Monthly Archives: July 2004

Students need a summer break

Oh great. Here’s an idea for school reform so bad it’s bound to prevail. Get rid of summer vacation. Yup. There’s a winner in the anti-fun, make-life-dismal sweepstakes. Coming soon to a faculty of education near you.

Monday’s Globe and Mail says more than two million U.S. students already attend schools with a year-round calendar, a.k.a. “balanced” or “modified,” in which instead of getting most of their vacation in one big happy summery chunk, they get it in monotonous dribs and drabs throughout the year. Thus far it’s only been adopted in a few schools in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. But just you wait. The Globe quoted the head of the department of educational studies (a bad start, folks) at UBC, “I always say, ‘We’ve got a 150-year-old compromise.’ Everything else in society has changed. Maybe it’s time to change the school calendar. People are nervous because they don’t know anything else.” Well, I always say, “I don’t fear change; I fear stupidity.” If we had real school choice there wouldn’t be just one calendar but since we don’t, we should fight this idea.

The esteemed educationist is right about the compromise; the reason we have long summer vacations is the government wanted to put kids in school all the time and parents wanted them around to help on the farm and they split the difference. And it’s true that most people no longer need their kids pitching hay into the barn on a July day (although seeing pale rickety kids lurking endlessly in the basement playing video games, I could hand them a pitchfork). But “everything else in society” hasn’t changed; Aristotle’s advice to “Bring your desires down to your present means; increase them only when your increased means permit” has paradoxically become more true as we have grown richer and more indebted. (And money still can’t buy happiness, but people won’t stop trying.) Continue reading

Sticks and stones might hurt Iran

Our government is weighing its options with regard to Iran. Against a feather, I suspect.

It’s not necessarily an indictment of our foreign policy. There are some 200 nations in the world and they can’t all be important. Besides, Iran is heavily armed and far away, so even if we had maintained a more robust military capability and a more assertive role in the western alliance we might not be able to do anything in this case anyway. But we did not. Instead, we threw away our guns and pushed away our allies.

Worse, we didn’t do it knowing it meant becoming geopolitical bystanders. Instead we, and by we I mean they, that elitist, well-connected group of academics, public servants and politicians the press calls the “foreign policy community,” convinced themselves that in the last decade our influence in the world increased enormously, from middle power to moral superpower. Not, it appears, if you measure influence by capacity to achieve results. Rudyard Kipling said if you go into the jungle you must know what size beast you are. And David Warren wrote recently, “Canada’s own ‘angry gerbil’ response to the insulting handling of the (Zahra) Kazemi trial is, obviously, not going to influence Iranian behaviour.” Perhaps nothing would. But why were we so unprepared? Continue reading

Here’s a sneak peek at Canada’s latest reality TV show

He’s not a politician solving Canada’s health-care crisis, but he’s going to play one on TV. Yes, that’s right. It’s Paul Martin, whose latest brain wave is to summon Canada’s premiers to a historic health summit starting Sept. 13 and televise the proceedings to discourage posturing and spin and encourage frank discussion of the real situation and of the possible need for hard choices. It dices, it slices, it … Sorry.

Mr. Martin apparently can’t tell public relations from public policy but thinks he has a divine right to be prime minister whether or not he can command a majority in that silly old Parliament because he is a Liberal. And he doesn’t seem to realize health care is constitutionally a provincial responsibility. If he can nevertheless play doctor on TV, it seems to me that you and I can play Hollywood scriptwriter even if our day jobs involve the hospitality industry. So let’s try to conjure up some of the dialogue likely to result as the politicians gaze earnestly into the camera and hold a “frank” discussion of what’s wrong with the health-care system, who caused it and how to fix it.

The PM: Gosh, fellows, I’m so glad you were all able to come here to work with us to devise a historic, co-operative, forward-looking, win-win solution to the health-care problem that will indeed be historic. Continue reading

Watch yer backs, gardeners, I’m on to youse

On the surface Bytown’s a friendly, peaceful, normal kind of place. The sort of burg where you’d settle down, raise a couple of taxes, keep your dog away from the water and license your cat. But behind the facade of white picket fences, language squabbles and carefully maintained balls of red tape there’s a dark underside of corruption and decay, where self-indulgence is a way of life, respect for the law a bad joke, and the smell of mulch all too familiar.

That’s my world. I’m Leif Branch, twig detective. I work for the Surface Operations branch, or SOP. Most folks don’t give us a second thought as they go about their business. But without us their placid suburban lives would become a hell of dandelion stalks, loose branches and grass clippings. Especially grass clippings.

Yeah, grass is bigger in this town than at Woodstock. And not just hippies. You see these suburbanites gathered round their barbecues picking grubs out of their pesticide-free lawns while discussing LeBreton Flats and you’d never in a million years guess, but half the time they’re reeling from the sensuous fumes of newly-mown grass. They’re hauling sacks of the stuff around in their Volvo station wagons. Continue reading

Arthur sinks the Titanic at Troy in Patriot Love of schlock

Across a misty Avalon lake a barge glides gently over dark waters though no wind stirs its sails. Within, in shimmering armour, lies King Arthur, fatally wounded by a movie camera. On shore, three knights discuss his fate.

“Gad, ’tis passing sad the great Arthur should have come to this,” observed Sir Prisde. “And passing strange.”

“That it is. There, almost unrecognizable, lies the greatest and most moving figure in all of British folklore, the once and future king,” responded Sir Perceiving. Continue reading

Supreme court tries my faith

In The Maltese Falcon, Kaspar “the Fat Man” Gutman tells Humphrey Bogart’s detective Sam Spade, “By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.”

I feel the same way about our Supreme Court, whose recent ruling on religion conveys a freedom at once dangerously unbounded and utterly unreliable.

Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem concerned Orthodox Jews in a Montreal luxury condominium complex. In purchasing their units, they had agreed not to make certain uses of their balconies, but subsequently claimed the right to erect temporary “succah” huts on them anyway. They apparently hadn’t read the purchase agreement, but in any event felt they shouldn’t be bound by it because they really didn’t want to be. And the court agreed. Continue reading

For argument’s sake, draw your own analogies

When the Athenian statesman Phocion gave a speech that the public applauded, Plutarch claims, he turned to some friends and asked, “Have I inadvertently said something foolish?” How many politicians would ever have such a reaction today? Yet how many should? I sure missed Plutarch during this election.

For one thing, I treasure his anecdote of Cato the Elder who, told it was odd that there was no monument to him in Rome, said he would far rather have people ask why he didn’t have a statue than why he did. What a useful standard by which to judge the personal qualities of politicians. When Bill Clinton claims in his memoirs that “in politics, if you don’t toot your own horn, it usually stays untooted” you might reasonably conclude that, in Cato’s situation, he would have put one up himself.

Some readers may be puzzled by my periodic tendency to enthuse about some author who wrote long before Jennifer Lopez’s first marriage; if so I reply that it is not a boast to find nothing interesting in books. (Or quote American commentator Florence King that in high school “the girls who recited Mickey Rooney’s wives in the cafeteria made fun of me for reciting Henry VIII’s wives in history class …”) Continue reading