Finding Alternative Media

What exactly is the “mainstream media” (aka MSM)? According to that paragon of media sensibility, Keith Baldrey, the MSM is the mass information apparatus that upholds standards and supports democracy. It apparently does not include bloggers and “citizen journalists”, who are part of an emerging trend called “alternative media”:

Less credulous minds see things differently. In “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream”, Noam Chomsky argues that mainstream media is defined by the corporate interests which financially underwrite the vast majority of Western media organizations.  This ownership ensures that “[p]eople who have independent ideas or who think the wrong kind of thoughts are cut out”. Chomsky argues that direct, day-to-day control of news and entertainment by capitalist censors is beside the point (though it sometimes is); what matters are the systemic restraints that ensure mainstream media organizations instinctively remain – in the long run – within the narratives of the corporate worldview. For example, the careful, hierarchal selection and promotion of employees  – from news reporters to general editors and producers – helps guarantee that “the product of the media, what appears, what doesn’t appear, the way it is slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the institutions, and the power systems that are around them. If that wouldn’t happen, it would be kind of a miracle.” As a result, the “standards” of the mainstream media pitch democracy as a contest between one elite group and another, chosen by a passive audience that normally sticks to the sidelines. Democracy, in other words, is highly attenuated and ritualistic, and is profoundly hindered by a corporate media that reflexively elides any challenges to the status quo. In British Columbia in particular, and Canada in general, it’s difficult to see much beyond the corporate ownership of our media.  There is no non-corporate, non-profit “large tent” print news service in sight. And while the publicly-owned CBC has some relevance on the radio and Internet, its impact on television – aside from hockey – is negligible. Moreover, its reputed left wing bias is increasingly suspect. That leaves us with an overwhelming degree of corporate ownership over our mass media, particularly in terms of television, radio and print news:

As Ross Howard, a journalism instructor from Langara College, laments, “My God, we have the most narrowly-controlled print media, probably among western democracies. And we’re getting dangerously close to risking the loss of the independent watch-dogging role by journalists.”

So what can we do if we are interested in “independent ideas” or “the wrong kind of thoughts”? Luckily, despite the mainstream voices that still dominate news aggregators and social media, the rise of the Internet and alternative media provides a plethora of  “fringe” voices, and provides Canadians with a more complete understanding of their world. True, these voices are usually small, disparate and hard to find, but what else can we turn to in a country without a single progressive daily newspaper, or with many cities offering two daily newspapers, both owned and editorially controlled by the same corporation?

The following is an annotated list of alternative media sources that I regularly peruse. Indeed, since I no longer subscribe to The Vancouver Sun, The Province or The Globe and Mail, these alternative sources are essential to my understanding of the world. I hope the list offers some new ideas and inspires you to think outside the claustrophobic Canadian media box.


National News:

Jesse Brown made his name by breaking the Jian Ghomeshi story, albeit via the Toronto Star. Nevertheless, the notoriety gained from this story helped him establish Canadaland as the go-to site for Canadian media analysis. Brown is an engaging interviewer and raconteur, and his ability to excite the very thin skin of mainstream journalists is very commendable. Despite his central Canadian sensibilities and a quaint belief that the CBC still matters, I look forward to his weekly podcasts (which are available on podcast apps in all smartphone OS’s). I always learn something new about Canada’s media and political landscape, and I would make his podcast show my number one recommendation for a new alternative media experience.

In the past I found its stories to be uneven and loaded with boilerplate socialist rants, but in the last few months I’ve enjoyed many of Rabble’s stories, including this cogent account of the Laura Robinson saga.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
If you want a progressive alternative to the many right wing think tanks so beloved by Canada’s MSM, the CCPA is a good bet. Its articles are occasionally obscure or very local in nature, but the CCPA does a good job of analyzing Canadian politics with credible empirical (i.e. StatsCan) data. The same cannot be said for the Fraser Institute.

I’ve just started to read this site. Though it’s sometimes an aggregator of other news sites, and some of its best content is hidden behind a paywall, iPolitics offers a wide range of interesting stories from Ottawa. I wouldn’t call it progressive, but I think iPolitics aspires to a “big-tent” reputation. Fair enough.


BC News:

The Tyee
Perhaps Canada’s greatest alternative media success story, The Tyee offers a broad range of stories on British Columbia issues. Like many of the other sites, I find certain stories unappealing, but the writing and level of detail are consistent enough that I support it with an annual contribution.  The Tyee’s in-depth coverage of BC education issues is laudable, and I’m happy to see the return of Will McMartin and his analysis of economic policy.

The Georgia Straight
The Straight’s editor, Charlie Smith, demonstrates a healthy disdain for BC’s corporate commentators (especially the aforementioned Keith Baldrey) and provides some good articles on Vancouver and BC politics. Just watch out for the sex advice columns.

The Common Sense Canadian
This site’s best-known commentator is Rafe Mair, and it features stories from both sides of the spectrum. Its (non-corporate) conservative contributors have written some excellent pieces on BC’s not-so-hidden debt problem. Also look for its analysis of environmental and energy policies.

Northern Insights
Norm Farrell’s blog proves just how unfair Baldrey’s dismissal of bloggers actually is. Farrell’s work on BC’s oil and gas revenues has been splendid, and contrasts favourably with BC’s status quo commentators like Baldrey, Michael Smyth, Vaughn Palmer and (most pointedly) Tom Fletcher.

  • Farrell’s site is a mess, I’ll grant you, but he’s apparently upgrading his website in the near future. Scroll down to the archives to find what you want.

The master of the FOI request, Bob Mackin has stirred up quite a few hornet nests in the last few years. Given the BC government’s atrocious record of deleting emails and hiding information, Mackin plays a vital role in keeping the government’s feet to the fire. If only the corporate media in BC worked as hard as Mackin does.

The Hongcouver
This is a recent discovery via Canadaland. It’s basically a blog written by a Vancouver-based employee of the South China Morning Post, Ian Young. He appears to have a high degree of freedom; the SCMP, after all, wants to sell copy and advertising to people in Asia, not Vancouver. Young’s insightful and provocative pieces on the Vancouver real estate market (like this) would likely never be posted in a PostMedia paper.


International News:

Vice News
Vice News is the news division of Vice Media, and offers an eclectic and fascinating mixture of global news stories. Vice News features a large reporting staff who go places and cover stories that are often ignored by other international media companies. In many ways, it’s what CNN should have become. Vice is so adept at creating interesting content that Canadian media giant Rogers has signed a contract with Vice to create original content for Rogers’ mobile, Internet and TV holdings.

I pick and choose my stories carefully on this site, but it refreshes frequently and there’s always something of interest. Consider it Vice News Light.

McClatchey News
McClatchey News was one of the few American news groups to consistently oppose the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Its website always has engaging articles on US and international topics.

Mother Jones
It’s been around forever, or so it seems, and it’s a standard bearer for American progressive journalism and opinion. I subscribe to the print edition, which I find superior, but the website certainly wins for its sheer volume of stories.

The Nation
Very similar to Mother Jones; always reliable though a little predictable.

The New York Review of Books
Probably my favourite print magazine of all time, the NYRB offers a number of beautifully written free articles every month on its website. I subscribed to the magazine for years, but gave up after I moved back into the classroom. I simply didn’t have time to read all the stories! [Unfortunately, it seems very difficult to purchase individual editions of the NYRB in Canada. Chapters Bookstore no longer seems to carry it.]

Greg Palast
I’m not sure I believe everything this guy writes, but I do enjoy his bravado and gonzo style of journalism. He talked about voter suppression in the US long before it became fashionable.

Gwynne Dyer
Despite Dyer’s unnerving fondness for predicting the future, and a frustrating distaste for supporting evidence, I enjoy his far-ranging examination of the world. Rarely does he accept the “accepted wisdom”.

The Guardian
The Guardian’s fearlessness regarding Rupert Murdoch and Edward Snowden has made it an essential site for British, US and European news. If Canada had a daily newspaper like this, I’d subscribe to it in a matter of nano-seconds.


Do you have any suggestions? Are there other alternative media options you would recommend? I’d love to hear from you.

The Basic #BCEd Statistics

The debate over public education in British Columbia is often a heated struggle of ideologies and partisan beliefs. Thankfully, Statistics Canada has published some helpful data in a publication called “Summary Elementary and Secondary School Indicators for Canada, the Provinces and Territories, 2006/2007 to 2010/2011”. [Unfortunately, no newer comparative evidence exists, but the publication is due to be updated next year.] The evidence therein provides the basis for an informed discussion about education policy and funding, and a means by which the competing claims of the provincial government and supporters of public education may be judged. I’ve often referred to the data in piecemeal fashion, but I thought it would be helpful to compile some of the key charts in one post.


1. Overall operating expenditure for public education as of 2011 is $988 less in British Columbia than the Canadian average, and significantly below BC’s neighbouring provinces.



2. After the 2006 contract, it became clear the settlement would not be fully funded. The key evidence for this conclusion is the change in the student-educator ratio. Despite other provinces facing the same demographic and economic challenges, only BC’s SER climbed after 2006. By 2011, BC had the worst SER in the country.



(For a fairly definitive look at the effects of class size, this recent meta-data study doesn’t mince words:  “All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.”)


3. Are BC public educators paid too much compared to other provinces? It’s difficult to make this comparison, because each province has its own pay scale and criteria. But according to Statistics Canada,  the average educator pay per student metric demonstrates that BC teachers are not overpaid. Between 2006/2007 and 2010/2011, per student “remuneration” increased the least in BC, and by 2011 was the lowest in Canada.



(Given that BC public school teachers faced a three year wage freeze after 2011, it’s hard to believe anything has changed with regard to pay per student.)


4. The BC Liberal government often proclaims that student outcomes are excellent. Aside from dubious improvements to the graduation rate (which is fairly easy to manipulate) the BC government often points to the high PISA scores achieved by BC students. While technically true compared to other jurisdictions, these scores have rested on the laurels of previous governments and actually declined during the BC Liberal era. Moreover, PISA scores are the result of many factors, and may not be particularly representative of educational effectiveness, but even if we take them at face value it’s hard to see why they allow the BC Liberals to justify under-funding.



Have I cherry-picked the data? Well, it’s difficult to be neutral about such an important topic, but please let me know if there is any other data you think is crucial for the debate.

Reforming BC’s Scholarship Program?

The BC government recently stopped accepting online submissions to its review of the BC scholarship program, but I had a chance to reply before it closed. The rationale for the review was well stocked with the 21st century jargon that Ministry of Education apparatchiks so adore:

British Columbia has one of the best education systems in the world. But it’s a world that is changing rapidly, and we owe it to our students to keep pace. This review of the Ministry of Education’s scholarships and awards is an opportunity to ensure they align with the new directions in education transformation as outlined in the BC Education Plan. The plan’s vision is to create a more flexible and dynamic education system where students are more engaged and better prepared for life’s journey.

I decided to ignore the change-for-the-sake-of change ideology inherent in this statement, and its typically gratuitous use of “transformation”. Instead, being the team player that I am, I thought I would play along and offer a brief critique of the provincial scholarship program.


The dollar amounts for provincial scholarships are, frankly, a pathetic joke. A $1000 for a top academic student? That’s chump change. The amount hasn’t changed in decades and doesn’t come close to addressing the crushing burden of university. If the government is going to starve the post-secondary system and embrace user-pay costs on behalf of failed corporate tax cuts, the least it can do is raise its support for British Columbia’s brightest students. To be honest, many academic students don’t even worry about the provincial scholarships. Instead, they find an after-school job. They’ll make more money that way. If they earn a provincial scholarship, so be it, but it makes almost no difference in the larger scheme of things. Indeed, my school district doesn’t even make an effort to promote the provincial scholarship program. What’s the point?

And then there are the community scholarships, a pool of money that, in my district at least, offers much more money to students than provincial scholarships. Every year, huge amounts of local scholarship money based on community service go unused or are under-utilized; community service students, whose volunteering can be very mercenary, often don’t survive past the first semester of post-secondary education. To be blunt, they aren’t academically strong enough to hack university.

The painful reality is that many academic students are already very jaded. They live in a province where academic performance is treated as unimportant. Many are angry about all the fuss that’s being paid to vocational students, for example. Then, on top of that, they can’t afford to go to university. Finally, the scholarship money they need is either insultingly small or not even geared to them.

Given the loaded language of your survey, nothing will likely change.

Examining Paul Veyne’s Foucault: Chp. 7

foucault7After equivocating over the necessity of an Objective stance, Veyne returns to a more consistently skeptical position in “The Physical and Human Sciences: Foucault’s Programme”, the seventh chapter of Foucault: His Thought, His Character. The central question of this chapter is the degree to which Foucault is epistemologically confident in his analysis of discourse, an analysis that makes little distinction between the so-called hard sciences and the human, social sciences. The answer, according to Veyne, is that Foucault believes in the scientific validity of his project, but that this “scientificity” can only be understood within the contingent realm of discourse. In other words, claims to knowledge, and knowledge about knowledge, can only be tentative and local.

This chapter also reinforces Veyne’s insistence that Foucault is both a philosophically aware historian of thought and a neo-positivist. Time is an intrinsic element of knowing, and within time, knowing is an embrace of particularities: “the ontological principle of Foucauldism [is] the principle of singularity (78)”.

The Hard Sciences, Like all Thought, Are Discourse

Using the term ‘discourse’, Foucault detected in human thought and action that which, for their part, present-day historians and theorists of science detect in the evolution of the physical sciences, using the expressions ‘paradigms’ (Thomas S. Kuhn), ‘research programmes’ (Imre Lakatos) or ‘styles of scientific thought (or reasoning)’ (Alastair C. Crombie and Ian Hacking). (80)

Science, as we have said, is maintained and endures with no help of ideas from heaven, which [sic] does not exist. Foucault tells us that this is because science is elaborated within the constraints of an institution, that of university research, and has to conform strictly to a certain programme, for fear of being represented as not telling the truth. It depends upon a set-up which, as we already know, is composed of rules, traditions, teachings, special buildings, institutions and powers, etc., and which sanctifies and perpetuates the prescriptions of science, ‘the rules for the formation of statements that are accepted as scientifically true’, and the scientific ‘game of truth’, that of successes and discoveries and also errors that are rectifiable and may be rectified. (87)

For Foucault, Genealogy Is A Science

Historians write history using other means. The semi-proper nouns that they use can likewise possess a scientific rigour, a rigour peculiar to the human domain. They attain that identificatory rigour by ‘densifying’ the description of the semi-proper noun in the same way as a realist novelist or a reporter, multiplying cogent details and relevant features that lend precision to the portrait of the referent and make it possible to distinguish it from events that present a misleading resemblance to it. Thanks to that densification, that intermeshing of tiny true facts, one avoids drowning in summary essentialist artefacts such as race, national genius, and so on. (79)

It is true that Foucault does not seem to be sure of himself. ‘I know perfectly well that I am inserted into a context,’ he writes. I nevertheless think that it is impossible to doubt the great, silent hope that sometimes buoyed him up…

As he saw it, a genealogical critique, as practiced by him, possessed – as did Galilean physics – all the scientificity of a well-founded empirical project. It sometimes happened that he made mistakes and he acknowledged the theoretical errors he had committed in The History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic; but his undertaking was, nevertheless, ‘into the truth’. The resolute tone of voice, that of a declaration of faith, in which he one day told me that Nietzschean hermeneutics had engineered a decisive break in the history of knowledge, showed clearly that he believed this and was hopeful. (82-83)

But the question of time and truth still remains to be resolved. For Foucault, the answer seems to have lain in two convictions: genealogical history is not a philosophy; it studies empirical phenomena and makes no claim to discover the whole truth. Furthermore, it ‘is related to the sciences and to analyses of a scientific type or to theories subject to rigorous criteria’. It can lead to detailed conclusions on ancient love, madness and prisons that are both scientifically established and perpetually provisional and revisable, just as are discoveries made by other sciences. Sooner or later, someone will do better than Foucault and people will be amazed at his short-sightedness. But, for him, it was enough to dispel the four illusions that, as he saw it, were correspondence, the universal, the rational and the transcendental. (83)

Genealogical Science: The Discomfort of Provisionality

If genealogical archaeology is a science, a successful enterprise, each of its conclusions, taken one by one, possesses a truth that is not relative, but is provisional. (84)

Unfortunately (and Foucault is almost obsessively aware of this), the impossibility of rising above and looking down on thought means that even the most revolutionary of thinkers can never escape from our little world of ‘discourse’. (84)

When he tries to shed light on this ‘thought that precedes free thought’, in other words a ‘discourse’, he thinks of himself starting from ‘a thought before thought, thought that is anonymous and constraining’. Stepping back from the space from which he was speaking, he positions himself, ipso facto, within another ‘discourse’ with which he is not familiar ‘and which will recede as fast as he discovers it’. The unease that those quotations reflect is characteristic of modern thought over the past two centuries. Is it any safer to believe in human rights than it was to believe in the god Jupiter? Here, again, our attitude is twofold, as it was when faced with Daphne’s bay tree. We are sure that our convictions are true and would be indignant if the existence of that truth was brought into question. Meanwhile, though, it is with a certain unease that we wonder what future men will think of our thoughts.

..[T]hat kind of unease tends to be buried deep in silence. (85)

Provisional Empiricism Is Not Relativism

At least, unlike Spengler, Foucault could not be and never was a relativist, since, in default of totality and truth that corresponds to reality, and without things in themselves, he did, after all, lay claim to scientificity and empirical truths that were provisional in perpetuity. Relativism – if it ever existed except as a breastplate to cleave in twain – was, despite its name, a doctrine that aspired naively to total truth. This distinguished it from historicism, for which the truth mattered less than the richness and diversity of Life and the ‘solemnity of becoming’ of which Simmel writes: for this suggestive and sympathetic thinker, there was a psychological a priori, just as there was a historical a priori for Foucault – each type of mind engendered a particular vision of the world. (86)

Relativism presumes the truth to be true, since it asserts that, in possessing its own truth, each epoch possessed not just beliefs, but the truth (which, however, was only true for that particular epoch). Its aspiration to total truth despite time is such that it is ready to do anything, even to the point of chopping it into pieces, each for a different epoch, in order to preserve it, albeit in pieces, since each of those shards of the truth are said to form a partial totality, if I dare risk that oxymoron. (86)


Power and Truth

Throughout the world, whatever is held to be true in a set-up has the power to win obedience and trains human beings to be obedient. It is true that the power of the prince is legitimate and it is true that one must obey one’s prince, whose faithful subject (in both senses of the word) one thus becomes. (88)

All power, all authority, whether practical or spiritual, and all morality claims to stem from the truth, assumes this and is respected as being founded on truth. (89)

The vast majority of truths are due to ‘a collection of procedures organized for their production, establishment, circulation and functioning’. These truths are linked in a circular fashion to the systems of power that produce them and uphold them and that reconnect them with that power’. So the great political problem is not error, illusion, alienation or ideology: it is truth itself – which is why Nietzsche is so important. (89)

What is to be done?

Some of you may find this a bitter pill to swallow. If you think that not all truths should be expressed and that values need to be saved, as the geese saved the Capitol (with the best of intentions), this is the point at which we must part company: for we have nothing left to say to one another. We are back with the old battle between, on the one hand, philosophy (unless it is Platonic), which desires at all costs to tell the truth, even at the cost of life itself and the world as it is; and, on the other hand, rhetoric, in other words propaganda, which, in order to be more convincing, bases itself on all the nonsense that people have in their heads, as Aristotle ironically put it. (90)

But where does that leave ourselves, we moderns? What are our ‘discourses’ on the various objects that make up our actuality? That is something that will only be discovered by those who, one day, will find themselves to be different. They will discover what was modern about us. We ourselves, meanwhile, cannot foresee ‘the figure that we shall cut in the future’. However, what we can glimpse is, if not what we are, at least what we are no longer. (90-91)

Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests


Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph is an essay as insightful and thought-provoking as it is elegant.  Hirschman’s Passions is a timeless classic that gracefully explores the intersection of economic, social and political thought, and provides a perceptive understanding of the Western world’s intellectual accommodation and acceptance of capitalism.

Hirschman’s central thesis is that, at the dawn of the modern era, there was an emerging belief that the pursuit of economic interests would stimulate the “benign human proclivities at the expense of some malignant ones” (66). Of course, before the dawn of capitalism, the pursuit of economic interests was considered one of the worst passions; avarice was always a foe of the Platonic conception of Reason and the Christian view of the Truth. Nevertheless, with the decline of feudalism and the rise of absolutist monarchies, the great concern of thinkers like Hobbes was the rising power of the state and the passions that led monarchs into ruinous external and civil wars. In this context, the pursuit of wealth was transformed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the pursuit of material interest. And money-making – now defined as interest – became a sort of mid-way mode of thought and motivation that, since it was “exempt from the destructiveness of passion and the ineffectuality of reason”, provided “a message of hope” (43-44). Positioned half-way between passion and reason, in other words, interest had the politically salutary effect of restraining the more destructive vices of “ambition, lust for power”:

[M]oney-making activities were approved in themselves [because] they kept the men engaged in them “out of mischief,” as it were, and had, more specifically, the virtue of imposing restraints on princely caprice, arbitrary government, and adventurous foreign policies” (130).

Two eighteen century thinkers at the center of this argument were Montesquieu and Sir James Steuart. The former proposed that a laissez-faire economy softened and refined the passionate and violent excesses of man: “It is almost a general rule that wherever the ways of man are gentle (moeurs douces) there is commerce; and whenever there is commerce, there the ways of men are gentle” (60). The pursuit of wealth, Hirschman argues, was thus rehabilitated into a “calm desire” that “acts with calculation and rationality” (65). Steuart built upon Montesquieu’s insights and provided an argument that made the connection between a capitalist economy and a temperate state. “Monied interests” are mobile and less tied to land; as such, rulers who seek to arbitrarily seize the wealth of their lands or debase the currency will find such moves difficult to achieve and self-defeating if they do. As Hirschman summarizes, for “Steuart, it is the overall complexity and vulnerability of the ‘modern oeconomy’ that makes arbitrary decisions and interferences unthinkable – that is, exorbitantly costly and disruptive” (87). Overall, the pursuit of individual interest was therefore assigned the role of a mid-way countervailing force, a force that contained the passions of humanity, and particularly the passions of political leaders.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the “Montesquieu-Steuart vision” disappeared, and new lines of thinking emerged. The “idea that men pursuing their interests would be forever harmless” increasingly appeared to have “an air of unreality about it” (126). Adam Smith, at the dawn of industrial capitalism, was disturbed by the psychological implications of the division of labor, in which, according to Smith, “the heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished” (107). [Thereafter, the Romantics and Marxists of the following century, albeit in different directions, would expand upon the view that the pursuit of material interest was now the primary scourge of human existence.] Adam Smith, as we all know, is still considered a proponent of capitalism, but he turned the “Montesquieu-Steuart vision” on its head. The pursuit of wealth lost its moderating role; it was once again considered a passion – indeed, all passions were collapsed into the “augmentation of fortune” – but now this passion worked like an “invisible hand” to meet the needs of society (108). Put another way, making money was no longer considered a purposeful bulwark against excess, but an ironic and unseen force of social stability and peacefulness.

In the end, Hirschman provides a salutary lesson for the history of ideas: it’s not enough to recognize the unintended consequences of intended outcomes. If we are to better understand our past, and escape Santayana’s warning about repeating history, we must also remember that sometimes the intended consequences succeed, but in ways we don’t appreciate. Thus, Hirschman contends that “capitalism was supposed to accomplish exactly what was soon to be denounced as its worst feature” (132). Let us finish with Hirschman’s own elegant conclusion:

For as soon as capitalism was triumphant and “passion” seemed indeed to be restrained and perhaps even extinguished in the comparatively peaceful, tranquil, and business-minded Europe of the period after the Congress of Vienna, the world suddenly appeared empty, petty, and boring, and the stage was set for the Romantic critique of the bourgeois order as incredibly impoverished in relation to earlier ages – the new world seemed to lack nobility, grandeur, mystery, and, above all, passion. Considerable traces of this nostalgic critique can be found in subsequent social thought from Fourier’s advocacy of passionate attraction to Marx’s theory of alienation as the price of progress to Weber’s concept of Entzauberung (progressive disintegration of the magical vision of the world). In all of these explicit or implicit critiques of capitalism there was little recognition that, to an earlier age, the world of the “full human personality,” replete with diverse passions, appeared as a menace that needed to be exorcized to the greatest possible extent (132-133).

Hirschman, in other words, is a voice for moderation and mindfulness. Instead of simply oscillating between one extreme and the other, we should recognize that our current discontent may in fact be the result of attempts to resolve older problems, and that by abandoning current policies we may unwittingly return to an older but nevertheless still unsatisfactory paradigm. [One wonders, for example, if critics of “New Deal” reform capitalism really understand what existed before.] Hirschman, in the end, reminds us that the continuities from the past still have implications for the future.

The Phoniness of BC’s Teacher “Surplus” [Updated]

By 2008, an anticipated shortage of teachers in BC had disappeared. In a National Post article, the change seemed almost inexplicable:

“My sense is that there are more teachers than we need in a couple of subject areas,” said Marie Crowther, registrar for the B.C. College of Teachers. “Overall the anticipated shortage hasn’t materialized and from my perspective, I don’t think it will materialize.”

So what happened? Why does BC now face a teacher surplus?

Much has been made of this surplus. Indeed, it’s become a favourite topic amongst the right-wing corporate apologists who dominate BC’s media landscape.  According to these pundits, the law of supply and demand should impose a significant degree of discipline on future contract negotiations;  the BCTF ought to stop comparing its members to other Canadian jurisdictions and face the realities of classical economics. To put it simply, BC teachers must embrace the government narrative and accept lower salaries.

But let’s be clear: the BC Liberals have engineered a teacher surplus. Since 2002, when there were dark rumours that the Liberals were going to fix a looming teacher shortage, BC’s pupil-teacher ratio has steadily climbed, and according to Statistics Canada we are the only jurisdiction in the country (2006-2011) where the PTR has become worse rather than better, despite similar demographic trends across the country. And overall, BC’s PTR is now the worst in Canada.


ScreenHunter_20 May. 26 21.06

According to SFU education professor Peter Grimmett, there is a direct correlation between higher pupil-teacher ratios and lower demand for teachers. He argues that “every one-point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio [means] 2,500 fewer teachers”. Facing a teacher shortage? Jam more kids into existing classrooms and suddenly you don’t need as many teachers. Voila, problem solved.


I’m sure many will argue that PTR doesn’t matter, but try telling that to our coddled private schools. Since the Liberals eliminated most Grade 12 provincial exams, small class size has been a prime selling feature in private school advertising. Don’t believe me? Look it up here or here or here.

Of course, our corporate media could fall back on another BC Liberal press release and argue that our “outcomes” are excellent, so why should we worry? [Fellow media hack Sean Leslie was ranting about this last weekend on another right-wing bastion, CKNW.] The outcomes angle might be comforting if the PISA scores that the Liberals like to trumpet weren’t actually going down (see below), or our graduation rates weren’t based on steadily declining standards like lowered grad requirements and a less rigorous exam system.

math (2)

Wouldn’t it be nice if our media commentators didn’t sound like the agitprop department of the sitting government?

When is debt not debt? When it belongs to your friends.

Though Vaughn Palmer is not as obnoxious or snide as others in BC’s Senate-track press corp, his refusal to be honest about our debt is maddening. The central problem is that the BC Liberals have gone on a spending binge since 2005, but most of it is not counted as debt. The Liberals have been able to keep tens of billions of dollars in P3 developments and BC Hydro contractual obligations off the official books, even though we as taxpayers are ultimately responsible for this spending. By some estimates, the hidden P3/Hydro debt is over 100 billion dollars, and makes a mockery of the claim that the Liberals are competent economic managers. Here are two articles that nicely explain the problem:

So where is BC’s corporate press in all of this? If the NDP were in power we would no doubt hear howls of outrage about phony fudge-it budgets. But what do we currently get? Well, we get timid, mealy-mouthed phrases like “debt promises far from being delivered”. Or, even worse, “mission accomplished“. Nothing about contractual obligations and nothing about P3 accounting tricks. In fact, we don’t even hear that the official debt has grown much more under the Liberals compared to the NDP, even without all the hidden debt. No wonder so many people in BC believe that Glen Clark, rather than Gordon Campbell, was the premier convicted of a crime.

The False Argument of Equivalence

Mike Smyth’s Sunday editorial [Ed. The link is no longer available.] is a classic example of BC’s mainstream corporate media once again spinning the narrative of equivalence with regard to BC’s education system. We’ve seen it for years from mainstream commentators like Keith Baldrey, Jon Ferry and Tom Fletcher. [Les Leyne of the Times-Colonist is a recent and significant exception.] The spin basically says that both sides – the government and the union – have been equally intransigent in our so-called “education wars”.* As a result, any government malfeasance is entirely excusable, and perhaps even banal. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of “move along here; there’s nothing to see”.

Except Judge Griffin doesn’t see it that way. She lays blame on one side: the government. No matter how you slice it, what the BCTF has been saying for years is true. The government has had no interest in good-faith bargaining, and much interest in creating havoc with our kids to advance an ideological agenda. That’s not spin or interpretation; it’s what the BC Supreme Court has ruled.

But let’s get back to Michael Smyth. His snideness is matched only by his laughable bias. In the editorial mentioned above, he argues that the NDP gave the BCTF a sweetheart deal in 1998. He conveniently forgets to mention that the deal (as well as previous provincial and local deals) came at a tremendous cost to teachers’ salary and benefits. It was a negotiated deal that worked well for kids but not for the pocket books of teachers. And when the BC Liberals illegally broke that contract [according to Justice Griffin], teachers lost class size and composition language and their foregone salary and benefits.

Even worse, Smyth implies that a government negotiates with both the teachers and the school boards. This allows him to argue that the Liberals were taking away one bad faith deal with another.

… What did the NDP government do with a tentative union contract opposed by the teachers’ employers? They rammed it through the legislature and forced it into law over the objection of school districts.

In other words, the Liberals have now been found guilty of bad-faith bargaining for ­removing contract provisions that were arguably imposed through bad-faith bargaining by the NDP.

Equivalence, right? Nonsense. It simply doesn’t work that way. A government will consult with school boards, but it doesn’t “bargain” with them. The role of a school board, as lousy as it might seem, is to implement government policy, not negotiate with the government. So, nice try, Mike, but it’s another false equivalence.

In the end, Smyth’s rhetorical efforts help explain how a right-wing, Senate track journalistic corp works to blunt and minimize the political effects of a stinging judicial rebuke against a cynical, union-busting Liberal government.


* We also see the deployment of the “equivalence” argument in defense of corporate funding of the BC Liberals.

An elected Canadian Senate is, by itself, a democratic disaster

Update (Dec. 6, 2015): It now appears, in the face of Justin Trudeau’s modest Senate reform efforts, that Christy Clark is aware of the same issues I discuss below. Good lord: Christy and I agree!

The title seem paradoxical. How could electing the Canadian Senate – arguably a den of patronage and corruption – be a democratic disaster? The answer, in short, is that without a change to its current seat configuration, the current Senate is actually preferable to Stephen Harper’s long-standing goal of a Senate that is elected, given term limits, but is not redistributed in terms of seats.

The problem lies in how the Canadian Senate seats are allotted. Ostensibly designed to represent Canadian regions, the Senate apportions an “equal” number of seats to the West, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes (with a handful of seats for the North). But in reality the seats are distributed per province, and the chart below shows how profoundly undemocratic that distribution is:

Province or Territory Number of Senators Population per Senator (April 2013)
British Columbia 6 775,001
Alberta 6 660,890
Ontario 24 565,988
Quebec 24 337,462
Manitoba 6 212,890
Saskatchewan 6 182,313
Nova Scotia 10 94,502
NFLD and Labrador 6 85,595
New Brunswick 10 75,404
Northwest Territories 1 43,349
Prince Edward Island 4 36,441
Yukon 1 36,418
Nunavut 1 34,023
Total/Average 105 334,681

British Columbia’s and Alberta’s interests are clearly under-represented in the current Senate. The province of Prince Edward Island, with a population less than Kelowna, still has two-thirds of the representation of BC (and the other three western provinces, as well). New Brunswick has two-thirds more power in the Senate than BC, and almost 10 times the influence per resident. Even Ontario and Quebec have proportionally much more power than BC and Alberta. While this might have made sense in 1867, it now utterly contravenes a basic principle of representative democracy: representation by population. The idea of representation by region is a red herring – Senators are designated according to the province they represent (except, perhaps, Pamela Wallin) and limited by the number of Senators for each province; as a result, the proportional representation of a province must be central to any argument about Senate reform.

Of course, up to now, the Senate has been a proverbial rubber stamp, so Senate seat distribution has been relatively unimportant. But that would change if Prime Minister Harper succeeds in creating an elected Senate. If that were to happen, the Senate would now have the sheen of democratic legitimacy. And that is problematic because the Senate has, according to the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, virtually the same powers as the House of Commons. While it can’t introduce money bills nor permanently block constitutional amendments, it can do virtually anything else the House can, including vetoing House legislation. Only the lack of electoral legitimacy has held the Senate back from exercising its considerable powers (though even with issues like abortion, the Senate has occasionally intervened with a veto).  So giving  the Senate democratic legitimacy would empower a branch of government that is heavily weighted against British Columbian and Albertan interests. It would have disastrous implications for the political interests of the two westernmost provinces and for democratic legitimacy across the country. B.C. and/or Alberta would be permanently and unfairly disadvantaged, without even the hope that population shifts could alter the balance of power, like it might in the House of Commons. No wonder it’s so vexing and disturbing to see certain British Columbian politicians support such a politically disastrous policy.

At this point, the Harper government awaits a Supreme Court “reference” judgment on whether he can proceed unilaterally without the provinces’ support. Given the problems above, the best outcome is that Harper cannot proceed, or that abolition – long the policy of the Official Opposition – is permissible. Either option is preferable to a legitimate and empowered but maldistributed Canadian Senate.


A Review of Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof

[D]on’t let the fashions crush you. And so many of them are so, so very bad. The thrill of innovation, the desire for simple answers, and the mistaken belief that educational research will shine a guiding light to a smarter, more efficient system, has proven the undoing of us, and will undermine us further if we let it. So we mustn’t let it. (217)

teacherRarely in my 20 years of teaching have I read a book that is actually written by a teacher, for teachers and in defence of teachers. Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof is an invigorating breath of fresh air that deftly counter-attacks the onslaught of dubious educational “research” that bedevils our profession, and places pedagogical leadership back into the hands of those who understand education best: the front-line classroom teacher. Teacher Proof is a witty, defiant, thought-provoking and practical call-to-arms. As a result, it’s a book that new teachers will likely never be assigned in teachers’ training programs, even though every teacher ought to be compelled to read it by threat of a good horsewhipping.

To outsiders, especially in North America, educational politics are characterized by struggles over testing, labour contracts and government cutbacks. However, there is another struggle within the profession that pits teachers against teachers, and teachers against education “experts”. This struggle is over pedagogy, which we can define as the skills and theories of good teaching practice. Bennett’s book focuses largely on this struggle, from the point of view of an active British educator. His central thesis is that “educational science” is a problematic field of academic research, and its application to everyday teaching practice should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Instead of relying on people who are unfamiliar with the classroom to show teachers how to teach, front-line educators should look to themselves for professional improvement:

My opinion is this: there are few things that educational science has brought to the classroom that could not already have been discerned by a competent teacher intent on teaching well after a few years of practice. (64)

Bennett begins in an unexpected manner: he doesn’t really talk about education, but about the scientific method. Given my own training in social science and the philosophy of science, I think Bennett’s summary is clear and pithy, and simplifies the field for non-experts without being overly simplistic. Of course, readers may wonder why they are reading about biased agendas, “cargo cult” science, small sample sizes, lack of control groups, the Hawthorne effect, the appeal to novelty, and confirmation bias, but it becomes clear that these concepts are central to his analysis of educational research. For those who feel the urge to skip this section, I recommend paying attention to the first chapters; they are invaluable to his critique.

And the critique begins in earnest with an assault on Multiple Intelligences, which postulates that there are many types of intelligence (interpersonal; bodily kinaesthetic; spiritual; moral) that exist beyond the traditional measurement of IQ. Like so many of the theories that follow, MI posits a theory of intelligence that is largely untestable and deeply value laden. As a result, MI really has no scientific basis. Even Howard Gardner, according to Bennett, has admitted to the dubious scientific basis of the theory that Gardner has championed: “‘At present it must be admitted that the selection (or rejection) of a candidate’s intelligence is reminiscent more of an artistic judgement than of a scientific assessment.’ So just to be clear, he [Gardner] admits that this is an aesthetic taxonomy, not an objective definition and guide. Some would describe that as ‘opinion’” (73).

From there, Bennett sets his sights on a series of theories that are pillars of modern educational theory: Brain Gym, group work, Emotional Intelligence, 21st century skills, the digital classroom, multiple learning styles, gamification, learning to learn, school uniforms and De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. All of these are reviewed with a skeptical eye, and bludgeoned with highly critical meta-studies, their own lack of substantive scientific evidence, and/or Bennett’s keen Humean suspicion. Cooperative learning, as an example, is examined through the filter of Bennett’s own experience:

Loads of kids really really do like working in groups – witness the phenomenon when you have a group of agreeable, biddable kids who get on with each other and want to show what a great bunch of pals they are by making the best poster. I’ve seen it happen a lot. But this appears to put the strategy benefit before the horse; the point of group work is that it is supposed to develop and encourage these skills of interactivity and motivation. But in the examples where it seems to work best, these qualities and skills have to pre-exist the activity. Which seems to make the whole thing pointless. (85)

In terms of multiple learning styles, the major research in favour of this theory (by Dunn) is based on preferences rather than replicable and measurable data: “The problem with the Dunn research is that they mistook expressed preferences for learning, for real modalities. Just because someone claims they learn better one way, means very little” (159). And after reviewing the literature on learning to learn (L2L), Bennett finds that, so far, “we have precious little research to suggest that children actually can improve their learning by learning about learning, or even that conceptually, such a thing might exist” (176). Bennett thus makes the following conclusion: “Wishy-washy pseudoscience has infected the everyday idiom of educational discourse, so that even the language we use is based on the Orwellian absurdities and inanities of the quacks and hucksters trying to hustle the latest fad and fashion” (210).

In the final section, Bennett offers us common sense advice that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent significant time in the classroom. I won’t go into too much detail, but he discusses such basics as attendance, punctuality, behavior, feedback, solid subject knowledge and classroom experience (much akin to Aristotle’s conception of phronesis, or practical wisdom). Bennett also encourages teachers to exercise autonomy and integrity: “Up to a point, you have autonomy. You don’t always have to use the latest technique or fad, even if the school recommends it. In fact, I would wait until the school demands you do something specifically before you follow the fashion” (216). If you have to “feed the beast” to temporarily satisfy the so-called experts, then so be it, but then “completely ignore it for the other 99.5 per cent of your career” (ibid).

I come away satisfied though not completely without concern. Bennett’s Humean skepticism parallels my own worldview, so I wonder if I’m a victim of confirmation bias (which Bennett discusses so effectively) and if I agree with Bennett simply because of the shock of recognition and the realization of kinship. I also wonder if his critiques, particularly of theories without critical meta-studies, are thorough enough to convince the Believers. As Hume might ask, has Bennett supplied enough inductive evidence to be persuasive? To be honest, while I completely agree with Bennett’s criticisms of cooperative learning and 21st century learning, I don’t think he offers the strongest arguments against these trends. (I’ve discussed these movements in a modest way on my own blog, in posts such as Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows and Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal.) And I suppose my own academic training unfairly discriminates against a writer whose caustic humour belies the serious nature of the topic.

Nevertheless, Bennett manages to cover a lot of ground with insight and courage; Teacher Proof is, on the whole, a well-argued jeremiad that effectively responds to the tsunami-like waves of dubious innovation that continually buffet the teaching profession.


Please feel free to read my other posts on education.


And here are more quotes from Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof:

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.’

[T]he generation of teachers working today (or trained in the last ten years) are barely taught anything other than the latest dogma and cant. Newer teachers I talk to are astounded by any presumption that these paradigms might be questionable.

What’s important is that we (and by we, I mean anyone in the teaching profession) are aware of how easy it is for a value or hunch to become a hypothesis that, untouched by credible testing, can escape the laboratory and run amok in the real world.

But even more important than all that is the experience of teachers, the great collective ocean of understanding that is treated as mere anecdote by many in the research industry, which is ironic when you consider how much is published that simply reflects intuition and personal prejudice dressed up in 10,000 words with references. That ocean of experience is hard to access, however; while most teachers are trained in the context of in-school tutors and mentors, the rot has set in so firmly in some schools and training institutions that dogma is often quoted as solutions to specific problems when what is required is personal experience, transmitted by expert professionals, one to the other.

Here’s what I believe; this informs everything I have learned in teaching after a decade: Experience trumps theory every time.

Bluntly, in a group, lazy kids get a chance to really spread their lazy-ass wings and reach heights of doing absolutely nothing.

[On 21st century learning] [T]his appeal to the terrifying unfamiliarity of the future is a sham nestled in a half-truth.

For a start, it generates the myth that what we teach children (content, facts, etc.) is less relevant, because everything’s changing so frightfully fast; so why bother teaching them anything? This leads to the second danger: the idea that if content is irrelevant (we can Google it after all) then what we should be teaching children is versatility, the ability to think on their feet, the ability to think creatively and adapt to the chaotic culture and fluid job market that our children will enter. Why, it’ll be barely recognisable! Who needs history or formulae when the inheritors of tomorrow will need all their wits about them just to inhabit the cybersphere?

The suggestion that the contemporary curriculum is somehow the death-knell of creativity is nonsense. It’s a bona fide saviour: millions of children exposed to a spectrum of art and opportunity that our grandparents would have drooled over.

But I tire of someone who has never been a classroom teacher telling me what classroom teaching is like, or how children should be taught. If I can paraphrase – I suspect – Christopher Hitchens, being told how to teach by a non-teacher with a PhD in education is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid. His good intentions and intuitions can’t replace the real experience of teaching children. Well-meant aphorisms about arming children to engage with the new learning society are easy to find inspirational, but they’re empty. It’s far harder to inspire someone with concrete and practical ideas. And abstracts, though they sound beautiful, are harder to both prove and disprove.

We learn through content; any skills of manipulating that content can only come about through familiarity with the content.

[On educational research] Enthusiasm trumps evidence.

Good teaching relies on things that have been around for millennia: good subject knowledge; good classroom control; good communication skills; heart and guts. You don’t need anything else. Maybe a pen, if you’re feeling profligate. Everything else is chaff. Everything else obscures the teacher. I don’t need a damn thing other than my voice and a room full of kids. The rest is bull, dressed up as Buck Rogers.

The push for digital literacy is simply a push for conventional literacies using new delivery mechanisms, and don’t rely on anything ground shaking. In essence digital literacy is simply regular, ready-salted literacy with a funny hat.

There’s another trap for teachers here, beyond the obvious ones of falling for yet another faddish piece of educational moronism: the trap of exhaustion, self-blame and guilt. We work hard enough as it is to try to make the lesson accessible to everyone, brainiac or blunt instrument. The added requirement that we tailor things for every individual learning style really is too much. You can hear teachers cracking from the effort.

As Stahl mentions, after a year, most people who attend courses on VARK usually end up, within a year, not using it.

What I’m very prickly about are spurious claims about the efficacy of a project without any evidence to back it up. This article seems to me to be a piece of advocacy and speculation, and that’s absolutely fine. What I don’t think it is, is proof of any kind, and I’m sure the authors didn’t intend it to be either.

What every paper cited seems to do is to draw useful links between the way they believe people learn, and the features of video games, or games in general that could either correlate or support them. Which is very interesting – genuinely. But none of this points to anything other than speculation.

We simply have no credible data to suggest in what ways gamification could help us in the classroom.

I suspect that children learn when they are told stuff, and forced in some way to remember it, and practise it.

The idea that a child, left alone, would teach itself language, poetry, art and music is palpable guano.

This paragraph is essential:

Even the earliest days ‘in the field’ convinced us that this was too simplistic. Schools, particularly at this time, are experiencing such a plethora of initiatives that isolating ‘our’ interventions would be extremely difficult.

In other words, we realised quickly that we couldn’t just see if it was our project that was having an effect, or other projects. Aren’t humans just frustratingly complicated?

The researchers make these findings:
Pupils’ measured academic performance varied between project schools. These results need to be treated with caution as possible outcomes of the project.

The four-year project found that L2L wasn’t a discrete skill, but ‘a family of learning practices that enable learning to happen’. So it isn’t a thing. It’s a bundle of things. I could probably have told you that diligence, liking your subject, dedication, effort and focus were good ways to behave as a learner, but apparently we need millions of pounds to tell us the obvious.

Reference was made to the Halo effect, where our judgement of someone is influenced by our overall opinion of someone – so for example we might not believe someone is lying because we find them attractive, or we believe school uniform helps students with behaviour because we remember seeing well-behaved students in uniform.

As I have been at pains to mention, this is not an all-out assault on all educational research. This is an assault on bad research, because it is not carbon neutral; it does not exist in a vacuum. Make no mistake: it hurts us. It makes my job more difficult, and it makes children’s lives harder.

One of the things that repels me at times is that the author is telling the reader to do things their way, when doing things their way is only achievable for … well, them. That’s why I don’t try to flog anyone the Tom Bennett Teaching Tool Kit; I only ever advise people to do things that I think the vast majority of people could do. I once got a kid to stop playing with a mobile phone by implying he was playing with himself. Job tightrope klaxon. But I got away with it because of the extremely good relationship I had with my class. I would never recommend it as a course of action for someone else.