Schooling versus learning

Northrop Frye said, “We must reject that most dismal and fatuous notion that education is the preparation for life.”

Actually, I can’t think  of anyone with less formal education yet more prepared for life than my parents. Dad, born in the 1870s, attended schools only until the fifth or sixth grade. Yet he rounded out his early life as an accomplished athlete, edited a sports magazine, scouted with the British army in the Anglo-Boer War, worked as a fish and game merchant in England, and then farmed successfully in Canada.

I find it hard to believe that with a limited grade-school education, he served as a magazine editor. When Dad married Mom, she always sat with a dictionary at the table. Every time he used an unfamiliar word, she would look it up. She claims that she never once caught him using words incorrectly. Early in Dad’s time in Alberta, a scholarly individual passing through town met Dad. After a few in-depth conversations, the scholar, realizing he had met an equal, asked Dad, “Did you attend Oxford or Cambridge University?” I can imagine the grin spreading across Dad’s face; I have no idea how he answered.

Like Dad, Mother never finished primary school, but often mixing British colloquialisms into her everyday speech, she expected us to speak the King’s English. Like Dad, she had pursued various careers, including the military and as a cook in wealthy homes in England, then Canada. She liked to say she had gone through medical school. She had visited the school, entering through the front door and exiting by the back door. In fact she did have some medical training. When in London, Ontario, she attended a night school course in home nursing, taught by a struggling young doctor: Frederick Banting.

Those people provided me with my genetic nature, then nurtured me. When I left home I didn’t say things like, “Me and my brother, like, you know …” – or speech patterns that today pass for the language of even the educated. Primary schools of my parents’ day and mine not only stressed appropriate language, but also coached social skills. Along with my parents, teachers taught me to say, “My brother and I,” not “Me and my brother.” They taught that not just because rules of English say it, but also because common courtesy demanded the speaker always refer to others first and to himself last. So how is it that my parents and many of their contemporaries, people with limited education, spoke and thought as if they had attended one of the great universities? And on the other hand, why do so many graduates of today speak the language of the street?

Should we blame the primary, secondary and post-secondary schools? Or does the fault lie with this technical age in which communicating with machines has become more important than communicating with people? Do we blame the parents of today’s language-challenged young people? I suspect all those factors have contributed.

I guess for a definitive answer, I should discuss this with the youth of today. I would, but you know, like, how do me and them rap when I can’t, you know, text?


Ray Wiseman