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Adventures in learnng French

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Lying abed one Saturday morning scanning the travel section of the Globe and Mail, I spotted a story about people going to Paris to study French. That’s something I’d always wanted to do, and so I went on the web to see what I might find. Alliance Francaise looked like my best bet. Its offerings included a one-month “intensif” French course. Its seductive invitation: “Vous apprendez le francase a Paris.” How could I turn that down?

A little background. I’ve studied French on and off for years, but never with much discipline, nor with the opportunity to use what little I’d learned. Deborah speaks French from having worked there on leaving school, but there was no way I could keep up with her. The fact I want to write a book with a French setting – one I’ve been researching for years – gives me added motivation. So I made the decision to go to Paris. With Deb’s enthusiastic support, I’m delighted to add.

I signed up for the course and for the housing arrangement that Alliance Francaise offers. It’s a great deal – a month of classes five afternoons a week, plus breakfast and dinner with a French host. All for less than $100 a day Canadian. My hosts, in an interesting neighborhood on the right bank, are Michel, a security engineer, and Violette, un avocat.

Apprehensions? I had plenty. Would I be able to keep up with the bright young kids that I’d undoubtedly be thrown in with? Can an old guy like me learn something new? Did I have the energy to make it to school every day – plus enjoy at least a few of the delights Paris has to offer?

Now that I’m about to start my fourth and final week, I can answer “oui” to all of the above. My class is largely mid-30s to 40s adults, with just a few youngsters added in. Many are immigrants to France – from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and other European countries. Cleber, a Brazilian bar tender. Liliani, a pretty Cuban dancer. Tjouba, a Turkish book editor. Robert Blake, an American writer-illustrator whose wife has been posted to Paris by Nissan. He’s sold over four million of his children’s books. Our youngest student, an 18-year-old Australian girl. And a bright young Italian man who is studying science po, speaks pretty good English, wants to be a politician. At break, he grabs our professor’s computer and throws up You Tube videos of soccer games and Latin rock. That’s what set Liliani and Yolande to dancing, as you see here. We have fun, and we learn.

And our teacher? Mademoiselle la professeur, Sarah. Bright, vibrant, tres francaise! Also, pregnant, and wants the world to know it.

Of course, one of the delights of being in Paris is the food. And no more expensive than back home — sometimes less so. Amusing sight: Standing outside a restaurant at noon, waiting for it to open (along with a half dozen others) I saw a motorcyclist arrive, park on the sidewalk, and go to the door. Producing a key, he opened it, took off his helmet, and became the matrie ‘d! A gracious one, too, and host of un bon restaurant grec.

How’m I getting along? Conjugations, nouns masculine et feminine, verbes falling out of my Bescherelle, pluriel and singular, dance in my head all night long. I think I’m doing okay, better on written French than aural. That’s fine, as my main interest is in reading French for research. But it’s great to travel around Paris and be mistaken for a native!

Students on the right side of history

Watching the drama unfold over the protests of Quebec students against higher tuition fees, I’ve come to the conclusion they’re wrong on only one count: they should be demanding not just a freeze on fees. They should be demanding the abolition of university tuition entirely, On top of that, students should get paid to go to university. The benefits to society of an educated populace are so great that the cost of educating our young people is insignificant in comparison.

Before you conclude that I’ve gone over the top, consider these facts:

Excluding the random acts of violence that have occurred (never acceptable in a law-abiding society), Quebec students have been resolute and proper in their resistance to their government’s intention to raise tuition. Their opposition is based, in part, on a historic decision made by the Jean Lesage government during the 1960s Quiet Revolution. Quebec had just come off a repressive, church-ridden regime where barely half the population had achieved even Grade 6. To advance beyond third world status, Quebec realized it had to rear a generation of educated, competent, and productive young people able to compete in every aspect of business, science, and the arts.

While Quebec’s decision to hike tuition fees by $254 a year over seven years seems reasonable — especially when compared to the higher fees of other provinces — such a decision represents a backward step.

The argument against the students is that they must give up their “entitlement” to low-cost post-secondary education. I would argue that rather than young people having an entitlement to an affordable education, they actually bear an obligation to educate themselves for tomorrow’s increasingly technical and complex world. Doesn’t every politician praise the benefits of education, putting an “educated work force” among the top priorities of Canada or any other country? And if that’s so, isn’t it to society’s advantage to see that every individual is educated to the extent of their capabilities?

Quebec has funded its modest — up to now — university tuition fees with a tax structure that is the heaviest in Canada. People have been paying for the benefits they’ve enjoyed. That’s the way it should be.

While doing research for my forthcoming book on Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland and Canada’s last “Father of Confederation,” (Joey Smallwood, Schemer and Dreamer) I found out more about how he had not only abolished tuition in the 1960s, but for a time actually paid students to go to university. Both schemes had to be abandoned in the face of financial pressures Newfoundland faced as a “have-not” province. But ever since, Newfoundland has managed to keep its tuition fees the second-lowest in the country, next to Quebec.

Only North America and Australia force their young people to pay a king’s ransom for an education. It puts them in debt for at least the first ten years of their working life. Today, these debt-burdened students begin their work careers facing uncertain job prospects, sky-high housing costs, and devastating government cutbacks in social benefits. They’ll have to work longer to retire on less. What a horrible legacy we’re handing them, all for the sake of a conservative economic agenda calculated to benefit the rich with tax reductions and reward corporations (owned mostly by higher income Canadians) with larger subsidies and lower taxes.

Most European countries charge only modest enrollment fees for university registration: 165 euros in France ($214); 500 euros ($650) in Belgium, 1,000 euros ($1300) in Germany, about the same in Holland and Italy. Britain maxes out tuition at 3,145 pounds ($5032). EU countries must limit their deficits to 3 per cent of GDP — the failure of Greece to do so is what’s behind the current euro crisis. It will be overcome, but that’s another story.

While Canadians bemoan the advantages Quebec students enjoy, they should look to their own provincial governments and ask why they haven’t done better in facing up to the task of preparing the country for the future. Today, the booming resource revenues of the West primarily involve the transfer of public wealth to private hands as a result of absurdly low exploration fees and royalties. The proceeds of these non-renewable resources should be  directed more to the public good and less to private gain. Why did the last but one Conservative premier of Alberta have to back off from his efforts to charge higher royalties to the oil industry, an attempt that played a big part in Ed Stelmach’s having to resign as Premier?

Equally damning is the counter-productive tactic adopted by the Charest government to try to quiet the student protest. Opening the way to cost-cutting in universities by having students share in budget decisions means only one thing: that money will be pried out of essential budgets like research to fund tuition costs. This approach ducks the really important issue — that of adequate funding for all university operations.

Ontario is equally culpable for having forced universities to raise tuition, followed in turn by reductions in provincial support. In my days as a trustee of a Toronto School Board, I learned that the prospect of being able to go to university is one of the strongest motivations for students to stay in school.

Canada has the capability to maintain one of the world’s best educational systems. It is one that should be open to all who can meet a demanding standard of academic quality. Abolishing tuition and paying students to educate themselves may seem like a utopian fantasy, but the countries that pursue this goal are the ones that will lead the world tomorrow.

Get into reading — and get a better life

November 13, 2009 1 comment

I’m at the TD National Reading Summit, an effort by publishing types, librarians and others involved in the written word to figure out new ways of promoting the joys and benefits of reading.

It’s billed as the first of three meetings with the ambitious goal of rolling out a Canada Reading Plan that would tackle the twin challenges of getting people to read more, and equipping them to make sense of what they read.

The keynote speaker, Brazilian author Ana Maria Machado, summed it up this way:

Reading is more than literacy. In print does not mean it is true. Reading well means being able to turn knowledge into wisdom, to be able to tell what is accurate, and to understand how to check things that aren’t.

Her comments sum up the scope of the issue, something of which the organizers are well aware. A closing session identified the obstacles, as well as the goals, of a national reading plan that would be funded by both governments and the private sector.

The goals: Books (and magazines) available everywhere and at anytime. Literacy beyond the basic level. All ages and cultures included. Increased support for writers and publishers.

The obstacles: A complex issue, little clarity or understanding of the problem. A long term horizon. Little public awareness of the social benefits of reading. No organization in place to plead the cause.

SummitI’m at the Summit representing Periodical Marketers of Canada, the association of magazine and book distributors, and a co-sponsor of the event.

It’s my contention that the best way to promote reading is by promoting individual reading “products.” That means more advertising and PR by publishers of their books and magazines to stimulate more reading.

A book publisher at my table said she couldn’t afford to do any more advertising. And that’s the big problem facing Canadian publishers and authors. Books are dying on the shelves — and magazines are being returned to the wholesalers — because the public just isn’t being told about the great reading that’s out there for them.

The Reading Summit marks a serious attempt to face up to the issue of under-use of our reading skills — and its consequences for Canada in poor productivity (workers who can’t understand manuals) and low levels of social involvement (more voters staying away from the polls).

Other countries are taking steps to raise reading levels. We heard examples from the Netherlands, Mexico, China, among others. If we don’t do the same, we’ll end up lagging behind such countries.

As well as promoting individual titles, they’re promoting reading as a satisfying and rewarding experience. We saw a great Spanish language TV spot depicting a boy orating romantically as he read aloud from a book. Cut to an audience of little girls swooning at his performance. Cut back to the boy now with a smug, self-satisfied smile. A fun spot that might actually influence boys — the hardest audience to reach — to get into reading — and get a better life.

But I left the Summit with a harsh message ringing in my ears. Patsy Aldana, publisher of Groundwood Books, told the story of an Ontario school board that bans the reading of books for pleasure during the school day. Get caught with such a book, and if you can’t explain its purpose, it’s taken away from you. An isolated case, I’m sure, but a reminder that maybe we need to start from the inside and make sure people charged with educating our kids share a love for reading. A fitting goal for the National Reading Summit.

Let’s pay kids to go to school

August 25, 2009 Leave a comment

University students will be back in their classes in the coming month and most will be worrying not just about grades, but about how to to pay off their student loans after they graduate.

In our family, we’ve tried to use education savings plans for our late arrivals. Our first generation, however, didn’t have that advantage. Our eldest daughter and her husband largely paid their own way. By the time our youngest daughter was ready, we were either rich enough, or wise enough, to finance her schooling.

Tearing GatesWhat brings this to mind is a new book out in the U.S., Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education (University of California Press).

Canadians like to think that higher education is much more accessible, and more affordable, than in the United States.

But in reading of recent developments affecting the financing of Canada’s top schools, it’s evident that we’re seeing the same core problem of endowment losses from hard-hit contributors, and what author Peter Sacks calls “massive disinvestment” by government.

As a symptom of how hard Canadian universities are fighting for government funding, a consortium of five top schools is demanding they keep the lion’s share of research money. They argue that the leading universities — B.C., Alberta, Montreal, Toronto and McGill — deserve support because of their success in conducting research and turning out postgrad students.

Sounds like a reasonable argument, but it doesn’t go down well with the dozens of smaller Canadian universities. Jack Lightstone, president of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., puts it this way:

Starving people engage in desperate measures. That’s true of starving institutions, too.”

It’s the starvation of higher education that’s at the core of Sacks’ arguments in Tearing Down the Gates. The book the New York Times calls “indignant and informed” reveals a disastrous decline in public funding of American universities.

Sacks cites a typical example: state funding for the University of V irginia has dropped from 30 per cent a quarter-century ago to a mere eight percent today.

In Canada, the Big Five account for just five per cent of student enrollment, but have received one-third of all federal research grants. They’d like to keep it that way.

Politicians like to pay tribute to our universities as the source of future innovation and the only assurance of an educated work force that will  keep Canada competitive in the global information society. Their actions don’t always support their words.

I’ve long held the belief that education is so important that we should not only provide free university to qualified young Canadians, but that we should PAY them to attend.

That’s probably an unrealistic position in an era of government deficits, recession cutbacks and financial meltdowns.

But it’s the only way of ensuring that Canada will hone the skills it needs to compete in the 21st century. And let our young people compensate society by giving a year or two of themselves to public service. Like caring for the aged, doing environmental duty, or assisting the homeless.

With apologies to W.P. Kinsella (Field of Dreams), I say Give to them, and they will give back to us.

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