Former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard for democracy, therefore, is education.”
I cherish democracy and the democratic process. I value the opinions of others, even when I disagree with them, and see respectful dialogue as vital to figuring out the best way to move forward as a society.
I love being a teacher because I know that my role is essential in assuring that the next generation does an even better job of making sure that the rights of people are respected, and that each individual can achieve their greatest potential.
So it’s ironic that while our schools largely determine how effective democracy will be, it’s the democratic system that decides how the educational system will be run. That means we all need to use the skills we’ve learned in school to make informed decisions.
We’re very fortunate that in the age of the Internet, it’s not difficult to find the information we need to make informed decisions. If we can see past the nationalist rhetoric and propaganda, we see certain patterns.
The first is that countries with the best educational systems tend to have the strongest democracies, the most stable governments and the strongest economies.
The second is that the countries that spend the most tax money on education tend to have the best educational systems. There tends to be very little corruption when it comes to education. The money spent is a sound investment in our children and thus in the future.
The third is that paying teachers a good wage attracts the best people to this field. Of course, teachers also have to be motivated by an idealism or they won’t survive in the classroom. Still, without a just wage, people will find other professions where they can use their skills or they’ll find other jurisdictions where the wages are higher. It’s simple economics: the law of supply and demand.
The fourth ties in with points two and three: an education system needs a healthy curriculum that meets the needs of its students. To develop this and to implement it effectively, you need well trained and highly motivated educators.
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Germany, among others, have strong economies and stable democracies largely because significant public money is invested in education. A well-educated population fosters economic growth and investment, and develops an informed electorate.
The American educational system has deteriorated due to decisions to underfund public schools while encouraging the growth of private schools. Threats to democracy and economic stability have resulted. Clearly, current American policy-makers don’t share the same vision as Roosevelt.
Determining educational policy isn’t easy and 2019 will be a very important year for British Columbia. The B.C. government and its teachers will negotiate a new contract this year. Teachers have watched their wages and working conditions deteriorate over the last several contracts. Many wrong decisions were made by the previous provincial government. Some even violated the constitutional rights of teachers.
Fortunately, not all decisions were bad. There have been significant improvements to Indigenous education and the new B.C. curriculum makes a bold step into the 21st century.
The fact that the educational system has weathered the storm of government underfunding, however, is due largely to the efforts of dedicated educators.
But can the educational system be sustained without significant new government investment in the future of our democracy?
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.