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"Hello, fellow losers" was scrawled in black marker at the back of the bus on my first day to university last year. I remember it well. And even though the graffiti mocked me and everyone else on their ways to school and work, I smiled, because the vandal was pretty much spot on.

How else to describe us workers and students toiling away in isolation with no apparent, uniting connection between us and the things we each do on a daily basis, except as "fellow losers"? Is it not the very absence of a shared identity, a common thread, a communal project bringing together all our efforts, that makes us feel like losers? The astute vandal recognized that the only thing we have in common is the feeling that we've been somehow suckered into something not so worthwhile.

It's precisely this lack of a democratic, civic dimension in our lives that divides us, and keeps us narrowly focused on our individual, self-interested pursuits. Hardly anyone thinks of themselves first as citizens. Citizenship, not surprisingly, usually ranks below our family, job, hobby and consumer identities. But most disturbingly of all, it's in schools, exactly where citizenship is meant to be forged, that we see the near absolute loss of any democratic dimension.

The "D" Word

Use the word democracy sincerely and you'll probably receive a blank stare. Unless you've got an ironic Chomskian hate-on for the word its very mention inspires confusion and resignation. Nobody really takes it seriously. Democracy is a failed, naive experiment. Politicians are all corrupt, ineffectual pencil-pushers. Or so the popular (and funny enough, "rebellious") thinking goes.

And so, universities and colleges have long been on the path to privatization, cutting liberal arts courses in favor of business, high-tech, and other trades that "respond to the demands of the global market" and produce "competitive" graduates with "the right skills". The democratic element is barely ever mentioned, let alone sought after.

Take a look at these excerpts from the 2008 Federal Budget section titled "Investing in Knowledge":

Canada is well positioned to compete in the global marketplace. Improving on our
competitive position means creating the best-educated, most-skilled and most flexible
workforce in the world. Investing in students and better managing Canada’s immigration
system are critical to that objective.


Knowledge is also a critical driver of Canada’s economy. Firms that successfully
translate knowledge into innovative products, services and technologies are able to
compete and win in the global marketplace. Budget 2008 continues to implement the
commitment in Advantage Canada for the Government to invest on its own, and in
partnership with the private sector, in strategic areas such as primary research and a
cleaner environment.

Not once in the section is citizenship - which is the purpose of public education - mentioned.

What we seem to have forgotten is that public education is the centerpiece of democratic cohesion, and without it citizens literally have no sense of the community they belong to. The false individuality of libertarianism, pretty much a consumer-capitalist philosophy, has diverted energy from the democratic function of schools and is making them into mere training grounds for corporations.

So-called "think-tanks" like the Fraser Institute produce only the type of thinking that its corporate backers want to hear, and so its experts insist we privatize and modernize our schools, squeezing out the wasteful, extravagant, useless fields of history, literature and philosophy, and replace them with accounting, management, and computer design. The anti-democratic, pro-corporatist forces are consciously denigrating education to the level of passive training, and by doing so, reducing the citizenry to conforming trainees and consumers.

Fighting the Losing Game

I do believe everyone should study humanities, but not just because I happen to be studying them. I'm studying humanities exactly because everyone in a democracy should be. This puts me in an odd, self-defeating position. What I really should do is take accounting, get a job and be done with it. But my conscience doesn't let me. Unfortunately there is pretty much no socially structured incentive to get a real education, and so most students float around from field to field, trying to find the least of all evils. Something that "appeals to them".

In their first-day introductions most students admit that they "took this class because A) I thought it would easy; B) It fit into my schedule; or C) I need the credits.

I'm not exaggerating. I'm also not blaming them. If governments don't make it easy to get the education required to become functioning citizens in any meaningful way, then students will continue to groap around in the dark looking for something - anything - they might see themselves doing long-term.

For reasons that are beyond me (perhaps it has something to do with the self-help industry, Oprah and Dr. Phil) hoards of young women are going into psychology, and even political science students seem as detached from democratic commitment as any accounting student.

Since most of us have kids to feed and/or parents to please, the lack of incentive to get educated as citizens with a social vision means, simply, that we don't. Why are we strangling the life out of our democratic institutions? Democracy is running full-speed down a suicidal course, and no government, beyond lip-service, is doing anything about it.

We actually make it structurally difficult -impossible for most people - to even afford what's required for study. Everybody knows the immense burden of tuition, student loan payments, and, most evil of all, the price of books. This is a frighteningly telling sign of where our values lie as a society. For what could be more evil than exhorbitant books prices except actual book-burning. The result is the same: knowledge for no one.

A Nation Without Citizens

What this all means is that we're denying most of the population status as citizens. Sure, everybody pays taxes and gets to buy stuff, but our identities as citizens is so fragmented and dislocated from each other that our democracy functions pretty much like a corporation. We, the workers, scramble for our pay and have little energy left for thinking of a better society. Why? Because our educations consist mostly of training for our self-interested jobs, and suggest nothing of disinterested, democratic participation.

The confusion runs deep. A provincial report on the future of BC's post-secondary school system called "Campus 2020" stated that "Our research-intensive institutions must continue to be the key incubators of the innovation needed to address our most pressing social and environmental challenges and to develop a strong economy (my emphasis). They must also be places of teaching excellence, and they must be destinations of choice for the best and brightest students from across the province and around the world."

Just like with the 2008 budget, the "Campus 2020" report has little to say about the proper democratic role of education: that of producing thinking, participating citizens. The importance of a "strong economy", however, is emphasized.

The report suggested that local colleges be re-designated as "regional universities", mostly to increase prestige and draw more international students, who pay a lot more for the same services. There you have it once again: the school system turned profit-engine.

In my humble, liberal opinion, as long as we keep genuine education out of the reach of most people, we're crippling democracy, and producing only docile citizens who want jobs and nothing to do with their society otherwise. Unless the government encourages and facilitates civic education, we will remain isolated, atomized, disconnected clogs in the system, floating around in ether, with no sense of purpose in our larger community. We will remain, merely, "fellow losers".

A somewhat shorter version of this piece was originally published in The Republic of East Vancouver, issue of September 27 to October 10 2007 - No. 173.

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