Archive for the ‘Liberal Education’ Category

The title of the late Denis John Cassivi‘s 1981 book, Education and the Cult of Modernism, caught my eye.  I spotted it referenced  in my well-worn copy of  Andrew Nikiforuk’s  School’s Out and that’s what first piqued my interest. After obtaining one of the few remaining copies from a local rare bookstore, Dustjacket Books and Treasures, it quickly became apparent that this was not a quick read, but rather a deep, philosophical and probing exploration of the nature and purpose of education itself. Brilliant, incisive, idiosyncratic and sadly forgotten.

“What difference  do elaborate buildings, nifty class schedules and computerized timetables make if the children are not learning?”  That’s a pretty fundamental question and typical of the multitude of insights to be gleaned, even today,  from this little book, published by Cassivi’s research institute and modestly sub-titled, “A Personal Observation.”  We learn, through the book, that such things, the products of “modernism,” are impoverishing education. He sees them as mere ‘bobbles’ or surface preoccupations that exemplify the “destructive impact” of an “educational experiment” he labels “modernism.” No wonder Andrew Nikiforuk (above) was drawn to his ideas.

His extended essay attempts to identify and explain “modernism” as a new ideology and to alert us to its excesses and warn us of its destructive capabilities. Cassivi sees it as “a cult” because in the 1980s, in his view, it was the “dominant force” which had gained “widespread acceptance in the face of countless rational limitations.” It was a form of ideological “theism” which he described as “secular-narcissistic.” Much like radical cults in the Ancient world or the Jonesvile Cult in Guyana, the predominant thinkers were possessed of their vision and viewed everyone else with suspicion (pp, 1-2).  While “modernism” claimed to be a further evolution of Enlightenment ‘liberalism,’ it was not at all — but rather an irrational mutation borne of the present age.

“Modernism” was, in Cassivi’s reading, a false god which had “become an end in itself.”  The purpose and aims of today’s education were being subsumed by it and we were losing our way.  “What we are doing in schools, and why?” was no longer being asked because modernization was an end in itself. One can only imagine what Cassivi would have thought of “globalization” or “21st century skills.”

The “Cult of Modernism” was far from benign because it was corrosive in the world of education.  According to Cassivi, it was destructive of western educational tradition because it exhibited eight rather destructive characteristics: the perversion of democracy, intolerance, relativity of knowledge, realivity of values, rejection of personal responsibility, narcissism, process orientation, and rejection of the old (pp. 7-24).

The aims and purposes of contemporary education were now, in his view, subordinated to modernism.  Leading “education progressives” were completely enraptured with modernism. Instead of steering a steady path and respecting past legacies, they “foster a relativity of knowledge and belief often manifested in the justification of bizarre programs and activities” (p. 39).

Cassivi’s analysis of modernist excesses extended to nearly every corner of education: administration, teaching, teacher education, curriculum priorities, special education and career education (pp. 57-129. Every section of the book contains searing insights and observations.

Educational research did not escape his attention. As a leading education researcher at the time, his critique carried quite a sting. ” Education researchers, ” he observed, ” are that breed of mankind who have made a career out of pursuing senseless questions with a vigor and technical precision that makes the exercise both bizarre and extravagant.”  He thought they only asked questions that had self-evident answers: “How many people in _____ like universities and to what extent?” “Do teachers in _____ use overhead projectors in their classrooms and how often and under what circumstances?”

Today’s researchers can still fall into that trap with rather predictable research questions.  A few possible examples of the mindset: “Does IT assist teachers in ‘personalizing learning?” and “What are schools doing to adversely affect “student well-being”?  Perhaps you can spot real examples.

The author himself could not quite bring himself to conducting such research. His Saint Mary’s University M.A. Thesis on teacher training in Nova Scotia stands out, even today. “What do teachers think about the quality of teachers’ college training?”  The short version of his  answer: “bloody awful.”  It was a worthwhile project, but it depressed him because it was “the stuff of which careers are made.”

Cassivi’s book was simply one small chapter in an incredibly diverse and active professional career in secondary schools, adult education and community development. Ten years ago, on November 11, 2008, Cassivi of Howie Centre, passed away in Sydney, Cape Breton, following a long battle with cancer.  He was a true life-long learner. His early teaching career included various high schools throughout the province, as well as St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent University and McGill University in Montreal. His studies landed him a post as visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, where he was associated with Clair College and the Cambridge Institute of Education.

Cassivi was a true innovator in adult and career education. In 1979, he was appointed program director of continuing education at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, N.S., and completed a 20-year career with the university. During this period he was appointed research assistant for the Royal Commission on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia. He became registrar at UCCB in 1994 and founded many lighthouse programs of teacher and leadership development across the Maritimes. In his sixties, he was awarded a doctoral fellowship for study at the University of London, England.

His official obituary is very extensive, but makes no specific reference to his classic work, Education and the Cult of Modernism.  It ends with these lines: “His special interest was in promoting critical thinking for active, mature participation in the community by confronting superstition, bigotry, prejudice and greed. Denis will be sorely missed by the educational and academic community.” Now you know why.

What was Cape Breton educator Denis Cassivi’s sadly forgotten jeremiad getting at?  Why did former Globe and Mail education columnist Andrew Nikiforuk take note of the book? What has changed in Canadian education since the early 1980s?  Is it too late to absorb some of his lessons and apply them to today’s challenges? Or is it all better, left forgotten? 


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With the 2017-18 school year on the horizon, British English teacher and research lead Carl Hendrick produced a feature for The Guardian with the alluring title “Ten books every teacher should read.” Most of the ten books published over the past decade and listed as must-reads for teachers bore mighty familiar names, such as Daniel T. Willingham, John Hattie, Daisy Christodoulou, and Dylan Wiliam. On that list is one wild card offering, Martin Robinson’s highly original and intellectually stimulating 2013 book, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past.  It’s a courageous book that tackles the biggest issue of all – what is the true purpose of education and how does contemporary schooling measure up?

The author of Trivium 21c is an unusual fellow, a drama teacher-turned-teacher-philosopher, with an unmistakable independent streak. After struggling at school himself, he turned to teaching and joined the profession in his late twenties. Upon entering the classroom, he thrived as a highly motivational teacher of Drama and the Arts.  His initial Twitter handle was @SurrealAnarchy and that gives some indication of his willingness to engage in creative disruption. He wrote the book as a way of responding to his young daughter’s queries about the meaning of Latin terms and innate curiosity about the real purpose of schooling.

As a classroom teacher, Robinson was troubled by the tide in favour of a utilitarian education to prepare students for assessments and success in the 21st century workplace. “Kids were more focused on exams, grades and learning how to pass, ” he observed, “and were becoming less independent and less creative.”  “The new breed of students were customers demanding a service,” in his view, and increasingly expected to be “fed, some of them force fed” with lessons served up “ready cooked.”

In a field overflowing with inspirational educational leadership guides and magic bullet curriculum reform books, Trivium 21c occupies what headteacher Tom Sherrington described as “different ground altogether.”  It stands out as a manifesto for reforming and revitalizing educational practice, our discourse and our system based on a set of core principles that speak to what education means to individuals, communities, and society.


Robinson’s explorations lead him back to the Trivium, the essential construct of liberal education dating from the time of the Ancients. The Trivium consists of three core components: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Here’s a capsule summary of what each element entails:

Grammar: The need for core knowledge — the cultural capital that we accrue through transmission, essentially the things that we all must know to function in the modern world;

Dialectic: The need to question, debate and discuss ideas, to form our own opinions, to engage in authentic experiences, and to grow in our capacities and build character;

Rhetoric: The need to be able to communicate our ideas and knowledge in a variety of forms,  to create and perform with flair and confidence.


Moving from Ancient Greece to the present day, Trivium 21c proposes a contemporary trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric) with the potential to unite progressive and traditionalist pedagogy and approaches among teachers, politicians and parents in the common pursuit of a better education. ‘The three ways of the trivium– knowing, questioning, and communicating — ,” Robinson claims, make for “a great education.” What he wanted for his own daughter was schooling that actually gave her “the grounding” to lead “the good life.”

Education policy and practice in Canada is, as in Britain and the United States, a subterranean battleground. Traditionalists argue for the teaching of a higher order of hard knowledge and deride soft skills. Progressives deride learning about great works of the past preferring ‘21c skills’ (21st century skills) such as creativity and critical thinking.  The bridge, in Robinson’s view, can be found in the trivium because it provides a framework that facilitates “preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past.”

Frustrated by a prevailing educational orthodoxy that seems incapable of  marrying respect for knowledge with creativity, to foster discipline alongside free-thinking, and to value citizenship with independent learning, Robinson favours what might be termed “progressive traditionalism.” Drawing from his work as a creative teacher respectful of the liberal education tradition, he finds inspiration in the Arts and the need to nurture learners with the ability to not only cope but surmount the uncertainties of our contemporary age.  His follow-up 2016 volume, Trivium 21c in Practice, provides a range of exemplars of best practice in a cross-section of U.K. schools.

Author Robinson will soon become better known in Canada for his provocations.  He will be making his first appearance on this side of the pond at researchED Toronto, November 10-11, 2017, at Trinity College, University of Toronto.  It’s not too late to reserve a seat to see him in action with more than two dozen leading educational thinkers and teacher-researchers from Britain and right across Canada. .

Why is Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c such a refreshing education book?  Can the schism that divides so-called “traditionalists” and “progressives” be bridged through a reinvention of the trivium?  Is it possible to both walk on the shoulders of giants and to make giant creative leaps (from those shoulders) in the pursuit of better education for today’s students?  

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One of the most stimulating recent ‘think pieces,’  Houman Harouni’s  “What should a School be?has set the cat among the pigeons in the North American education world.  Originally published in The American Reader (Vol. 8, 2013), the Harvard researcher’s article essentially challenges educationists to think more broadly and seek fresh insights from outside their intellectual cocoons.  While many education observers claim that “the school system is broken,”  few actually stop to do what is known as a “deeper dive.”  In our post-modern era of globalization and connectivity, fewer still pause to ask whether the purpose of education should be completely subsumed by“dancing with robots.”

DancingwithRobotsEducation does matter but that is difficult to discern surveying the public debate over the current state and future of schooling.  Harouni, the agent provocateur, captures the  current dialectic in magical prose: “Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways which kids of color ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ on exams; whether to teach like a ‘champion,’ a ‘guide.’ or a ‘pirate’; whether the arts are a right or a privilege; all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place.” 

The entire North American education debate, Houman Harouni  contends, “keeps folding back into itself” because it accepts established parameters and is almost entirely based upon “self-referential questions” that perpetuate  “a system that has stagnated for seven generations.”  The promise of grace and salvation, in his view, is not enough to “justify the existence of the modern educational system.”  Leading philosophers of education from John Dewey to today’s ‘pedagodfathers’ , with few exceptions, “do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling.'”  While it endears them to educators, it is offered up to justify “the existence of schools as distinct spaces”  amid “the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas.”

What is the purpose of schooling?  Contemporary platitudes are usually served up to answer this question expressing some variation on the theme of ‘preparing students for success in the competitive 21st century global world.’ Such statements are accepted at face value and anyone raising a question about its primacy is invariably ignored or dismissed as a ‘turn-back-the-clocker.’  This state of affairs alone demonstrates why the world needs more education thinkers and fewer technocrats.

Schools are vital civic and social institutions but schooling is never openly discussed unless it’s said to be “in crisis.” Education matters because five hours a day, five days a week, from September to June, children and youth are its captives, up to the age of 16 or 18 years.  At their best, public schools can  inspire student curiosity and instil civic responsibility; at their worst they become what John Taylor Gatto termed “weapons of mass instruction.”  For many education theorists, like Louis Althusser, they essentially serve to “reproduce social relations” and slot young people into jobs suited to their own social class. While schools play a vital societal role, Althusser correctly observed that “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!”

Since the mid-1970s, Harouni claims that serious discourse about education was abandoned to ‘the educationists.‘ Cultural critics, sociologists, and outside scholars  simply “washed their hands of education.”  Progressive educators came to dominate the field, free to conduct research in pursuit of resources, and seemingly “not bothered by their seclusion.”  Today teachers, faculty of education students, and young researchers learn to show “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field.”  Pointed questions are deflected with a wave of the hand and the dismissive statement, “but has she ever taught?”  Any economist or “crossover” academic is listened to politely, then safely ignored.

Today’s educationists thrive on their own isolationism. Political or sociological critiques that challenge the prevailing “liberal social order” or “progressive pedagogy” are not welcome inside the modern schoolhouse. This does  allow educationists to merely shrug-off the core contradictions of their practice. Student-centred learning and promoting student happiness, we are assured, can coexist with raising standards and expecting more from today’s students. Classes would be so much more creative if only we could rid them of student performance testing. It’s tempting to agree with Harouni that schooling has to be “built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.”

Progressive education as promoted by John Dewey’s later day disciples has always tended to see mass education as the cure for social inequities and underestimated the impact of the class division of labour.  Now progressive education is essentially ignoring what social critics term “the end of labour” and best represented by the slow disappearance of the eight hour work day.  Promoters of “21st century learning” see technology as the salvation and many now parrot “the rhetoric of international competition.”

Progressivism has spawned a new 21st century mutation. Today’s children must be schooled to survive and perhaps thrive “dancing with robots.”  The future success of North American “middle class children,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane insist in Dancing with Robots (2013), will be determined by their preparedness for the changing “human labor market.”

Schooling, we are told, must adapt to the changing 21st century workplace. Does this sound familiar? Menial, unskilled job functions will be computerized and labour provided more cheaply in developing countries. Tomorrow’s economy will require three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying-out non routine tasks. Our educational future now rests upon our collective capacity to “sharply increase” the proportion of North American children with “the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”

Educational futurists appropriating the rhetoric of progressivism and acting at the behest of “big data” and “big technology” are, somehow, preying on our weaknesses.  ‘Fresh thinking’ from “Third Way” researchers like Levy and Murnane, based at MIT and Harvard, seems to be trying to fill “the silence” in contemporary educational discourse. Critical  perspectives informed by Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) are simply being ignored or marginalized in the public domain.  Where critical, independent thinking perishes, schools do not normally thrive.

Preparing our kids for success is being reduced to “dancing with robots.”  And, for those who see a more noble calling for schooling, it is somehow disconcerting.  It’s time to ask “is that all?”

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Thinking deeply about the story of public schooling can land you in trouble. That’s why Zander Sherman’s first book, The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of the Enlightenment could well be the most stimulating Canadian contribution to the Great Education Debate in decades.  It came from out of the blue — and has hit the world of public schooling with the impact of a Molotov cocktail.

The Curiosity of School is a searing indictment of every aspect of schooling, from kindergarten to university, offering penetrating insights and packing a powerful message.  Since the days of the Ancients, Zander Sherman contends that education as learning stemmed from our natural curiosity and desire to know the world around us. Acquiring knowledge will never be out-of-fashion, Sherman argues, because it is the very essence of education, and “a good unto itself.” Today’s schools are driven by curriculum serving other purposes, mistaking rigour for vigour, killing curiosity, and robbing learning of its enjoyment. http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670066438,00.html

Sherman is the agent provocateur that public schooling in Canada has been sadly lacking since Andrew Nikiforuk’s “Fifth Column” disappeared in the mid-1990s from Friday edition of The Globe and Mail.  Raised on the rural fringes of a town in Muskoka, north of Toronto, he was home-schooled and, as a by-product of that experience, developed a fierce spirit of intellectual independence.

Like many inventive minds, Zander Sherman found his Canadian high school terribly deadening and very conducive to radical thinking.  Bored to death in Grade 12, so accelerated that he enjoyed many “free periods,” Sherman began to question archaic school policies which limited the freedom of students.

When his high school barred students from sitting on the floor, he began writing and distributing his own pamphlet, The Anarchist, catching the attention of his principal. The cover featured a cartoon showing “a sinister administration puppeteering students forever unable to sit down.”  When the principal ordered him to give out the pamphlets across the street, he complied but “looking menacingly in the school’s direction.”  The principal finally relented, and the PA announcement was greeted with a chorus of cheers.

Sherman’s The Curiosity of School provides a sweeping and contentious survey of the origins of public schooling. Like American education gadfly John Taylor Gatto, he traces the modern bureaucratic education state back to Prussia in the early 19th century.  Under the Prussian model, the state established a curriculum focused on “social control” and imposed it on everyone. The success of the Prussians in molding a disciplined youth and supporting the industrial system inspired system founders like Egerton Ryerson of Canada West (Ontario) and Horace Mann of Massachusetts to import that model into their own countries.

Sherman contends that the bureaucratic education state remains well entrenched in public schooling. Even today, he finds plenty of evidence that schools exist primarily to achieve state-defined outcomes, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and other testing regimes. Behind it all, he sees an institutional commitment severely limiting students’ ability to find and pursue their own interests.

The science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) -based curriculum is a particular bugaboo, because it demonstrates the system’s real priorities. It is, he claims, a government-driven curriculum that favours technology and science to the detriment of the arts and humanities, measures proficiency in these disciplines through standardized tests, and focuses university research in these disciplines. He is also critical of the corporatization of higher learning, reducing education to a ‘consumable product’ and promoting ‘required irrelevance.’

Sherman’s case goes a little wobbly when he turns from diagnosis in a search for prescription.  The father of North American education progressivism, John Dewey, is panned for favouring “pragmatism” over intellectual pursuit, and A.S. Neill’s experimental school Summerhill is dismissed as a 1960s pipe dream.  Yet Sherman still turns to Finland, the exemplar of progressivism, when looking for a means of salvation. http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/books/Thinking+about+education/7071701/story.html

The popular fixation with Finland’s so-called “education miracle” is misplaced. Its national model of free education at all levels is attractive, but that country’s system is not without its imperfections, including the rigid streaming of high school students.  Curriculum is more flexible, but teacher certification requires teachers to have Masters Degrees and they are more closely monitored, limiting their autonomy.  For a system supposedly without standardized exams, Finland sure puts a heavy emphasis on winning the PISA international test sweepstakes.

Sherman raises all the right issues, but steps back from embracing an obvious option – public charter schools and smaller, human-scale alternative schools. That’s a little odd because he strongly favours precisely that type of schooling. If he feels that Wuthering Heights is far preferable to Harry Potter, that Latin and Greek teach mental discipline, and everyone can be a polymath, then it’s surprising that he doesn’t turn to the very schools that continue to uphold that educational legacy.

What’s really driving today’s public school systems?  Why do public schools tend to kill curiosity in students?  What explains the continuing fascination with the Finnish education model? What impact will Sherman’s The Curiosity of School have on education reform in Canada? 


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The bestselling Canadian author, social critic, and English professor, Laura Penny, has returned with an explosive little book entitled MORE MONEY THAN BRAINS.  Just in case you miss the intent of her latest salvo, it’s subtitled ” Why School Sucks, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They’re Right.” It offers a ferocious defence of Humanities and the Arts against the contemporary onslaught of Business and Economics in higher education, popular culture, and everyday life. The Almighty Dollar and its many associated evils in our high-tech world, according to Penny, not only threaten liberal education, but are slowly “dumbing us down” in the early 21st century.

A fine book review by Douglas Bell in The Globe and Mail (April 23,2010) bore the title “Is we being educated right?” and captured well the gist of Laura Penny’s deadly funny message. See http://tgam.ca/MZl (via @globeandmail)

Today’s citizens and even university students show little respect for the very civilization from whence they are descended, Penny contends.  “We often point to our magnificent technological achievements as evidence of our triumph over those benighted primitives who preceded us. I definitely get this vibe from my students. ‘Why do we need to read this old stuff?’ they grouse. It’s, like, old, from the back-in-the-day times when people shat in buckets and were too stupid to invent cool stuff like cell phones. The past is just one long smelly error …”

While Penny is a Canadian, she ventures freely into American politics and culture. In doing so, she sees the American Right as the source of much of the evil for worshipping markets/materialism and fanning the flames of  “anti-intellectualism.”  George Bush, Sr. and George W., the Younger, are easy targets and she has no trouble trotting out examples of famous “Bushisms” such as “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”  She is particularly scathing when it comes to the rise of Sarah Palin (“a gun-totin’, SUV-swervin’  ignoramus”) and the spread of the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party Movement, the voice of the contemporary philistines. Only Barak Obama offers her any glimmer of hope.

Penny is at her best when she turns to assessing the state of our universities and colleges. “The conversion of our universities into job-training centres,” and “the increase in college enrolment”, she claims, is compounding  “our ignorance and anti-intellectualism.” In a recent interview with Stephen Patrick Clare, Penny went even more sensational to make her point. If she were queen of the college for a day, she would “burn down all the business schools and salt all the ashes so no more MBA-lings could spring from the ruins.”  With that done, she would “torch public relations, leisure studies, hotel management, and every other career training program”, until all that remained were “the truly academic disciplines.”

Many defenders of Liberal Education ( especially at Halifax’s University of Kings College) will secretly applaud this line: “If the university wants to survive as an intellectual institution it must slash and burn the professional suburbs to save the theoretical town.”

What’s wrong with today’s society? “Our society celebrates outrageous ignoramuses,” Penny says, “and it devalues intellectuals.”

Today’s educational system, according to Penny, is dominated too much by the “learn to earn” mentality and this is corrosive in its effect on genuine intellectual curiosity. “The more-money-than-brains mindset confuses two things. It treats money as an end in itself and knowledge as a mere means to an end.”

Laura Penny’s book is a great read and is already sparking controversy.  It raises a Big Question for all of us:  Is the whole concept of an “educated society” now threatened?  What has caused the rise of “anti-intellectualism” in contemporary North America?  Does money now matter more than brains?  Is it “dumbing us all down”? That should incite some reaction!

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