Ignorance is bliss.
Or so they say.
And as we hurtle through the German countryside, on this train voyage from Berlin to Frankfurt, on the last leg of our summer adventure abroad, I believe it may be true.
Throughout this trip, I’ve had access to wireless connections and have checked my email regularly, followed Facebook postings and Twitter messages, but not to the same extent I do at home.
I haven’t read the newspaper each morning, I haven’t listened to broadcast news, and I haven’t been voraciously consuming the ups and downs of world events, whether trivial or significant. It helps that many of our accommodation spots have not provided access to a television or that we’ve been too busy exploring to watch.
So while I’ve been connected, I haven’t been obsessed and that’s opened room in my thoughts and daily experience to a stronger sense of well-being.
Which is an odd place to be for someone who is an advocate of digesting information regularly, of learning, of being aware that the world is so much more than our immediate circles of influence.
So if ignorance is bliss, why bother with education?
In thinking about this question, I realize how value-laden the field of education is as is the contemplation of what constitutes the qualities of our existence as social beings.
We talk about believing in better, but what’s better?
We talk about the value of knowledge, but what is knowledge?
We talk about leading good lives, but what constitutes a good life?
In addition, as I contemplate the historical record (traveling in Europe seems to make history somehow more real and pressing), I realize that crimes and atrocities, throughout the centuries and in our own day, are or have been committed by well-educated people.
Education has not acted as a barrier to tragedy, war, deprivation, suffering, inequality, and injustice.
And while I have a feeling the key is to keep asking questions rather than settling on fixed answers, there is one conclusion I feel able to draw with some certainty.
The most important result of education is to enable people to become and to be critical thinkers. And while the search for consensus may be integral to making progressive changes (what is progress? why change?), individual voices are needed now more than ever as is tolerance for different points of view.
And that’s a troubling aspect of political life in Canada and elsewhere along with the evolution of our mainstream media systems. It seems the goal is to manipulate citizens into thinking en masse by removing dissension and erasing individuality.
I can’t help feeling that we should – at this point in time and with the lessons of history – know better.
Ignorance may be bliss, but, as my nephew says (he’s recently graduated from the University of Bradford Peace Studies Department) “blissed” ignorance is not just.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate purpose of education then: to establish, maintain, and sustain just societies.
If so, let’s get on with it.
My remarks to the Sentinel Secondary School graduating class of 2013. Another version of this presentation was delivered to the Rockridge graduating class on May 17, 2013. This is a full transcript of my words and as is typical with verbal presentations, adjustments and/or changes may have been made while speaking.
Thank you. Merci.
I’m so pleased to be here tonight. Je suis très heureuse d’être ici avec vous ce soir.
On behalf of the West Van Board of Education, my congratulations to all this year’s graduates. Félicitations!
I know many of you are wondering who is this talking head and why does she get to speak at my grad?
Well, in the November 2011 municipal elections I and four others were elected by West Van residents to serve as Trustees on the Board of Education.
That means my colleagues and I help to oversee the public education system in our community and that along with your teachers, the staff at the school and the district, parents and yourselves, we have a measure of responsibility and accountability for your education from kindergarten through to Grade 12.
I also happen to be a graduate of school district 45.
Even though I’ve been around the District on and off since I was twelve, and even though I’ve been to Sentinel a number of times, I wanted to get a better feel for the school and its students before I spoke tonight.
I phoned up Principal Mike Finch and asked if we could tour the school together. And we did. I got to see some of you at work and some of you at play. I had a look into many of the classrooms and then I asked Mr. Finch to tell me about you, to tell me about students at Sentinel.
I’m just gonna give you a moment to think about what he told me.
No, he didn’t say that. Oh, he’d never say that, would he? No way. Uhuh.
What he did tell me is how impressed he has been by the students at Sentinel. How dedicated you are and how motivated you are to succeed on your own terms whether you’re studying French, pursuing your athletic interests in the academies, or being super achievers.
Barb Sunday, one of your amazing art leaders told me during my visit to the school, that she’d sent off about 50 advanced placement art portfolios for consideration. 50! And if you stop by the Ferry Building Gallery at the foot of 14th Street, you’ll see some of that art on display.
What you’ll also see there is the commitment you’ve made to pursuing your passions and the care you’ve taken to excel in the work you do.
And tonight we’re here to celebrate your accomplishments.
For parents, it’s a bittersweet moment, likely tinged with a sense of relief! Tonight is a chance to celebrate the wonderful individuals you’ve become and yet we also have to be prepared to let you go.
That’s what parents do.
And like parents, the teachers, the administration, and all the staff of the West Van school district – even Trustees, we all have to do our best to make sure you grads have the skills and talents you need to continue to succeed. And now you’re moving on.
But it’s not easy as parents or teachers or administrators to let you go because we know that the journey can sometimes be a challenge.
I would like to share with you some words by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. In his poem on children, he writes:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
As Gibran says, you, our graduates, you live in tomorrow and we are not here to stand in your way.
You’ve worked hard or maybe you haven’t. You’ve had good days and bad. You’ve made friends, you’ve lost friends. You’ve studied, you’ve learned. You’ve been on a journey and now you’re set for the next stage of life whatever that may be for you.
And what do you need to successfully navigate what’s ahead?
To borrow the words of Canadian musicians David Myles and Classified, you need to embrace your inner ninja.
Be fierce and determined and passionate. Dream big and take action.
Stand up for yourself. More importantly, stand up for others.
Stand up for what you believe. More importantly, be tolerant and allow others to speak up for what they believe.
Stand up for what is right. More importantly, be open to different views and adjust your ideas if warranted.
And finally, Sentinel grads, take all that we — the community, the school District, the administration, your teachers, and your parents — take all that we have given you, take all that you are, and make the world you are inheriting, make it better.
Make the world better for you, for me, and for those who have so much less than either of us.
I know you can do it. I know you can do it.
Thank you and bonne chance!
Errare humanum est [To err is human]. – Anonymous: Latin
For to err in opinion, though it be not the part of wise men, is at least human. – Plutarch (46-120 C.E.)
I presume you’re mortal, and may err. – James Shirley (1596-1666)
To err is human, to forgive divine. – Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
Then gently scan your brother man,/ Still gentler sister woman;/ Though they may gang a kennin’ wrang. To step aside is human. – Robert Burns, Address to the Unco Guid 
“Address to the Unco Guid’ makes the point that it is this natural sympathy and compassion that is important in society: not self-righteous condemnation.” – Juliet Linden Bicket
I remembered Alexander Pope’s words this week as I watched events unfold in the BC provincial election. When I checked my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to verify them, the footnotes led me to other quotes on the same theme and to Google for the full text of the Burns poem where I found the comment by Bicket.
And despite these wise words, which span approximately 2,000 years of human history, it would seem that in our time the motto has become “to err is human and to forgive is impossible”.
Or maybe even more to the point, “to err is human and let’s make sure everyone’s mistakes are never forgotten”.
And given our rush to judge others on this principle, it seems to me that the greatest disincentive to running for public office has become the process of getting elected.
While this trend has been emerging over time, it seems to have bloomed with noxious fervour in this election.
We’re all on the lookout for “bozo eruptions”. That’s the term applied to the actions of candidates who slip up in real time, but everything has become fair game: whether a word that’s said today or over 20 years ago, whether a misstep now or one from long ago.
And I have to ask what added value, if any, is there in this “new” way of doing politics. Does it benefit voters? Does it allow society to progress? Does it ensure the health and vitality of our democratic institutions?
Because we have made perfection a condition of holding office and yet no one is perfect. It’s not human.
Because we have lost perspective. If anything from any point in our lives can be construed as a liability, then we lose the ability to distinguish between misdemeanors and serious crimes.
Because we have forgotten that living involves choices and that we sometimes make bad choices, particularly when we’re young. But we learn and those mistakes do not necessarily or automatically make us incapable, incompetent, or untrustworthy for life.
Because setting up impossible standards for conduct and behaviour lead to unreasonable controls being implemented to maintain power once it’s been secured.
And that’s why we have a parliament full of men and women commonly derided as trained seals.
We have parliaments and legislatures which we denigrate and political representatives whom we disrespect. We have governments, political parties, and candidates who are more focused on slander and defamation, on digging up the dirt, than they are on policy and good governance.
And that’s an unforgivable mistake.
A year ago, I was elected as a Trustee to the West Vancouver Board of Education and it’s been an honour to work on behalf of this community. I’ve lived most of my life here, I’m a graduate of the school district in which I now play a role, and I’m fortunate I’m able to raise my child here.
As a public education community, we’re very lucky in West Vancouver. We have a great administrative team, we have inspiring leadership from our Superintendent, we have incredible staff, we have a caring Board, and we have a cadre of educators who are diligent, dedicated, and determined to deliver the highest quality teaching and learning.
We’re also favoured in that our community highly values education and families here generally have the means to ensure the best for their children. And yet, even with all these advantages, I see any number of troubling issues which appear to characterize the public education system in British Columbia.
And so, when I’m asked about my experience as a Trustee, my inclination is to say that the system is more complex and complicated than I realized despite having been an active parent-volunteer for five years before choosing to run for office.
In part, I think, because there are many different interpretations of the generally agreed upon underlying principle which I see as “the best interest of the child”.
Is the core purpose of education the success of the individual child or is it the betterment of society? Do parents know what’s best for their child or do teachers? Is an educator an autonomous professional or an expert member of a team?
I’m sure any one of us could generate an endless list of questions on the big picture of education, but then there are the practicalities. How is the provincial government able to show that funding per pupil is at an all time high while school districts have to nip, tuck, or cut programs and services in order to balance budgets? Given that 80% of a school district’s budget is consumed by salaries and benefits, how can innovative projects be implemented when resources are so constrained? How can infrastructure be maintained and new capital projects be contemplated with no additional funding?
Despite the seemingly intractable challenges, there’s no doubt in my mind that we have to do everything we can to foster dialogue on this issue. That education needs to be made the highest priority in this province, that we have to find a way to work collaboratively to make our strong system better.
The reason is simple. Education is the path to a more just and more equitable world.
And while it may be difficult to hold on to this truth given the evidence of the harm humans continue to do to the earth and to each other, it is why I remain committed to doing the best I can, for public education, in the remaining two years of my term.
What a relief! Mark Mercer’s article in this morning’s newspaper reiterated that “universities are about education, about learning for the sake of learning” and that “university done rightly is great preparation for life”.
This was a welcome contrast to Margaret Wente’s recent diatribe against the Occupy protesters. With a swipe of her pen, she denigrates the value of the humanities. She seemingly fails to recognize that there are likely as many mechanical engineers out of work today as there are sociology students trying to find their way in life.
The business challenges we face and the deficiency in employment opportunities for young adults is not due to the educations they pursue; rather it reflects the reality of the structural weaknesses and flaws in our economies and societies.
And while we struggle to address these serious questions, as educators we need to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the value of the humanities in education and the value of the arts in our students lives.
When I walk down the hallways at my son’s school, I’m always struck by the amazing artwork the students produce: artwork directly related to the curriculum, the topics they are studying, and their learning. A lot does get done and I think that a lot more needs to be done to without imposing a further burden of delivery on teachers.
What if in-residence programs were implemented? For example, what if a published author served as writer-in-residence for the district? We have great visual artists on the North Shore — why can’t we look at having them conduct classes or organize field trips to their home studios throughout the year? Why can’t a professional dancer come in on an extended basis, once a week, to help choreograph a holiday show? Could we organize visits to Sinfonia’s (the North Shore’s professional orchestra) rehearsals? Why isn’t it automatically on the calendar every September and October for classes to take in sessions offered during the Vancouver International Writers Festival or Vancouver International Film Festival?
Some schools may be pursuing these sorts of projects and some schools aren’t. These type of initiatives, in my mind, would compliment teachers’ efforts and would be most viable in conjunction with greater support for specialist teachers (music, art, drama, dance, etc.) already hard at work. I also see that such programs would be most economically effective if delivered on a resource-sharing model between the district, the schools, and the Parent Advisory Councils (PACs).
I’m not advocating a specific approach or model because I don’t have all the information necessary to say which one will work the best. What I do know is that there is room to do more, much more. And we must do more because the arts, to me, are integral to the human experience and our children’s learning will be enhanced if art is more fully-integrated in their daily routines as a central component rather than as simply an adjunct.
I agree with Martha C. Nussbaum who writes in her 2010 book Not For Profit – Why Democracy Needs the Humanities:
“If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money. They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.”
I think there’s room to dispute her contention that the arts do not make money (look at this recent article by John Doyle on the profits made by private television broadcasters), but the point is that there is inherent value in the arts and humanities which we risk losing in a world solely focused on measurable utility and on money.
And isn’t that the ultimate purpose of education, as Nussbaum says, to “make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people”?
So let’s do that. Let’s make sure that our curricula do not sacrifice the arts. Let’s not make this a lesser world, but a better one.