Education our only magic elixir

TheStar.com – Columnist – Education our only magic elixir
May 07, 2009.   James Travers.  Ottawa

These are peculiar times. Pigs catch swine flu from humans, Canadians who didn’t buy Chryslers (or Fiats) now own a pricey piece of the company and while we struggle to save feudal Afghanistan, nuclear Pakistan is failing.

Connecting those scattered dots is the disturbing common denominator of misunderstanding. A convenient label for a complex virus is so confusing the flu’s cause and effects that consumers are afraid to eat pork.

Federal and provincial governments that encouraged the auto capacity to outgrow consumer demand are now bailing out one of the bankrupt results.

Countries, most notably Canada, that didn’t know much about Afghanistan before sending troops there, are now learning the full and frightening truth about their regional ignorance.

These things happen and aren’t about to stop. Unforeseen or simply misjudged events unfold. Leaders everywhere respond with an imperfect alloy of public policy and political self-protection.

Far more frustrating, and ultimately more problematic, is the refusal to prepare for what is predictable. Politicians, whose visions often stretch no further than the next election, see little reward in challenging worn shibboleths or jolting voters out of their comfort zone.

Letting Canadians wallow in complacency was never a sound idea. Last fall it became dangerously delusional. Along with destroying wealth and dreams, the financial meltdown and global recession announced watershed change. As surely as greed shattered trust, a gaping hole was blown in the comforting assumption that the future would be a reasonable facsimile of the past.

Tough on every country, that sudden realignment is particularly cruel for Canada. Good has been good enough for so long here that too few noticed how fast the country is falling behind by staying in the same place. More creative economies are growing faster and challenging our prestigious place at global forums. Ottawa’s claims that Canada is again starring on the world stage are absurdly mismatched against the pinched realities of foreign policies shaped by domestic politics.

Current events drag those abstractions back to earth. Monday’s news featured another top researcher moving south, lured as much by Barack Obama’s commitment to a knowledge economy as by his $10 billion investment.

Two days later, the Star reported a depressing yet hardly surprising Science, Technology and Innovation Council study that rated Canada’s performance as, well, mediocre.

Education isn’t just a competitive fix; it’s the only available magic elixir. Among so many other things, it lets us wisely weigh the safety of what we eat, the wisdom of corporate investments and the profound implications of sending Canadians abroad to serve and die. Education not only helps make some sense of testing times and a chaotic world order, it puffs up every part of life.

Smart is now said to be the new cool. If Michelle Obama and Michael Ignatieff shout it out, then it must be so. Still, it’s hard to shake the notion that rather than contend with informed voters, politicians prefer to apply the mushroom method to citizens by keeping them in the dark and feeding them fertilizer. That protects the elected elite from answering awkward questions and providing explanations for black-is-white policies that hurt the head.

Let’s hope smart does become our new cool. Hewing wood and drawing water has served us well. But being hip is our best, perhaps only, hope of succeeding at a time when a nation’s most precious resource is its brains.

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