Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Mandatory Urban Studies ?

Civic Centre
Last month, a post at All About Cities caught my eye. It was entitled "Should urban studies be a  mandatory high school course ?".

Back in my University days, (around '92 or so), one of the best classes I took was a half-term evening course taught by current premier Greg Sellinger. I can't remember the name but it was basically 'Municipal Winnipeg 101'. Each week we would take an hour or so to study an aspect of municipal government in general and then drill down to how it works in Winnipeg. The final couple of hours included a guest speaker and a Q and A session. 

Greg, ummm ... Mr.Premier, was recently off council and had some great contacts at city hall. One week we studied the the Board of Commissioners system, then the Chief Commissioner came to speak to us. The following week the topic was public health and the chief health inspector came. For policing we had the deputy chief. Other topics included municipal funding, urban infrastructure and the like.

The class was small, maybe 20 people or so, and we had an informal agreement not to record the speakers, (this was back in the day when a portable tape recorder was the size of a brick of cheese). This allowed for an intimate discussion and the ability to talk off the record a bit.

It was enlightening and ever since then I've told anybody who will listen that this is a course that should be offered all the time, for free, to all citizens.

People, myself included, are troubled when polls come out showing that only 24% of Canadians know who our Head of State is  or that 60% of Canadians would fail the citizenship test that we demand others take before they become Canadians. Most are happily ignorant about that sort of stuff so I don't expect that offering a course, regardless of what level it is offered at, will bring about some ground shift in the understanding of how municiplaties work.

Still, we are one of the most urbanized countries in the world and, thanks to the constitutional and funding framework that we have in Canada, urban issues are about more than municipalities  - they mix heavily with federal and provincial governments.

In an interesting study of how well informed Vancouver votes were in their 2005 municipal election, Young notes that "Compared to their generally less frequent provincial and federal counterparts, local elections require voters to conduct substantially more research to before casing ballots  - often with access to far less information."

This is where you can say that a poorly organized or maintained city website (oh, look, ours is still advertising on their homepage to download a 2009 wall calendar !) can stymie even the best  intentioned researcher. Or that local media across the country are cutting back on things like city hall 'beat reporter s' in favour of relying on the daily police briefing for their 'municipal affairs' coverage.

So to answer All About Cities' question "Should urban studies be a  mandatory high school course ?". I say yes, and not soon enough.


Brian F. Kelcey said...

Um, with respect, no!

One of the reasons why students don't know basic facts about government is precisely because schools have transformed social studies into a series of politicized interdisciplinary seminars in identity and ideology - like "media studies" or "canadian studies" instead of a vehicle to learn basic facts and research skills. Teach some real history, some real geography, some real language skills, and awareness of urban issues will flow from that.

The last thing I want is the next generation of high schoolers popping out spouting slogans about new urbanist planning doctrine before they even understand the basics of law, government or general history. And you can bet "urban studies" as a course will do more of the former than the latter these days.

Re: voter turnout and research, municipal campaigns are 'harder' for several reasons unrelated to schooling: one, less repetition in media; two, less ideological sorting and less partisanship to use as a crutch, three, smaller campaign budgets, four, less perceived value by voters in actually showing up.

Subhadeep Chakrbarti said...

Sounds like a great idea. I think learning about municipal (as well as provincial and federal) govt. and their intricacies is far more important to our future citizens than the habits of some long dead religious prophet or Roman emperor. There is nothing to be ashmaed of 'Canadian Studies' in a Canadian high school funded by Canadian taxpayers.
This from a patriotic but foreign born proud Canadian !!

Brian F. Kelcey said...

"There is nothing to be ashamed of 'Canadian Studies' in a Canadian high school funded by Canadian taxpayers."

Sure there is, if the vague, conceptual, interdisciplinary approach of the course leaves students with huge gaps in basic knowledge. Which is exactly what "_____ studies" courses tend to do if you don't already have a grounding in one of the disciplines in question.

Spare the "more patriotic than thou" bit; I'm questioning the effectiveness, not the goal.

Spugsley said...

There are five units in the Grade 12 geography curriculum. One of them is "Urban Places."
I think a full credit course would be worthwhile.