Scholarly Look at Emotional Issue (Chronicle Hearld)

Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities
The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada 1850–2010

By Paul W. Bennett  

Author traces Nova Scotia’s education history: Why communities lose their schools and the growth of the system’s centralized bureaucracy

The history of education in Nova Scotia is a subject that has not attracted a great deal of systematic attention. Now, Halifax scholar Paul Bennett has written Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada 1850-2010.

There have been only a few academic theses and obscure archival tracts that have attempted to map the province’s educational history. The thing about educational history is that everyone over a certain age is an “expert.” There are many educational histories, as many as there were children in those historic schoolhouses. Sometimes this is an unhappy story and we are finally hearing buried accounts of multiple abuses and restrictions that schooling represented for marginalized populations. But there are other stories told around kitchen tables, in clubs, service organizations, church groups, and in workplaces. The story tends to be thickly drawn with nostalgic images of long walks home through egalitarian communities, the camaraderie of youth, good-natured mischief, feats of memory, and stern but competent teachers.

Typically, this folk history is the story of the descent of a once great system into the depths of chaos and underperformance. Often this history is peppered with an equally caustic analysis of the increasing costs of running schools, declining enrolment notwithstanding.

Bennett seems not to disagree entirely, but his analysis is both nuanced and informed by historical evidence and research into present-day school wars in rural Nova Scotia. The theoretical thread that holds Bennett’s history together is the idea that Nova Scotia’s educational system has followed the North American model and become increasingly centralized and bureaucratized. His analysis shows how the state comes to play an ever-expanding part in education, which propels centralization at all levels. Small schools are consolidated into larger ones, local school boards are consolidated into district and regional boards, teachers are professionalized, and, most importantly, communities lose control of their schools.

This loss of control plays into the decline of rural communities already challenged by multiple forces of urbanization, economic restructuring and social and political change. Unlike most analyses of contemporary education, Bennett’s book highlights the rural, recognizing that a significant proportion of Nova Scotia’s population continues to live in the countryside.

Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities is one rare attempt to explain why schools have evolved as they have. It is a complex story written in an accessible style. Bennett’s analysis takes into consideration both time and space, which is why I think this book is important both for scholars and for those who question the cosy, commonplace folk history of schooling.

Bennett’s book contextualizes the development of the school from small, largely rural, one-room 19th-century operations to the present day. Through the 20th century, Bennett demonstrates how the purely functional village schoolhouse morphed into the town-based academies and “palace schools” that served as monuments to education for growing towns and cities.

Bennett clearly loves these schools, their architecture, and what they represented in terms of public respect for education. By the 1950s and 60s the contemporary secondary system emerged with the establishment of rural high schools and more modern generic “shopping mall” high schools that were built for baby boom students, but also to accommodate the novel expectation that most young people ought to complete high school regardless of their social origins (which incidentally is a big part of the reason why schooling isn’t as cheap as it used to be).

Finally, we arrive in today’s Nova Scotia with a new wave of school construction that Bennett characterizes as big-box or “airport” schools complete with tight security and runways for the province’s academically inclined youth to “take off” for the big city.

But, of course, the historical narrative is not a simple line from big to small. The image of the airport high school sits in contrast with the considerable attention Bennett devotes to many community struggles to save village schools. History matters, but so does place.

Bennett situates the historical trajectory of the development of schools and schooling within the geography of a province that has remained more rural than most Canadian jurisdictions. While only about 20 per cent of Canadians live in rural places, about 45 per cent of Nova Scotians live in the country.

Thus, the historical shift from small, locally controlled rural schools to large, centrally administered urban schools has been slower to develop in this province. However, most of the bureaucratic models for school governance, curriculum and assessment have been developed for a system that is largely urban.

The development of modern schooling and the rise of an increasingly bureaucratized system are generally understood to be an historical phenomenon, but I think the real strength of Bennett’s book is in the way that he shows how the transformation of schooling is caught up with the uneven development of Nova Scotia. He documents the mismatch between bureaucratic centralization and multiple battles for community survival.

Bennett argues that small communities continue to matter and that education is a key location for ongoing popular struggles, which are essentially about people fighting to keep their home places and established ways of life alive against a tide of mobilization, standardization, consolidation and homogenization.

At the beginning of the 20th century the German sociologist Max Weber wrote that bureaucracy is a dehumanizing and inefficient system of governance that grew up as population came to be heavily concentrated in urban spaces. The trouble is (he wrote) that it is the best method yet devised for the management of large numbers of people, and without bureaucracy, contemporary life melts down into a desperate mess.

The question that Bennett’s book raises with respect to education is whether or not Weber was right. He suggests that it may be possible for us to imagine alternative educational governance structures, which are less bureaucratic and more open to local control.

An important problem that Bennett’s book does not significantly address though is the way that the bureaucratic expansion of public education has also attempted to create the conditions for a system that includes all children and that has begun to make attempts to serve populations who were absent from the cosy nostalgic folk narrative of the old time schoolhouse (which again, is why it is now more expensive).

Bureaucracy may be a terrible thing, but do we have a better alternative? Bennett seems to think we do. Observing the madness of privatization and quasi-privatization schemes, voucher systems, and charter schools in the United States and in Britain, I am not so sure.-Michael Corbett for Herald Books, Sunday July 31, 2011

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