Friday, May 30, 2008


Saturday is my high school reunion. I plan to spend the day writing, then make dinner with my wife, and put paid to a bottle of Bordeaux. So, this is one school assembly that I'll be skipping. Maybe next reunion.

I absolutely detested high school and spent my days there longing for adulthood and freedom; adulthood and freedom having been attained, I am now entreated not only to return, but to pay for the pleasure. No thanks, especially since it is not merely a class reunion, but a cumulative reunion. All of the school's graduates are invited to attend, wander the halls, and reflect upon those heady days when they were antagonized, coerced, hazed, ridiculed, beaten, bullied, badgered, tormented, and tortured - and that was just by the teachers. Far worse awaited at the hands of fellow students. In my case, this involved many desperate hours of evading a gaggle of troglodytes whose purpose in life was to test the effect of inversion on anyone who read books. Strangely, I find that I have no desire to see them now, shake hands, pat backs, take business cards, and dither about giving them a call if I need more insurance.

But let's talk about the teachers. Let me begin by saying that I count myself fortunate to have had four or five teachers who were not merely excellent but inspiring, people who understood that there's more to it than jamming curriculum down unwilling throats, and whose influence persists in my own teaching. In fact, I recently dedicated a book to two of them. A few months ago, though, I saw a bumper-sticker that said "teachers bring to learning to life" and it occurred to me at once that they omitted the word "good" from the beginning of that sentence. In my case, a dreary succession of bad teachers — mean, ill-educated, petty, and, in at least one case, literally psychotic — not only failed "to bring learning to life" but did their very best to kill it stone dead.

I learned in spite of them. In a few cases, I learned in order to spite them. Consider the science teacher whose "lessons" consisted almost entirely of forcing us to copy notes from a succession of overhead transparencies, and the history teacher who made us do the same with the textbook; there was the "popular" math teacher who continually disparaged the intellect of his female students, and who once whacked me with a ruler; another who changed the seating plan after every test, putting people with the highest marks at the front right, people with the lowest at the back left (in fairness, it was quiet back there); and then there was the computer science teacher who, when I told him that I wanted to major in literature in university, guffawed and said, "what a waste of time." I'm skimming the surface here: I won't even get into the authentic instances of sexual harassment endured by some of my female friends, confused and hapless in their mid-teens.

Worst of all were the physical education teachers (as Woody Allen put it, "those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, teach gym"), a succession of flabby ex-jocks who exactingly cultivated the aggressive proclivities latent in many young males, allowed them to bully and intimidate lesser athletes, and all the while mouthed banalities about how sports promote "team work" and "fair play". For many an academically inclined student, the playing-field and locker-room tortures, passively and sometimes even actively encouraged by our teachers, are one of the few enduring memories of our high-school education.

It was astonishing, too, how much emphasis was placed on the non-academic, how tolerant so many teachers were of the hissing, muttering, incessant classroom ridicule of academic achievers, but insistent upon the compulsory celebration of mediocre athletics - provided it was male athletics, of course. Loyalty is admirable only when it is freely given and bestowed upon someone or something worth defending. I did not then and do not now consider my high school's football team to fall in that category, and yet time and time again we were hauled down to the gymnasium to cheer ("like idiots for idiots," a friend of mine used to say) and to demonstrate our "school spirit". No such event was ever staged for the chess team, the debating club, the poetry society, or indeed for any girl's sports team, even when they won major competitions. If the goal was to create irrational attitudes to submission to authority — and clearly that was on the agenda — they failed in that, too, since for many of us events such as these only furthered our feelings of alienation and contempt.

But there was no arguing with it, no possible means of dissent that wouldn't be summarily and angrily dismissed, accompanied by the threat of some tedious and unimaginative punishment. One of the biggest problems with our high schools is that the teacher is the source of both knowledge and discipline. It follows that the line between critically assessing what one is learning and committing a disciplinary infraction is often indistinct. Consequently, many students who go on to university arrive with the assumption that they are in an adversarial relationship with their professors. For them, curriculum is a burden rather than a boon; the professor is a person to be worked around rather than worked with. Nothing is more damaging to higher education than views such as these, but they are the inescapable corollary of the way our high schools operate, and of the fact that, for many teachers, teaching is a career they chose by default and out of necessity rather than out of a love for learning that they hope to reproduce in young people.

Well, like I said, it wasn't all bad. I had some fine teachers, and unwittingly even the bad ones taught me what Confucius believed to be the most important lesson of all: that truth has four corners, of which three must be found by the student. In other words: if you want something taught right, you have to teach it to yourself.

Monday, May 26, 2008


On Sunday, I visited the Royal Ontario Museum to take in a new exhibition, "Darwin: the Evolution Revolution." It is a very rewarding examination of the man's life and era — a great many of Charles Darwin's personal affects are present — centering on the discoveries he made during his extraordinary five-year circumnavigation of the globe. It is also the most verbose museum exhibition I have ever seen. By one estimate, the accompanying text runs to nearly 40,000 words, with several short films rounding it out. Late in the exhibition two matters of importance are brought to the fore. The first concerns the state of contemporary evolutionary science, and anyone not rushing for the gift shop cannot help but notice that even the most middling graduate student of biology today must know far more about evolution than Darwin, who did not fully understand heredity and who knew nothing of DNA, ever could have. The second, and by no means unrelated matter, concerns the alleged public "controversy" about evolution, which, the curators quickly and correctly note, is a controversy instigated by a religious minority outside the scientific community. Within the scientific community, the controversies concern the fine details of how evolution works, not whether or not it exists.

I say "religious minority" because, by now, most Christian denominations, including the biggest one, have confirmed a belief in theistic evolution, which is to say the view that faith and a belief in biological evolution are not always or necessarily incompatible. Indeed, there are influential and highly esteemed biologists who are people of faith, and some even attempt to prove the central metaphysical tenet of their faith from inferential evidence they believe to exist in the evolutionary record itself. I was therefore distressed to learn that the Darwin exhibit was very nearly not mounted here, in meek and mild Canada, because the ROM's usual list of corporate sponsors wouldn't back the exhibit for fear of stirring up controversy. But for donations from the Humanist Association of Canada and, significantly, The United Church Observer, the exhibit might not have been mounted at all. 

Let us call this capitulation to a perceived threat from a minority within a religious minority what it is: cowardice. On matters concerning the scientific education of the public, no accommodation is possible with people who believe that the world is 6,000 years old. We should proceed from the assumption that what they think simply doesn't matter. If they choose to reject, without study, the mountains of evidence for evolution drawn from paleontology, comparative anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, population genetics and a dozen other fields and sub-fields, upon which stands the entirety of the modern life sciences, not to mention the evidence from physics, chemistry, and geology that conclusively proves that the earth is very old, and prefer instead to believe that everything that we need to know about the origins of species is contained in the first two pages of a bronze-age text (which, in an alarming number of cases, they also know nothing about) that is their business. But the moment they insist that our schools must give equal time to creationism in science class, it becomes everyone else's business, too. They cannot enter into the realm of public policy and claim their customary exemption from criticism on the grounds of faith. If they try, our first response to them should be to insist that they give equal time to evolution in Sunday school or else surrender their tax-exempt status.

Wandering about the newly renovated ROM (I was distressed, incidentally, by the grubby white walls and shoddy workmanship in parts of the newly unveiled "Crystal") I noted that nearly half of the place concerns evolution in one way or another. And yet, to my knowledge, the fossil exhibits and dinosaur galleries and bird dioramas generate no controversy. In my view this inability to perceive the interconnectedness of scientific theory is yet another example of how badly we fail to educate our youth. Show people — and I'll be generous and include corporate sponsors here — a 65 million year old dinosaur with feathers, and they won't bat an eye. Mention Darwin and they'll howl that if humans evolved from apes there shouldn't be apes walking around.

I'm not suggesting, however, that it's as simple as teaching more science - although undoubtedly more science needs to be taught. We all know that perversions of evolutionary theory have been put to monstrous uses, and on these grounds some people argue that evolution should not be taught and even — in defiance of all logic — that it does not exist. But this is no different from arguing that physics, chemistry, and mathematics should not be taught because they, too, have been put to monstrous uses. Rather, the discussion of moral and ethical philosophy should be an integral part of all realms of education, from gym class to civil-mechanical engineering. In my own field, where a soft (that is, unthinking) relativism is the flavour-of-the-month, this happens all too rarely.

Darwin's great triumph was not so much to propose the existence of evolution — others had hinted at that already — but to propose a mechanism by which it proceeds: natural selection. It is perhaps the greatest and most important of all scientific discoveries, for it points to the fundamental unity of all life. It is not just the apes with whom we share ancestors, but the birds and fish and trees and with every blade of grass and every living thing. And that discovery, that that happened here and perhaps nowhere else in the universe, is, in the broadest sense of the word, miraculous.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Like Frank Sinatra, I've had a few regrets, and one of the big ones is never having quit a job in dramatic fashion. I envy those who have. One day, after having to kowtow to a mean and miserable customer, my wife decided that she'd had it with being chained to a major retailer's checkout counter, asked her boss if written notice was required and, on being told that it was, printed off four inches of cash register tape and wrote "I quit" on it. I recall the exact moment she told me this story. We'd just started dating, and she had me at "I quit". I also knew a guy who went into his boss's office one night after work and said, "I'm done," and the boss said, "Okay, see you tomorrow." "No," the guy explained. "I'm done." And that was that. I never knew him well, and never saw him again, but I liked him much better after hearing that story.

Given the career path I've chosen, it seems unlikely that I'll ever have the opportunity to tell somebody to take this job and staff it, which is the only downside to having a job that I love. One possible solution is to go out and get a retail or customer-service type job and then quit loudly and dramatically after a week or so, but I doubt I'd derive much satisfaction in circumstances where there would be nothing at stake. Dramatic quitting should involve personal risk.

Before returning to school to do my master's degree, I worked for nine years in the private sector: eight of them for a newspaper that had, in those days, a long way to climb to reach mediocrity. (It has now more-or-less officially abandoned the effort.) I wasn't a writer — you had to have a journalism degree to be competent to write five hundred words twice a week about the winner of the science fair, or about the local man who was the first to call 911, but doesn't consider himself a hero. I worked in production, and then did death notices, and then settled into classified advertising, on what amounted to a white-collar assembly line. I worked for four team leaders and a manager, meaning that I caught hell from five ways every time something went wrong, which was often. I hated my job and was bad at it. What was worst about it were the semi-regular "teambuilding" exercises, where adults were forced to do childish — and sometimes overtly degrading — activities whose ostensible goal was to teach the value of group effort. (Click the link, and if you can watch more than two minutes, you should also read this.) In addition, there were occasional guest speakers whose topics dealt with such matters as "achieving excellence" and "becoming a champion", and it all boiled down to the same thing: if you hate your job, it's your problem: the sort of pseudo-therapeutic blame-the-victim piffle familiar to anyone who watches Oprah. I actually knew one of the speakers slightly, and while talking to him later he admitted that he read all this stuff from a prepared script that his company provided, and that he really, really wanted a new job.

I am convinced that the real and intended agenda behind the emphasis on "teamwork" was to discourage independent thinking, to tell the members of the team, in effect, "shut up and do as you're told." But if capitalism has ever succeeded at anything, it has been because of the efforts of industrious and creative individualists — a point that business leadership books make incessantly. My company wasn't looking for those amongst the rank-and-file.

Many people dislike their jobs, but, in my experience, people can be happy in almost any line of work, provided that they are granted the autonomy to it their own way and do it well. Looking back, this may explain why so many of the lower tier-managers I knew were nasty people: chewing out subordinates was the one part of their job where they could exercise a degree of autonomous creativity, and some of them took every opportunity to do so.

I wish I could say that I was the round peg in the square hole, the one who had the courage to point out that the emperor was likely to catch a chill, but the fear of losing one's paycheck is a powerful motivation. So I gritted my teeth and went through the motions, and the dismal days turned into dismal months and finally into depressing years. Eventually — after far too long — I got up the courage to go back to school, but not until the financial circumstances were favourable. So, an opportunity passed, and if I had children I would advise them to quit their jobs before it's too late.

I can't say that I regret those years entirely. I met three or four people who I liked, and I learned how important it is to find a job that you enjoy. Above all, it reinforced my belief that nothing works harder for socialism than big business.

Regular readers of this blog can stop here. The rest of this message is not for you, it's for someone who isn't reading this blog and who, for that matter, probably can’t.

(Dear M.C. You were my "team leader", a little over 10 years ago. You may recall that you once raised your voice at me because I didn't tell you that a certain client was at the counter, even though you didn't ask to see that person, and that person didn't ask to see you. I apologized then, and profusely. I hereby withdraw that apology and many others I was forced to make between 1995 and 1997. I recant all grovelling and fawning and gestures of civility. Above all, I take back my acceptance of an apology that you once made to me. You were a rotten, mean, and frankly rather dim-witted boss, and I want you to know that, retroactively, I quit.)