A cry in the dark for the liberal arts and citizenship education

If we want capable people representing us in our legislative houses during these times of great peril and challenge, we need to develop a citizenry full of global citizens.
Conservative MP Paul Calandra, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, apologizes Sept. 26 for responding to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's questions on Canada's mission in Iraq earlier in the week with an attack on the NDP position on Israel. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In my Grade 9 Canada in the Contemporary World class, we assign each other certain tasks that help us develop various literacies.

One of these tasks is what we call “DIP”, or Day in Pictures. For instance, a student is asked to select 10 photos from all over the world that impacted them in some way, then present these to the class. This allows us to see how “the other” lives.

We also assign a task called “The House”. A student listens to CBC Radio’s The House, hosted by Evan Solomon, and reports back to us on the weekly shenanigans of our federal leaders. Through this activity, we see a real growth in our parliamentary literacy and we are able to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of our political system and process.

Last week, Ninglu, a member of our learning community, reported back to us that Evan and the gang had spoken about Canada’s mission in Iraq. This led us to a conversation about Canada’s role in the world, historically, presently, and in the future. We realized that we needed to do a lot of research in order to really comment on our foreign policy.

Ninglu then spoke about Paul Calandra’s apology in the House of Commons based on his inability to answer the Opposition’s questions early in the week related to Canada’s role in the Middle East. The students were immediately curious about the original comments Calandra made, and so we watched a CBC clip on the exchange between the Parliamentary Secretary and the leader of the Opposition.

My students were perplexed:

  • “Why is he speaking about Israel?”
  • “Why is he not answering the question?”
  • “Why are his friends clapping for him?”
  • “Can you call the Speaker out like that?”

Wow. I was now forced to answer why this duly-elected cabinet member refused to answer a pretty simple question in one of the most important forums where Canadians can question the government.

At the time, my explanation sounded ridiculous: “Well, the member clearly doesn’t want to answer the question because traditionally the government doesn’t answer questions in the House and he is trying to score some political points.”

Huh? That sounded dumb. I had 22 students looking at me with raised eyebrows.

I tried again: “Well, traditionally, major decisions, like going to war, are discussed in Parliament, but for some reason this is not being discussed, and…”

Oh dear.

Next, my students pondered Calandra’s apology: “So, he is apologizing by also saying that he’ll do it again. I don’t get it,” remarked one.

I had no retort or explanation.

A sham?

Later that night, I began to reflect on this shared learning experience. My fear was that my students learned that Parliament, and specifically Question Period, was a sham — where debate and genuine discussion had been replaced by cheap shots, misleading responses, and a general lack of respect.

And then it hit me: Parliament has reverted back to what it used to be prior to Confederation — where debate was poisoned by mere political posturing and lacked any sense of humanity whatsoever. Arguably, one of the reasons Confederation was sought was to take us out of such a system.

Calandra’s comments and apology also signalled a lack of true purpose in the House. As an elected representative, should it not be one’s role to make decisions and act in ways that help everyone have access to a decent life? Should politicians not be reflective thinkers who have tremendous knowledge about the world, and as Martha Nussbaum suggests, a narrative imagination, or empathy?

The fact that the Parliamentary Secretary chose to make a mockery of Parliament when our species is arguably experiencing several catastrophic events suggests a lack of critical thought and global citizenship.

Global citizens have a massive understanding of the world around them, have tremendous empathy, and are able to create and deconstruct arguments with sound logic. What we witnessed in the Commons was a disaster and a lesson to our young people of how not to act and think.

I am not just placing the blame of the demise of the House of Commons on Calandra. His colleagues cheered and applauded his ridiculous behaviour and were ultimately complicit in the mockery. 

Liberal arts education, which includes math and science, focuses heavily on interdisciplinary thought and Socratic reasoning. As teachers, we need to emphasize and model the capacities of a global citizens and the ability to examine ourselves and our society.

If we want capable people representing us in our legislative houses during these times of great peril and challenge, we need to develop a citizenry full of global citizens.

Alternatively, we can vote out the current lot and pray that the next bunch of candidates sees a greater purpose in their tenure as members of Parliament. But, I prefer to bank on ability to foster a new generation of parliamentarians and citizens who have compassion for each other, who can make clear arguments, and who have a sense of justice.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. You can find him on Twitter: @henderson204


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