IN CANADA: Friendly Fire

By Robertson, Heather-jane | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2004 | Go to article overview

IN CANADA: Friendly Fire


Robertson, Heather-jane, Phi Delta Kappan


ONE OF Canada's more frequently quoted political malapropisms is attributed to Robert Thompson, who sternly reminded his fellow parliamentarians in 1973 that "the Americans are our best friends, whether we like it or not."1 This cross-border friendship is partly expedient, partly geographic, partly genuine, sometimes one-sided, and almost always problematic.

Well before the war of 1812-14, it was clear that the theme of Canada's improbable story would be its determination to resist the gravitational pull of the United States. The post-Cold War ascendancy of American influence over other nations' economies and world views has intensified many Canadians' perception that the space in which to maintain our different national vision is shrinking. Conventional wisdom has it that, despite mounting a spirited defense, neither Canada's schools nor any other institutional entity has been able to withstand the juggernaut of American values as transmitted through Eminem, Pat Robertson, or Humvees. In mid-2002, while fully 58% of Canadians polled believed that Canada had become "more American" in the preceding decade, only 12% thought that this trend had been good for the country.2 Meanwhile, Americans seemed unaware that their vision is not everyone's vision. In mid-2003, 89% of Americans told pollsters that "America is the best country in the world in which to live." Only 6% of Canadians thought life in the U.S. superior to life in Canada.3

This figure helps explain why Canadians tend to reflexively dismiss institutional reforms they don't like as "American-style." (Michael Moore's contribution to reinforcing this tendency is duly noted.) Voters' wariness of all things American makes it difficult for Canadian politicians to introduce, except by stealth, any public policy that has currency south of the border, especially near election time. Yet despite our habitual distrust of Americanization, how our indigenous problems and proposed solutions are constructed is unavoidably shaped by the American debate. This sway continues to affect every policy issue, from gun registration to the selection of Supreme Court judges to school choice.

U.S. influence on Canadian education policy has been particularly intense during the era book-ended by A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind. However, historians could point out that lack of national educational autonomy is not just a contemporary concern. In 1953, Hilda Neatby's scathing and influential critique So Little for the Mind laid full blame for the sorry state of Canada's schools at the feet of John Dewey.4 "No one can understand Canadian education or Canadian educators without at least trying to familiarize himself with this theme," she wrote (p. 22). Dewey's dreaded theme, of course, was progressivism. "He has been looked upon as the fountain at which every novice must drink; in truth he is no fountain, he is rather a marsh, a bog where armies of school teachers have sunk . . ." (p. 23). Dewey's "obsession" with democracy was bad enough, Neatby claimed, but his abhorrence of "moral teaching" and his "ferociously amoral" approach to matters of method and discipline were even more pernicious (p. 24). The devil's name was Dewey, and Professor Neatby wanted him to stay home.

Despite her dour and dire warnings, most Canadian education "experts" -- an epithet Neatby verily spat onto the page -- continued to promote American education theory, albeit slightly more self-consciously. An Alberta Ministry of Education official found it necessary to justify the inclusion of 48 American authors in a bibliography of 52 titles distributed to teachers. "In the main," he explained, "social development in Canada parallels that of the United States, and teachers will find these references stimulating and informative reading" (p. 33).

Five decades after she called on Canadian teachers to reject American influence, Hilda Neatby's goal has been achieved -- well, partly at least. …

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