David King to Banff Summer Conference of the
Alberta Teachers’ Association (the ATA)
Thursday, August 13th, 2015
This presentation was made first thing in the morning, half-way through a 3 1/2 day event. The audience was 450 teachers and ATA leaders from across Alberta.
I was asked to ‘morale-ize’ listeners to adopt new ways of looking at their situation (personal, ATA, and education in Alberta), and to give them a glimpse of plausible and worthwhile (exciting) opportunities.
The following notes do not correspond exactly to my delivery. The notes have been modified very slightly to accommodate a more diverse audience that may be unfamiliar with Alberta.
Some of you were born after I was Minister of Education (April, 1979 to February, 1986). Few of you were teaching when I was Minister, so I want to tell you a bit more about myself, trying to give you a better idea of where I am coming from.
Probably the most important thing to say first to a room full of teachers is that I am not a teacher, although I have been sleeping with one for more than 45 years and, when I was Minister, she occasionally picketed the foot of the bed to express her discontent with something I had said or done – or failed to say or do.
So, clearly, when I became Minister of Education, my role was to provide ‘civilian’ direction for the work of education: I was not bringing a professional’s perspective to the role. In fact, since the Conservatives formed the government in Alberta, almost 45 years ago, my recollection is that there has only been one Minister of Education who had been a K – 12 teacher (Halvor Jonson, a former President of the ATA).
I was Minister of Education for seven years, during which time I had quite a reputation for “flying kites and trial balloons” and for “contesting” with the A.T.A. On Monday evening Mark (Ramsankar, President of the Alberta Teachers’ Association) characterized our relationship as “adversarial”. That is a plausible characterization, as long as I can modify the word, to say that we were functionally adversarial, but not personally so and not motivationally so. Perhaps we could call it a dialectical relationship. In those days I tried always to think of it as a respectful partnership if not always an easy one.
Because at the same time, I attended every single A.R.A. (Annual Representative Assembly: the foundational decision-making body for the Alberta Teachers’ Association) and stayed for most of them from beginning to end. In the heat of the most tense situations, the A.T.A. never stopped talking to the Minister, the Minister never stopped talking to the A.T.A. and I think that on both sides we listened carefully. I have occasionally thought that the ATA was wrong-headed, perhaps even very wrong-headed. The ATA may have thought the same of me. But I know — I never doubted that teachers are the most important workers in the most important social institution in the community, and the ATA is their professional association — trying its best to represent them well and promote the best possible education for Alberta’s students.
During my time as Minister I was surprised to discover a more full character of public education, and I fell in love with it – as it is and as it yet might be. I came to understand that public education is the most important social institution in any civil democratic community. (Public education is more important than public health – or anything else — because without public education there can be no public health.) It follows that I believe teachers are doing the most important work to be done in a civil democratic community.
For this and other reasons I am always delighted to interact with the ATA, with teachers, and as an advocate of public education….
Some of you know that the signature line on my email includes a quote from Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (And Fuller was paraphrasing Socrates.)
This is what I want to talk to you about this morning, and my focus is the prospect of a new model for education. Throughout my remarks I am talking about public school education, although I will often simply use the word ‘education’. I am mindful that we often talk about education as though to suggest that it is all public education, and in doing so we often leave lay people with the entirely wrong impression that different education systems, all being ‘education’ systems, are essentially the same. This, of course, is not the case, and on another occasion we should explore what it is that makes public school education unique (compared to private, parochial, charter and other means of education), essential (to the community), and attractive.
In the course of my remarks I want to speak to four questions that are important for teachers and for the ATA at this time. The questions can be stated and answered simply: the lived answers will be much more complex than the spoken ones.
The first question is simply: What’s the context for education in Alberta in 2015?
As always, the context is rich and complex. I want to touch on only four aspects, although we may talk about others in the following discussion.
First, it is probably accurate to say that most Albertans were surprised by the outcome of the recent provincial general election (May 5th, 2015). Alberta’s first new government in 44 years has to master a learning curve, come together as a team, develop new relationships with all kinds of provincial actors, adapt to all kinds of external and very unstable factors, and make plans for the future. And, of course, they have to deliver through time. In some cases delivery constrained by the realities of responsibility will be somewhat different from their rhetoric when they were out of the loop.
In this regard, Alberta is entering what will be a period of economic recession. How long, how deep… We don’t know. I can say with certainty that the pain Alberta experiences — and there will be pain — will not be the result of having elected an N.D.P. government.
Second, the election results surprised us with the suggestion that Alberta is more progressive than anyone had thought. We need to remember that Alberta, prior to 1993, had a long and substantial history of progressive and innovative social thought and social action, going back to the ‘20’s and ‘30’s and earlier. Perhaps the May 5th election was not a social upheaval but rather a re-assertion of our true, progressive sentiments. Perhaps the influx of people to Alberta in the past 20 years has brought with it a re-awakening spark.
Third, the tide is about to go out for ideological conservatism. This is not a reflection on the shortcomings of ideological conservatism (although it has many shortcomings). The more important reality is that the tide is about to go out for liberalism and neo-liberalism and the ideological conservatism that is counterfeit liberalism. Currently liberalism is in palliative care.
By inference, I will come back to this time and time again, because the death of liberalism is a once in 250 years phenomenon and you are in the midst of it.
The sycophants of liberalism and neo-liberalism are all attending at the bedside, sending out news releases to re-assure the public that liberalism is on the road to recovery, and fighting furiously among themselves for control of the estate. But the servants have called the priest to deliver the last rites. I’m not sure when the priest will show up, or exactly when liberalism will expire, but the expiration is imminent.
I often quote Vaclev Havel, who said: “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something is crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself — while something else, still indistinct, is rising from the rubble.”
At least in my mind, Havel was alluding to a couple of developments that are startlingly clear.
The first is that we are being confronted by changes the likes of which humankind has never experienced since we emerged from caves.
We are faced with the certainty of profound changes during our lifetime. Some very reputable physicists are postulating that the universe is not objective, but subjective: that it has no origin or existence except as a reflection of some pre-existing ‘consciousness’. The famous astronomer, Sir James Jeans said: “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” I may well live to experience human contact with life on other planets, in other galaxies. The re-emergence of ‘God’ in physics on one side, and contact with other life-forms on the other side — either of these would generate a substantial existential crisis for humankind. With genetics and bioengineering we are faced with the prospect of re-imagining what it means to be human. With neuroscience and linguistics we are faced with the prospect of reimagining our relationship with at least some other sentient beings. With robotics and artificial intelligence, we are faced with the prospect of reimagining our relationship with ‘machines’. With the changes in the composition of air and the content of water, and with our nuclear capacities we are faced with the prospect that the future may be bright, but humanless. Then we come to second order issues, such as the unsustainability of our current economic system. For the first time in millennia, our brain’s default condition is not wired for dealing with our current condition.
I believe that we can work our way through these issues successfully, but not by continued reliance on – or even acceding to — the reactions and emotions that have kept us alive for thousands of years.
So Havel may have been speaking out of recognition of the changes we face.
He may also have been speaking out of the reality that all the rule systems we have relied upon for 100 years or more are in a shambles, and they are not trusted. When our rule systems break down it means that the underlying model no longer works for us. And virtually all our rule systems are breaking down. As rule systems break down the first thing that happens is that lazy and thoughtless people turn to anarchy and libertarianism. There is a brief fling with these, followed by the realization that we can’t live without rules, so we try to understand the emerging model and develop rules that conform to the emerging model.
The example of stage two that amuses me at the moment is the absence of a rule system inside the American Republican Party. Having adopted a libertarian outlook, having thrown out the rulebook (the logical outcome of thinking that all government is bad and should be deconstructed), they are now faced with a Donald they can’t rein in.
More seriously, libertarian and anarchic outlooks are often cast as a rejection of rules altogether. In reality, they are a rejection of the existing rules by people who can’t think their way through to a new rule set but will gladly adopt one when others have done the heavy lifting.
The reality of the imminent demise of the social theories that have been the basis of our rules for 250 years should orient you away from succumbing to, or supporting, incremental improvements to neo-liberal outlooks, policies, and practices. The reality of the imminent demise of liberalism should orient you toward the invention and installation of new models based on confidence that a new story is emerging, of education and social democracy in a civil democratic society.
The pure philosophy of liberalism (espousing the absolute primacy and autonomy of the individual, reflecting Newtonian mechanics, mechanistic models of social systems, rationalism/objectivism, and perfectibility), will not be able to survive the death of the ‘scientific’ model from which liberalism emerged. The death of liberalism will drag down with it our current ideas about the nature and value of competition and conflict, about autonomy and sovereignty, and it will drag down capitalism (although perhaps not a rule-based market economy).
We can see, in now well-established ‘new’ scientific fields (quantum physics, genetics, neurology), the vague outlines of the social theory that will emerge. Arthur Koestler wrote about halons in his 1966 book, The Ghost in the Machine. We are thinking more organically and less mechanically, more chaotically and less hierarchically, more adaptively and less rigidly, more relationally and less atomistically. The future is beginning to collapse in on us in ways western culture has not experienced in 2,500 years. Something is happening culturally, globally, that is beyond political parties, beyond individual thought leaders, and beyond economic circumstances.
Having said that, there are huge global processes and organizations that represent liberalism, with access to all kinds of resources, and they seem eternal, immovable, and relentlessly protective of corporations, free market doctrines, competition, standardization, and the privatization of everything. To paraphrase Cassius, speaking of Julius Caesar: “Why man, liberalism doth bestride the narrow world, like a Colossus, and we small men walk under its huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves.” We need to remember that Caesar died, notwithstanding the suggestion that he was an eternal colossus.
I repeat, liberalism is in palliative care. We already see evidence that the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, and similar organizations and institutions are finding their foundations being threatened, not as quickly as we might like, but they are being compromised. We are beginning to see some evidence that some of the leaders and elements of liberalism recognize this and are trying to defend their turf, or transform their organizations, or find a graceful exit strategy.
It is really important for you to recognize the reality of this, or search for your own evidence, because it leads me to say that you should spend less time fighting all the pernicious features of liberalism and more time creating the alternative you prefer in the light of the emerging cultural story. Build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell said: “if everyone has to think outside the box, (maybe) it is the box that has to be rethought.”
The fourth contextual aspect is the emerging realization that education cannot be changed in any deep and significant way except by taking the “beautiful risk” of education into the community. Insiders will not accomplish what they want to accomplish on behalf of education except by engaging the community, calling the community to understand that it own survival depends upon the well-being of education. When we hear that the Finnish experience that so attracted us is being ‘turned’ following the election of a new government in Finland, we should recognize how fragile any change to education is, unless it is understood by the community as a whole and given a social license — by the community as a whole – that is stronger than any change of government.
Paul Woodruff argues that all democracies are experiments in becoming. That is also true of education. All education is an experiment in becoming.
Education and community – democracy – are almost like the two complementary strips that make up Velcro. Neither one ‘works’ without the other.
So the second question is: What opportunity lies before the ATA?
You – 35,000 teachers across the province – stand at a fork in the road. A government that has progressive sentiments and is sympathetic toward education has been elected with a substantial majority. You could relax, and leave it to them to make things right. Compile your list of big or little tweaks that would correct egregious errors and support incremental improvements: work your way down the list over the next four years.
On the other hand, you have the opportunity to begin remaking public education in a way not yet seen in North America (perhaps not yet seen anywhere in the world). You have the opportunity to begin remaking the Alberta community in ways that might make it a beacon for many other progressive communities.
If liberalism is the drunk that lost the keys to the family car, I like the fact that the ATA is helping to look for the keys where they are most likely to be found — in the darkness of the unknowable future, and not where the streetlight of contemporary culture shines.
The ATA has put a lot of resources, effort, and wisdom, into trying to understand where lies the best hope for education and for the community.
I would like to further that cause, modestly.
You refuse to think of education as a commodity, and I am with you on that. You should also not think of it as a service. It is not even an energy that can be harnessed: it is a force we know but cannot comprehend. Perhaps like gravity, it is the underlying fabric of the commons. Don’t allow education to be delimited or quantified in any way: don’t allow it to be commodified, either as a product or as a service.
The most important question for teachers — and the ATA — to address is not: “what changes should be made to improve the condition of education, students and teachers?”
The most important questions for you are: Why must the community understand education differently than it does at present? And: What changes must the community make in order to become a learning community? It is only when the community has engaged these questions that the advocates of education will begin to see the changes they want to see, with the hope that the changes would become embedded in the community so as not to repeat what seems to be happening in Finland.
In the spirit of what I see emerging as the foundational model, I urge you to think of education, and the ATA, not as systems that can be considered (essentially) in isolation and modified (essentially) in isolation, but as halons — systems within systems. Education is not a system. It is a sub-system. It is truly a life-system, but it is a sub-system of the community within which it operates, whether Calgary or Claresholm. In the terminology of Koestler, it is a halon. It cannot be radically altered and remain significant except in relationship to convivial alterations to the community of which it is part. As much as you need to work inside your system you also need to go outside your system, change conditions in the community, and bring that change back inside your own system.
I see clear suggestions of this in your work, but so far, the suggestions are infrequent. They do not display the realization that education is going to be much more changed by what emerges in the community than by what emerges in the education system itself.
A student of named Biesta argues that education can only be changed by a dialogue between the profession and the community. The community cannot enter into the realm of the profession as easily as the profession can enter into the community. That is easier for me to say than it will be for you to do, but that is the key challenge facing each of you as teachers, facing the ATA, facing the education system as whole.
In the same vein, the thinking that calls you to go into the world for the benefit of education challenges you to bring change into the world for the benefit of the world. Every community in Alberta needs to become a learning community. Alberta as a province needs to become a learning community. Our politicians, our business leaders, our social justice seekers need to become learning communities. Those who drink water shared with frac-ers (a segment of the oil and gas industry), or eat food grown on land shared with petro-chemical plants, or breathe air shared with coal-fired power plants need to become part of learning communities. Writ large, the same is true of every community in the world. Whether in Alberta or in Finland, or in Nigeria, who is better equipped than teachers to tease the entire community into becoming a learning community.
I am an ardent believer that what the ATA does in the way of thinking about the future of education is among the best of such thinking in the world. In my experience, much of that thinking is generalizable and transferrable to the community as a whole. But, in terms of considering the process of realization, the work of the ATA is incomplete if not misdirected.
Teachers, professional associations, and any education system, no matter where they are found in the world, need to stop being self-centred. I say this, not because being self-centred is selfish in the circumstances but because it will cause you to be unsuccessful in doing what could be a great work. You need to think of yourselves as a whole within a whole. You need to understand that what you dream of is vital to the well-being of the entire community as much as it is vital to the cause of education.
Your opportunity is not merely democratic professionalism: it is also citizen democracy. Your opportunity is not only for yourselves: it is for everyone.
The third question I will speak to is:
What should the ATA – and teachers – do (and avoid doing) in order to increase the likelihood of success?
- Make haste slowly.
- Shake off everything you have understood about the previous political model. Shake off every aspect of your relationship with the previous provincial government. (But don’t forget the experience: you could have a government like that again some day in the future.)
Politically, the ATA needs to turn itself upside down. I would use the term “proto-political” to describe your political action of the last 40 years. You are definitely not alone in this. That proto-political practice characterizes every single public and private organization that has engaged in political action. The time has come to invent true political action in the spirit of social democracy.
Conceptually, this is the opportunity to begin dismantling the industrial model of public education and the industrial/instrumental model of civil democratic society.
In this, you will need to be very careful to develop a new model of governance for education – a model that is very informal in its early stages and aligned with the precepts of social democracy that the new NDP government would acknowledge, respect, and want to bring into being. I have no doubt that the deep strong core of the NDP culture is progressive, social democratic, and post-liberal. At the same time, they have been shaped by the socio-economic, political and cultural influences of the past 50 years, as we all have been. They will sometimes propose incremental improvements to the existing model as sufficient or appropriate. They will sometimes promote seemingly innocuous expressions of liberalism as ‘harmless’. They will sometimes not see the opportunity to create new models for all its fullness.
For example, I would urge everyone to distance themselves as quickly and completely as possible from the current situation of the Inspiring Education exercise, including the new Education Act. Yet the way in which that might be done is perhaps more important than the doing of it. I am taken aback, but not really surprised, that the new government is undertaking a process to develop a new strategic plan for education in Alberta, but they have started down the path unilaterally, and the early stages, at least, do not involve the ATA and others. That represents hierarchical thinking and acting. The ATA wants to find a way of bringing the government to see that they need to be very careful about process early on, or they are going to get dragged into some ruts that were laid down and made deep by the previous government.
On Monday evening, Mark said that the ATA needs to stand ready to hold the government accountable. Yes…
But even better would be to persuade the government, before they have travelled too far, that it would be prudent and wise to convene a multilateral dialogue and develop a framework of distributed responsibility and mutual accountability, so that accountability is not called for on an ad hoc and episodic basis, in response to a crisis. Top-down benevolence from the most friendly provincial government is no substitute for democracy and distributed decision-making that respects the role of every participant.
The recent work of the ATA is what constitutes a potential for this government – a potential that was not available to any other N.D.P. government in any other Canadian province. I don’t think the N.D.P. in B.C., or Manitoba, or Ontario, or Nova Scotia had access to such a well-thought out, comprehensive, and creative an imagining of what could be as is available to Ms. Notley and her government through the work of the ATA.
Socially, teachers and the ATA can re-shape the very community – Alberta, from north to south, from farmhouse to big city, from reserve to gated community.
- Re-imagine the best public education possible, not as an improvement on the existing model but as a different model, consistent with what you talk and think about, but unlike what you currently practice in Alberta’s classrooms.
- Reconsider your strategy when you have shaken off the old and re-imagined what is possible.
Surely such talk creates anxiety. These will be stressful times, to be sure. But the stress is the stress that comes from being free to take responsibility: it is not the stress that comes from being dependent and victimized.
The other misconception that contributes to stress is the myth that what we have was created by God on the 8th day, and is immovable, impenetrable, and unchangeable – like the colossus.
Everything that lies around you and in front of you was created by very frail humans, trying to respond as best they could to previous political perceptions. Everything can be changed.
For example, right now the whole structure of testing and evaluation seems to be immovable, impenetrable, and unchangeable.
I stand before you as the Minister who initiated the main elements of the current testing regime (in 1983 and ‘84). I directed the implementation of diploma exams and the Provincial Achievement Tests. Without going into detail I will say that I am not proud of where we are now: we should be in a very different place. I thought the testing regime would last a decade, at most. I can tell you with certainty that what I and others created, and the subsequent evolution to a threatening unhelpful quest for standardization, did not originate in God’s mind: it is not a key part of God’s purpose. It is a human invention and citizens can set it aside whenever they want. Neither God nor I would be disappointed.
My over-arching comment would be that you want to make haste slowly, for at least three reasons.
First, the new government – especially in these circumstances — needs time to learn the lay of the land, yet from the day after the election they have been – and are being — inundated with insistent demands, for immediate action, from every corner.
As a part of learning the lay of the land, the new government needs to assess its own relationship with Albertans, and consider how to build that relationship. At the moment, the government has no real relationship with voters. I would say that, although the N.D.P. was elected on its merit (that is, it was better than the alternatives), the election was much more an instrument for rebuking the Tories than it was an instrument for affirming the N.D.P. I don’t sense any significant buyers’ remorse, but neither do I sense any widespread public affirmation of on-going loyalty.
The N.D.P. doesn’t owe anybody anything. The ATA, or the union movement, or the social justice movement, or small farmers did not elect this government.
Correspondingly, the new government would be delusional if it imagined that the election gives them a mandate to do any particular thing that was part of their platform, except on the cold hard merits of the case. Albertans, I would argue, chose first to repudiate the Tories, and then migrated to freshness, imagination, social justice, integrity, transparency, humility, careful stewardship; perhaps in spite of, and certainly not because of, one or a bundle of particular platform pieces. Notwithstanding their victory, I suspect that the N.D.P. is going to be very cautious in all of their initiatives, re-evaluating them in the aftermath of the victory, rather than assuming that the victory represents an affirmation.
One reason you want to make haste slowly is to respect the situation the new government is in. The second reason you want to make haste slowly is that you are not prepared to move quickly.
At this moment, all of us face something like what the long-term prisoner experiences upon being released from jail: we don’t feel competent to deal with a new kind of freedom and a new (and less obvious) set of constraints. Alternately, we are trapped in a variant of the Stockholm syndrome: we have been captive for so long that we think our captors can find us and punish us, even after we have been rescued.
For example, I think it is vitally important for the A.T.A. to ask all teachers what they aspire to, and what they need to realize their aspirations. The problem is that, if you ask too early, you will get timid answers that would still be conditioned by the realities of the past 10 – 20 years. (If Steve Jobs had asked 1000 people, in 2001, what they wanted in terms of improved distribution of music, it is doubtful that any of them would have described the iPod and iTunes.)
The third reason that you want to move slowly is to allow time to learn how others are going to respond to the new government. (Do not mistake probing for push-back.)
If you choose to make haste slowly, which I certainly recommend, the second thing I suggest is that you need to recognize the situation as extremely rare, deep and momentous. This is true for the province as a whole, true for the prospects for public education generally, true for the A.T.A. and true for the teaching profession. Do not compromise the prospect of profound positive and progressive change by thinking small, defensively, short-term, or self-interestedly. Before you do anything, reconsider your own strategic objectives.
Your existing strategic objectives were developed in the context of the previous long-time and seemingly immovable – and unfriendly — political machine. At least some parts of your strategy have likely been overtaken by events. There may be some objectives that were formerly daunting, time consuming, and uncertain as to the outcome, and are now more likely to be achieved, with less cost, and in a shorter timeframe.
Psychologically, I believe that many organizations, like citizens, had adopted a victim or marginalized outlook in their relations with the previous government. To the extent that happened, strategic plans were implicated in that outlook. You need to reassess whether the outlook that underpins your current strategic plan is appropriate to these new circumstances.
My last question for you is this: Who will frame the new story of public education in Alberta?
My life’s experience leaves me believing strongly that politics is all about story-telling, and I mean that in the most positive way. For me, the most important question is this: who will frame the new story of public education in Alberta? There are many who could do that. No one or organization is as well positioned as the ATA to lead in crafting the story.
I would urge you to make this a priority, and to reach out to others, such as the ASBA, CASS, the AHSCA, the universities (not only the faculties of education but the central imagination centre of each university), the Provincial Government, and others. Most important, I urge you to reach out beyond the education community, into the larger community.
As part of this, I would urge you to dissociate the ATA from the entire Inspiring Education exercise and the new Education Act. Acknowledge them, perhaps, as welcome initiatives that opened the door to popular involvement in developing public policy. But at the end of the day, the Inspiring Education exercise, and the development of the new Education Act were both deeply flawed exercises. The outcome looked like what you would see when different values and aspirations crash at high speed in the middle of a busy intersection. The originating Minister has moved on (and out) and an unsympathetic department has been left to carry things to completion.
Consider hosting a broadly inclusive conference on public education for Alberta in the 21st century. Be more open than the Inspiring Education exercise was. Create the springboard for a successful dive into a People’s Commission for Public Education. I expect that the new government will want to set Inspiring Education aside as quickly as it can. If they haven’t yet come to that realization encourage them in that direction. They, and you, can do better.
In the context of re-imagining your own strategy, I would suggest pretty much complete transparency with the provincial government, until you see some reason to be opaque (perhaps never).
What I am suggesting is audacious.
I live in Victoria now, and I have an annual pass to visit the Butchart Gardens, which I try to do often. A big part of the Butchart Gardens experience involves looking at incredible pictures of its early days (more than 100 years ago), such as the one of Mrs. Butchart in a basket, hanging from a steam shovel and planting flowers in the rock face of a depleted quarry, where you can see mud and abandoned equipment on the floor of the quarry. Mrs. Butchart did not live to see the realization of her dream, but she had a dream that continues to emerge, to this day, in ways that she could never have imagined in detail. Millions of people step into her dream every year, and for those millions it is not a dream: it is a reality. I am one of them. I step into a reality far bigger than her accomplishments while she lived. I step into a reality that wouldn’t be except that she risked, to be audacious, and creative, and vulnerable in the incompleteness of what she had accomplished when she died.
I hope the ATA will decide to take the same kind of risks.
I am with you. I wish you well. What I am suggesting is not only arduous work: it is also audacious. But now is the time. This is the place. Alberta can be a model for the world, in terms of education, and in terms of a vibrant new expression of a civil democratic community.
As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new…”