Universities should focus on people

(May 18, 2017)

We are entering the season of graduations and commencements, where speakers will applaud the graduates and exhort them to work hard to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.

No one will mention that these students are graduating into a future made difficult, if not impossible, by the lifestyle choices of their parents and grandparents. Nor will they be told they are unlikely to enjoy either the environmental or economic benefits of their elders, whose enterprises have cut down or polluted what they didn’t use up or destroy.

Those would be facts, not the usual flannel that characterizes the commencement address people expect to hear.

Avoiding the subject does not change the situation, however.

Ninety years ago, Raymond Fosdick compiled a book of commencement addresses he had been asked to give: The Old Savage in the New Civilization. His point was simple: humanity’s technological abilities had developed far faster than its moral capacity. We are using dangerous new tools the same way our ancestors used clubs, thousands of years ago, and risk self-destruction.

The key to moral development, he said, was education. New moral and ethical abilities are needed throughout society to manage the amazing possibilities reflected in the new civilization we have created. We must deliberately educate citizens to think in new ways, with a kind of wisdom and maturity that was lacking in the society that self-destructed during the Great War of 1914-1918 and which was threatening to do so again.

In the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fosdick must have sounded like an old, unwelcome crow. Two years later, however, as the stock market crash of 1929 led into the Great Depression and the rise of fascism that preceded the Second World War, his audience likely changed their minds about him and his speech.

At the risk of sounding like an old crow myself, our post-secondary institutions here in Manitoba have failed their graduates and the society in which we live. They have not focused on educating citizens to make better choices than their parents and grandparents did. Instead, they have focused on churning out replacement parts for the machine civilization, whose further development threatens the existence of global society and much of life on Earth.

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Budget a Titanic undertaking

(April 24, 2017)

It is a measure of how bad things have gotten elsewhere that the Pallister government’s recent budget was received by many with relief.

In comparison to Twitter tirades and missile launches, it was measured and thoughtful.

Yet, in comparison to what the province needs at a pivotal point in its economic and environmental history, it accomplished little that was positive and confused inefficiency with problems in systems design.

To use a well-worn Titanic analogy, it sorted out the dinner menu in first-class, reorganized the schedule for shoveling coal, ensured the people in steerage had access to some fresh air and polished the brass. It did nothing to deal with icebergs ahead or ongoing misjudgments about speed, course and design.

Trimming expenditures is a poor way of increasing efficiency. Expectations are never reduced, just the resources for accomplishing them, according to the mantra of “doing more with less.” Reducing program budgets leaves staff nothing to do, which then justifies eliminating staff for not doing anything — undermining the morale that might inspire people to find creative new ways of doing things.

Of course, these cuts also tend to be made by people who are measuring only bottom lines, following through on mandates to cut expenditures or staff such as “by 15 per cent.”

Is there inefficiency in government? Absolutely. Could we get more done by spending less? Certainly. Can it be done by just cutting things? Not a chance — inefficiency is the consequence of poor system design.

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Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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