War Free Schools

Here’s a nice thought for public education – let’s put automatic weapons into children’s hands, and let’s show them how to use them. Even better – let’s pay them $600 a week for the training. Sounds a bit wrong? Well, since 2006 it’s been the policy of the Toronto District Public School Board.[1] One other point – the students actually get credit for this, their placement with the military being done through the Army Reserve Cooperative Education Program.

A similar program existed in the 1990s, but was terminated in 2002. In this earlier program, when placed with the military as part of their “experiential” learning, students were not paid, as is the case with every other placement. In 2002, the Canadian Armed Forces terminated the program “since the army reserve in June 2002 determined that first they must pay students and second that they could not afford to pay.”[2]

But in 2005, talks opened up between the School Board and the Army Reserve leading to a revival of the program – this time with the students – who “actually become members of the Canadian Forces Primary Reserve” – being paid a salary equivalent to about $600 per week. In 2005-2006 there were 14 Toronto school children taking part in this program – one just 16 years old, three others just 17 – along with 104 others from “boards such as York Region, Peel, and Toronto Catholic School Boards.”[3]

This is being sold as a way of building character. “The military is great for time-management skills” said Martin Boreczek a corporal in the Reserve now attending York University. “A lot of things need to get done on time, which is something procrastinating university students could learn and apply.” But the real reason has more to do with war than study skills. Boreczek, for instance, was a soldier in Afghanistan from 2004-2005.[4] It is the needs of the war machine – now committed to fighting in that country until 2011 – which is behind the intrusion of war-making into the school system.

In response, Educators for Peace and Justice (EPJ) have launched a “War Free Schools” campaign. A fund-raiser to launch the campaign was held June 19 in the East End of Toronto. Teachers and students from high schools and universities listened to a presentation from Dylan Penner of Operation Objection, who made the case for getting the military out of our classrooms. Playing in the background were images from the War Free Schools Organizing Kit – a Backgrounder and a Handbook available from their web site, www.operationobjection.org.

Canada has a reputation as being a peacekeeper, but it is clear that this peacekeeping moment is now over. In 1991, Canada was a full participant in the first Gulf War. Its 1993 intervention in Somalia looked to the Somalis more like occupation than peacekeeping.[5] In 1999 it was one of the principal contributors to NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. And from 2001 to the present, it has been a central component of the war in Afghanistan. This has been accompanied by initiatives from both Liberal and Conservative governments to increase spending on the military. Most recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government announced a plan for a significant expansion of Canada’s military. In May, the National Post gave a “sneak preview” of the plans.

Over the next 20 years, the Tories want to commit Ottawa to spending $30-billion more on the military. Mr. Harper foresees an expansion of our Forces to 100,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. Troop strength will include 70,000 regular forces, up from 65,000 today, while the reserves will expand from 24,000 to 30,000. Ageing warships will be replaced, and new transport aircraft and armoured vehicles will be purchased. New medium-lift helicopters will be bought immediately to ferry our troops over and around roadside bombs and snipers in Afghanistan.[6]

This was confirmed while the fund-raiser was in progress. On the evening of Thursday June 19, 2008 – “the night before Parliament adjourns for the summer”[7] – a major document appeared on the National Defence web site, announcing a 20 year, $490-billion “Canada First” Defence Strategy to steadily upgrade Canada’s military capacity over a generation.[8]

This is being accompanied by a serious intensification to recruit young people into the Canadian military. In February 2006, then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hiller, launched “Operation Connection” whose goal was to enlist all the uniformed personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces into the recruitment effort, saying: “I expect every sailor, soldier, airman and airwoman to recognize their role as a potential CF recruiter, effectively spreading the load from the shoulders of recruiting centre personnel to the shoulders of all Regular and Reserve personnel.” The effect would be to enlist 85,000 uniformed personnel as active recruiters to the armed forces.[9]

This pressure to pull young people into the service of Canada’s wars abroad is not going to end anytime soon. Building a movement to get the troops out of Afghanistan, is going to require building a movement to get the military out of our schools. No blood for oil, no youth for the killing fields.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] “Briefing Note: Cooperative Education and the Canadian Armed Forces,” Toronto District School Board, June 5, 2006
[2] “Briefing Note”
[3] “Briefing Note”
[4] “Military co-op opens door to a career,” ylife: York’s Weekly Newsletter for Students, October 2, 2006
[5] Sherene H. Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004)
[6] “Bolstering our Forces,” National Post, May 14, 2008
[7] David Pugliese, “Parliament in the dark on major weapons purchase,” Canwest News Services, June 19, 2008
[8] “Canada First Defence Strategy,” National Defense, Canada, June 18, 2008
[9] “Op CONNECTION: Reaching out and touching Canadians,” National Defense, Canada March 9, 2006. For the response of the anti-war movement, see Dylan Penner, ed., War Free Schools: The Rise of the Counter-Recruitment Movement (Toronto: Act for the Earth, 2006)

The case for deep writing

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Atlantic July 2, 2008 • Nicholas Carr says that Google is making us stupid.[1] The ubiquity of the Internet, he argues, is leading to a change in the habits of information acquisition, a change in the norms of information processing, and an accompanying change in the very structure of our way of thinking. The very strong implication of the article is that this is a “bad thing,” leading to the demise of what he calls “deep reading”. But deep reading requires its complement, deep writing – deep writing requires facts, and the article has, well, none. The handful of anecdotes at the beginning of the article do not so qualify. Neither does the cute story about Nietzsche and the typewriter. They make good journalism, good copy, but they do not make good research. And without facts, deep writing is close to impossible.

There is one part of the article that does, I think, provide an interesting “open door” to such deep writing. “The Internet” Carr writes is “becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and our TV.”[2] Think about the latter for a minute. Carr throughout is presuming a causal relationship between an increase in Internet reading and a decline in “deep reading” (the focused immersion in long articles, books, etc.). Perhaps, however, this is a false, very false, equation. Perhaps the Internet is not a step down from “deep reading” but a step up from channel surfing? That might be a very good thing, as there are many studies about that older medium – television – warning about its baneful effects on literacy.[3]

I go to the Internet, stopwatch in hand (an homage to the reference to Taylor in the article). Two minutes gone. I have a 2002 study by Norman H. Nie and Lutz Erbring (both at the time at Stanford University). “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report” is worth some deep reading. It indicates that Internet use is cutting into time spent with friends and family, a shift that worries them. But it also concludes that “time on the Internet is coming out of time spent viewing television.”[4] Seen from this standpoint, the spread of the Internet might be seen as a quite positive development – the evolution, if you will, from “Happy Days” and “Rockford Files” to Google, Facebook and Email.

This has me suddenly engaged in what Carr cites (negatively) as “a form of skimming activity”[5] – to whit, wondering about the relationship between email (the Internet’s close cousin) and writing ability. This time it takes longer – three minutes – but the extra minute is worth it. I find an authority, Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who, according to a 2005 Associated Press story, “thinks frequent e-mail improves writing: ‘To become a better writer, you have to write.’”[6]

But the central issue has yet to be broached – the connection, if any, between Internet use and deep reading. Let’s try a hypothesis – that book purchases are a good proxy for deep reading, and that a decline in deep reading would be made evident in a decline in book purchases. You might know where I’m going with this. If my city is anything like your city, one of the most interesting phenomena of the end of the last century and the beginning of this century has been the explosion of big box bookstores. There is also, of course, the Amazon.com explosion. There was also the near hysteria about the release of the latest Harry Potter book, and the interesting sight of millions of young (and old) engaged in what looked quite a lot like “deep reading.”

Can this be quantified? This time the stopwatch records twenty minutes of research – the information is a little more hidden. But then I have it – the U.S. Census Bureau provides information from 1992 to 2007 on sales from bookstores in the United States.[7] The following chart is the result.


What does it tell us? First, bookstore sales in the U.S. have doubled from 1992 to 2007, from just over $8 billion to just over $16 billion. Second, that growth has now flattened in the period 2004 to 2007. What can we conclude from this? Not very much. First the growth rate while real, needs to be qualified by both population increases and inflation. Second, the “flattening” in recent years may be related to the spread of the Internet – or it may be related to the spread of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and resulting economic hardship – another matter that demands both serious deep reading and deep writing. Or perhaps the industry did expand, responding to demand, but did so too quickly – is now in a holding pattern, but will return to growth shortly. What the graph does not show, however, is a steep drop off in purchases of books in the United States. I guess we have to say, then, that the jury is still out.

Enough. This is simply a quick foray into an area opened up by Carr’s provocative article, emphasis on the word “quick.” While this response to Carr is an appeal for “deep writing,” it is certainly not an example of the art. That would require more focus, more time – and perhaps more, not less, use of the Internet.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic, July/August 2008, pp. 56-63
[2] Carr, p. 60
[3] See for example, Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum: 2001)
[4] Norman H. Nie, Lutz Erbring, “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report,” IT & Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2002, p. 280
[5] Carr, p. 58
[6] Cited in “Is email ruining the way we write?” Associated Press, December 12, 2005
[7] U.S. Census Bureau, “Service Sector Statistics: Estimates of Monthly Retail and Food Services Sales by Kind of Business,” 1992-2007

The Gutter Press and the ‘War on Terror’

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Globe and Mail June 26, 2008 • George Bush is white. Stephen Harper is white. Tony Blair is white. So, I will now write about white terrorism as a plague covering the planet, given that several hundred thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a result of the military actions of these white men, are dead, maimed and/or traumatized. I will use the term “honky.” Were I to do this, of course, and submitted it as an article to the very respected The Globe and Mail, it would be rejected as being inflammatory, crude and, well, just a little too “gutter”. The language of the tavern is not appropriate for Canada’s national newspaper. However, when Christie Blatchford applies the same technique to people from Pakistan, not only is her article accepted – it is featured on the front page.[1]

But I urge you not to stop at the front page. Read the article in its entirety. She goes on to write about a man whose mother was in the World Trade Centre September 11, 2001, but who managed to survive. But the son, to Blatchford’s surprise, does not sign up to fight for the United States but is “inspired to go to Afghanistan not to fight the guys who nearly killed his mummy, but to fight the dirty kuffar, or infidels.”

She then compares him to an elephant, likens Manhattan to “civilization,” Central Asia to “the jungle” and says that the fellow left Manhattan for “the wilds of northern Pakistan, and wanted all the more to blow civilization to smithereens.”

Rudyard Kipling would be delighted. Blatchford has “taken up the white man’s burden” complete with racializing the enemy (Kipling disgustingly called his era’s enemy “new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child”) all to prosecute our era’s “savage wars of peace.”[2]

It is a shame that 109 years after Kipling’s hymn to racism and imperialism, there are some who have not discovered a better hymnal. It is a shame that seven years after the launch of the “War on Terror,” Canada’s national newspaper could give pride of place to something as poorly written and racially provocative as this article by Blatchford.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Christie Blatchford, “ ‘Down with the J,’ and out of their senses,” The Globe and Mail, June 24, 2008, p. A.1.
[2] Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden,” Literature Network, Rudyard Kipling, www.online-literature.com

Let’s Not Forget Mexico

Letter to the editor printed in Queen’s Alumni Review, Review Plus, Volume 82 Number 2, May 19, 2008 • Thanks to Sara Beck for her informed, well-researched and interesting article, “A Question of Treason.”[1] The stories of Israel Halperin in the 1940s and the Security Certificate Five in the 21st century show clearly the frightening ease with which human rights can be swept away in moments of societal panic.

One small correction I would like to make. Sara calls the events of 9/11 “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” I have in front of me William H. Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru.[2] The first few hundred pages of the book amount to a dry tale of the utmost brutality carried out by the European armies of Cortés against the people of what is today Mexico, culminating with his barbaric assault on the capital.

A long siege reduced much of the population to starvation. As his armies advanced into the city: “Dead bodies lay unburied in the streets and court-yards … As the invaders entered the dwellings, a more appalling spectacle presented itself; – the floors covered with the prostrate forms of the miserable inmates, some in the agonies of death, others festering in their corruption; men, women, and children, inhaling the poisonous atmosphere, and mingled promiscuously together; mothers, with their infants in their arms perishing of hunger before their eyes, while they were unable to afford them the nourishment of nature; men crippled by their wounds, with their bodies frightfully mangled, vainly attempting to crawl away, as the enemy entered. Yet, even in this state, they scorned to ask for mercy, and glared on the invaders with the sullen ferocity of the wounded tiger, that the huntsmen have tracked to his forest cave.”[3]

And when the conquest was complete, the corpses “‘lay so thick,’ says Bernal Diaz, ‘that one could not tread except among the bodies.’ ‘A man could not set his foot down,’ says Cortés, yet more strongly, ‘unless on the corpse of an Indian!’ They were piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. … Death was everywhere. The city was a vast charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers than the famine.”[4]

Enough. The attacks of 9/11 were acts of terrible violence. But they do not qualify as “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” As someone who teaches history and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean, I feel it is important to qualify that one sentence from an otherwise excellent article. Mexico is part of North America, and we have to know that the Europeanization of North America – in Mexico, in the United States and in Canada – has at its foundation terrible acts of violence against this continent’s original inhabitants.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Sara Beck, “A Question of Treason,” Queen’s Alumni Review, Volume 82 Number 1, February 19, 2008
[2] William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru (New York: Modern Library, 1936)
[3] Prescott, p. 592
[4] Prescott, p. 599