ICYMI: How a country gets forged in the classrooms: Salutin

Good piece on the integrative role of the public school:

My friend and neighbour Rob Vipond, who’s a political science prof and whose daughter Susanna looks after our cat and turtle when we’re at the lake, has written a neighbourhood book brimming with love. It’ll be out this spring. He says it’s the “biography of a school” — Clinton Street Junior Public, where both our kids went. It’s a nonacademic book, full of academic rigour and insight.

He had the great idea of focusing on public schools as incubators of citizenship. Private schools can teach about citizenship but can’t ever embody it, since people go there in a private role, vs. as taxpaying members of society. Public schools are labs, not just for studying citizens but for growing them.

As a poli-sci guy, Rob is also chronically fascinated by the place of the state and formal political structures, and schools are an ideal field for study since, as he says, they are “the one state institution with which many citizens have daily and recurring interaction.” In a downtown school in The Six, like Clinton, those interactions for about a century have revolved around dealing with newcomers.

So he tells three stories. One is about “Jewish Clinton,” during the first half of the last century, when Clinton was largely Jewish. Canada still saw itself as a “Christian country,” making it hard for Jewish arrivals to feel like full citizens. Then in 1944, Ontario’s Tory premier made religious i.e., Christian, instruction mandatory, like math or science.

Clinton’s response was basically to ignore the law without kicking up a fuss. It was brilliant, a subtle form of civil disobedience, which made it possible for Jewish families to gradually acquire a full sense of being Canadian rather than having second-class quality thrust upon them.

The eras of Italian Clinton and Global Clinton followed, during which Canada groped its way toward “multiculturalism” while governments added laws and bureaucracies. But at Clinton, the effort to construct “multicultural citizenship” was “all part of the daily routine.” The meaning of multicultural got sorted out right there — in classrooms and at recess. The challenge was “to pay respect to the country’s … legacy” while adapting it to “the needs and aspirations” of newcomers.

Could you integrate them without stigmatizing their heritage as “an obstacle course to overcome?” Could they contribute as themselves? “A real sense of belonging” is hard to attain if it means betraying your own identity, which you brought with you. These issues are still unresolved, as Tory leadership provocateur Kellie Leitch reminds us. But practically speaking, at Clinton, it meant “Toronto’s students might well learn something from their newly arrived classmates.”

Let me add a footnote here, based on my own teaching of a half course in the Canadian studies program at U of T over several decades. The names on my class lists have changed mightily, as Clinton’s did over a longer time. When I started, the program seemed more or less designed for people from north Toronto. The courses were basically variations on Atwood (for culture) and Innis (for social science/history): two Canadian academic staples, like timber or the beaver.

But over the years, Canadian studies added Asian-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, Jewish-Canadian, aboriginal, etc., courses and “chairs” — the lively mélange would probably have been unimaginable to those who set it up in the late 1970s. The north Toronto contingent still attends but, as Rob says, they learn something in return from their more recently arrived classmates.

In fact, we all win. For those of us teaching, we can’t just toss out headings (federal-provincial relations, Rocket Richard, the nativity story). We can toss them out, but we also have to fill them in. It’s good for us, it reveals our assumptions, especially to ourselves, and leads to treatment of glossed-over issues.

We, in turn, learn about, oh: Model Minorities and Cooking in Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes; The Critical Role of Cultural Beliefs in Shaping the Perceptions of Mental Health by Chinese-Canadians; The Emergence of Queer Punk in Toronto; along with old friends like, An Appraisal of the War of 1812 and, BlackBerry: Canadian or Not? (All covered in the CanStudies student journal, IMAGINATIONS.)

This doesn’t just reflect what Canadian studies has become, it’s what Canada has become, despite the urgent efforts of Leitch and others to dictate our meaning to us, from the top down. Maybe she should sign up for some courses.

Source: How a country gets forged in the classrooms: Salutin | Toronto Star

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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