Though I’m in a relatively new role since I began at CCPA, my passion project continues to be education. I see it as the first and the last line of defense against the daily attacks on democratic progress and the rise of the far right.
There are many reasons for this: I’ve often said that education provides an organic, community-based on-ramp to bigger conversations – “What do I want my kid’s classroom to look like” can evolve into a “how do we get the money, and what’s the fairest and most equitable way to ensure no one is left behind” debate – and boom! We’re in the middle of a discussion about tax policy and an equitable distribution of resources.
Because education is so community-focused, we witness the on-the-ground impact of higher level decisions in real time, which is often heartbreaking, frustrating and infuriating. It’s also gotten exponentially more depressing in the context of the education wars and the full-throated attack on public education specifically – but really, public institutions in general. Believe me when I say that I am really, really feeling this today – as a graduate of the public system, as someone who was raised by someone who taught in the public system, and as a parent whose children are both in the public system. The Ontario government’s recent attack on the collective bargaining rights of the lowest paid education workers – the ones who literally keep the lights on and turn them off at the end of the day, and who provide support for some of the most vulnerable kids – is truly devastating.
But it means I also see the dedication and creativity of people at all levels of the education system who are fighting with everything they have to make it better, more inclusive, more equitable, and a better defense against the tide of disinformation and regressive pushback to hardfought progressive gains. We need this now, more than ever.
And really, I think, that needs to be the starting point – the recognition that every socially progressive advancement isn’t a ceiling. It’s a new floor. And we need to fight like hell, all of us, to keep that floor and continue to raise it. We can take no gains for granted…and we cannot allow subsequent generations to forget the process by which those gains were made and who benefited as a result – in education, and more broadly.
I’ve learned a lot over my almost three decades in this education work, and certainly after having two children in the system and bearing witness firsthand to how things have changed – for better, and for worse.
But the stakes are getting progressively higher, as a healthy distrust of authority slips into the triumph of individualism over collective responsibility, healthy ecosystems, and the common good. And given the current climate of disinformation, where “did my own research” and the new anti-elitism that seems paradoxically deferential to authoritarianism are evermore commonplace, where does that leave public institutions that are, ostensibly, about socialization, empowerment, and the acquisition of knowledge?
The appalling lack of not just class analysis, but of class consciousness, has allowed conservatives to make gains in claiming to represent the “ordinary worker.” This would be laughable if there didn’t seem to be an equally compelling and unapologetic progressive narrative contesting it. But when progressives focus on the middle class frame and neglect the working class frame, we allow the conversation to shift from what people do, to what they can buy. Think about how the federal Minister of Middle Class Prosperity – remember when that was a thing – talked about how being middle class meant you could afford to put your kids in hockey?
Contrast that with Pierre Poilievre’s transparent attempts to appear rugged and talk about barn building, with all sorts of veiled references to what Canada “used” to be like in the good old days (whatever they were). Or when the Ontario Labour Minister talked about how the province was built by people who shower “at the end of the day, not the start”. Of course it’s clumsy – but what I’m more interested in is the intent – the (coded) language they use, who they’re speaking to, and whether it’s resonating.
That said, neither frame is progressive: one’s fully bought into neoliberalism and consumption, the other into cold-blooded capitalism and patriarchy. We need to re-triple our efforts in demanding and working for an option that’s unapologetically worker-centric, feminist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, sustainable and collectivist.
This issue of Our Schools/ Our Selves looks at the role of the school in the midst of the culture wars and the current climate of disinformation: the school as a target and potential tool for regressive forces, or the school as a mechanism for liberation and empowerment. But it’s not just the classroom content we’re looking at. It’s the governance structure by which decision-makers are elected. It’s the rhetorical devices employed and the (often coded) language used to describe the school, as well as its relationship with and responsibilities to the broader community. It’s the way the school can challenge systemic oppressions, or replicate and naturalize them. And it’s the targets that are selected – usually the most vulnerable – as scapegoats to justify more control, more standardization, less diversity.
What this means, of course, is that we need to be much more conscientious about teaching the history of social movements and the progress that’s been made (as well as the risks of moving backwards). We can take nothing for granted in the face of forces that continue to organize against a robust public infrastructure and the social progress that it enables and encourages. It’s the ongoing work – and the work between elections – that creates a force for progress and change that politicians of all political stripes ignore at their peril. The right has understood this for decades. Progressives need to up our game.
As we protect the gains we’ve made, we must continue to make progress by centring the most vulnerable in that trajectory. We need to listen to our allies when they tell us they are not well-served by the systems in place; we can and must always do better, and cannot be driven by defensiveness to protect a status quo that’s unacceptable and insufficient merely because it’s under attack. That fundamentally undermines social and class solidarity when we need it most.
Finally, we need to get much better at owning up to our own assumptions and even mistakes – or even admitting what we don’t know. Sometimes this means taking a more thoughtful approach to the actions we take, leaving room to acknowledge that things may change as more information becomes available – and this became very clear during the pandemic. Of course this does not mean we don’t take a stand and defend it. On the contrary, we need to be much clearer about what we stand for and what we’re prepared to do to defend it.
Of course, facts matter. I work for a think tank and we deal in facts. But it’s simply not enough to be correct – we also need to be compelling. We need to put those facts in context, we need to do it with compassion, and we need to make sure it makes sense. Not just to people we know – it must also speak to, resonate with and amplify the experiences of those most impacted by the inequality and injustice we want to reverse.
And if we have done the work to communicate transparently, to live our principles, and to step back when we need to, we stand a much greater chance of building a movement that, rather than seeking perfection, is prepared to work together, compassionately and humanely, for shared progress.