“So you say this is a ‘Basic School’, then, Bigelow, rather than Elementary or Secondary, as we have usually thought of such things?” questioned More, as we left the GRIS-RT Hunter River Road station, after a pleasant journey from Victoria - it was not far in miles, although with a couple of stops along the way it took about 45 minutes. Henry was in one of his quiet moods; I had noticed this at times before - sometimes when a lot of interesting things were happening around him, or us in this case, he would be quite involved and animated up to a point, and then it seemed he would withdraw. He didn’t seem to be moody or anything, with a quite peaceful look on his face, but reflecting on things. He would often spend several minutes at such times when an opportunity presented itself scribbling furiously in the journal he never seemed to be without.
He seemed to be enjoying our short but pleasant walk from the station to the school that was our destination at the moment, however. As usual on Green Island, where the largest city, Charlottetown, was under 20,000 in population and most people lived within walking distance of open fields, the air was never silent, but full of birdsong and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, dogs barking somewhere, cattle lowing - all the country sounds that were so much more pleasant on the ear than the roar of traffic in "modern" places - which, with the GRIS-RT and our energy conservation policies, was also very much lower than in previous times. I don't think Henry would have much enjoyed a day in Toronto, pleasant as that city was at times, for some purposes, with its traffic and city noise.
“Yes,” I replied, “it’s one of our new initiatives, if you will, although one based on a lot of previous studies and writings, and our rather different objectives from industrial-based school systems which need to prepare young people to take their place as cogs of some sort in what is effectively an assembly-line society. Our goal is that the child gets two things from attending school - first a general sort of education in whatever things are necessary to get along in our society - competency in reading and numbers and basic science, of course, for instance, but also such things as history and geography, things that can be learned quite well at home of course if the parents desire and the child has enough books to read or other sources of information, but in general it is the kind of basic, factual information that can be usefully imparted in larger groups, with some discussion among their peers as well, thus freeing the parents from such things and letting them do other work or things of their own. And secondly we feel that - most importantly of all - the very activity of coming to school represents a real course in social studies or civics, under supervision when just starting of course, getting involved with your peers in decision-making processes, learning responsibility, and things like this, which are less well learned in a known family atmosphere. How to function as a participating member of society, in other words - something that was sadly lacking in former days, where the primary adaptation to society for the students seemed to be little more than being trained to go somewhere and take mindless orders all day without asking questions - haha don't get me started!! They also get exposed, we think, in our new schools, to a somewhat wider variety of activities and people and viewpoints than are found in many homes, which again broadens their outlook and opportunities in many ways. All of this is a central part of education, we feel, learning many things, learning how their society works, and what their responsibilities are as a citizen, not only through “theory”, but also through practical involvement in their own education, setting curriculum and lessons and so forth, having responsibility for some things, and so on. In their last couple of years at Basic School, they also can get specialized studies in various fields of their choice, preparing her or him for the more advanced studies at university - this, of course, is similar in theory to what went before, but it was apparent that previously there was quite a wide gap between the theory and reality, with most universities across the country, for instance, having to insist on remedial English classes for all their entering students because their grammar and writing skills were so poor ....”
“No!” interjected More, scandalised; “No, I say! Not “remedial English! It’s their native language!”
I even saw Henry's ears perk up at this, and his rather eloquent eyebrows raise a notch, even as he watched a chipmunk racing along a cedar rail fence beside the road, and a few black and white cows on the other side of the fence watched our passage with a minimal sort of interest.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” I replied; “I think there are various reasons for that rather appalling fact, not least of which was that previously (and even now in many other jurisdictions), the central, underlying purpose of primary and secondary so-called education had little to do with learning and much to do with training - human beings are naturally freedom-loving and curious, knowledge-seeking creatures, and it is most unnatural for them to go somewhere for 8 hours a day and do some mindless job primarily for the enrichment of someone else whilst being paid some sort of subsistence wage to do so, which the industrial capitalist system requires - and training them to accept this kind of regime was the major goal of the so-called education system, or so some of us believe - nobody that we know of has actually admitted to this yet, but then the people engaged in nefarious plots rarely do admit anything, and the circumstantial evidence is rather overwhelming, when examined impartially - comparing the theoretical supposed or stated goals with the actual output, for instance. But we will probably be talking more about that later. Where I was about to finish was by saying that Athenia has rather high entrance requirements, and the several Community Colleges we are operating as well also have rather advanced standards compared to previously, which the young people who wish to enter must satisfy before being accepted. And most of them rather comfortably meet and usually surpass all of these standards by the time they are 12-14 years of age.”
“12-14 years! But how do they do this, when I understand that in this time, usually children, or young people, are 18-20 before being suitable for advanced education?”
“Well, as I said, at our Basic Schools the focus is actually on educating our young people, rather than training them. And when you actually encourage children to think from the earliest days, rather than repressing their natural abilities while your main objective is trying to instill them with desired societal belief systems and/or trying to train them to go somewhere each day all of their lives and take orders from someone to do something they’re not all that inclined to do, which they naturally resist mightily, the process works a great deal faster - and more effectively - and, I think you will see today, our young people are very advanced at quite an early age, in terms of acquisition of knowledge and basic ability to think, anyway - they are still learning judgement and so on, which only come more fully with age and experience, but you’d be surprised, perhaps, at how well they can detect the difference between important things and things not so important.”
"Children have always been good at that," said Henry, with a small smile, finally joining in the conversation a bit, looking over at me.
“But what about children who wish to attend university in other provinces or abroad, then?” continued More, “there must be some kind of parallel system?”
“Well, there are still several more traditional elementary and high schools being operated in the Province, to which parents can send their children if they wish, with such a goal in mind, although a number of our students have written entrance exams for foreign schools, and have all passed with no problem - we do find, though, that most Green Island Basic School graduates, after examining all of the options here and abroad, are choosing Athenia - it is, after all, being widely recognized as one of the most advanced institutions in the world already, in many fields. Enrollment in these older schools is falling considerably, and each year we are opening new schools along the lines of the Hunter River Basic. Just this year, for instance, we are opening Basic Schools in Souris, up near Morell where Greenways is, and another one in West Prince, on the other side of the Island, to go along with the 20 or so that are already operating, large and small - I think that something like 75% of all elementary students in the Province are now enrolled with us, and the demand is still growing.”
By now we had completed the short walk from the Hunter River Road GRIS-RT station to the grounds of the Basic School, and More’s attention become occupied by more practical matters, as the HRB was quite a large and interesting place. It covered perhaps 25 hectares, bound on the east, or front, by the New Glasgow Road which we had been walking along, and on the south, or town side, by a little jog in the Hunter River as it flowed its few peaceful miles from the central hills to the Northumberland Strait. To the north and west the land gave way to the typical spruce bush that covered large areas of PEI, although one of the Basic School projects Islandwide was to undertake a system of plantings of hardwood trees which would return large areas back to some form of the original once magnificent Acadian Forest, which had been destroyed by shipbuilding in the 1800s. Several old, mature hardwoods, beech, oak, maple, birch, and suchlike, and some magnificent pines as well, were scattered about the property. In clearings, and between and under the trees, were several buildings, old and new, large and small, varying shapes indicating various uses. Here and there groups of children could be seen gathered together as we entered the grounds through the large front gate, passing under a sign which read “Find hope, all ye who pass these gates, for knowledge and truth are the keys to freedom in your life and in the world”, and past a little weathered dwarf-like wooden figure which seemed to be guarding the entrance. At its base, barely visible as dark letters on a dark background, was carved in swirling elven-like script the word Amsel.
Stephen Bigelow reached out a hand and brushed the head of the figure on his way by; had anyone been looking, they might have seen him give it a small smile and wink, before turning back to his guests. Others might even have said they saw the little figure give just the tiniest black-eyed wink back, but that is a tale for another day.
“Well,” I said, pausing as we entered the schoolyard, looking to Henry and Thomas, spreading my arms in the ages-old "all-inclusive" gesture, “where would you like to begin? Ah - perhaps with drink of water?” I finished, noticing the center of the schoolyard where a large, open well was visible, with a few children and a couple of larger people gathered around it.
Henry smiled at this, nodding.
"A large glass of cold, fresh water sounds excellent, Bigelow," he said, "and perhaps the folks there can tell us if anything exciting or special is underway today as well."
"Good thought, Thoreau," said More, agreeing with a smile, then turning to me, "Shall we, then, Bigelow?"
A few seconds later we approached the well, and a couple of the children ran out to greet us.
"Hi Stephen," one called out, reaching out her arms to me. I grabbed her under the arms and swung her over my head, then lowered her back to the ground, smiling.
"Hey Jenny," I said, "How are you? And how's your parents? I haven't been around in awhile, and we haven't even talked on email! Early summer, I guess, and everybody on the land is busy, eh?"
The girl smiled, her white teeth and long scraggly blond hair under a white and blue BlueJays baseball cap set off against her reddish one-piece overall and green shirt; with her brown, scruffy runners. I could almost hear Brittany's voice in my head on how we must know the same color coordinator or something.
"Oh, yea, Stephen," she replied, looking up at me, "EVERY-body's real busy at home right now, with the strawberries and potato beetles and that GARdening thing - whaddya call it? Community Something Agriculture, you know - a whole truck of green onions and small beets and early taters into the Rustico North Shore Market yesterday I almost DIED carrying baskets of stuff!! And tonight when I get home we're going to Charlottetown I think - I almost had to cry this morning to come to school Mom thought I should help pick radishes geez! But there's so much to do here I don't like to miss any days and ..."
"Jenny!" a voice interrupted the child, laughing, "Let Stephen get a word in edgewise, child! He has some guests with him, and I expect they want to get on with their visit, not listen to you all day long!"
"That's ok, Emmylou," I answered, looking up to the woman who spoke, a friend of Brittany's whom I had gotten to know over the years as a dedicated and extremely gifted teacher, absolutely perfect for the new system; "We haven't seen each other in awhile, and we always have good talks. But you're right too, we are hoping to get to Rustico before the day is over, and here it is getting on to mid-afternoon already, so we should be getting on with things. So Jenny," I said kneeling on one knee to be on eye level with her, "I'm sure you'll survive your gardening ordeals ok, eh? And tell your parents I'll be around to see them as soon as I can! But for now - can you find us a couple of clean glasses? My friends here have just walked from the station, and would like a glass of this wonderful cold water here..."
Jenny didn't seem to mind being interrupted, and just laughed as she raced off looking for the glasses, which she seemed to find instantly, for I had no sooner got back to my feet when she raced around the other side of the well carrying 3 stainless steel cups, which she gave to the three of us, adding a "Here you are, Sir" for both More and Thoreau, who seemed impressed at the girl's manners, and then even more impressed a few seconds later at how delicious the water really was, poured from a large pitcher from the wooden ledge around the top of the well. Green Island water, pesticide-herbicide-fertilizer-free after several years of strict control of what the potato farmers and others were allowed to spray on their crops.
Another of the children was tugging at my sleeve and I looked down. “Emily! Good morning - how are you today?” She was the daughter of another friend of mine, 11 years old and in that particularly precocious stage that some young people go through, and it was always a pleasure to see her and find out what new things she was getting up to. She would have been a memorable child even had I not known her well, however, because of her tendency to speak rather loudly with a squeaky voice.
“Fine Mr. Bigelow,” she answered, “And how are you? And who are your friends? I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before. And I don’t think I’ve even seen anybody dressed like that before either - they look like something from our history book!”
More and Thoreau were both chuckling as I answered all of Emily’s questions and introduced her to them. “Welcome to Hunter River Basic, Mr. More and Mr. Thoreau,” she finished, “and is there anything you would like to see?”
“Well, there seems to be a great deal here to see,” he replied, “and all of it quite interesting. Why don’t you think of something that you think is particularly interesting today, and tell me all about it? That is, if we have time, Stephen?” he finished, looking to me.
“Of course,” I answered, “we have plans, but there’s no great hurry - if we don’t get it done today, there’s tomorrow. And as for the school, we have lots of time - we don’t run on the old 8-4 ideas of the old schools, but take advantage of the longer days of the summer and often go until dark - with no objections from anyone, as they can leave to go home if they need to, although they rarely do. What DO you think is happening today that is interesting, Emily?”
“Well, let me see...” she said, turning in a semi-circle as she surveyed the schoolyard and buildings, where many mid-afternoon activities seemed to be underway. “There’s Mrs. Parkinson’s horse-riding group, going up the river a few miles to do some cleanup - I like her, but she’s too bossy sometimes ... Or - there’s Mr. John’s civics class - there’s some sort of South Shore Council meeting this evening that they’re going to, and he thinks there might be some excitement about the "No Rules Driving Park" or something... or .. there’s Ms Andrea’s English class inside - they’re studying about how we have to watch carefully everything we read or see on tv for propergooses or something like that, or Ms Vivian’s algebra class - I already know all I need to about that, my dad taught me calculus when I was 4 years old because we were studying Eisenhower - or - there's Mr. Tom’s building class, I think they're starting something new today - and Ms Rachel’s ecology? Well anyway - I was just on my way to Mr. Caine’s Kungfu class - Mom says I really need to work on my self-discipline because she has this totally like outrageous idea that I talk too much sometimes, and anyway, Mr. Caine is kind of neat - you should have seen him take care of Mr. Toms and THREE of his brothers last Friday night at the exhibition!”
“Well!” exclaimed More, “is there anything you _don’t_ teach at these Basic Schools? Horseriding and housebuilding alongside of English and math and civics! Tell me one thing, Mistress Emily, do you enjoy coming here every day, and do you think it is good?”
“I don't think I'm anybody's mistress yet I'm too young. I haven't got that sorted out yet, though. Do I enjoy coming here every day?” answered Emily, a small sort of puzzled frown passing quickly over her forehead, “Well - I haven’t really thought much about it - I can’t think of much else I’d rather be doing - all my friends are here, and we have lots of chances to play together, even when it rains we study the weather and erosion too, and we’re learning things that we all want to learn because we all want to go to university some day and be doctors or maybe veterarians or maybe even go to Mars on the space shuttle or study the ecology of the deep ocean - my friend Sally talks about that sometimes, although I myself don’t find the idea of traveling for months through space or going 50,000 miles under the ocean very exciting. We have learned in our history classes about how school used to be, and I can’t think I would have liked that very much - sitting at a desk all day listening to some teacher, and learning a lot of things that weren’t true anyway, and so many children from poor families who couldn’t study because they were too hungry and didn’t have money to buy books and stuff, and all the other children teased them ...” she was frowning by now - “it all sounds quite horrible, anyway. But I don’t know if I believe it or not - OUR school, as you can see, is none of those things, and we all think it is just the right thing for us. Anyway - I really have to run!” she exclaimed, “Mr Caine likes us to be there on time, and it’s almost 3 o’clock! If you want to come, it’s just in the big clearing over there,” she finished, pointing to the edge of the woods where a small trail wound off through the trees. We could see a long-haired man dressed in a long, loose white shirt just disappearing down the trail.
And off she trotted. Leaving behind four adults entirely out of breath from listening to her. At least we each had a glass of cold water to sip on, as we looked at one another just smiling at the sheer exuberance of the entire schoolyard.
“Begin?” said More, a couple of minutes later, thirst quenched, as we waved goodbye to Emmylou who had returned briefly and entertained us briefly with a story of Emily and a scientific experiment involving the well and parachute theory, before leaving for her class, “why, wherever something interesting is happening, no doubt - we’ve got quite enough background to go on, I think, and it certainly looks interesting so far, and now I would like to see how it is working - and I presume our tall friend Henry as well!" - Thoreau nodded in agreement, smiling; when standing side by side they made a bit of an odd couple, the tall lanky Thoreau dressed mainly in black and the short, somewhat pudgy More with his somewhat more colourful attire - "That would be inside one of the buildings, I presume?”
“Oh, no, not necessarily at all,” I said, “there are as many classrooms and learning opportunities outside as in, in our schools, at least in the summertime - somewhat fewer classes outdoors in the winters, though - it only takes so long to learn to snowshoe, and with the ground covered in a few feet of snow there's not a whole lot to look at - it doesn't change much from day to day when nothing new is growing. But look over there, then,” I said, pointing to a small meadow-like clearing in the middle of some willow trees down by the Hunter River, where a knot of perhaps fifteen children of mixed ages stood and kneeled around looking at something, “that looks interesting. Let’s go have a look, shall we?”
And we strolled over towards the gathering. As we approached, we could hear a lively conversation going on.
“But it’s only grass, Miss Rachel!” one young voice was heard exclaiming, “there’s millions of it! - them! - it’s everywhere! It doesn’t do anything! Look at it - so small you can hardly see it, not even any branches or flowers!”
A gentle laugh wafted over the heads of the children, and as we approached closer we could see a thin, grey-haired lady, quite properly dressed in a white blouse with a grey sweater over it and long skirt, smiling over her wire-rimmed glasses at one of the children, as the others watched interestedly. The child, a young boy, 10 perhaps, was holding out his hand, with what appeared to be a handful of grass upon it.
“Well, young Master Harold, people are everywhere too - would you say because of that that people are not interesting? Your mother and father, or Miss Jessica here?” A ripple of laughter ran through the assembled throng, as one of the young ladies beside the boy blushed ever so slightly.
The boy, Harold, frowned a moment, as if running into an unexpected obstacle in his path. “Well, of course not - people are people, and we do lots of interesting things - what’s it matter if there’s lots of us or not?”
“Well, exactly,” replied the lady known as Rachel, or Miss Rachel to the young people. “I simply wished to point out that whether or not there is lots of something doesn’t really have any bearing on whether or not it is interesting or useful. As to ‘it doesn’t do anything’ - well! Let’s start making a list - I’m sure at least some of you have been studying with Miss Sampson’s biology class, or Mr. Hunter’s farming class, or many other classes that would have mentioned grass at some point. Who, for instance, has heard of or studied photosynthesis?”
Several students raised their hands, or said “I have,” or something akin.
“Well, then, Andrew, in photosynthesis, what, basically happens? That is to say, what gas do plants - such as grass - breathe in, and what do they breathe out?”
“Well,” said the lad, “plants breathe in carbon dioxide, and breathe out oxygen.”
“Good,” smiled Rachel, “and, Beth, what can you tell us about those two gases?”
“Hmm...” answered a somewhat studious-looking young girl. “Well, carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse-gases, that are causing global warming and if the seas rise very much then Prince Edward Island - or Green Island - will get badly flooded. And oxygen, of course, is the main gas that people and other animals breathe, and is necessary for life.”
Rachel smiled fondly at the girl. “Excellent!” she said, “So, Harold, as you have noted, there is indeed a lot of grass around here, on Prince Edward Island and everywhere. And because there is so very much of it, it is one of the main supporters of life on earth, by doing those two things - breathing in CO2 - slowing global warming - and breathing out Oxygen, which we people need to breathe. Ok?”
“Well, yeah, ok,” the boy replied, with a somewhat reluctant smile, ”but lots of things do that - all the trees, for instance, and the algae in the sea....”
“Very good!” answered Rachel, “of course they do, and both of those things are probably more important than grass as carbon sinks and oxygen generators - but grass does play a very important role here nonetheless. But let us carry on a bit. You have seen the many summer meadows on this beautiful Island, and studied the great grasslands and plains of North America, Asia and Africa. And you have also studied the great deserts, such as the Sahara and Gobi. And what, of course, is the main difference between the two areas?”
“Grass, of course,” replied the lad, “the Sahara doesn’t have any grass, or anything else except a lot of sand.”
“And which do you think is more useful to support life, for human beings, and animals, and everything else?”
“Well, the grasslands, of course,” replied the boy.
“Certainly.” carried on Miss Rachel, “For grass is one of the great stabilizers of the natural environment. Look here, “she said, moving a few feet over to the edge of the river and pointing, “what were we talking about yesterday? Annie?”
A girl with long red braids answered, “Why, we were talking about trout, and spawning grounds.”
“Exactly. And what do trout need for their spawning grounds? Jonathan?”
“Well - they need cold, clean running water. And a clean gravel bottom,” answered another lad.
“Good. Now, let’s have a look....” and she took a handful of red soil from near the edge of the water, and sprinkled it over the surface. The water underneath quickly became murky and opaque. “As you know, if a bunch of dirt gets washed into the water, it becomes dirty, and very poor habitat for most fish, and certainly trout. Now - we have quite a bit of rain her on Green Island - and rain washes soil into rivers. But what will stop the soil from washing into the rivers?”
A chorus of voices spoke out, having seen where this all was going already.
“The grass, of course.”
“Certainly!” smiled Miss Rachel, “and nothing else anywhere works as well as grass for binding the soil together, and holding it in place. And why is that?”
“The roots,” spoke up one young girl, dressed in blue coveralls, a baseball glove hanging from a loop on her pants.
“Good, Kelly from Pine Valley,” answered Rachel, “you’ve all seen how strong the grass root system is, both in meadows like this one, or out on the sand dunes where we went a few weeks ago. It’s amazingly important...”
I drew More a few yards back. “So,” I said, “that’s Rachel, and she’s one of our most popular teachers. She does biology and environmental things - and all the children love it - a few sessions with her over the course of a few months, with the supplementary reading she gives them, and they have an excellent understanding of general ecology - as good or better as students previously got only in university - they're perfectly suited to learning these things now, and find it very interesting as well.”
“Well, I can quite understand that already - I'd like to listen longer myself! She certainly seems to have a good manner of going about it,” replied Moore, “You mean that this is a regular class, then?”
“But what about regular classes in classrooms?" added Thoreau, "Sit down and be quiet!, and all that, as school has been taught for generations - they were even starting in my day!”
“Well - that’s exactly what we’re trying to get away from here,” I replied, “We don’t really consider that to be learning so much as training - dog obedience school kind of thing, you know, sit and do as you’re told, and if you do what teacher wants she’ll throw you a treat! And all kind of studies bear us out - why, for years, studies have shown the same thing - almost no Canadian adults could do simple long division, or name the capitals of the country, or had any clue about simple geography, many other things - things they went to school for for 12 years, compulsory, to learn, and supposedly were taught! And at the end of that time their basic knowledge was very little, and their ability in the basic skills little more than rudimentary, for most of them.”
Moore was staring at me. “Astounding!” he said, “But what were they doing for all of those years, then?”
“Well - not everyone agrees with me entirely on this,” I answered smiling, “but in my opinion, school served as exactly that - the human equivalent of dog obedience school, where children were taught primarily one thing - to go somewhere every day in the morning, and do what they were told to do all day without asking questions. Most unnatural, for any kind of creature, in my opinion, and that’s why it took so many years, to beat the spirit out of them. There were various exceptions, of course. The ruling elites had special programs of various sorts for their own children, and the smartest of the non-elites were given opportunities to acquire sufficient training to be of use to the elites in various capacities, but by and large, the dog-obedience school idea holds true, I think...”
“And by and large you’re full of you-know-what, Mr. Stephen Bigelow!” a voice suddenly spoke up from behind. I turned, smiling, recognizing the voice.
“Hello, Ada,” I said, “how are you today?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” replied the new arrival, a lady of at least 70 years, but spry and chipper for all that, attired neatly in a rather lovely blue flowered print dress, silvery hair cut short. Her name was Ada Sampson, and she had been teaching school on the Island for the best part of 50 years - had taught me, in fact, in what at the time had been High School. We had always gotten along fairly well, although many of our new GIG policies concerning education did not meet entirely with her approval. “And yourself?”
“Oh, as well as can be expected, I guess,” I answered, smiling, “things are pretty busy these days, what with the Referendum coming up, and one thing and another. But today is kind of a break, as I have the pleasure of showing a couple of somewhat distinguished guests around our little Island...” and I introduced More and Thoreau.
“Well, Mr. More, and Mr. Thoreau,” continued Ada, after the pleasantries had been concluded, “I hope you’re not believing everything our Mr. Bigelow is telling you! He is, after all, himself a graduate of our dog obedience school system, you know! And it doesn’t seem to have done him a great deal of harm, if I do say so myself!”
“Indeed, indeed!” said More, as he and Thoreau joined in her laughter, “but what I have seen so far is certainly interesting, and things do seem to be working fairly well here...”
“Yes, some of the new ideas seem to be alright,” replied Ada, “but we’ve always felt that the children require to be taught discipline, and manners, along with their 3Rs, and the old system did that quite well enough, I think. And it’s just nonsense to say the children never learned anything - our universities had been turning out successful graduates for a good many years, you know, before Stephen and the rest and all of these new-fangled ideas!”
“Yes,” I interjected, “and you know as well as I that for years prior to our new system the first year students were required to take remedial English classes as well, as I said, since so many of them were barely literate when they entered!”
“Well, nobody said it was perfect,” Ada responded, with something of a chilly smile, and so it went - we had had similar discussions many times before. But not too long this time - after only a couple of minutes of chatting, or perhaps civilized sparring would be a better term, Ada glanced down at her watch, saying “Oh, my, I have to run! I promised a bunch I would meet them at 3.30 for some demonstrations in their Kung-fu class with Mr. Caine - they have trouble believing a Granny can hold her own against a man!, and I’m late! Good-bye, Mr. More, Mr. Thoreau, it has been a pleasure meeting you, and I hope you have a good visit - I know I argue with Stephen sometimes, but he and his group really do have some good ideas, and are certainly bringing a new spirit and life to our little Island, which will hopefully get a chance to spread further - I would certainly never have imagined myself teaching a Kung-fu class 10 years ago! Bye all!”
And so saying, she turned and headed off up the slight incline towards the school, at a quick walk, swinging her arms a bit as people about to exercise often do. It made an interesting sight.
“Interesting woman,” commented Thoreau with a bit of a smile himself, watching her with some amazement as she walked away, “What is this ‘kungfu’ she is going to teach?”
“Oh - I suppose that is something you may not know about it,” I answered, with a smile, “it’s a kind of fighting, martial arts, we call it, that relies more on subtlety than brute force. There are several forms, and they all came from Asia originally, but now it's very popular all over the west as well - it is also a very good form of exercise. Perhaps we’ll have a chance to see them later.”
“Well, a woman of her age boxing?” laughed More; “That would be worth seeing, I think!”
We had begun to walk towards another small group of young people as we talked, who appeared to be building something, the sight of which had made us a little curious - for me, a new project that had not been underway since the last time I had visited HRB, and I was always eager to see what new things fresh young brains could come with, if encouraged to do so. More and Thoreau seemed interested in many things, and constantly were pointing out things and chatting among themselves.
“Hi, Jamie!” I called out as we got closer, and I recognized the son of a friend of mine who lived in nearby Oyster Bed Bridge, “What are you all up to, lad?”
“Oh, Hi, Mr. Bigelow,” said a boy of about 14, turning to us, “How are you? We’re just building a little shed so a few of the town kids can raise some sheep and pigs - they’ve been studying looking after animals, and the way that raising animals can interact both positively and negatively with the local environment, and want to get some hands-on experience, they said - and since none of their families live on farms, we thought maybe they could do a bit here - be good for a lot of the younger kids too, you know.” Jamie was conscious of his senior status among the kids, and dealing with it very responsibly - a good example of the kind of young citizen we had been hoping would be the result of teaching them freedom with responsibility. He would be missed here - but would undoubtedly be a good addition to wherever he went next.
“Great!” I smiled, “sounds like a good plan. When ....”
Just then I was interrupted by a loudish cracking sound, followed by a young girl's scream ending with a bang and a clatter, followed by silence for a few moments. We all looked around to the other side of the building plot, where several of the kids were heading already, and where a pained cry was arising from. We quickly followed them over. A girl of about 12 was just struggling to her feet, holding her wrist.
“What happened, Doris?” asked a large man dressed in work clothing who suddenly appeared from behind one of the rising walls.
“I saw it all, Mr. Toms,” piped up one of the smaller children in the crowd, “Doris was up on the crossbeam tryin' to measure an angle, and the board just broke under her! And down she came,” finished the girl, eyes wide, slowly opening her arms and dropping a few sticks slowly, with a thoughtful look,at the end of her recitation, apparently to mimic the sound of Doris’s fall.
"Fall down go boom!"
More turned to me, "Well, Bigelow, I do have some medical training, you know, perhaps ...."
I touched his arm and drew him back a step. "Why don't we just wait and see what happens? We could hardly have planned this, but I think it will be instructive - I assure you that there is nothing to be worried about."
The girl, Doris, was cradling her injured wrist in her good hand, moving it experimentally around a bit, a few tears trickling from her eyes from the pain. She looked up at the the man who was in the act of kneeling in front of her, one hand reaching out to hold her shoulder protectively.
"I think it's broken, Mr. Toms," she said, sobbing just a bit, but in control of herself, "but it's just a simple fracture, I think, the skin isn't broken..."
The man named Toms smiled at her. "Good girl, Doris. Let me see, now...," and he carefully felt the girl's wrist, once evoking a short gasp of pain ("Sorry!"). After a few seconds he returned her wrist to her cradling hand.
"Yes, I think you're right. Well, everyone," he said, looking around at the group of children, "so what do you think we should do with Doris?"
One small girl immediately said "Charlottetown! My mommy says the First Green Island Hospital is the best in the whole world!"
Toms laughed a bit. "Yes, Mirandy, it is one of the best in the whole world - but do you really think we need to bother the busy doctors there with a little broken wrist?"
A slightly older boy spoke up. "I think we can fix a broken wrist ok right here, Mr. Toms - isn't that why we have the Basic School First Aid Center?"
"No, Andrew," another lad interjected, "broken bones always go to a Town Medical Center! We have to take her to Hunter River - she might need shots or special treatment or bed rest or something!"
And so it went for a couple of minutes. While they were talking, Thoreau turned to me, smiling. "The new form of medical consultation or something?" he asked.
"Actually, it is, in a way - but here at the school it is also a learning process. One of the things we are getting away from is the idea that there are many things that only a person with specialized learning can do - such as doctors. The creation of such people was, of course, one of the main justifications for the way the old education system worked. We feel it is not necessary - many things that such "specialists" do are quite do-able by ordinary people everywhere, if they are just given a chance to learn such things. And also, it was very central in creating and maintaining the hierarchy which the power system of that society depended on - a hierarchy which we have been trying to deconstruct, as we think all people should be more or less equal."
"Yes, Mr. Bigelow, and letting any Tom, Dick or Harry pretend they are a "doctor" can also do untold damage as well," a voice interrupted me from behind; we turned to see Ada Sampson arriving at the edge of our gathering. "I forgot my handouts for the Kung-fu class," she said, briefly brandishing a small slightly bulging brown envelope, from whose top could be seen some sheets of paper, "and I see it is fortunate I have returned."
She pushed her way past us, kneeling beside Toms and in front of Doris, a look of concern on her face.
"What on earth are you people doing around here!?" she asked, looking briefly, accusingly at Toms, then turning a softer gaze on Doris while gently taking her by the shoulder, "Can't you see this child needs to be taken into the Hunter River Clinic immediately? She must be suffering terribly! Come, child, I'll get the school car and run you in right now!" - and she raised herself to one knee, evidently planning to lift Doris in her arms - which may have been a feat for a woman of her age, but we never got to see if she was able or not, as Doris drew back, speaking.
"Wait, Mrs. Sampson," she said, still snuffling a bit, "it doesn't really hurt that bad, and I think we can fix it here. You know they tell us we need to be responsible for our own wellbeing, and participate in decisions about our health and treatment, and this is what they were talking about, I think - anyway, I'm not dying or anything, and I think Timmy is right, and we can probably fix my wrist at the school clinic - Dr. Leslie did ok with Jerry's foot last month after he fell out of the tree..."
"Posh, child! You don't know what you're saying. Now..."
"Please, Mrs. Sampson, calm down a bit," said Toms, also getting to his feet. "The situation is entirely under control, and it's important that we do what we're doing here, so that if more serious situations come along, we are all ready to deal with them. I ..."
"No, Mr. Tom, YOU calm down!" interrupted Mrs. Sampson, getting a bit excited, "I will NOT stand around having theoretical discussions while a child is in pain and needs medical attention! I..."
"Please, Mrs. Sampson!" it was Doris speaking again, as the heads of the surrounding children - and More and Thoreau and myself - swivelled from one to another speaker, "the pain isn't too bad, and I think if we just go to the school clinic and see Dr. Leslie he'll be able to fix it up fine! But let's go now, ok?" she finished, looking up at Mr. Toms, "It does hurt, though, and I would like to get it fixed!"
Mrs. Sampson looked grimly at Toms, and then over at me.
"Ada," I said, stepping forward, "Please - we've been over this sort of thing before - I know you think the old ways are better, but just look - there is no real emergency here, the girl is hurt but things are under control, and I think you can see that yourself. This is exactly what we are trying to do here, encourage people to be as responsible for themselves as they can be, with the help of those around them - when we let experts be in charge of everything, and depend on them for everything - well, the whole mess that was the modern world is the result. Our way IS better, Ada - and I think you know that. You know that Doris will get good care right here at Basic School, and will be monitored ably and carefully, and should there be any sign of more serious problems, she will be able to go to the Hunter River Center or even Charlottetown - but I don't think any of that will be necessary, by the looks of things."
As I spoke to Ada, I could see the other children and Toms beginning to walk with Doris up the slight incline towards the main building. One of the children said something, and I could hear Doris give a small wet laugh.
Ada looked as well at this sound, and I could see her relenting. She looked back at me with a sigh, and a small smile. "Yes, Stephen, I guess I do know you are right. But I care for the children so much - they are so precious - and yes, I will admit too, that for the last couple of years here they seem to have been ever so much brighter, and aware, and able. But I was teaching for many, many years before all of this started, you know, and the old ways do die hard."
I reached out my arms to her, inviting. "Friends?" I asked.
She looked at me for a second, then stepped forward, giving me a brief hug, then stepping back, again smiling.
"Oh, yes, Stephen," she said, "friends. I do know you're doing some good things. My goodness," she said, looking back towards the other side of the schoolyard, "my Kung-fu-ers will be wondering where I am! I'd better get back to them!"
And off she rushed, skirts flapping. More was watching her with a small bemused smile, and as I looked to Thoreau, I could see him busy scribbling once again in his journal.
“Well!” exclaimed More, as we sat around a small table back at the Hunter River GRIS-RT point coffee shop sipping on various beverages while waiting for the next train to Rustico, “that was interesting! Are all of your children so able, then?”
“Well, first,” I answered, smiling, “we try not to consider them as children too much - rather, we think of them as young people, small people, in the process of gaining the basic education to be a good citizen - the whole "children" thing is, again, part of the training in accepting hierarchical systems, and more importantly one's station forever somewhere near the bottom of that system, for most of them, having to take orders and be accountable to someone higher up. And from there, in regards to being able - well, the question naturally flows - what do we mean by "able"? What is a good basic education anyway, and at what point does it begin or end? What, actually, is it that we should know, and teach our children? - the whole range of philosophical questions can begin with such a question!”
“Well, yes,” he responded, “but to keep it more in line with the school and what you are doing, haven’t we pretty well managed to settle that over the last many hundred years of western civilization? We teach them to read, write and do ‘rithmetic, basically, don’t we? The so-called ‘3Rs’? Plus a little dollop of history and geography, things like that? And then they're "able", able to participate in our society..."
“Well, that seems to have been the theory,” I answered, “but as I sort of referred to when I was talking with Ada back there, it seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. Regardless, there’s no need to go through it all again - what we are trying to do here is somewhat different. They are getting the ‘3Rs’, of course, but so much more as well, we think. And we have removed the coercive elements from it as well - the children who come here do so because they truly want to - are eager to, indeed, as you saw with Jenny - as do young creatures everywhere, one of their most basic desires is to become adult and participate in their society, and their natural learning drives them to do that. Well, in our society, you find it pretty difficult to participate without first attending school for a few years. It has been a slow process, but it is improving each year, almost at an exponential pace, as more yearly cohorts pass through the system.”
“Peer pressure, you mean?” observed More, seeing what I was driving at right away.
“Exactly!” I answered, “Peer pressure plays a considerable role here, as it does always and everywhere. But there is quite a bit more, at least we like to think. For instance, one of the great disincentives previously for not coming to school, or leaving as soon as possible, or not trying to do well, was simple poverty - and we have more or less removed that as a factor, by largely removing poverty from our society. Almost, anyway. Children are not too malnourished to take advantage of the learning situation, and they are provided with any learning materials they require for free. And for the occasional child whose parents are not supportive of their education, we have a wide support network for everyone which includes them - while also, of course, providing counseling for the parents - we try not to be too intrusive, to respect the rights of people to bring their children up as they see fit - but we also feel that has to be tempered somehow, somewhere, with the rights of society to ensure that our citizens are compatible and well educated and not full of dangerous psychoses derived from their upbringing, and also the rights of the children not to be abused when they are more or less helpless or dependent on a certain caregiver. It’s a tricky line to draw at times - but at least we try, and with enough people in the community involved, we think we certainly prevent more abuse than we cause - abusive situations are more common in poor isolated areas, with low education, and there were various pockets of that type of poverty around the old Island that we have started to improve..”
“Yes, I see, I see,” replied More, thoughtfully, “but what then of the curriculum here at your schools? No regular classes, learning carpentry and first-aid - what can you say they have achieved when they graduate?”
“Well, to answer your last question first,” I answered, “they never really graduate from Basic School. They attend here until they are somewhere between 12-15 years old, and then carry on to other things, as they desire - there are many options available, but most choose some form of what used to be called higher education - university, mainly. And you mustn't think they learn only carpentry and first aid! - we only had a short time there to observe, but I assure you they have access to every kind of modern knowledge.”
“What!” exclaimed Moore, “they just leave here and go to some university of their choice? How do the people in the university know what their qualifications are?”
“Oh, that is absolutely the least of their worries,” I answered, “As you have observed, at least a little, at Athenia, we have structured our university along parallel lines with the Basic School, although at a somewhat higher level. But each faculty where a student may wish to go for further learning has rather rigorous entrance examinations and interviews which an applicant is required to take, and achieve a rather high score on, before being admitted. There was a bit of give and take for a few years as we worked out a few bugs, but the system is now functioning very well - very few students are ever rejected, that is, fail the entrance test, and the faculties are very pleased with the caliber of entering students they receive. One interesting statistic - during the last decade before we began the new system, the first year attrition rate at the old University of Prince Edward Island was somewhere around 20% - last year it was under 1% - with demonstrably higher standards as well. The last couple of years Athenia has been getting quite a lot of interest from ‘away’, as we say, and has begun accepting quite a few international students who qualify as well to enrich the variety of experience available for everyone - although most of these students are finding they have to do quite an amount of catch-up work to work on an equal footing with our students from here, and their wide variety of non-academic achievements - such as carpentry or first aid! You'd be surprised how much more creative and intuitive a person with such a broad background can be, than one who has concentrated solely on academic pursuits as suggested in traditional calendars.”
“Well,” said Thoreau, joining once again, “I don't know that I'd be that surprised at all, from what you've said - academic learning has never been a match for practical experience. But you mean this works with even the higher professions, such as medicine or engineering?”
“Oh, yes, “ I answered, “actually, those are turning out to be our main strengths. We have a high requirement in our Basic Schools for science and math, which are, of course, the main things required for the type of things you mentioned. It’s a matter of how it is taught, to some extent, and encouraging the young person’s natural interest - as you saw when we first entered, with Ms. Carson. You may not have noticed, and it may not be that evident, but we require a rather high caliber of teachers here. There are very few young teachers - we do not feel they have the skills nor knowledge to teach properly - everyone is encouraged to spend several years doing a variety of things to gain experience in living before they start teaching, as good teachers are very involved with teaching all-around living skills, so they temper their “school learning” with practical experience. Teaching is truly a calling here, and we require a great deal more than a couple of years in some so-called Teacher’s College, which was all that was required before. Truly,” I laughed, “in the old system, many more teachers turned the children off of learning rather than on to it!”
“Scandalous!” added More, “But how can that be!?”
“Well, as I said with Ada,” I answered, “in days past, it was much more the function of teachers to instill their students with certain habits rather than actual education, and that required a different set of tools than we require, and a different way of regarding what they were doing. It was a most destructive arrangement, actually, for the young people, and had a lot to do with the problems faced by the whole society - adults with bad attitudes and habits in almost all cases learned such things when they were younger, and that is the best place to start fixing such attitudes. There were exceptions, of course - but they received very little governmental support for their dedication, and it was much easier in the old system to fall in line, and become a trainer-jailer rather than a teacher.”
“Here, we value the children, and not only encourage, but demand, that they think for themselves, as early and as much as possible. Our goal is that these young people become intelligent, questioning, participating members of our society - quite the antithesis of the old way, I might add, when non-thinking, obedient robots were much more the desire of the authorities and the business owners - and regardless of the fact that many teachers tried to actually teach, as we are here, with the entire system working against them, their success was naturally limited. And with that in mind, our job is both much easier and much more demanding.”
“Well, what then specifically do you actually teach at these schools?” inquired Moore, “I'm still a bit puzzled. I presume you do cover the old ‘3Rs’? Kind of hard to get by without them...?”
“Oh, certainly,” I replied, “but we don’t have to teach reading and writing so much as guide the natural instincts of the children, whose desire for learning at a young age is great, and their ability even greater. Reading is something they all learn quickly, most of them before they even enter this level at the age of 5 or so. We do have special courses in arithmetic and higher maths - a solid grasp of basic arithmetic and algebra is a requirement for all university entrance tests, in any field, and such things are much easier to learn with a good teacher leading the student the first few steps along the path, switching on the lights, as it were, when possible. After that, we try to give the young people their own head as much as possible, while offering a broad general education in things they need to know to be able to participate in the things in our society knowledgeably - things like history and geography, for instance. Also, and probably most importantly, we incorporate into several of our teaching areas something we call 'Citizenship' - in which we have the students discuss what it means to be a citizen in their community and country, how it is what they are learning fits into that framework, and what not only their rights are, but what their duties are - duties such as being knowledgeable about the issues currently occurring in their society, duties such as not only voting for their representatives in whatever social level, but also monitoring the activities of those so entrusted to ensure they are doing a satisfactory job. Duties such as helping others, and always having time to spare for the education of those younger and needing help, as required. Duties such as participating in social activities for the benefit of the community as a whole. Things like that. And only after they have demonstrated an awareness of such things are they considered ready to move on to the next level of their education, the more formal one offered in universities and such. If they choose to go, of course - but even if they don’t, when they finish with Basic School, they are basically ready to become functioning citizens - we do need carpenters still, as much if not moreso than doctors. Still with much to learn, of course, but ready with the tools to learn what is necessary, and to participate in their society, and help refine it according to any changes they and other new generations might desire.”
“Well,” answered More, “sounds quite idealistic, I must say. Does it really work?”
I smiled once again. “Well - that’s always the question, isn’t it? That’s really something that only history can judge properly, but we do believe it’s a considerable step forward from the way things were, and we are always discussing what we are doing, and trying to improve it. During the last couple of decades of the 20th century most citizens became almost completely disenfranchised, for several interconnected reasons, and the governments became very bad, and actually encouraged this disenfranchisement - a single vote, in a more or less fixed election once every few years, was considered ample to call the society a "democracy". We feel it is absolutely essential, if we are to have a prosperous and decent society, that all citizens take part in making it that way, and for that you need a decent education, to understand and discuss the issues of the day, whatever they may be. During that recent time I refer to, there were serious economic and environmental issues that few people really understood, thus much of the government decision-making was left up to so-called experts - and the citizens of the time had been trained to accept this - and making the problem much worse, in that sadly corrupted culture, many if not most so-called experts were for sale to the highest bidder, usually some corporate interest whose primary interest was subverting government to their profit-making ends, leaving the average citizen hearing conflicting reports and not knowing what to believe.”
“Scientists!" exclaimed More, “for sale! Shocking!!”
“Yes, many of us thought so too, but that was, and still is in much of the world, corporate culture. Truth in such a climate is what you want it to be, or what you can make it. So a large part of what we do here is trying to help the young people learn to think for themselves - it’s fine to listen to “experts” in a field, but you must be able to judge for yourself how much credibility they have, and be ready to dismiss obvious nonsense - of which there was a great deal being offered in the last couple of decades of the 20th century.”
“Somewhat of a shocking idea, I should think, to most governments,” observed Thoreau, with a somewhat sideways smile, looking up briefly from where he had once again been scribbling in his journal, “having citizens capable of, and ready to, think for themselves!”
Our reflections were interrupted by the distinctive "toot-toot-de-toot-toot" of the GRIS-RT Local to Rustico, and we drained the last drops from our glasses and watched it approach.
"We shall have a leisurely journey of an hour or so to Rustico - the scenery at this time of year is really quite beautiful, and you may want to stop here and there for a better look," I informed my companions, "It looks as if we shall be spending the night there rather than going on to Tracadie as I had planned - but no matter! There are lots of things to do and see, and many interesting people there as well."
And so it would prove.
Thoreau closed his journal and returned it to the recesses of one of his many pockets, took More companionably by an arm, and we proceeded to board the Rustico train.