Why It’s Logical To Support The Quebec Student Strike (For Me Anyway)

- June 1st, 2012

child-miners

“There is one thing this measure will do for the poor. It will deteriorate their condition. It will deprive them of their independence and lead them to look up for state supplies when they ought to look to their own industry. It will make them look upon the state instead of themselves.”
— Edward Baines

It’s logical for me to support the current strike by Quebec post-secondary students against the Quebec government’s announced plans to increase tuition fees in the province.

I’ll go even further: It’s logical for me to say that post-secondary tuition fees should not just be frozen but should be eliminated completely — across Canada.

Why?

Because I support public education. It’s that simple.

You either support public education or you don’t.

The 144-character Twitter version of this piece is at the bottom of the page

If you don’t support publicly funded education, that’s fine — but you shouldn’t accept any other publicly funded services either. I’m talking about things like paved roads, clean water and sewage systems that get the crap out of your life — basics now, but all things that weren’t provided by government 150 years ago.

But if you say you support publicly funded education, where on earth is the logic in placing an arbitrary cutoff point on providing full funding?

Where’s the logic in publicly funding teenagers’ education — and demanding, by force of law, that they attend school — and not funding 20-somethings’ post-secondary education?

It’s not a persuasive argument to say “We can’t afford it.”

If saving money is the objective then don’t publicly fund education past Grade 6. You’ll save a hell of a lot more money and still have a citizenry that is capable of spelling their names, tying their shoelaces and serving your lattes.

You either support public education or you don’t. Any position in between is quibbling.

It’s like the (probably fanciful) story about George Bernard Shaw’s dinner discussion with famed modern (well, modern in the 1920s) dancer Isadora Duncan.

Shaw: Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?

Duncan: My goodness. Well, I’d certainly think about it

Shaw: Would you sleep with me for one pound?

Duncan: Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?

Shaw: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling over price.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic revolutionary changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defence. That is my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
— Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing

 

I laugh and laugh and laugh when I hear people complain about the Quebec student strikers’ “sense of entitlement.”

As if that’s a bad thing.

As if they’re spoiled brats with no sense of how hard real life is, rotten kids who have the gall to think they are “entitled” to a free — or at least cut-price — education.

Of course they’re “entitled.” They’re citizens of a great, rich, dynamic country. Every waking and sleeping minute, Canadians — except for the most deprived and destitute and desolate — enjoy glorious lives of “entitlement” beyond the wildest dreams of a child in Somalia or an old person in Burma.

So when someone spits out “sense of entitlement” as an insult, I think how wonderful it is that some Canadians — unfortunately, not all Canadians — can feel a sense of empowerment, a sense of entitlement from the very fact that they are Canadian.

If you think getting a degree in microbiology or nano-engineering or medieval history or physiotherapy isn’t hard work, you don’t know what hard work is. Covering the costs of educating those students doesn’t mean they get a free ride. They — or their families — still have to put roofs over their heads, food in their stomaches, clothes on their backs, glasses on their noses and transit passes in their pockets (and hopefully springs in their step).That’s hard enough to pay for without incurring tens of thousands of dollars of tuition debt at the same time.

 

“I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
— John Adams, second president of the United States

 

What appalls me is the “sense of resentment” I hear every time someone complains of another Canadian’s “sense of entitlement.”

And something I really don’t understand is why every other post-secondary student in Canada hasn’t risen up in protest against the ever higher burden of education costs they are forced to carry — far higher, for most, than the proposed increases that put Quebec students out on the streets for three months and counting.

I think all you post-secondary students in Ontario and Alberta and elsewhere have been brainwashed into thinking you might somehow be bad people for sometimes, occasionally wishing you weren’t going into massive debt for the next decade of your lives just to get a college degree.

Did you feel an overwhelming sense of guilt that you weren’t paying for your own education when you were in Grade 11? What changed in the intervening two or three or four years except that you were subjected to a form of social propaganda that told you everything was now upside down. “Because.”

Because why? “Because I said so” is basically the answer. And because everyone around you tells you that this is the way it is and the way it should be.

I simply can’t believe how smug and self-satisfied otherwise generous and thoughtful people can become when they settle comfortably into the soft sofa of safe, uncritical orthodoxy.

Right now, some people (maybe most people) who are reading this are thinking everything I’m writing is a pile of nonsensical, unrealistic, ruinous bull.

Let’s return to the quote I led this pile of bull with:

“There is one thing this measure will do for the poor. It will deteriorate their condition. It will deprive them of their independence and lead them to look up for state supplies when they ought to look to their own industry. It will make them look upon the state instead of themselves.”

Those were the words of Edward Baines, a British MP and newspaper owner, in 1843. He was speaking in opposition to a government bill to set up publicly funded schools for children working in factories.

childlabourers

That would be children as young as nine who were working 10-hour shifts. After age 13, they worked 12-hour shifts (at least — see below). And that had only been the case for a decade. Before the Factory Act of 1833, there were no limitations on the age of child workers or the hours they could be forced to work. Children as young as five and six were common in mines and textile factories: The little miners could crawl where no adult could go and the little factory workers’ small fingers were better at reaching into fast-moving machinery to straighten out twisted twines.

And many members of the growing 19th Century middle class, even “the labouring classes,” thought that was okay, the way things were supposed to be. In fact, (they said) the children were much better off than they would have been working in the fields instead of factories. And the public purse certainly couldn’t afford to educate them.

Here’s an excerpt from the report of a factory inspector in 1836:

FactoryInspectorReport1836

Why would those kids conceivably need state-financed schooling in the few hours between end of shift and the sleep of the dead? “It will make them look upon the state instead of themselves.”

Oh, those greedy, shiftless little sods with their “sense of entitlement.”

childmillworker

“I am of the opinion that the effect of the measure proposed by the honourable member must necessarily be a fall in the rate of wages, or, what is more probable, that children would cease to be employed at all in manufactories. Now I appeal to the honourable member whether a measure which would prevent children from obtaining any employment in factories would not be more injurious than beneficial to the labouring classes?”

— John Charles Spencer (Lord Althorp), government leader in the British House of Commons, opposes the idea of restricting child labour in factories to 10 hours a day during debate on March 16, 1832.

child-labour

Full publicly financed elementary education wasn’t established in England until 1870 and it was 1918 before compulsory education to age 14 was introduced there.

Of course the lovely Scots had introduced universal publicly financed education for children in 1561. It was probably that tradition of public education, not the boot of English conquerors and the treachery of bought-and-paid-for aristocrats, that led to a few centuries of dismal Scottish oppression.

So now we jump ahead to the present. And the widespread belief that universal publicly funded post-secondary education is unaffordable, wrong-headed and somehow “injurious … to the labouring classes.”

I am quite sure Canadians 50 and 100 years from now will look back on that kind of short-sighted thinking as being massively ignorant and self-defeating, the same way we now look back on the widespread early Victorian mindset that thought the new industrial economy would be dealt a disastrous blow if children went to school at public expense instead of slaving away in factories for 10 and 12 hours a day.

You either support public education or you don’t.

If you do, you don’t just arbitrarily support public education in Grades 1, 3, 7 and 10 and not the rest. So why do we arbitrarily cut off universal publicly funded education three–quarters or two-thirds of the way through the process?

Argentina provides free post-secondary education. So does Brazil. And Denmark. And Finland. And Sweden. And Norway. And good old Scotland. And Morocco and Sri Lanka. And many other countries around the world, both rich and poor.

It can be done. It’s just a matter of choosing to do it.

A matter of priorities. A matter of spending a few billion dollars on education instead of G8 and G20 vanity summits or Arctic icebreakers that can’t move in winter ice or any of the other massive — but optional — spending commitments various levels of government make on a regular basis.

So, yes, logic demands that I support the strike by Quebec post-secondary students. Because I think a system of public education is good for this country.

Of course, the money allocated to education can be better spent. There is waste and extravagance and cheating and bad planning and wrong priorities. In everything.

So let the people who are making $150,000 and $200,000 and $300,000 and $350,000 year-in and year-out in public salaries deal with that hard, real stuff instead of trying to get cheap, empty show victories on the backs of students working minimum-wage jobs to get through college. Just so those students can save your life in hospital or boggle your brain with a new computer programme when they get out of school.

And I think it would be good for all Canadians, once in a while, to get out on the street and bang pots and pans together. It might kindle a worthy and meaningful sense of entitlement in some wastefully resentful hearts.

 

I told you at the top of this long screed that I would compress the whole thing into a 144-character Tweet at the end. Here it is:

If you think 100% free education is bad then 100 years from now you’ll be like Victorians who thought kids should be in a factory not school

 

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18 comments

  1. Steve says:

    Interesting article Al and one which I never considered. In principal, I’d have to agree with you. In fact, I’ve often wondered why we aren’t producing more doctors and other professionals in Canada where shortages are apparent. Any Canadian student showing promise and desire in fields where shortages are found should be encouraged regardless of means to do so before we look elswhere. Why we need to import(steal) these professional from other countries is a poor solution.

    And those foreign students applying, regardless of how much money or connections they have, should be at the end of the line after every Canadian student has been given first shot at an education.

    Many professionals are courted and imported from poorer countries than ours but have received their degrees thanks to free or reasonable educational facilities in their native land. Here in Canada as you’ve mentioned we have wealth untold and yet we waste much on foolish expenditures while whining and griping about education being a privelege and not a right for our kids.

    As for the riots in Montreal I think what most of people are upset about is the fact that the Quebec students are apparently already paying less than anywhere else in Canada. This opens the door to Quebec bashing as though they have some sort of entitlement mentality whereas students in other parts of the country quietly and politely tow the line.
    Could we be missing the larger point? Maybe so.

    Steve Harris, Niagara Falls

  2. Russ says:

    There is no law that forces “20 somethings to attend school”.
    We have a severe shortage of tradepeople in this country, that could earn a very good living when they acheive journeymen status in their chosen trade.
    All this is possible without huge student loans upfront.
    University is NOT for all, and shoudn’t be. I DO believe that willing, exceptional, Canadian students be fully funded, with stipulations. Certainly not just anybody filling a seat to escape the real world, and party constantly.

  3. alan.parker says:

    I’m with you, Russ — I think a lot more people should be in trades apprenticeship programmes. It can be tough — and tough getting into — but skilled tradesmen (and women) are always in demand, always have a portable and profitable skill set, and get to be their own bosses if they want. Plus they get to build Canada and keep it great. I also agree with you that university is not for all — and I don’t think you would see a big jump in people wanting to go to university just because tuition was free. Quebec has a much lower proportion of university-age residents in college than the Canadian provincial average — even though the cost to the student is lower than elsewhere in Canada.
    Alan

  4. alan.parker says:

    As for the law making it compulsory for teenagers (18 in Ontario) to attend school, I wasn’t suggesting there should be a similar law for older students. I was making the point that Canada has a tradition so strongly committed to providing free public education, that it is not only offered for free through elementary and secondary levels, it’s MANDATORY that children and teenagers take advantage of this freebie service. Why, then, don’t we feel that a continuation of that same education system should also be made available to all Canadians?

  5. B. Blanchfield says:

    Mr. Parker,
    Your argument that, “You either support public education or you don’t” doesn’t hold water. In this province we also have a public health care system. Yet there are limits on this system as well. Rightly, the taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for someone wanting a tummy tuck, nose job or breast augmentation. These are expenses that one should incur themselves and not expect to burden our already cash strapped health care system with. Our system of public education is not perfect, but we as a society accept that public education should equip and prepare our kids with a basic set of knowledge and skills as they decide what they want to do for their chosen career. However, a post secondary education should be considered an investment in their own future. Countless studies show that a College or University educated person earns more money than a person who is not. Many of my friends have said that they never took school seriously until they had to pay for it themselves. If, in your world, post secondary education was paid for by the taxpayer, it wouldn’t be long before you and others like you demanded that those “Other expenses” like food, transportation and housing while attending school also be paid for by the taxpayer. It would never end. I would also like you to comment on whether you believe striking students have a right to block access to campuses to students who just want to complete their education, and don’t agree with the student protestor’s beliefs or tactics.

  6. alan.parker says:

    You make some good points, B. Blanchfield. But I don’t think publicly funded post-secondary education is equivalent to “a tummy tuck, nose job or breast augmentation.” It’s more like publicly funding basic levels of cancer treatment but not funding those treatments that are too complicated or too expensive. As for striking students blocking non-striking students, I’ve already made the point that the current debate over publicly funding post-secondary education bears similarities to 19th Century evolution of labour practices. Striking workers blocked non-striking workers then and now. I’m not personally a big fan of forcing anyone else to do or not do something, but forcible boycotts/blockades seem to be part of the process. So too, of course, are strike breakers and Pinkerton thugs breaking heads and shooting strikers.

    Actually the best argument AGAINST fully funding post-secondary education came from my son (who is in U of T) when I tried out the line on him that “If you got free education in Grade 11 and 12, why shouldn’t you get free education two years further on in the same process.”
    His response?
    “If I was getting the same type of education I got in Grade 11, it wouldn’t be worth my while to go to university whether I had to pay or not.”
    That’s a hard argument to counter — but has to do more with teaching standards and performance expectations than it does with source of funding. Unless publicly funded services are always crap — and I don’t think they are.

  7. John says:

    I usually don’t leave comments but this subject it quite interesting. I have a few points that I would like to share.

    You say that if we have public funded education up to Grade 12, why wouldn’t fund post-secondary school? Why stop at post-secondary? Why not keep paying for post-graduate and doctoral education as well. That way one can stay in school for free until their 30′s before having to get a job and pay taxes for the free education they are receiving.

    Another point to do with public school. Why do we have private schools? I believe that they exist to provide a different schooling for those who wish and can afford it. The same with post-secondary, it’s not for everyone. It is for those whose wish to attend and can afford it.

    As far as not having to pay for post-secondary education. There are a great number of schollarships and bursaries available to those who dedicate themselves and are willing to apply. You can even complete a fully subsidized university degree, all you have to do is join the Canadian Military.

    But then you might have to go overseas and defend your country instead of rioting on the street while not attending your classes.

    Thank you.

  8. Alex says:

    So what i’m getting from you is manual labour is in itself evil. I grew up on a farm in central Alberta where it was extremely common for kids as young as 10-12 years of age to be withdrawn from school at harvest. I myself knew how to drive all the machinery on my farm by age 12. I knew how to shoot every gun we owned (in a responsible manner) by this age as well. I knew kids who were using tools like chainsaws (they scared the hell out me) by that age and could handle full grown horses and 1000 lbs bulls by themselves (they scared the hell out of me too). You seem to share the same ‘steaks come from safeway’ attitude far too many urban desk jockeys share. So being in school is automatically ‘better’ or ‘moral’ than working in a factory? Quite the slap in the face to the blue collars that built this nation for ivory hands types like yourself.

    So our future beaurocrats get a free $50,000 dollar education. What do the kids who decide to run the family farm get after highschool of equal value? And if your point is really so shallow as ‘university makes a more rounded and better person’ I raise you that churches have turned out just as many ‘well rounded and moral’ citizens. For free.

  9. Jimmy says:

    “Free post-secondary education”. Sure! Why not. The kids out in the streets right now are the ones who will pay for it. So if that’s what they want, how could one say no.
    But then, if they are forced to choose between that and some other wall to wall social service presently provided to them here in Quebec, will they be willing to make that choice?
    How many more students would that enable to get a degree in medecine, engineering, and/or whatever other field is in shortage? Or in other words, is the shortage of graduates in those fields really due to the costs of university education, at least in Quebec?
    Will free education really diminish the number of life-long students with post doctorat degrees in those fields where the diploma is not worth the paper it’s printed on when it comes to finding a job?
    Does your implementation of free education accross the board also include any discussion on how to ensure that we actually improve on the shortfalls of today’s society, or is it the “no strings attached” concept, like these “leaders of tomorrow” who presently want to have their cake and eat it too?

  10. Scott says:

    Mr. Parker,

    So, you believe absolutely every form of education should be free? I’m 35 years old and currently enrolled in programs to obtain professional certification, should that be covered? I also buy a lot of books that are related to my field, thereby improving my education, should those be covered? Should anything that provides the minutest amount of education be covered, after all we don’t want to arbitrarily draw lines now.

    In your comment of June 4, 2012 at 1:46pm you state “I’m not personally a big fan of forcing anyone else to do or not do something” yet you clearly have no problem forcing me and other taxpayers to pay for post secondary education, so to paraphrase a comment you made in the article, you either support forcing people to do something or you don’t, and clearly we know which side of the fence you are on.

    If you don’t think people abuse and/or over use something that is free or underpriced, why do governments spend so much money telling people to reduce water, waste and (in provinces with public utilities) energy. If people paid the true cost of something they would be able to better to decide how much of something they consume, that applies for water, education or health care (if you don’t believe that one, spend some time in an emergency ward and tell me absolutely every single one of those people are there for true emergencies).

  11. Jimmy says:

    So rioting, destroying public property and acting like thugs to get what you want is okay in your eyes. If someone wants to better themselves and make the big bucks, then they can pay for it. So they amass a bunch of debt to make between five and ten times – even more in some cases – the current minimium wage. Boo hoo. If you want to live the good life, you’re going to have to pay for it. The students in Quebec, well, let’s call them what they really are, Thugs, want a free ride. The government should have brought in the army long ago to set these punks straight.

  12. Scott says:

    Society arbitrarily draws lines at lots of ages, we have a drinking age, a voting age and young offenders age. Should we allow minors to purchase alcohol and cigarettes? If it’s a maturity and/or personal responsibility thing, then why shouldn’t that apply to post secondary education? If 18 years is the magic age at which people become fine upstanding citizens that are able to vote, why not allow them to take responsibility for their future by paying for their own education?

  13. Paul Delaney says:

    Good spiel. I can kind of agree with you in part. When I went to university the price was a lot lower than today and you could get grants, tuition paid and a loan. Only about a third had to be paid back. They eventually had it all a loan, where we stand today. Problem was that we had “permanent” students. Did almost every course in the university and never graduated with anything or just kept going back to do another degree, most typically the social sciences that really had little application in an economy. This was not helping the country. So how do you deal with this? Where does it stop? I do a commerce degree, a useful thing in the country, but then decide it is too boring, so I go back and get an engineering degree, but then don’t want the pressure, so back I go to do a history degree not worrying that there is not much need for thousands of history graduates. So then it’s off to a trades school, as we should fund that as well. And I try my hand at 2 or 3 trades but really don’t like getting my hands dirty. So back to university to do an education degree, as there seems a lot of work there!! So why isn’t that all paid for. How do you decide when to cut someone off or to fund them? Should we then demand they do one course that is determined by the country that we want you to do, like it or lump it. Sounds like the USSR at this point.

    Far as I’m concerned we pay for people to get the basic education, the three RRR’s, that prepares them to do whatever else they want. After that you’re on your own. But we need to make loans more available and somehow make it affordable enough so that when you come out you don’t have to be a Madoff to survive. When I lived in Chile there were a few scholarships to university and thus basically only people with money went to university. There was no guarantee these were the country’s best and brightest and I saw that reality as well, while I saw lots of really sharp people who would never get a chance to improve themselves and better contribute to the country.

    So there needs to be a middle ground and the last few decades have seen less money to education and more to a huge civil service that constantly demands more. Lack of education opportunity as I saw in Chile was a bad thing for that country, and this one. But the productive taxpayer has to have a system where they are getting what they are paying for, and that is where the problem lies. And somewhere the students need to become productive people. So they need to be forced to make realistic decisions as to what course they take, based on the likelihood of employment, and the debt they’ll have taken on. So just funding everything is just not going to work.

  14. Simon Leahy says:

    You, Sir, have made my day wonderful. Quite simply. No Quebec bashing, no patronizing attitude towards students, no stating made up facts. And on the other hand, this article shows that the author has understood what too many students refuse to see : public funds are not unlimited and cannot pay for everything. If there is to be free post-secondary education, there will have to be compromises. But it’s a question of political will, of social priorities. As a society, we have to ask ourselves : “Is free post-secondary education a priority? Is it something we want?”. That’s the reason Quebec students are in the streets right now : because they want to have this social debate, because they believe that the question of whether to finance post-secondary education is not a question that can be answered in a few days by a government committee. They believe that it’s a fundamental question that has to be raised, that has to be reflected on and answered by everyone involved.

    And yes, a part of them (I should probably be saying “a part of us”, as I’m also a student) are out there to pay less, quite simply. But don’t the “adults” ask for more services, or less taxes, or higher wages? Don’t business owners want more profit, less restrictions, less taxes? It’s only human. In the end, we are ALL human.

    I guess I just wanted to thank you, M. Parker, for writing this article. For rising above the petty disputes and considering the big picture, and the big questions. For making people think, and talk, and discuss. I’m a little sad that I had to go one province over to find a communicator who’s not succumbing to oversimplification and zealous factional devotion. But then, it’s better than finding none at all, right?

  15. Denis Lemaire says:

    Thank you.

    During the 60s, we were promised free education through university in Québec, by the Liberal party no less. The Parent Report also stressed that education, which was free through cegep, should eventually be free through university, because going to university entails a lot more expenses than just tuition fees.

    How can we blame students who take to the streets when a government does the exact opposite of what it promised?

  16. Mr. Bawkbagawk says:

    you did a masterful job here Mr. Parker. and summing it up in 44 characters was also well done. allow me to sum up the nay sayers: willful ignorance. its not like the university option is open to every student now and there would be no reason for that to change under a publicly funded post secondary system. in fact there would be every reason for that not to change, yes there are many trades in need of young blood, but are you folks actually suggesting a kid with the brains and will to be a doctor should go become a plumber just because she cant afford the tuition? really?

  17. Accee says:

    Mr. B your example. How many university students want to become doctors? And what’s to be said to the taxpayers who are very health minded people who would take the means of self-healing and holistics? Now this is one example of very many. It becomes a mixed bag of economic necessity to the taxpayers’ values. Bottom line, there are scholarships available. There are means to which people with these higher aspirations, rather than this diluted academic environment which are the universities, can acheive their goals. Many students in fields of medicine, chemistry, finance will attest to this. What they would strongly urge are the good grades and commitment. We open the gate wide to neglect, laze and immaturity. And what for people who get an education at this level and want to raise children or become injured or ill? There is no escrow, nobody can promise anything back to the taxpayer ultimately. So hopefully private citizens and corporations can offer more scholarships. We don’t want to continue contributing to an environment where somebody could call the “Olympic commitee and complain because they can do the mile in under ten minutes and elitism to the four”. Do we?

  18. Stevethestring says:

    I don’t understand why we are arguing to establish free post-secondary education when it is already here. Anyone who losses a job through no fault of their own (lay-offs) or is in seasonal work and is unemployed regularly (loggers…etc), and qualifies for EI has access to FREE post-secondary education paid for through the Employment Insurance coffers. Sure, they will not pay for you to get a university degree but you can obtain a diploma (my wife got one in accounting and finance) or even a trade. Also, since many diplomas are transferable to universities, you can get your first 2 years free while actually collecting EI premiums for part of it!!

    So it seems that the government of Canada will not only provide a free education…they will pay you while you are in school. Why?? Because an educated person is less often unemployed, and it is cheaper for Services Canada in the long run.

    So, if you have been laid-off and are collecting EI, go to the Services Canada office and ask for your free publicly funded education!

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