Blanche in one of her plays.

Have you ever asked your parents or your grand parents what their dreams were when they were young? What was it they hoped for? Listen while you get a chance. My mother had to quit school after grade ten. I never realized how much she felt the loss of not finishing high school until I took her to see the movie Educating Rita and I realized that she was crying as Rita struggled to get an education.

I knew a woman who had to drop out of school because of illness. Smart, talented, ambitious but there was no money to pay for her to go back to school. She had to go to work as a servant. Often, as I had coffee with her, I thought how sad fate can sometimes be.

Most of us adjust to the reality of our lives, accept what can’t be changed, make the best of what is available. Nowadays, there are evening school courses, summer courses, education of many kinds is available electronically. You Tube provides short instructional courses on just about everything one can imagine. Yesterday, I watched a short video on how to use a carpenter’s tape measure. I didn’t know three of the four tips.

When I was growing up there was no library in town (a tragedy), no learning to use a library, no books that would create knowledge of the world out there. For adults there were few paths forward. It still wasn’t common for adults to return to school. One exception were the courses for the airmen on the Gimli airbase. The math teacher at our school wasn’t working out to well so I took the course on the airbase to supplement the teaching in the public school. This was an exceptional opportunity. Extension courses were few and far between.

Even with improvements over the decades, access to knowledge and skills can still be hard to come by. College and university are expensive. And can be intimidating.

Yet, most people, if not all, have dreams. If the resources had been available, what would your mother or father like to have done? Your grandmothers and grandfathers? Grandma, you can ask, what was your dream when you were young?

My Icelandic grandmother, Blanche, whom I never me–she died when my father was twelve–wanted to be a successful playwright, actress, director, poet, fiction writer. And she wanted to write song lyrics. Living in a small town, she did all of these, writing her plays, acting in them, directing them, writing poetry, fiction and song lyrics. She knew an actor in Hollywood who was Icelandic and corresponded with him and sent him some of her plays. The family has at least one of his replies.

With four children, living in a small, rural town, she still had big dreams. Even in such circumstances people can still hope to do something exceptional with their life.

I think of this because I was sorting and filing papers over the last few days and I came across an envelope with a copy of one of her published songs.

I wondered as I studied the piece of sheet music what her dream was, did she hope to go to Hollywood? It seems like an impossible dream but there were quite a few Icelanders did go to Hollywood, including Halldor Laxnes, in pursuit of fame and fortune. Laxness stayed in an apartment provided by a successful Icelandic developer. And I wondered how many women in small towns, on farms, in prairie cities harboured dreams of greater things?

Rose Petals

Basement Rats


You may not know it but you may be guiding your son or daughter into part time work and poverty. You may be guiding them into irrelevance. There is nothing more discouraging, disheartening than working hard and discovering that all that work has made you irrelevant. Make your kids irrelevant and the result will be that they will still be basement rats when you are being carted away in a hearse.

There is nothing more dangerous or destructive than irrelevance.

When I was a boy, the busiest place in town was the blacksmith shop. I used to go there with my father. The blacksmith and his assistant had the coals white hot, sparks showered from the horseshoe or anchor that he was making. Jobs waiting to be done were piled up. Harrows, discs, wagon wheels, all needing repair. Farmers and fishermen coming and going, dropping off items, picking up others. There was the smell of the coal and the steam as red hot iron was plunged into cold water. The blacksmith was so essential that nearly every town had at least one.

There was lots of warning. Automobiles of various kinds by many different companies were being built during the 1800s. However, they weren’t seen as a threat to horse transportation because of the lack of roads, the difficulty of buying fuel, and the frequent breakdowns. The Model-T appeared but horses and blacksmiths continued to be necessary.The beginning of the end for thousands, tens of thousands, of blacksmiths, those valued members of society, those earners of decent incomes, had begun. Blacksmith shops closed their doors.

What was needed now were mechanics. Today, we only see blacksmiths at country fairs where the craft is practiced as a nostalgic hobby.
Employment comes with having knowledge and skill that other people want and need. At one time that was the ability to shoe a horse. See how many jobs that will get you nowadays.

Life and innovation creep up on you, make you irrelevant, leave you with skills for which no one wants to pay. Writing, for example. When I was twenty, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write fiction, journalism, drama. Hemingway, I’d read, was both fiction writer and journalist, and was earning a dollar a word. One or two stories would take him to Europe where he could go to the bullfights and drink wine and have adventures.

No one pointed out that I was following the path of the blacksmiths. No one knew that that path to irrelevance ,TV, already existed. We watched it but it never occurred to me or anyone else I knew that the ads on TV were going to strip magazines of their advertising. The magazines were the lifeblood of freelance writers. Articles and stories for popular and trade magazines paid the bills. Companies quickly realized that they were buying eyes for their ads and the eyes were now locked onto TV screens.

Then computers came along. I was involved in computers when only nerdy professors and military types used them. We learned code. We figured out ways to make margins line up. We went from a main frame and a printer that took up an entire basement in a university building to the PC. Publishing radically changed.

The skills that were being taught to editors and printers became irrelevant, were replaced. One PC was the equivalent to a small publisher. Jobs disappeared. Those laboring in the print offices became the new blacksmiths—irrelevant.

University is not trade school. Universities exist to educate. The link of university education to getting a job is tenuous. It may be non-existent. If you don’t want your son or daughter to follow the blacksmiths to oblivion, you need to help them choose a career for the future. If it is a trade, it needs to be a trade that will be relevant until they retire. If it is an education, you need to look ahead to how it will help them earn a living. Doctor, lawyer, dentist are direct. History in Art, musicology, pottery, modern poetry, not so much. Those don’t even get you started as a blacksmith.

When I taught Creative Writing over a period of thirty six years, I always emphasized that students should take a double major. The creative writing gave them skills and the other major gave them a specialty to write about. When the Co-op program started, I encouraged everyone to take part. There are jobs in communications in both private and public areas.

The future has no certainty to it. Change will occur. The unexpected will happen. Ultimately, your son or daughter will have or not have a good financial life by having knowledge and skills that others need or want. Need is better than want. In hard times, wants disappear.

Tell your kids about the fate of blacksmiths. Have conversations with them about the future. If they want to be a musician, artist, poet, actor, help them see that also developing knowledge and skills that are needed is like having a lifeboat. Professional athletes often hedge their bets with educations that provide employment and income after the no longer can play football, hockey, basketball, etc.

Ask your kids what jobs exist that people need? Ask them which jobs they think will be relevant ten, twenty, thirty years from now? Which of these jobs do they want to do? Then discuss what they need to do to get those jobs. Or, they can be a greeter at Walmart when they are their parents’ or grandparents’ ages. Tell them to look at those greeters, or the older people handing out flyers at Home Depot, or people in their fifties, sixties, seventies, doing minimum wage jobs when other people the same age are comfortably retired or, if still working, are making substantial amounts o money doing a job they want to do.

One doctor I know is still going in to read X-rays two days a week. He’s needed. His skills are wanted, needed and well paid. An editor I know retired and is now making over a hundred dollars an hour doing specialized editing. In one hour, these people make more than those people earning minimum wage in an eight hour day.

The choice is yours.

The Value of an Education

I was never meant to go to university. It was not something that had crossed my parent’s minds. My mother finished grade ten. My father left school mid-way through grade eight.

My father never wanted anything except to be a successful commercial fisherman. He had no capital. He also had a wife and child (me) when he was twenty. He took a barber’s course and cut hair in Gimli, Manitoba, a small rural fishing village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. He was up before dawn, out on the lake lifting nets, would ice the fish, then get cleaned up and go to the barber shop. My mother said that he needed to make enough money from the summer cottagers and tourists to get them through the winter when the only customers were local people. It took him a long time but, eventually, he reached the point where he was able to stop barbering and earn a living from fishing. However, he worked two jobs for many years, neither of which provided enough money to support our family.

The normal path for someone like me, the son of someone seasonally employed, was to go fishing. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was hopeless as a fisherman. I didn’t share my father’s passion, had no desire to set nets, lift them in weather both fair and foul, suffer the vagaries of a catch that might or might not appear; in winter, chop through four to six feet of ice, lift and set nets in thirty and forty degree below weather.

Instead, I wanted to read books. I was fortunate because we had a complete set of The Books of Knowledge. In those days, that is the 1940s and 50s, The Books of Knowledge were full of history and mythology rather than science. I reveled in stories of battles and bravery, in poetry and stories of the gods.

Every Christmas relatives gave me books. There was no one with an advanced education to guide my reading. Still, I got copies of the classics: Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, Swiss Family Robinson, The Man in the Iron Mask. I became a voracious reader. High school introduced The Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, Return of the Native, numerous plays by Shakespeare, poetry that was more than verse and, surprisingly, Canadian poets like Earl Birney and Anne Marriot. “David” and “The Wind Our Enemy” revealed that it was possible to write about Canadian subject matter from a Canadian point of view.

I was hired for a summer job at the United Grain Growers because a great uncle worked there. I was probably the only child of someone seasonally employed. The other summer employees were the sons of middle class parents. It was these summer co-workers who said since they were all going to university, why didn’t I also go?

To my parents’ credit, when I phoned and said I’d like to go to university, after some stunned silence and a consultation between my mother and father, they said yes. My grandparents said I could live with them, free room and board. I had enough money from my work to pay tuition and books.

The university was a strange and foreign place. Professors stood up in front of classes and lectured. There was no one checking home work. There were just suggestions about what we should read. No one was taking responsibility for me, for making sure I read my texts, read other sources, made notes, studied. At first, it seemed like a lark. Then the Christmas grades came out. The lark was over. I was, I realized, the only person rowing my boat. Lesson one. How to be responsible for myself. Lesson two. Learn how to learn. Lesson three. Learn discipline. Turn up for classes. Make choices, study or party. Understand consequences.

I don’t remember the periodic table or even what we studied in first year physics. The lesson I do remember is realizing the difference between arguing and discussing, arguing and debating, yelling louder than someone else or marshaling a group of facts to support a position. Pounding the table and shouting didn’t get you anywhere in a seminar.

I learned about things I never knew existed. I took Philosophy and along with learning about Aristotle and Plato, I took logic, formal and informal. Although I was the despair of my professor, Davey Owen, his course in logic opened up my mind, showed me how to dispel faulty arguments and to prove that they were faulty. In place of punching someone with whom I disagreed, I was able to analyze and identify the logic or lack of it in their argument. There is power in being able to say, “You are arguing in a circle.” And demonstrate it.

In Gimli, it seemed that there were few choices. Local people who had gone to university had become a doctor or lawyer, dentist, pharmacist. No one mentioned astrophysics or the multi types of geologist or economists or archeologists. No one ever mentioned becoming a plant pathologist. University was like a cornucopia with possibilities spilling from it. It presented possibilities I never knew existed.

I stumbled along taking courses because I was interested in them, not because they led in a coherent fashion to a job. After first year, I took political science, philosophy, economics, English, the sort of conglomeration that many who see university as a sort of trade school rail against. I wasn’t learning a trade. I was getting an education. I was learning to think and to understand. And gradually, my love of literature was turning into a desire to become a published writer.

When I look back, I wish I’d taken courses in history. They would have provided a framework for everything else I was taking. There were no courses in journalism but as a famous journalist once said to me, don’t worry about the specific techniques that go with a genre. You can teach yourself those or learn them on the job. Focus on learning to write. Once you can write, you can write anything and he was correct. I learned to write short stories, novels, children’s stories, poetry, plays, articles.

Lately, on the internet and sometimes in the media there have been attacks on higher education. It is, according to these writers, a waste of time. They use examples of someone with a university degree working as a barista or a waitress. They want universities to become trade schools. They equate training to education. The rail about all the student debt that is accumulated by the time someone graduates. They never talk about the opportunities that are created, the possibilities that now are known that were not known.

Something sinister, destructive has happened to our educational system. Going to university used to mean getting an education, becoming an educated person. However, over the years it became to mean getting a degree. Before I retired, it became common to hear students talk about getting a degree as quickly as possible, with as little effort as possible. All they were concerned about were getting credits. Some would even argue that it was their right to have a degree because having a degree would get them a job.

What had been a journey to being educated was becoming obtaining a piece of paper whose only purpose was getting hired. Somewhere, lost in this transition was the reason that people with degrees used to get jobs is because they were educated, that is they were knowledgeable, could think logically and could communicate effectively. They had learned to learn and any employer hiring them could be confident that they had the ability to learn the necessary specifics of any job.

I first taught high school, then college and, finally, university classes. I taught in the Fine Arts faculty, not in Engineering or computer science or Chemistry. Worse yet, I taught people how to write fiction. The ignorant clamor against such courses, such degrees. But our graduates made fine editors, used their writing skills for a wide variety of jobs. Every business needs people skilled in communication. Poets, with their attention to every word, every punctuation mark, make fine editors. Writers who understand narrative create everything from advertisements to television shows and computer games.

Part of the attack on higher education is coming as a backlash against the exposure of ignorance. Remember, I said that I took formal and informal logic. I learned to think critically, to analyze, to search for the truth. In the past year there have been reports of men in Africa who, out of ignorance, have shot and killed women who were inoculating children against serious diseases. In Texas recently a law was proposed that the teaching of critical thinking be banned. Critical thinking, after all, exposes nonsense, superstition, lack of logic. There is little distance between the murderers of women in Africa who are trying to protect children against disease and the banning of critical thinking. Both champion ignorance.

Education dissipates ignorance and superstition. It gives the most critical skill of all. It taught me how to learn. After a lifetime of learning and teaching, I can say that was worth every penny, every minute of effort, every sacrifice.

On Education

I stumbled into university because I had a summer job with a group of guys from a higher social class than me. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers or had good permanent jobs and the families lived in areas like River Heights. When the grades came out, they said to me, “Your grades are as good as ours. Why don’t you come to university?”

University? What was that? My father was a fisherman and, in the off season, he had a barber shop.

One of the guys helped me register. I entered a world of professors, lectures, time tables, libraries, research. Entered is probably too strong a word. I tumbled, stumbled, fell, into a world run by the clock, not the seasons.

It never occurred to me that I was taking philosophy, political science, English, economics, French, so that I could get a job. There already were jobs. I could go commercial fishing. Or I could go to Red River College and take a trade. Be a carpenter like my grandfather. Or I could get a job on the railway like my other grandfather.

Working class to the core, that was us. Graduating from high school was an accomplishment. Many working class kids left after grade ten. Got jobs driving trucks, on construction, on the highway, in maintenance. The ones with parents already in the trades or who understood the importance of a ticket that would allow entrance into a union—plumbers, carpenters, electricians—got an apprenticeship.

I went to university because I wanted an education. I wanted to know, to understand, to think. I wanted to take courses in logic, the theory of the small business, the way Locke and Rousseau and Hobbes thought. I wanted to be able to speak and write and organize.

My education was a family thing. My parents were only able to help a little. My grandparents provided room and board. I had my summer job. It was enough.

I was lucky. Tuition was 300.00 a year. Books probably came to about 100.00. Bus fare was, if I remember correctly, 10 tickets for a dollar. My grandmother sent me off each day with a sandwich and a piece of fruit or a cut up vegetable.

Professors were poorly paid. So poorly paid that it was better financially to be a public school teacher. Then the government got involved. Someone once said there is nothing  more terrifying than a politician turning up at your door and saying, “I’ve come to help you.” It looked good, at first. Professors got paid better.

The government wasn’t interested in educating the public. They were interested in being able to demonstrate that they were doing something to help people get a job. Billboards appeared saying things like “Go to college and get a job.” To the government, university wasn’t about education, it was about being a trade school. It was about helping them get re-elected. Their logic, of course, was absurd.

When I graduated, if I got hired, it wasn’t going to be because I had skills like bookkeeping or driving a semi-trailer. I got hired because I’d shown that I could think, that I had an education that allowed me to read and understand, to paraphrase, to condense, to report, to explain, to organize and had an area of specialized knowledge. Yes, graduates did get jobs but it was, certainly in those days, partly because they were educated but also because the educated usually came from families in the middle class, upper middle class, even the upper class (and, yes, Canada has all those classes), families who had connections, who knew the right people, who had already trained their children in social niceties and behaviors. A degree was a ticket but to cash it in, daddy often picked up the telephone and called a friend.

No wonder that today there are articles about people being angry because the promise of go to university and get a job has been shown to be a fraud. Today, I read an article on a site called Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis that 37.5% of Graduates Work in Jobs Requiring No Degree. Graduates and their families are also angry about the cost of that education. I paid 300 dollars tuition for the year. Today, that doesn’t even pay for one half course. There are some colleges and universities where tuition is close to 50,000 dollars a year in the United States. I’d be angry, too, if I’d paid that much money a year in tuition plus other costs for three years and had been told that I was investing that money in a job that was going to pay mega bucks. Especially if when I graduated, I had mega debt and was working as a barista.

In Canada, we don’t have all the private universities that exist in the United States. That may be why that on average, undergraduate students in Ontario who paid the highest fees in Canada paid, on average, $7,180.00. However undergrads in dentistry paid $16,910.00. That’s a lot of moola. How long does it take to save $7,180.00, never mind $16,910.00. At least the dentists assume that they are going to make good money, after, of course, they pay off their debts, buy a practice or set up a practice with all its attendant expenses.

Of course, there are other fees the university collects. Then there’s room and board, travel, books, and who knows what else. A student can end up owing as much money as I paid for my first house.

Part of the problem is that education has always been about prestige. The social ranking of universities worldwide is brutal. Everybody knows where everybody else got their degree and there is a class structure that is unforgiving. Go ahead, just tell someone you graduated from some local college and that your degree is as good as one from Yale, Harvard, Oxford. You may be right. You may be as well educated. It won’t do any good. You’re living at the wrong address in the wrong neighbourhood. People will pay huge amounts of money for a prestigious address.

University administrators are smart people. They know on which side of their bread is buttered. The government has said go to university and get a job. The universities have put money into programs with saleable skills and then reinforced that with Co-operative Education programs. Even our Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria had a Co-op option. You want to be a poet, fine, but go out on work terms, become an editor, learn to write government reports, business reports, brochures, PR, whatever, so when you graduate, you won’t be working as a barista or selling bread in a bakery. Some went the Co-op route. Others chose not to. The ones who went the Co-op route were a help at budget time. We were able to say to the government overseers, see, we’re a trade school, too.

If people think that a university degree is like papers for an electrician or, if they think it should be, god help them. They should be getting an apprenticeship. Or they should be taking dentistry, medical, or pharmacy. There has been a shortage in those areas. Good thing. Those are degrees that are worthless unless there is a job on graduation. That’s the problem with highly focused training.

I often recommended to my students that they get both a university degree and their papers in a trade. As a democracy, we desperately need an educated populace and educated shouldn’t only apply to the middle and upper classes. We need to vote. We need to understand complex issues. We need to be able to see through lies and manipulation. We need to be educated. Being trained won’t help us manage our democracy.

If 37.5% of graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a degree so what? Most degree requirements for jobs are artificial. Over a lifetime, people nowadays change jobs many times. A while ago, I read about a surgeon who quit medicine to become a high school teacher.  High school teachers quit to become real estate agents. So what? I’m not sorry that people in jobs that don’t require a degree are educated.

If you or your kids are thinking of going to university because you think it is going to guarantee you or them a job that pays so much money that the cost, no matter how high it is, doesn’t matter, then give your head a shake. I know an engineer, top notch, has worked for the most prestigious government and private organizations. He’s been unemployed for over three years. India is churning out engineers. Tens of thousands of engineers. They work cheap. So much for the value of all those practical courses.

Personally, I think universities shouldn’t try to be trade schools. They should educate people. Most jobs require a very narrow set of skills that are endlessly repeated. Let employers do the training.