Winter semester, 1990

Touch wood
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

Lakefield, Qué, Easter, April 15, 1990  1

Dear Colleague:  2

Sensible people first look after themselves and those near and dear to them, don't they? And for the rest of humanity they largely accomodate Malthusian laissez-faire. Sensible people seize each day until the days cease for them. Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero. That's what sensible people do.  3

But educators, not unlike statesmen and some artists, measure Man against a grander scale of place and time. Educators seek to prepare youth for the future. Educators dream of days beyond. That's in their grain—even though their dreams readily turn into nightmares.  4

One nightmare is losing out in the worldwide competition, of being in the power of those more successfully engaged in aggressive, industrial-commercial activity; whatever form their success may take. It is a nightmare that may well slide into another bad dream: becoming the object of disdain and exploitive ridicule. Farfetched? Witness the official setting of the stage in Japan. Witness it right here, from the pages of Montreal's The Gazette of April 9, 1990:  5

"Under the new rule issued by the Education Ministry, the hinomaru (rising sun) flag and the anthem Kimigayo ('His Majesty's reign') are to become official parts of entrance and graduation ceremonies for the first time in nearly 50 years."  6

Not all Japanese agree and the ministry had to fight arduously in the courts against those who tried to still those old winds so marvellously devine.  7

"'I fear that forcing children to show obedience to the flag and sing this anthem will make the Japanese people silent and easier to control,' said Hiroyuki Tsukamoto of the Japanese Teachers' Union. 'It could lead to the same kind of mentality that existed before the war.'"  8

Not only Japan spices pride with prejudice. Are we not doing a fine job right here at home in Québec? And for not unrelated sentiments tune in to the latest news from Europe. From Germany, for example. A Pakistani man was killed for being Pakistani, and Turkish Gästarbeiter (invited workers) were thrown out of a bar, which brings to memory signs sported at commercial establishments and public places, Jüde Nicht Erwünscht—Jews not welcome. This may not be state policy, but it does show us some of the local color.  9

Another nightmare for those concerned about the future is the limits Mother Earth puts on her hospitality. Five billion people now growing to ten billion within a handful of decades are far too many. David Suzuki once asked the eminent Harvard social biologist Edward G.Wilson how many people the Earth could sustain. "Two hundred million," Wilson replied. This may not be an exact number, the answer a bit glib even, but it is an answer that casts doubt on that brave talk about sustainable economic growth for all of the world's peoples, talk arising from "Our Common Future, a report produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development" (Oxford University Press, 1987) at the behest of the General Assembly of the United Nations.  10

When that report came out, the world food supplies had shown some impressive growth for years on end, due to intensive fertilization and irrigation. But things have turned sour since. Observes the 1989 annual report of the United Nations' Children Fund,  11

"For almost nine hundred million people, approximately one-sixth of mankind, the march of human progress has now become a retreat."  12

Quoting Lester G. Brown, ed., "State of the World 1989, A Worldwatch Report on Progress Toward A Sustainable Society." W.W. Norton & Company,  13

"Soil erosion, desertification, the salting of irrigated lands, and a scarcity of new cropland and fresh water are combining to lower the growth in food output below that of population in dozens of developing countries ...."  14

"Among other things, the prospect of climate change increases uncertainty over future harvests, making decisions more complicated for farmers and policymakers alike."  15

Environmental migration already occurs—always did—but if global warming proceeds unabatedly, the rise of seas will flood te most fertile soils available and massive migraton with ensuing upset in human affairs must be anticipated. Quite possibly, if not likely, within the lifetime of our students.  16

The return of the hinomaru and Kimigayo to Japanese schools will bolster the young for conflict, environmental or otherwise. One suspects that this move is propelled with much the same foresight and care as has been Japan's economic miracle. First attend to the slow job of inculcating the right spirit, later design any detailed strategies if and when needed. Does not chance favor minds prepared?  17

North Americans, too, worry about environmental stife. We may not comprehend the mysterious ways of a patient and purposeful East, instead take pride in coming straight to the point. Here from The Gazette of April 12:  18

"Global warming 'could produce changes as catastrophic for humanity as all the wars in history,' said Bernard Wood, chief executive officer of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security [funded by the Canadian government]." ... "The environmental threat to world security 'looms larger than any other threat,' said Christopher Flavin, vice-president for reasearch at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington." ... "The warming that scientists forecast for the planet over the next century will trigger conflicts between nations, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Berkeley, Calif., predicted" ... "Canada's Defence Department has begun studying the strategic implications of global warming." ... "Said Christopher Tucker of the department's directorate of strategic analysis, 'If one perceives environmental refugies crossing a border to a situation where they are not welcome, ...,'"  19

Dare I say that educators who ignore these matters are failing their primary function which is preparing people for the future?  20

* * *

Perhaps the three most important developments educators must contemplate, in addition to their routine concerns, are:  21

— The explosive expansion of the industrial world and, hence, the increasing fierceness of international competition for power, which requires a well-prepared thoughtforce,  22

— The decay of traditions for whatever reasons and the seach for, invariably faddish, off the shelf value systems. (That is why education must not ignore whence we, humankind, came and who we are, and foster the power of reflection. A commonality of tradition binds and gives value to being, puts the spirit in finer trim.)  23

— The urgency of exceedingly rapid (democratic?) decision making and action in the face of, both, fierce competition and a potential environmental holocaust.  24

"We could be a species on the way to extinction in 50 years," said Canadian businessman, diplomat, environmentalist Maurice Strong. "Every second, every minute that we lose, in my view, is deepening the diagnosis. It is making it less likely that we can survive." (From Out Fragile Future, supplement to The Gazette of October 7, 1987.)  25

A compelling image of a future in which change is the sole constant has been painted in Scientific American of September 1989 by William D. Ruckelshaus, twice director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a member of the World Commission on Environment and Development:  26

"A canooist shooting the rapids: survival depends on continually responding to information by correct steering," is the way he put it. "Taking control of the future ... means tightening the connection between science and policy. We need to understand where the rocks are in time to steer around them."  27

* * *

Conventional education, be it general or vocational, prepares people for a future not to different from the present. But now, with accelerating change, we must educate for a society in flux, a society with unpredictably shifting structures.  28

A new CEGEP science program, intended to take effect within a year or two, and then will have taken up an incredible 14 years of preparation—no shooting rapids here!—emphasizes the need to put in the curriculum the cultural-societal-technological interfaces of science. Thus it wishes to correct faults of the past. But don't you think, dear colleague, that this will merely be a groping for branches that overhang the rapids' shores as our wobbly canoo speeds past them on course uncertain?*  29

Of much greater value in the new science program for all levels of schooling is the extensive use that will be made of computing devices. Mind you, the ideas going into this are partly stale, partly tentative, partly in need of development. We are horribly short on vision, short on purpose. We are already dazed still or bored already by what industry has to offer, while others look at the stuff like little kids do at a display of toys. But, really, should we not get set to tell manufacturers, as precisely as we can, what it is we need? Need especially for the well-designed teaming of computers with wide-awake brains to give our students a fighting chance to locate, evaluate, and apply informatyion needed for shooting the rapids that threaten their survival?*  30

Pulex vobiscum.  31

Henry K van Eyken  32

Pulex, L. puce, Fr. (flea, computer chip), Pulex exiguus therefore, is microchip, also Fleabyte.  fn1  *

Footnotes, added in 2017

Shortly after we were apprised of that program so many years in the making, it was scrapped; within weeks, I believe.  fn2  *

Please notice: I was talking here about augmenting human brains with digital technology, not articial intelligence that currently preoccupies society, a quarter of a century later. (To be sure, there is no sharp dividing line between the two—consider, for example, the pocket calculator.)
Ten years after writing these letters, I attended, on-line, a series of lectures by Douglas Engelbart at Stanford University in Silicon Valley. Topic was the augmenting of the human intellect by co-operative computing. This led to me being asked to look after his website, which I did for a number of years. During that time I was invited over a couple of times. There I also met a number of his associates. What a refreshing experience it was to be able to converse about matters touched on in these letters!  
fn3  *

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