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DEMOCRACY COOKBOOK: Literacy, democratic governance and political citizenship

The Democracy Cookbook
The Democracy Cookbook


By Raymond Blake


For much of its history, Newfoundland and Labrador has struggled. Its reputation for underdevelopment, high unemployment, low per capita incomes and a disproportionate share of family incomes coming from state transfers has been largely deserved.

Yet, its economic fate cannot be attributed to resource weakness or elite control and government mismanagement. Its political culture has created a political system that has seen the province led by several premiers who have enjoyed almost cult-like devotion for much of the time since the return of responsible government in 1949. Each of those premiers has claimed to be defending the province against outsiders (corporations, other governments) that simply did not understand the province — political rhetoric that was eagerly accepted by voters.

Sluggish economic growth may have fostered uncritical populism that permitted charismatic leaders to build up deep popular loyalty by pandering, which meant confirming biases and conventional wisdom and avoiding innovative policies based on research and complex analyses.

Historian David Alexander was turning his attention to the linkages between literacy and economic development before his untimely death. He recognized a linkage between the extent of illiteracy in Newfoundland and the quality of public life and public decision-making. Low educational levels, he suggested, led to deference among citizens towards the political and governing elites; low literacy levels bred “a sluggish intellectual life and an unimaginative and inefficient debate about the goals of the society and how they might best be realized.”  Low levels of educational attainment and low literacy rates contribute to a political culture that gives durability to populist politics. They also foster a political culture that fails to produce a vibrant and effective democracy. Civil and social engagement — including political knowledge, political engagement and voter turnout — are impacted by education and literacy levels.

He recognized a linkage between the extent of illiteracy in Newfoundland and the quality of public life and public decision-making.

Few would dispute that an educated population enhances social and economic well-being. Education contributes greatly to economic prosperity; educated people not only enjoy higher incomes but they also foster innovation and economic development as well as contribute to a vibrant social environment and the general enrichment of society. Positive health outcomes and improved social conditions, ranging from less crime to better playgrounds, are more likely in educated societies. Civic and political participation also increases with the educational level of citizens.

We have to wonder, too, if a populist political pattern induces governments to decline to plan for consistent economic growth. Economies do not flourish in policy vacuums. Strong economic performance and strong economic development depend on good economic public policy. Government must know when intervention is needed; what intervention is needed; and when natural, inherent or structural conditions require withdrawal from intervention.

Economic management cannot be on the basis of fortuitous factors and complacency. Governments have to decide what fundamental conditions are necessary for solid economic growth, and they must include policies on effective early childhood development and solid investment in effective education. Educational attainment is crucial.

Educational outcomes and literacy levels in Newfoundland and Labrador are among the lowest of any in Canada. A 2016 study of literacy ranks Newfoundland and Labrador, with nearly 60 per cent of its adults having inadequate literacy skills, among the lowest of the provinces. In the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year-olds, Newfoundland and Labrador ranked eighth among the 10 provinces, even as Canada’s performance generally was trending downward. Yet, in the decade beginning in 2002, school enrolments in Newfoundland declined by more than 17 per cent while spending increased from $653 million to $868 million. One might have thought learning outcomes would have improved. They did not.

Given that literacy and educational achievements impact economic performance, social well-being and political engagement, there is a pressing need for government and the educational system (school boards and schools) to rethink how children are taught and how literacy and numeracy are promoted among adults. Attempts at education reform in the 1990s focused on the denominational system of delivery, not on learning outcomes and student achievement. Reforms in the education system are necessary, and the provincial government and the trustees of local school boards must implement a learning environment that adequately equips young people to live successfully and participate as engaged and excited adults in all aspects of their world.

Let’s start with a provincial curriculum that requires all students to complete a rich program in the social sciences and humanities, sciences and math, and one that encourages participation in the volunteer sector, in community and civic engagement. Students are not passive learners and must be engaged as critical thinkers and active citizens. Civics courses are long gone, but democratic education is being embraced elsewhere, and it is a model to consider as part of a revamped system of public education.

Schools are not institutions but communities where students must experience democracy in action. If young people experience democracy and are taught to fully appreciate and participate in the democratic process in their curriculum, in the process of education, in governing their schools, and even in youth councils to advise legislators as part of the policy process, it will lay the pathway to economic and social well-being for the province. It will also improve democratic governance.


About the Author

Raymond Blake (History, University of Regina) has published widely on Canadian history. His recent books include “Lions or Jellyfish: Newfoundland–Ottawa Relations Since 1957” (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and “Conflict and Compromise: Post-Confederation Canada” (University of Toronto Press, 2017). He is now researching the history of citizenship in 20th-century Newfoundland and the role of Canada’s prime ministers in creating national identity.

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