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Readin’, Writin’ & Other Stuff We Don’t Feel The Need To Teach Our Children

I was working my way through the news the other day when I stumbled across a story about a  professor at Memorial University who gives an annual test on basic (and I do mean basic) geography to her students. It revealed how little Canadian university students know about geography.

Students at Memorial University in Newfoundland are so clueless about basic grade 5 geography some couldn’t locate the Atlantic Ocean which happens to be the ocean on which the city they live sits beside. When asked if he had ever traveled outside of Canada, one bright light said he’d been to Spain. When asked to point to Spain on a map of Europe, he couldn’t locate it.

Think about that for a moment. If you can’t locate a body of water as big as the Atlantic Ocean that is basically right beside you, how in blazes can you possibly expect to dress yourself for the rest of your life let alone be a productive member of society?

It’s unbelievable.

These aren’t stupid people – they’re products of the Canadian school system; the undereducated product of an educational system that puts so much emphasis on a kind of social pedagogy, it has forgotten to teach students the fundamentals they require to understand the social issues around them. I know some of you who are more cynical than I am are thinking this is not indicative and that perhaps it’s just another Canadian Newfie joke; think again.

This lack of fundamental elementary school knowledge is rampant; just ask Michele Bachman, who during her campaign for the leadership of the Republican Party in the United States, revealed that she was unaware of the fact that Libya is in Africa (she thought it was in the Middle East). That’s the kind of basic information one would think is somewhat important in the development of foreign policy.

Every now and then, here in the Ottawa area, a local talk show host does a show in which he challenges university students to call in and answer fundamental questions about Canadian geography and history. It is a sadly revealing moment in time.

He has had students unable to identify where the St. Lawrence Seaway is (a series of locks, channels and canals that link the Atlantic Ocean to the western end of Lake Superior) and equally unable to name the five Great Lakes (Erie, Ontario, Superior, Huron, Michigan). Virtually none could name all provincial capitals and perhaps most embarrassing of all, many had no clue what or where the Canadian Shield is or is located.

Basically, the Shield is a massive area of igneous rock that covers much of eastern Canada and Ontario and which stretches north from the Great Lakes to the Arctic. Probably most embarrassing for these Ottawa-based students is that the city sits on the shield. They can be forgiven, I suppose, because it’s probably harder to see the Shield under the city than it is an ocean outside your front door.

The simple reality is that education in this country is a mess.

University professors are more interested in their political activities and research than they are in teaching. Many don’t even appear in their classrooms on a regular basis; they leave that to their teaching assistants. From kindergarten to undergraduate degree, the focus in education has shifted from teaching fundamentals with the intent of teaching students what to think rather than how to think for themselves.

As we have seen recently in our streets, the focus of elementary and high school teachers has less to do with the classroom than it does with compensation.

Consider many of the key educational issues that have been presented over the past decade or so: eradicating words like dinosaur, Halloween, Christmas and home-computers; teaching sex education to 7 and 8 year olds; focusing on social issues like gay marriage, the oil sands and a variety of other issues young children are not equipped to fully understand or debate.

The result? We see it on our university campuses. Not only do high school graduates arrive at university with a limited to poor knowledge of their own country; their knowledge of the broader world is even worse. One student at Memorial thought Asia was located in the Middle East.

More concerning is the narrow, intolerant views held by many. Freedom of speech is suppressed more on Canadian university campuses by students themselves than in any other place in the country.

We now graduate students who have a wonderful dexterity with devices. They’re whiz bang when it comes to texting, emailing, tweeting and playing video games but too many of them are clueless when it comes to the real issues facing society today.

Many of them are barely literate. They can’t write properly, can’t do complex math without a computer or a calculator and think that research means plagiarizing something off the Internet.

Their understanding of the world around them is as naïve as their awareness of our system of government  is adolescent.

As my friend the talk show host has repeatedly demonstrated, most Canadian university students have little to no knowledge of how the Canadian government actually works, of our Constitution or our of Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In other words, civics is no longer a priority for the educational system.

In my previous life, I hired a lot of people at various times and the worst resumes typically came from graduates of Canadian universities. It wasn’t that their resumes were thin in terms of experience; you expect that. It was the spelling errors, the poor grammar and the inability to express themselves in writing. I even had one applicant, the son of a colleague, spell his own name wrong on his resume.

Society is dumbing down fairly rapidly on its own, we don’t need educators helping by accelerating the process by graduating students who can’t name all of the continents or who confuse the Arctic with Antarctica.

Educators, boards of education and politicians are big on metrics for measuring the success of their programs and they trot out the statistics and reports with great regularity to underscore what a great job they’re all doing. They need a new set of metrics and I would suggest the level of just how educated most graduates are would be a good place to start. It’s appalling at just how under-educated many obtaining degrees these days actually are.


“…the queering of schools, ‘official’ and ‘state-issued’ law can be used by those seeking the wide-spread cultural transformation of schools.”Don Short: Professor, University of Manitoba


The focus is on the wrong things these days. Educators are trying to be social engineers rather than educators. They try lead students to complex issues without having provided them with the basic fundamentals they require to reason and analyze for themselves.

We need to get back to basics: how to read, how to write, how to calculate and how to think.

Everything else that a student needs to learn flows from that. Those are the foundation upon which learning is built. Our current system is more interested in the window dressing than the foundation and that is like building a house on sand. It isn’t stable and it isn’t sustainable.

Just ask a university student in your life if they know where the Atlantic Ocean is located or where and what the Canadian Shield might be. Don’t ask them to write the answer because it will be barely comprehensible even if they do get it right – although most of them won’t.


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  • Eric

    Thanks for the article. I agree with virtually everything you said. I would like to make a point about geography. You mention that Ottawa sits on the Canadian Shield. It doesn’t. It is part of the St. Lawrence Lowlands. The Canadian Shield starts just north of Ottawa. Ottawa is mostly surrounded by farmland. The Central Experimental Farm is in the middle of the city. I am from Ottawa and went to school there.

    • http://abearsrant.com thebear

      I beg to differ, the western part of Ottawa, kanata in particular is on the southern edge of the Shield. I know because when I used to work for a developer back in the day, the only way we could build foundations was to blast through the rock. You are correct about the rest of Ottawa.

      • Gerry from gta

        I also lived in Ottawa — Most of Ottawa was really a swamp — there are no protruding rock. The shield is quite north of Ottawa/Gatineau.

        • http://abearsrant.com thebear

          I take it that you have never driven the Queensway to Kanata which is blasted between two walls of rock just before Eagleson.

          • Gerry from gta

            Kanata is not Ottawa — No offence intended — Lived in Nepean — it was really a swamp :)

            The original commenter lived close to the experimental farm — yes that was very flat and very swamp like :) Baseline road & Merrivale is very flat and boring — much like most of Ottawa LoL

            • http://abearsrant.com thebear

              Merivale Road is now a parking lot much like the Queensway and no offense was taken. Compared to the Don Valley and the QEW, we have it pretty easy.

        • http://abearsrant.com thebear

          Actually Gerry from GTA, the Gatineaus are the southern tip of the Shield and if you ever drive the Queensway, those rock walls on either side of it just east of the Eagleson exit are part of it as well. Ottawa is in the transition zone between the Shield and the St. Lawrence Valley. We can argue semantics until we’re blue in the face but the simple truth is that we are both right and the real point is that the Shield is here but 90% of university students have no clue where it is.

          • Gerry from gta

            I agree Gatineau is quite different — including the people :)

            • http://abearsrant.com thebear

              I agree with you on that. I live in Chelsea and deal with Gatineau every day. :-)

  • Gerry from gta

    I will admit I have been a good 35 years from high school. I could draw the map of Canada from memory accurately and even draw a global map with fairly good accuracy — my geography teacher of the time was shocked. She was very impressed with me. But despite the lack of drawing abilities of my fellow students, the majority could point on existing map where England, China, Russia, France and Brazil etc were located.

    What I found during my time in grad school in engineering that people coming out of high school in the late 80’s and early 90’s were retards. They could not handle even the simplest of math functions nevermind point out a geographical location. They had a great sense of worth and entitlement — they did not need to work out a problem set — we were obligated to give them a detailed solution to their problem sets without them having to try them. Of course I laughed but got into alot of trouble because they complained. This is the problem — the students figured out the system — complain and you do not have to learn.

    One of the 3rd year engineering classes I changed the lab on the students to see what would happen. Well 67% of the class adapted and calculated and answered the labs as expected. 33% did not — they were the Chinese National students who copied and regurgitated the previous year’s lab report word for word. I got into trouble — got labeled as a racist because they all got zero on a lab that was 2% of their final mark, It seems their lab reports were all identical word for word and all provided by the Chinese Engineering Student Association. Of course I was in the right because I provided all students with the same lab assignment. I was brought up on charges of racism — WTF — you have a wrong answer you get zero. They never even read the lab assignment — they just copied word from word the previous year’s assignment. I was harassed for that change and declared a racist. In the end a rogue professor stuck up for me on the ethical issue — the other were ready to hang me.

    Many of these engineers now have jobs as engineers in Canada when their fellow classmates who did the work do not because of preference based hiring visible minorities. What is wrong with this picture? One such engineer laughed in my face and said we will always be hired and you never will. He was right. The last few jobs I had I had to fill out an obligated “ethnic/racial” form and oddly enough white older males were terminated shortly after with an extensive hiring of visible minorities. This is wrong.

    We need to bring in a merit/ability based hiring policy — not what your race is.

    I know a good 2 dozen highly qualified/experienced engineers in their 50’s who have applied over 300+ jobs/year and have never gotten a single interview. I am there also. Yet when I have worked in the past, I have worked for companies who had non-qualified engineers as managers who made the decisions on who was hired? When I was in the position as hiring manager I was banned by HR from hiring Canadian born / Canadian educated staff. WTF — When I questioned this policy was told by HR that the Government provided a 50% wage subsidy for foreign born visible minority — did not matter whether their engineering degree was recognized (very often I checked and it was the equivalent of a technician NOT an engineer). You wonder why they have issues with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner? Get real.

    Alot needs to be changed.

    gerry from gta

    We need a merit/qualification based hiring policy in place. Get rid of ethic/racial/sexual based hiring policies.