priority of the few – those who continue to control the narrative and the purse-strings – over the well-being of the rest of us.

This paradigm – and its trickle-down effect (strange how that works, when the economic theory named as such decidedly does not) – keeps the fires of society-wide narcissism burning as fiercely and destructively as the wildfires that are not, we are told, the result of climate change, yet continue to burn through California, B.C, Northern Ontario…

But this post is not, really, about how loathsomely inexplicable I find those who maintain their support of the jackasses-in-question – and I admit that our local jackass has been garnering the lion’s share of my focus lately. The ‘Murican jackass is a danger to us all, there is no doubt about that, but I can focus on only so much soft-headed tomfoolery and criminality posing as government policy-making without needing a good long lie-down. The DoFo ‘administration’ is poised to do irreparable damage to my city and my province and the 40% of the population that voted for him and his ilk are still buying the soundbites, petty proclamations, and bread-and-circus routine that are the only tools he can command in light of his complete lack of talent, insight, sincerity, and experience. He needs to be the focus of my complete opposition right now.

And it’s not about the horror I feel about the latest revelations regarding the cover-up of abuse in that anachronistic institution of equal parts illogical doctrine and outdated power structure OR the outrage against those that are spinning Apologetics that suggest fabrication and exaggeration, calling the evidence ‘myth’ – ‘fake news’, if you will – and saying that no institution has LESS of a problem with the sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church… I feel like I’m the embodiment of the rage emoji.

These things – serious, deleterious, and potentially-irrevocable as they may be – along with some others that are less-atrocious but annoying, nonetheless, have been causing me to react rather than act, lately. I could blame Twitter (and too much time spent watching that feed certainly is somewhat responsible), but the reality is that having so many things coming at me at once is contributing to a bone-deep anomie that has been hard to shake.

This time of year is always reflective for me. I can’t avoid the back-to-school/new beginnings ideation that comes with the winding down of August. I’m sure it’s partly to due with the timing of my birthday (the start of my own, personal New Year), but, despite having not set foot in a classroom in 8 years, I still feel the pull of the new start that defined my life for so many years. That 8 years thing is also interesting. 8 years ago was a milestone birthday, and, on a lovely celebratory getaway with one of my sisters, I spent a lot of time assessing my life as it was and contemplating next steps. The upshot of all that evaluation was a full-on change in career, along with some other life-altering decisions that are still rippling back at me now.

Cycles and such. 8 strikes me as less-symbolic a number than, say, 7 or 3, but I’m sure that some numerologists out there attach a divine importance to 2X4. Regardless, here I am again. Change. Decisions. New directions. I’m starting a new job – on yet another career path – right after the long weekend. I’m excited and hopeful and feeling that the challenges will be good for me. I’ve been stagnating for too long. And I’m thinking, in general, about all those things that aren’t working. Some of the things requiring assessment are the same as they were 8 years ago. I can be a slow-learner, at times. This is not always the most pleasant of exercises, but, if it helps me shift from reacting to acting in my life, it will be well-worth the self-examination.

Change can be hard. I think my Virgo-nature (or, if you don’t believe in horoscopes – full disclosure, I don’t – my tendency to stubbornness) makes change even more difficult. But, if I’ve learned anything about myself over the past decade or so, I can roll with punches. I don’t like it, but I do it. Change and chaos – that foundational element of human understanding of the world – are inextricably linked. I think that’s why we struggle with it so much.

Chaos gets a bad rep. I lost my own little personification of chaos – my Tiamat – back in June, and I did not enjoy coming to terms with that change at all (Canaanite kittens are helping with that, though). I know, because of all those years studying the stuff, that chaos is necessary. Without its latent presence there exists nothing but stasis. Too much is problematic, of course, but we need that trickle of unsettled alteration to drive progress and our work towards better things.

I think change is most difficult when we are in a situation of instability that permits chaos to seem on the ascendent. As the Mesopotamians told us over-and-over, the balance needs to be maintained. For that to happen we need to have clear standards of order. Right now? We do not. Those systems to which we cling for stability – our governments, religious systems, social organizations – they’re the very things creating the anomie and imbalance.

So what do we do when we isolate ourselves – behind phones and screens and pseudonyms – and our social structures fail to support our ideals and expectations?

Order and chaos is an important foundational dichotomy – more effective and representative of human nature than its later interpretation as good/evil. Not all dichotomies are bad. Some are, though. Good/evil is not useful at all. The narratives that one drives are ALL problematic, as I see things. And even worse than that one is us/them. I hate us/them. Us/them is creating far too many narratives in our dysfunctional governance and social-interactions.

We’ve lost all sense of the importance of caring about one another. Community is a concept that seems archaic – unless it is insular and exclusionary. Then we’re okay with it. We are so self-consumed that the thought of providing support to those who need it most is displaced by the selfish (and ridiculously unsustainable) desire for cheaper gas and beer. Relationships – created and dissolved online – are as disposable as the lives of people seeking sanctuary from war-torn places (despite the fact that we are culpable for the origins of those wars). The dynamic has shifted – rapidly and unfortunately. And if we do not feel supported by those around us, the waves of chaos are hard to navigate.

The feeling of disconnection is, if I’m honest, at the heart of my current self-search. Dissatisfaction is often isolating. One feels like one can only complain so much – before becoming burdensome or dismissed or just plain boring.

This week I was part of an example of the opposite of disconnection, though. And it has taken my reflection in a different direction in a matter of days.

I was privileged to grow up in a village in the heart of the country’s largest city. Decidedly (at the time) middle class, it was a wonderful environment – generally speaking. We had multiple parents looking out for us, close friendships that persisted from JK through high school and beyond, and a sense of safety that permitted us to run loose in adventures that rarely ended in injury or other harm. I will refrain from discussion of the sprained ankle and broken arm, both of which I blame on one guy in particular.

That guy grew up around the corner from me. We were in the same class every year from K-8, shared multiple classes in high school AND spent summers together at camp – as campers and on staff. He is a featured player in a ridiculous number of my best memories. And some of the worst ones, too. Maybe not quite a brother, but certainly more than a friend – in spite of the aforementioned injuries. To be fair, I was present for some pretty serious ones that he sustained, as well.

He moved to California a couple of decades ago, so we haven’t seen all that much of each other in the last while. One morning this week I woke up to an email from him. He’s been up at his folks’ cottage on Georgian Bay and came across three boxes of stuff marked ‘do not throw out’. Photos, letters, year books. I was on the receiving end of much of that discovered bounty three days running this week.

He’s not on social media – can’t say as I blame him when it’s as much a burden as a benefit lately – and he was hesitant about how/if to share some of the things he was finding. I made the decision for him – and posted two class photos from our primary school days. I added to the initial two as he forwarded more. That thread now has 163 comments and has spawned early plans for a reunion in September.

As he said, in an email when I told him what I did (easier to apologize than ask permission, and all that) “If it gives 1 person (or a bunch of people) an ‘excuse’ to reach out and connect with old friend/s… long lost friend/s… a brief escape to happier & NO RESPONSIBILITY times… then we’ve done a good thing”.

He also said “I am occasionally asked ‘what’s the toughest thing about leaving’ and the real answer (which I never give) has a lot to do with amazing roots and foundation of growing up in XXX in that era… unlocked doors, friends in every direction 2-4 blocks away, no social media/electronics etc… buddies & buddyettes who loved spending time together in person doing things, looking out for one another, covering for each other etc. Maybe it’s where I am, but have spoken to my older bro about this too… just don’t see kids having the same ‘code’ as we did… certainly weren’t angels- Jesus, far from it… but we were good kids, good morals, good sense of right & wrong and looking out for one another…”

His assessment might be a tad more idyllic in retrospect than it was in reality, but he’s not far off. Right/wrong is another of those dichotomies that serves a purpose. The response to the pictures demonstrates how lucky we were – and how we all seem to know that. We were, then, part of a community, and we remain, now, connected because of that community.

Another old friend posted on the thread: “It’s weird, I was driving home with my son the other day and we took a detour through XXX so I could show him my old schools, houses we lived in, etc. Was feeling nostalgic already, then I got home and went on Facebook to find all this.”

Perhaps it’s that time of year for everyone. I know I needed that reminder, in a week in which I lost the last of the ‘old folks’ who helped raise me, and as I contemplate changing up some personal relationships that sit in a stasis that is disallowing change and growth and/or just plain hurting my heart.

The world does, for the moment, continue to spin, and I am – we all are – part of it. The only way to balance the chaos of the world is to establish – or re-establish – those connections and communities that lead to stabilizing order. We need to remember that we all have to have look out for one another. There is no them, there is only us. Maintaining our connections is work – but it is worthwhile work.

Thanks for the perspective, JAS. Maybe brother is the right word.

 

 

Everybody has one…

Heavy thoughts on a gorgeous Friday…

It’s been another one of those weeks. Too many things challenging each other for head space for any really coherent insights to take hold and stick around.

My lovely friend Beth started a wonderful discussion this morning over at her blog (go have a look- it’s a great essay https://byrnesbeth.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/psychd/ on the value of perspective and education and lots of other important things…) that has me revisiting some ideas- and some older thoughts I put together and shared ’round these parts.

This was one of the earliest little bits o’something I posted here at colemining. Change up the specifics of the media coverage, and it’s, perhaps, even more applicable today- in light of this week’s events.

The weather is (finally) wonderful here in TO. I have plans to see some super heroes with some super friends. I’m trying hard not to let the evident awareness that we are continuing to choose to leap to conclusions without any examination of fact, or underlying causality, or endemic injustice, lead to irrecoverable despair/apathy.

Same windmills, two plus years on. Hoping to find the wherewithal to keep on tilting.

colemining

Once upon a time there were commentators- people who were paid to explain and offer opinions on newsworthy topics of concern.  They were clearly identified as opinions– and they provided credentials for analysis and acceptance (or rejection) by those reading or watching the editorial.  Last week there was a flood of (justified) criticism of many of the ‘news’ groups covering the trial of accused rapists in an Ohio town.  These commentaries on the commentaries (as opposed to news reporting) are still floating around the interworld, as well as the television, radio and print media.

Since we are losing connections to our myths- and myth making- the dramas of tragic events are being further dramatized- with commentary- and it frightens me a great deal.  People in power- be they politicians, business leaders, religious leaders- have always used the media of the time as a means of control over the population…

View original post 906 more words

‘Only to Surrender’

I’ve been called naïve before.  More than once, actually.  A LOT more than once, if I’m honest.

I’m okay with that- because the criticism usually comes as I discuss a person or an idea that I admire/appreciate but that may not quite fit with the ‘common wisdom’ (such as THAT may be) that is floating around out there.

Those of you who have been hanging out and listening to and chatting with me hereabouts are aware that I’m in the (ongoing) process of trying to figure out an appropriate and workable way to make my voice- and the voices of other likeminded people- heard about things that I deem extraordinarily important.  Things like education.  And fairness.  And decency.  And accountability.  And doing away with ‘expediency’- political or economic as a cure-all, default motivation.

I’m also in search of a more rewarding job (more money would be nice, yes- but my primary goal is to find something more philosophically/existentially rewarding).

Most of the job postings I see these days are sales positions.  They may not call them that, but that’s what they amount to.  ‘PR’.  ‘Communications’.  ‘Community Coordinator’.  ‘Community Outreach’.

I don’t want to sell people stuff.  I don’t want to be ‘marketed to’- so the thought of marketing to anyone else really makes my skin crawl.  I can’t stand the minutiae involved in choosing one inane option over another inane option.  I really don’t want to be the person gathering the info about inane preferences, nor the one trying to influence anyone in deciding which inanity to go with.

I’m over the commodification of this here society of ours.  I don’t pay attention to commercials (unless they’re funny or have cute animals in them- and even then, I can rarely tell you what they are advertising) since I tend to make my buying decisions based in information I can glean for myself- rather than that which is fed to me by the marketing companies and advertising agencies.  I do take advice from people I trust, but please believe me when I tell you that people who call me on the phone or accost me on the street/inside stores are not members of that particular group.

Competition drives the economy.  I get that.  So having people around who are willing to shill for the various sides in all these day-to-day competitions is a necessary function of industry and society.

I can opt out of that.  I don’t feel pressured one way or another to buy anything these days.  If I like something and see a need for it- or just find it beautiful or interesting- if I can afford it, I will make a purchase.  No biggie.  Having someone tell me that I HAVE to have this ‘next big thing’, or paying any sort of attention to celebrities who are paid to advocate certain products… Yeah.  No.  Thanks but no thanks.

I’m not easily influenced.  And once I like something, I tend to stick with it until something happens to shift my loyalty.  And that something generally has to be fairly cataclysmic.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate nice things and that I’m not interested in getting value for money and something that is going to serve me well for a long time.  All those things are important aspects of being conscientious consumers.  And if we must be consumers (since I’m not about to go off-grid in the wilderness somewhere, I’ve resigned myself to that reality) I do my best to be as aware as I can about the impact of the choices I make.

I quite firmly draw the line at the concept behind making ideas- and the sharing of those ideas- a commodity.  While I realize that I should be able to command some sort of monetary recompense for the knowledge and experiential application of the learning that I have received and achieved, when educational systems are being designed according to business models, I have to protest.  LOUDLY.

This was a key aspect of the discussion to which I contributed on The Current a few weeks back.  As happens in radio, full interviews are edited for time and content (and to ensure that the participants stay on point- as much as possible, anyway.  Producers/editors aren’t magicians), but part of the conversations not heard in the broadcast dealt with this very matter.

Dr. Elizabeth Hodgson discussed programmes that she has been instrumental in implementing at her university (UBC) to help doctoral candidates gain ‘real world/practical’ experience in advance of graduation, demonstrating the ‘marketable’ skills that are gained through the work involved in the pursuit of a doctorate in the Humanities.  This programme was instituted, in part, because of the dearth of tenure-stream positions being offered as universities- particularly North American universities- are placing increased emphasis on the importance and value of those in administrative roles in the university system, over those doing the actual teaching and research.

Dr. Lee, on the other hand, seemed to see no issue at all in this move to make universities all about the business of profit rather than the business of education, or the manner in which university teaching has been commodified.  And, with his own background originating in the business world, he seemed quite intent on placing the onus for the lot of the adjunct professors in their own hands- seeing as they chose to study the Humanities, rather than something of ‘marketable value’.  That he is also a politician shouldn’t have surprised me.

I might not be directly part of that world any longer, but since the broadcast I have tapped into a number of groups that are attempting to raise awareness and work toward change.  The issues have done some trending on Twitter and the subject is being discussed on news groups in any number of forums.

Still, as I noted yesterday, I’m pretty sick and tired of defending the ever-increasing NEED to study the Humanities- especially to those who will never get it.  That doesn’t mean I’ll stop doing it, of course.

It’s too important.

I’m honestly not sure how best to do so, though.  While I could listen to the siren call of marketing advocates the world over and resort to those sales tactics that seem to guarantee persuasion and purchases, I’m not sure I have it in me to do so.  Since my preferred modus operandi is discussion rather than debate, I wouldn’t be all that adept at polarizing the issue(s)- a requirement, evidently, if you’re looking to catch the attention of the masses these days.

See, my lifelong-and always continuing- studies have taught me to think critically and to examine situations and arguments from ALL SIDES before forming opinions.  And that forming an opinion requires work and analysis as opposed to blind adherence to a talking head and/or the denigration of dissenting views and those that hold them.

On a wonderful- and very much under-valued– album many many moons ago (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd., 1967), the Monkees sang a song (written by Craig Vincent Smith) about the transient life of a travelling salesman.  It remains one of my favourite songs from the album- with Mike’s folksy voice at once celebrating the life of the traveller and yet hinting at the underlying sadness of his existence.

‘Salesman, as the years go by,
People changing every day
Hey, salesman ’til the end of time you’ll be livin in the same way
You always wear a smile, you love ’em fast and you live wild
Short life span, but ain’t life grand?’

We shouldn’t have to sell the importance of a balanced and experiential education.

‘Sales’ isn’t for me.  In any of its forms.

But neither is this:

‘I’m going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Thought true love could have been a contender
Are you there? 
Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender’

P.S.  I know what I said about the whole Olympics-as-soporific thing, but HOLY CATS!  THAT HOCKEY GAME!  The maple syrup is flowing rapidly through THIS proud Canadian heart right about now.  SO many CONGRATULATIONS to the Ladies.  And fingers crossed for a repeat tomorrow, Gents!

The good, the bad and the really really bad.

A very mixed-kinda-weekend just passed me by, seemingly quicker than I could blink.  We got more snow, the colder than usual temps are still upon us, I picked up a couple of new books to read, mainly stayed inside and caught up on some stuff I’d let go for too long…

But I also woke up Saturday morning to find that the lovely Ursula at An Upturned Soul has nominated me for a blog award.  Her posts run an interesting and diverse gamut, writing about things such as narcissism and personal relationships/interactions that are always both informative and illustrative of her talent for communicating the intricacies of such complex subjects in well-reasoned and -researched, yet still approachable and understandable, articles.  A recent post, Personality Disordered, was especially resonant for me, given the fact that I am also inclined to run off on tangents.  More than a little.

This morning, wonder of wonders, I discovered that Kim over at Let Me Reach with Kim Saeed has also been so kind as to nominate me for an award.  She, too, writes about narcissism and surviving its abuses, and her insights regarding identification and recovery are enlightening and valuable resources for surviving the toxicity that such relationships create.

I greatly appreciate the respect for my own writing that spurred the nominations, and I value the reciprocal relationships we have developed through our mutual followings.  I encourage my readers to visit with them and explore the many valuable things they both have to contribute to our WordPress World.

I love this World.  As I’ve mentioned before, the most wonderful and surprising thing I have discovered since starting this blog a little less than a year ago is the community that is there to support, entertain and challenge me as I gain footing and change some things up in the development of my online presence.  Rather than restrict the pass-on nominations as suggested by both awards, please have a look through my blog roll- and click on the avatars of those friends who thoughtfully leave comments- and discover for yourselves the variety and engaging intelligence that I’ve been privileged to find in this neck o’ the woods.

Unfortunately, all this loveliness has been disrupted by the increasingly business-as-usual abuses of those who hold power and influence in the wider, outside world.

I referred to this the other day.  Harper’s conservatives are doing their best to ensure that this country becomes a democracy in name only.  Since a democracy can only be as strong as its weakest link, we MUST work to strengthen those links that are inclined to let this sort of thing fester and continue without notice or comment or attempt at rectification.

This is the primary reason behind my goal for 2014- to search out a new type of classroom that is based on the dialectic and exchange of information based in facts and experience, rather than rhetorical reliance upon emotion and belief.

Since my appearance (still reeling a wee bit from the experience- radio geek that I am) on The Current a couple of weeks ago, education and our educational system has been back on my personal radar bigtime.  I’ve joined/re-joined a number of discussion forums dealing specifically with post-secondary education and teaching and this popped up in one of them on Saturday.  I had comparable experiences, upon occasion, but I am extremely distressed that they seem to be growing in frequency, and extent of damage to the learning experience.  I’m not sure that I will ever comprehend the close-mindedness that drives people to enroll in a course in an institution of higher education solely in order to maintain the supremacy of their own unexamined beliefs.  Stories like this are among the things that make me miss the university classroom less and less.

My pal Booksy over at Lost and Found Books brought this back to my attention this morning.  Again with the gradual dissolution of democracy under our very freakin noses by this government and its agenda.

And in local news: this idiocy is about to air beginning today.

I have to admit to feeling a bit nostalgic today.  As such, this tune popped into my head while thinking through all this stuff and the Voices Carry movement that I’m encouraging of late.  And Mark King’s bass playing is always something to witness…

The spirit of the people
The spirit of the people
The spirit of the people
The rhythm has begun …

Old men with their protocol
Lead us off to war
Sometimes we don’t even know
What we’re fighting for
Marching to the beat of their drum

Leaders we no longer trust
Told too many lies
The promises they made to us
Were never realised
Hear me now the chant has begun

Nowhere left to turn
No-one left to turn to
Voices raised in anger
They don’t have the answer
Our whole world’s in danger

Oil slicks on the ebbing tide
Progress out of hand
Blind men choke on swallowed pride
Heads down in the sand
Don’t wanna see the damage they’ve done

Trees destroyed by acid rain
Falling from the skies
When our children place the blame
Who will tell them why
Hear me now the chant has begun

Why is love so rare
All this talk of warfare
Voices raised in anger
They don’t have an answer
Pass the word along
We can wait no longer
Too much blind destruction
Follow love’s instructions
Now the chant has begun

(chant)

Make your choice there’s no escape
Add your voice, the chant has begun

This song was written and recorded in 1984.  1984.

30 years.  And we still haven’t grown the chant into the roar it needs to become.

#iammargaretmary

 

I spent some time- almost 10 years- as an Undergraduate Instructor (Part-Time Professor, Sessional Lecturer… the nomenclature varies with the school) at a number of universities here in Canada.  It says as much on my ‘About page.  If you have checked out some of my musings hereabouts you likely are aware that I do have something of a tendency to, well, lecture– for lack of a better term- at times.  It comes naturally.

N.B. THIS is going to be one of those times.  Fair forewarning.

You’ve also likely gathered that I am not, currently, teaching.  And that this is in spite of the fact that I LOVE being in the classroom, and hold those experiences as among the best of my life thus far.  In addition to the life-long friendships that I established with cherished mentors, I keep in touch with a number of former students.  I celebrate their victories (academic and otherwise) and empathize when the row they’ve chosen to hoe turns out to be more obstacle-filled than expected.

I understand that last bit all too well.  It’s not easy being an academic these days.  And certainly not an academic in the Humanities.  This is my personal experience speaking, along with the witnessed experiences of close colleagues, friends and former mentors who have come up against the same shift in values that I have dealt with.

I personally know people who struggle to make ends meet on Sessional salaries (approximately $7200-$8000 per course per term, when last I looked at Universities here in Ontario) that, even when maxed out, still don’t amount to substantial earnings.  Especially when you consider that Sessionals rarely, in my experience, secure even two courses per term.  And since, despite the incredible work load associated with preparing, presenting and marking for more than two courses a term (with classes of as many as 300 students), those salaries generally don’t include benefits.

Here in Canada we are fortunate- with our Universal Health Care medical concerns are generally not financially crippling.  But prescription costs, dental bills, eyeglasses (to compensate for the strain we put our eyes through reading all our weighty tomes) are, in the main, not covered if you are not a tenured or tenure-track Professor.  And when the rotation of courses means that there isn’t anything available for you to teach for one term, or two terms, or three terms… employment benefits can be difficult to come by.

I remain on the mailing list of one of the Public Unions I was involved with as a Sessional Lecturer, and yesterday I a received an email with a very disturbing linked story.  A disturbing American story, but the situation at Canadian universities is far too comparable.  Also included was this response from Inside Higher Ed, an American website that offers news, opinion and information about job opportunities in the realm of higher education.

Take a second to click the links.  I’ll wait.

How is this possible?

I was well-aware of the insecurity of the job description.  I have read numerous articles about the “Road Scholars”- those academics who travel between universities in different cities to make ends meet until landing tenure track positions (or giving up the career path for reasons of exhaustion and emotional defeat).

I actually was crazy delusional committed enough to my academic career path for a time that I commuted from Toronto to Ottawa to teach a course there for a term.  A WINTER term.  Did I mention it was in OTTAWA?  Where it snows.  A LOT.  One term was enough.  Between gas prices/train fares and the time needed for the commute, it was starting to COST me money to teach my classes.

I admit it.  I gave up.  When reapplying for my job every four months- generally with uncertain results- began impacting my health (to say nothing of my credit report), I gave up.

Unlike Margaret Mary Vojtko, I had options and could afford the relative luxury of giving up.  I am young(er), healthy and I have an incredible support system surrounding me.  I have been able to figure out next directions and work toward revised goals and still keep a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator.  It hasn’t always been fun, but I have never had to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries.

I can’t say the same for friends who haven’t given up.  I know of many who have had to rely on Food Banks and other valued community services to get through the rough terms.  That makes me very angry.

What makes me very sad is that neither I, nor anyone else I have had the privilege of working with over the years, chose academia and university teaching for the big pay cheques.  I chose to pursue my doctorate as an expression of my love for my subject matter and the importance I place on education.

Education for its own sake rather than as a means to an employment end.

I have always felt a strong pull toward the classroom- I continue to be surrounded by teachers- and firmly believe that a strong grounding in learning how to read and write critically and with analysis, research skills that can lead to the development of independent thought and opinion, and the exploration of the great works of human history, literature, art and music are key elements in creating responsible citizens who participate in our democratic processes and concern themselves with issues outside of themselves.

Not everyone out there agrees with me.

I have had far too many conversations with those who see the study of the Humanities as little more than ‘dilletanteism’, with no ‘practical’ application in the ‘real world’.  I won’t go into my responding rant (perfected through the number of times I have had to employ it) at the moment, but suffice it to say that this sort of attitude lies at the very heart of a number of the things that I have mentioned here, in this forum, in the past.  We aren’t critical enough in our thinking or analytical enough in our responses to the wider world around us.  Without being able to quote specific statistics but drawing upon my experiences and those of others I know and hold dear, the decline in the emphasis on the importance of studies of the Humanities is surely directly linked to our current level of intellectual laziness.

As I say, a rant for another day.

Likewise I’m not going to comment on the behaviour of the Roman Catholic authorities and their dismissal of the facts of the case.  I will say that it is interesting that a representative of the labour union that was attempting to organize the non-contract/tenured professors (a move that was stopped by the institution’s claims of ‘religious exemption from federal labour regulations’) seemed to care more for Margaret Mary’s welfare than the religious institution that had employed her for 25 years and then unceremoniously terminated that employment.

Sigh.

Margaret Mary’s story hit very close to my home.  Even though I am no longer involved in that world, I know and deeply respect many of those that are.

As Daniel Kovalik (said union representative) noted in Colleen Flaherty’s article:

“As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet.  Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.  Compare this to the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”

In the last year, he says, Vojtko was reduced to ‘abject penury,’ following a course load reduction- she was teaching one class, making $10,000 annually- with huge medical bills stemming from her cancer treatment.  She could no longer afford heating, so she worked at an Eat n’ Park restaurant at night to stay warm.  She tried to sleep during the day at Dusquesne (University), when she wasn’t teaching.

“When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office,” Kovalik says.  “finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor- despite many glowing evaluations from her students.”

Please note that Margaret Mary was 83 when she died, earlier this month.

As Mr. Kovalik also notes, ‘adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities.’

Despite ill-informed commentary to the contrary, we do not treat our teachers (at any level of the educational system) with the respect and dignity they deserve- especially given the importance of their role in furthering the education of the next generations of community, institutional (medical, educational, not-for-profit and etc.), business and political leaders.

In addition to his statement that freedom is impossible without education, Epictetus maintained that the understanding of our ignorance and gullibility needs to be the first subject of all study.  With this self-knowledge we can begin to discover and incorporate knowledge that has come before us, and use it to develop our own ideas and solutions to problems.

Strong teachers facilitate this process.

We need them.

Desperately.

This a reality that is reaching critical mass.  The life of Margaret Mary Vojtko is a shameful illustration of the imbalance between the compensation received by teachers and that received by administrators in educational systems both here and in the US (the same can certainly be said for the disparity between the wages of workers and the salaries of CEOs in the business arena, but I’ll leave discussions about that sort of thing to Bill Moyers- he’s my favourite voice of reason in that particular realm).

I WAS Margaret Mary.  I left the world of the university when the ‘paying of dues’ on the road to career success seemed less and less likely to lead to anything like a liveable payout.

I quit.  I admit that.

I know a lot of people who defiantly remain on the road, and one or two of them could well end lives of educating, mentoring and facilitating the development of pivotal skills, in the same ignominious manner as did this life-long teacher who positively impacted the lives of countless students.

It’s long past time for us to re-evaluate our societal priorities and set up a rest station on this road- an exit that offers a break from the long haul, to grab a cup of figurative coffee and have just a little bit of leisure time to shore up reserves before getting back in the classroom to aid in the retention of freedom about which Epictetus spoke.    Almost 2000 years ago.

I just hope that there are still enough people out there who have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to the analytical and critical thinking tools- like those suggested by Epictetus- required to address and rescind such inequities.

If we don’t make systemic changes SOON, there certainly won’t be in the years to come.

Papa Kaz- Part 1

I have always been surrounded by storytellers.  Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.

Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen  Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.

I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.

I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.

————————————————————————————————-

I am very lucky.  I know this, and probably don’t articulate it nearly enough.  Especially lately.  I have been quite caught up in dissatisfaction in one key area of my life- career concerns- which, while it is a legit sense of worry and stress, should not detract from the good fortune that is my main lot in life.

I am fortunate to be loved and supported in my choices by family and friends that continue to stand by me.  I was supported in my drive to continue my education, in a field that wasn’t likely to get me into the Fortune 500 at any point.

Education, and its importance, has been a staple ever since I can remember.  I’ve been surrounded by educators- whether career teachers or by teachers by nature- and I have had the privilege of teaching others at various times in my life.

These teachers have all brought various things into my life- demonstrating, by example, the techniques and tendencies I most aspired to in my own classrooms.  Some of them have been storytellers as well.

After a number of years out of school doing various things, I went back to university full time.  I was unsure about direction- and exactly what I wanted my focus to be.  I took a variety of courses- Irish language, English Lit, Philosophy, and a couple of classes in Religious Studies- an interdisciplinary program that approached the study of world religions from  historical, literary critical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, women’s studies and philosophical methodologies.  Absent from the list was theology- and this suited me just fine.  I had already comfortably confirmed my non-belief and didn’t feel like being preached at.

In this first year in the program I met Papa Kaz.  He taught biblical studies from historical, literary- and rhetorical-critical perspectives.  He seemed to have been born in a classroom.

As our relationship developed- he would become my Master’s Adviser, and one of the two real mentors of my graduate studies- I learned that he had found his vocation in high school classrooms in Queens, NY.  Thirty years after coming to Canada, falling in love with a good Canadian girl, completing his Doctorate in Germany and raising a family upon his return, he still had traces of that accent and vestiges of the neighbourhood in his mannerisms.

The university environment was changing- there was increasingly less of a focus on teaching and mentoring as publishing and research excellence began to surpass the actual educational emphasis as a means of attracting external funding.  He remained committed to the idea (rapidly becoming outdated) that universities were about learning– and teaching the tools and habits that would follow students through their lives into whatever careers they might find themselves.

Each of his syllabi contained a caveat (that I subsequently used, with his permission, on each of my own) that explained that a university education was meant, among other things equally valuable, to prepare students for life in the working world.  That means devoting 40 hours per week to studies for full time students.  In addition to class time (3 hours/course/week, on average), assignments and readings were to be factored into the 40 hours, and, like the real world of work, sometimes students/employees would be required to put in ‘overtime’- when exams or major papers came up in the requirements.

Whether or not he believed that his students would go on to live lives enhanced by the specific subject matter he taught (he was aware that a lot of his courses were taken as electives by those who thought they knew it all from their childhood Sunday School classes), he DID expect that his students would complete his courses and move on with the ability to effectively budget time, read critically, analyse research sources and form their own opinions on the varied subject matter.

In the classroom and out of it, he told hilarious- and scandalous- stories about nuns and priests he met in his travels.  And hilarious- and scandalous- stories about the professional WWE wrestlers he met in an elevator in Toronto that one time (the Rock and Papa Kaz had quite the convo, apparently).  In order to illustrate Jesus’ use of parabolic language in the gospel accounts he created his own parables which he shared with his fortunate students.  Most memorable was the story of ‘Grandpa and the Dog’, which began with good intentions, and was a wonderful rambling tale of looking after both his grandchild and a new puppy, but one that never quite made the point that he was going for.  Even after the 20-or-so minutes it took him to compose and recount the ‘parable’.

I remember laughing hysterically- on more than one occasion- as both his student and then as his assistant.  Watching him at the head of a classroom was truly spectacular.  He wasn’t above hanging off the coat racks or jumping on his desk while yelling in incomprehensible German in order to emphasize a point, or just wake up a sluggish bunch of undergrads.

But he was more than an entertainer.  Pedagogically I have yet to meet his match.  All that comedy up there at the blackboard also made me recall the things he was teaching in an extremely vivid way.  The fact that he managed to keep a straight face when presented with some ludicrous questions and comments was testament to his compassion as much as to his true belief that everyone was teachable.

(How he kept going when asked, in all seriousness, ‘why, if the Romans wanted Jesus dead, they didn’t just shoot him’ I still can’t comprehend.  I would have been in tears- of either laughter or despair, not sure which- had I been the one in front of that particular classroom.)

He took his subject and his students seriously, but realized that learning was about life- and laughter- rather than just facts or memorized knowledge.  He never stopped advising those who he saw as truly engaged and committed to learning.

Papa Kaz cautioned me when I told him my planned course of study for my Ph.D.  He thought I was taking a road somewhat untraveled and not without its hurdles.  Nonetheless, he supported me throughout, especially when that road turned out to be as difficult as he had accurately predicted…

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Conversation with a student

Why do you teach religions if you don’t believe in one?

The ways in which we construct religions- myths, beliefs, rituals- is an incredible window into what it means to be human.  You could say that I believe in them all.  I just don’t believe in the superiority of one over the others.

But don’t you find it hard, not believing in a god?

I find great comfort in my belief in other people.

People often suck.

(I had to laugh.  Truth is truth.)  Yes, yes they do.  But they also demonstrate extremes of compassion and wisdom.  I try to stay focused on that.

But god is ALWAYS compassionate and wise.

I’m not sure to which god you are referring, but my studies would lead me to believe otherwise.  Gods are as ‘human’ in their nature as those who create and follow them.  The gods of Greece and Rome were as capricious and jealous and fallible as any human ruler.  Those of the Ancient Near East created humanity so that their burdens of work would be alleviated and so that humans might worship and provide for them- food, clothing, and burnt offerings… The Egyptian deities fought amongst themselves like children- or earthly rulers- seeking land and riches and the obedience of all who were below them.

But I’m talking about GOD.  You know, the one from the Bible?

And you think that the god of the Bible was not capricious and jealous and often petty and self-serving?  How else would you describe a deity who would charge a human with delivering his Chosen people from bondage, then deny that same person entry into the land promised to them for one act of disobedience?  One who toyed with the life and family and possessions of his most devoted follower and when asked, honestly and with feeling, why, basically told him ‘because I can and who are you to question me?’  Or one who destroyed an entire city in a blast of fire and brimstone because of the breach of hospitality protocol demonstrated by one group?  And then there’s the act of hubris that caused the most complete disintegration of communication in history.  Making the people of the world speak in different, unintelligible tongues, for the perceived hubris of reaching for the stars?  None of that strikes me as coming from a place of compassion or wisdom.

Okay, not THOSE stories.  The NEW Testament.

It’s either the same god or it isn’t.  And if it isn’t, that would make you a Gnostic- and a dualist ‘heretic.’  (I smiled to soften that blow.  He was a student in my Gnosticism class, so if he had been paying any attention he’d understand what I was getting at.)

I’m talking about Jesus.

Who is described as ‘of one Being with the Father.’  A father who, many generations before according the mythological continuity, had destroyed the entire world- save one nautical family- and then sent his son to be tortured and sacrificed by the ruling Roman authorities to ensure the salvation of humanity.  This son was a man pushing for social change who worked to reform his cultural and religious reality and protect those that most needed protection.  I have no argument with you there.  If even a small portion of what has been written about Jesus is historically true, he was a great activist and a man of extreme wisdom and compassion.  He is, to me, one of the representatives of the very best of humanity.  He needs no claim to godhead to be loved and respected, and to be considered a great role model for others.

He was the Son of God.

This is what some strands of tradition and history tell us.  Others hold him in great esteem as a prophet, but one that was fully human.  To me, believing that he was a paragon of humanity offers more comfort and optimism than believing that he was part of a three-pronged deity.  We can follow his example, and that of other, equally wise and compassionate people, without assigning superhuman qualities to his mission or the message.  As I see it, making him a god diminishes, rather than enhances and celebrates, his compassion and wisdom, and takes away from his overall goal: that we treat others as we wish to be treated, and take care of one another.  We are, after all, all that we’ve got.

(The student was quiet, so I continued.)

I am not seeking to change anyone’s belief in anything.  Beliefs are intensely personal and precious.  You asked how I cope without the belief in a god, and I’ve given you part of an answer.  A complete one would take more time than we have this afternoon- or this term, probably- but it’s a start.  The Scientific Study of Religion is about objective examination of beliefs and the constructed realities that we create around these beliefs.  It’s about world- and society-building.  What we’ve discussed today is just one piece of my worldview.  It is a living, developing thing.  One of the goals of education, and part of my role as your teacher, is to aid in the development of yours.  That does not mean I am here to shatter any of your beliefs or ‘make’ you believe what I believe.  The best I can do is offer you another lens thorough which to view the world and its history.  And, most specifically, its people.  What you take away and evaluate and accept or discard will depend on many factors, all of them personal.  All I ask is that you keep an open mind and view the examinations of these stories and systems as part of a journey to develop your own view of the world that is based in your comprehension and interpretation of the wealth of resources we have available.  Critical, thoughtful examination and an open mind are what I’m looking for.  Nothing can take you farther or enrich your life more than those keys.

This was the first of many discussions we had after class and in office hours. Large class sizes often don’t allow for the use of the Socratic method, but our conversations allowed me, as an educator, to truly mark his developing compassion and wisdom, as he retained his core beliefs while expanding his worldview.  He got an A in the class.