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Facts and Opinions, and context

Summertime ....

Summertime ….  at play on English Bay, Vancouver © Deborah Jones 2015

Context is everything: facts or opinions rarely stand strong by themselves. Take, for example, F&O columnist Jonathan Manthorpe’s column in May, about Vancouver real estate and corrupt money from mainland China. The Vacuously Vain column went “viral,” boosted by mentions from the Economist to academic urban planning journals to online media in Oz. It’s our best-read story since we launched in 2013; it helped that Manthorpe left the column outside our paywall,* because we’ve found that very few people will pay even a dollar to pass our paywall and support our journalism. But the reason this piece hit a nerve was because Manthorpe provides not sound bites or junk media calories, but authoritative, informed and global context to issues from unaffordable housing to national and international intrigues. His loyal weekly readers are well informed.

At its best, that’s what thoughtful, smart and educated  journalism does: it puts the stuff we care about or need to know in context; it helps us understand our worlds.

DroughtStrong opinion backed by great journalism also gives substance to our debates. For example, drouth is everywhere now changing lives, landscapes and economies. Chris Wood, author of Dry Spring (2008, Raincoast Books), long ago warned of this. In his F&O Natural Security column in early 2014 he proposed — controversially — a market solution to water hogs. (Subscription or $1 day pass required.*) Wood called water and nature “key cogs in the market machine. To induce the many, varied and locally specific changes required to secure safe water in all the places lacking it now—from Sacramento to Sudan—no mechanism is as effective and dynamic as money profit. If that means putting a price on some water and on ‘nature,’ get over it.” 

This week, other than publishing Issei Kato’s photo essay marking the Atomic Age at 70,  Shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (unlocked*), F&O has taken our first annual summer break. We will return to our Bead Shop on Monday. Meantime, may we  recommend these pieces from our archive, from the light to the weighty, sublime to ridiculous, as worthy of your attention? 

Recommended elsewhere:

Death Penalty, The Conversation

The Conversation launched a global project examining  the death penalty. The recent execution in India last week of Yakub Memon for his role in the 2003 Mumbai bombings has sparked arguments about the use of the death penalty around the world. The Conversation has multiple essays and analyses about the moral and ethical arguments; the reliability of legal systems that use the death penalty, and its role as a deterrent.

And for the kind of great writing and long reads that were cherished in the pre-Internet  age (the kind of work that drew me into journalism), set aside some real time for “Hiroshima,” John Hersey’s landmark 1946 report on the bombing and its aftermath, available for the first time in the New Yorker this week.

— Deborah Jones

~~~

*Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded entirely by readers. We do not sell your attention span to advertisers, or accept branded or sponsored “content.” We can do this because some of our work is behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass or modestly-priced subscription. Thank you for your interest and support.

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope

The Future of the Global University System

Part 3: Globalizing Access to Higher Education

JIM MCNIVEN 
August, 2014 

Reed College, Portland, Oregon. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2010

Reed College, Portland, Oregon, one of America’s elite, small, Liberal Arts and Science colleges. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2010

Let’s take a tour d’horizon of what seem to be the relevant pieces of the situation outlined in the preceding two Parts of this essay. Governments, either quickly or slowly, are withdrawing from public funding for post-secondary education. As a general rule, governments everywhere are operating with deficits and growing debt loads, which are becoming unsustainable, either mathematically or politically. Something has to give. If there is a cheaper way to provide post-secondary education, then this has to become an issue, even where today’s governments are dedicated to providing the service for free. A French Premier once noted famously that, ‘to govern is to choose.’ By implication, something expensive will be hardly be chosen against its cheaper alternative.

Not all parts of the existing university system will be discomfited equally as the choice against traditional post-secondary education continues to become widespread. Technical colleges, where hands-on training is important, will continue to be supported. Small, residential teaching institutions, charging high tuitions but performing both socializing and education functions for those who can afford them, will continue to exist. Some of the most famous larger institutions, which have brand-names that are prestigious, will continue to be filled and paid for by the world’s top students and by the world’s elite families. Research institutions that train only graduate students (MA and PhDs) and which derive their funding from research sources may actually increase their small numbers.

The rest will find it difficult to survive. They can either continue to provide ever-more costly (to the tuition-payer, be it parents or self-paying students) education until there is a political backlash or they may undertake drastic reforms. A quiet form of change has come with the trend toward reduction in full-time professors in favor of adjuncts hired from the local community, but this hollowing out of the professorial staff can only go so far until parents and students guess that what they think they are getting is really a cheaper substitute. In effect, the undergraduate parts of the university complexes will be subject to pressures that will reform the entire system. One ‘low-hanging fruit’ is the financial one that ties a large part of tuition costs to freed-up research time for professors, who must publish to gain tenure and promotion. Absent this dedicated time, teaching loads could increase drastically, or tuition costs decline considerably, but a core human resource mechanism in the institution would have to be jettisoned. Take your choice; one path leads to the decline in prestige attached to the institution by losing its association with certain well-published professors and the other leads to seriously diminished financial resources and institutional infrastructure.

This view suggests that the ability of universities to provide even stable access to their educational programs is likely to be threatened. So, how do we get to expanded and, by implication, more affordable access? First, we must consider what the globally accessible university system of the future might look like. Of most importance is the matter of accreditation and certification. Accreditation today is primarily a function of professional faculties, where a periodic assessment of the quality of training is made and deficiencies pointed out by outside reviewers. Losing one’s accreditation is a serious blow to a medical school or business school or the like. The implications can range from closure of a school to the degradation of the degrees issued to not much at all except to the self-esteem of the university. In a way, accreditation is much like the use of ISO designations in the business world to assure potential customers of the production integrity of the supplier. Being able to state that one’s firm is ISO9000 or ISO14000 compliant or the like is important, especially in international business. A global system modeled on these examples would keep educational quality reasonably consistent.

Certification of a credential is core to a university’s functioning. Generally, political jurisdictions have a right to designate those institutions that are ‘degree-granting’, the jurisdiction thus placing its reputation behind those institutions. This certification may be limited to the granting of certain degrees by an institution, a measure designed to contain program overlap and competition for public resources. As governments continue to back out of funding universities, it makes sense for them to also vacate the certification function, perhaps by imitating the democratization of incorporation that was accomplished in the USA in the 19th Century and spread worldwide in the 20th Century*. Allowing education providers of undergraduate programs credentialing rights as long as they meet certain standards and backing this up by an ISO-style periodic reaccreditation process should expand the number of acceptable providers, especially internet-based ones.

‘Free’ accreditation should not become a pedagogical straitjacket, but it does mean that that student is getting what he or she is paying for. In the early days of a globalized system, there will be experimentation and variations on methods, but the outcome in terms of the comparability of education should be reasonably standardized. For all of their warts, aptitude tests, such as the SAT, GRE, GMAT, or their latest titles, could be a model for roughly measuring what comes out of these varied programs and curriculum devices. This is not rocket science, at the saying goes, and the use of standards like ISO or outcome testing are to a networked education system what class times, credits and final exams are to the existing university-as-manufacturing-facility model.

Whether it is electronic journalism, music, entertainment and books, the challenge to anyone wishing to provide global university education is how to monetize it. Providing a valid certificate of performance is, at present, the key to this problem. On a global basis, the problem of gaining worldwide acceptance of certification for taking a course or a degree program lies in the hands of a myriad of local and national politicians. While universities may play with electronic education, it is doubtful that they will, en masse, surrender this collective monopoly without a real fight. Regardless of need, it is clear that the ‘McDonalds without a headquarters’ model of the global university system will quickly or easily go away or, more improbably, transform itself into something that has one or a few headquarters that allocate courses and credits. It will be a slow evolution, with an enormous amount of rationalizations brought into play, or it will be what seems at first to be a gradual erosion, leading to a sudden decline, but change has already started to come to one of the most conservative institutions in the global society. 

As well, the testing of different methods for access and education should produce some workable educational devices. Experimenting with global access tools, such as MOOCs, will point out the possibilities and drawbacks of different types of networking. Multimedia packages may prove to have different strengths and weaknesses, as may interactive devices like those pioneered in Khan Academy. Coursera and Udacity appear to provide online ‘regular’ university courses, though they may not be for credit, since no admission requirements are posted and the participating universities offer them for free. A platform such as BBLearn provides a framework for locally-made course materials in an electronic classroom environment. There remain, I am sure, many other different methods to be invented that may lead to the ability to include of all those in the world seriously motivated to register for post-secondary education, while recognizing that they may also be engaged in working for a living. We need to open up the door to these possibilities. No doubt, some existing universities will try these at the margins, but this move will only increase the disruptive force of electronic education.

Nobody can predict how the global university system will look in the future, but it is not hard to see that one will emerge in the great by-and-by. Consider Facebook with a billion members, Coursera and various MOOCs with their curriculum offerings, the explosion of television, first from 12 to 500 channels and now to a potentially infinite number of ‘channels’ on the internet, and either a Jobs/Bezos-like character will emerge from his or her garage or a large company comfortable with the use of information in the electronic environment will see an opportunity — and off we go. 

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT dal.ca

  

Notes: 

* See my earlier F&O column, The Logic of Incorporation
 

Related reading on Facts and Opinions, and relevant links:

The Future of the Global University System:  Part 1: Universities Without the Trappings;  Part 2: Things Fall Apart — and then Reassemble 
The Degree Bubble by Penney Kome
Convocation Address by Patrick Lane 

Coursera.org https://www.coursera.org

 

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Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers who buy an inexpensive subscription or a $1 site day pass. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Sign up here for email notices of new work with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we also post small stories.

 

The Future of the Global University System

Part 2: Things Fall Apart — and then Reassemble

JIM MCNIVEN 
August, 2014

Commencement

A Harvard student at commencement. Photo: Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

A long time ago, when I was in grad school, I was invited to go to a faculty seminar and hear Herbert Stein, who was then one of the leading economists of his day. He was asked about the growing American commitment to the Vietnam War and how far it could grow. His reply then was similar to this, his later famous quote: “If something cannot go on forever, then it will stop.” 

The global university system is beset with the problem that it cannot go on forever in the form it has taken. The education leaders, the American universities, as noted in a recent Boston Consulting Group report, have been transforming themselves slowly (‘eating themselves alive” is maybe a better term) by shrinking the number of full-time faculty in favor of a small group of relatively highly paid research professors alongside a large group of ‘adjunct professors’ who teach on a piecework basis per single contracted course. This isn’t much different from a lot of other industries in our society, but it has not done a lot for cost control nor for supposed educational quality.*

Alongside this situation, one has to consider that an increasing proportion of students in higher education have to work on the side to pay the bills. On a residential campus, this becomes part of the socialization side of the experience, but an increasing number of families cannot afford this kind of education, so their children stay at home and commute to school. Even so, the financial pressures are growing everywhere and the student jobs taken are ‘off-campus,’ thereby breaking the connection between socialization and education that is central to the Romantic appeal of the institution. Social media only adds to this break. ‘Crowd’ activities on social media have the potential to provide discussion and context for group learning as well as gossip, irrespective of location.

‘Adjunct professors’ and fitting classes to one’s job schedule can lead elsewhere, to things that a networked society makes easy and are threats to the existing system. One is autodidactism, or self-teaching, or even group forms of this where people teach each other. A second is on-demand learning, where the learning fits the job schedule. I have taught in an online, somewhat structured on-demand learning program for 15 years, with students from 5 time zones. Some of our students live only minutes from a local university, but cannot get off work to go to that 2 p.m. class. A third is education-on-demand, where, with things like Google glasses, you should be able to learn something only as and when and where you need it — and you learn it immediately. Given the huge information resources available on the web, or in the cloud, the critical educational skill thus becomes how one finds what is needed and what is reliable.

Before printing, people did astounding things with memory, such as memorizing the Bible or the Koran; with printing, people memorized less, concentrating on concepts and ideas, since you could look up the rest; with the internet in all its forms, what you have to know is how to frame the question. Period. The answer is out there somewhere. If you don’t believe me, ask some professor how hard it is to keep students from accessing exam answers on their cellphones. You’ll get an earful. And then there is the war on plagiarism, which, like the war on drugs, has been largely abandoned as ineffectual. In a more personal vein, my wife often spends time on her iPhone, checking the online bios of the personalities in the TV program we are watching. She could also answer math questions in a similar way, or check on the tribal makeup of Yemen, if so motivated. Or she could have learned these things in class 30 years ago, but why then? Why not now when her interest is aroused? 

At the Harvard Business School, recently, a debate has broken out between the advocates of Michael Porter, the famous proponent of corporate strategy, and Clayton Christensen, the famous proponent of corporate disruption. The Porter fans feel that the universities can adapt to the continuing intrusion of information technology, while the Christensen fans feel they can’t. I think Harvard can continue to adapt, given its status, but I also think most of the world’s other universities cannot. If you look at what has happened to almost every other information industry affected by technological change, it is not that they were wiped out by computerization. Instead, enough of a bite was taken out of their revenues to put their whole structure in jeopardy. Shave off 10 per cent of revenues and you have a not-for-profit newspaper; shave off 20 per cent and the enterprise is unsustainable. This is no different than the reason why small, rural towns collapse. Once the local bank goes and the local doctor goes, the people start to leave. It doesn’t take much. 

Let’s explore one possibility of a slow deterioration of university finances. Suppose there are two million students in the United States who will take Economics 101 this fall. Suppose the cost in tuition and fees for that one course is, like in my Part 1 example in this series, $1000 for the course. Then suppose Disney/Marvel/Pixar could offer a multimedia ‘course’ with the best personalities, great visuals, engaging examples, etc.,etc. Gross revenues if everyone signed up are $2 billion per year; the product needs tweaking every 3 years, let’s say, and initial costs are of a ‘blockbuster’ sized $200 million. Of course, the non-U.S. market could generate multiples of this and the adaptations of the course for India, say, might require a different calculus, but you get the point. Delivered online, it could be sold to individuals as well, especially if our movie moguls managed to get some high-class academic certification for their product. I am positive I am not the first one to notice this. 

Now, such a course constitutes only 2.5 per cent of a normal load for a 4-year program, so even if a university were willing to split the revenues with Hollywood, saving on instructor costs and perhaps the need for a new campus auditorium, we are on our way to the institution being like most newspapers in terms of the eventual outcome. Resisting this entrepreneurial effort would call down some serious lobbying at the State level, and who knows what might come of that. The university system has but one thing in its favor in this environment: it has a monopoly on certification. Break this and bad things happen.

I heard Clayton Christensen speak last fall on the future of universities at our institution and he said some of the same things in the three parables he gave, a talk that I felt puzzled most of his audience that day. The demand for higher education is out there, the cost is too high either for the taxpayer or the student, whether this be America, China or Europe, and somebody is somehow going to nibble at the edges of the system, leading much of it to change or to wither. 

Is the game over, then? I don’t think so. The American system is where I expect change to happen first, but these are tenacious institutions and could continue to hold on for a good while. Part of the reason is that the likely competitors for a part of the academic market, the for-profit institutions, were diverted by the easy money to be made by encouraging people who either weren’t suited for higher education or who had no resources to sustain them, to get generous student loans from, or backed by, government bodies. As the default rates climbed, investigations, penalties and convictions have set back this sector, perhaps for a decade. Unfortunately, the financial situations of most universities have encouraged them to point their potential students in the same direction and these defaults are rising, with the debt load being characterized as a kind of ‘mortgage’ that has to be paid off before a graduate can afford to buy a house. So, to paraphrase Herbert Stein, ”This cannot go on forever and it will stop.” 

Finally, there is a drastic way out, but unthinkable. That is to jettison the research subsidies of universities and divorce research from teaching. As I noted in Part 1 of this piece, research was originally tied to teaching to make sure students were getting current material in class. The guest then proceeded to take over the house. There have been a number of meta-studies about the correlation between good research and good teaching and the general conclusion is that there is none. A good teacher may, or may not, be a good researcher; and vice versa. Since a good half of academic personnel expenditures consist of time paid for doing research, which has no provable connection to good teaching, it is a promising area for cost control. This would be bitterly resisted throughout every institution, because it would mean that the intermingled funding streams for teaching and research would be separated, much like those for sports, or, in many cases, medicine, and the researchers would have to find direct support for their salaries as part of research grants.

In effect, the division between teaching and research functions in universities would put more resources at the disposal of the (presumably) necessary teaching function and less at the disposal of the prestigious research function. The likelihood for a basic change like this is dim, and so the prospects for a slow decline in the university system will grow, until a different model with different players ‘suddenly’ erupts. The Huffington Post didn’t kill The New York Times, but HuffPo and others like it have had a definite involvement in the decline of print media overall. We felt the blowback around my home in Eastern Canada, when a half-dozen regional newsprint mills closed in the past few years. Everything is connected in the networked society. 

In Part 3, let’s start with an assumption that 30 per cent of the world’s population is between 18 and 30. That’s something like two billion people. How do we give them all, rich and poor, the opportunity to get the equivalent of a basic university degree, if they so want it?

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT dal.ca

Notes: 
*https://www.bcgperspectives.com/content/articles/education_public_sector_five_trends_watch_higher_education/

 

Related reading on Facts and Opinions:

The Future of the Global University System:  Part 1: Universities Without the Trappings 
The Degree Bubble by Penney Kome
Convocation Address by Patrick Lane 

 

SPREAD THE WORD: Please share this story.

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers who buy an inexpensive subscription or a $1 site day pass. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Sign up here for email notices of new work with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we also post small stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Future of the Global University System

Part 1: Universities Without the Trappings

JIM MCNIVEN

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The “dreaming spires” of England’s University of Oxford were a rare true example of what Jim McNiven calls the fading “handicraft cultural dream” of a university education. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2008

You have to look at universities without their trappings of tradition, semi-mystical feeling and notions of honours and awards. See them instead as not-for-profit education institutions in an age where information is rapidly becoming democratized and commoditized (like hogs and logs), or as a single global information business subject to the same forces affecting all global information businesses today, from banks to Twitter.

The university model romanticized by many academics — Socrates imparting wisdom to a half-dozen students while sitting under a tree — is a ‘handicraft’ cultural dream. If it ever existed, it did so in the British model where students ‘read’ on their own, occasionally consulting professors about issues they had. This British model buckled under German course structures and then largely disappeared after the Harvard Business School adopted Taylorite1 practices in 1907, setting out, among other things, class sizes of 75 students. Harvard and other universities gradually adopted regularized classes of an hour each, offered at a specific time each day or week; they set up unit-based course credit systems and began to tie the hoary notion of tenure to research ‘productivity.’

Gradually, the American system spread across the world. The university system today is a globalized manufacturing activity that teaches pretty much the same topics in the same ways everywhere to a large segment of the world’s population of youths — sort of a McDonald’s with no corporate headquarters. 

During the early 20th century, research was tied to the teaching process as a means of ensuring that professors would be bringing the latest ideas into class, rather than relying for decades on their old notes from when they were students. This worked for a while, but gradually the research function overtook teaching in importance.

Evaluation of teaching performance was a fuzzy task, and research was more easily evaluated for tenure and promotion

Evaluation of teaching performance is a fuzzy task, few professors were ever trained in a fashion like schoolteachers, while research production, measured in true Taylorite fashion through articles published in peer-reviewed journals, with the journals then being informally ranked in importance as ‘A’, ‘B’ seemed a definitive measure. The computer and the internet later allowed for easy comparisons of how many citations by others followed from a person’s publishing his or her articles.

For the individual professor wishing to survive and prosper in this system, the demands are clear. Research is #1 and only; productivity gains one access to outside funding and relief from teaching courses. Climbing the ladder requires the acceptance of one’s research by a reputable journal or journals. This acceptance comes when the research topics fit the broad parameters of what the journal reviewing committee sees as being important contributions to the discipline. Some of the same individuals making these judgments may be on faculty recruitment committees at their own universities, so publishing success leads to mobility in more ways than one.

This globalized system we now have starts to become apparent if you consider the mobility of the professoriat between institutions and relate it to the peer evaluations of individuals’ research. Moving up the levels from Lecturer to Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Full Professor to Full Professor with a ‘Chair’ is faster if one moves along to better universities, bargaining for a higher rank, rather than waiting for the usual slow process to produce results at the same institution.

Reaching the higher levels of the ranking system leads to increased levels of outside funding, from which the university gets an ‘overhead’ cut, and should provide some reduction in one’s teaching load. Impressing one’s disciplinary peers is more important than those at one’s location. Local politicians who express hope there might be some relevance between professors’ scholarly research and the jurisdiction that pays a portion of their salaries are ignored for the most part.

Globalization also means that the overall set of courses offered at any institution reflects the informal global standardized curriculum. The foundation courses at universities across the globe are pretty much the same, with differences appearing to a degree in the offerings for upperclassmen/women majoring in a discipline. These specialized courses have much smaller attendance and often reflect the research interests of the faculty.

The standardized introductory courses are generally taught to large numbers of students. I have taught courses with 500 students and have heard of larger ones. The lecture becomes an entertainment, while the interpersonal teaching relationships are relegated to graduate tutors who meet 40-50 students at other scheduled times. No handicraft education; just manufacturing processes until you become a grad student.

In effect, whether one teaches in Hong Kong, Melbourne, Chicago, Toronto, San Juan, London, Jerusalem or Paris, virtually the same material is presented to virtually the same kinds of classes by the same kind of professors operating under the same pressures and terms of work as anywhere else. Only at very elite schools, or ones with very elite costing and pricing, is there more personalized instruction.

From the university’s perspective, the declining proportion of public funding led by the American states, the United Kingdom (and followed at a distance by Canadian provinces) leads to a business model that is increasingly based on the tuition and fees that come with each student. The large classes at the bottom of the hierarchy produce revenues that go towards paying for the small classes at the top, including the individualized instruction for PhD students.

For instance, and using round numbers, if an entering student pays $10,000 for 10 semester courses, then Name-It 101 costs him or her $1000. The prof ‘costs’ the university perhaps 10 per cent of her $100,000 salary, or $10,000. Throw in five tutors for $4,000 each, or $20,000, and add 499 more students to this class of one and you have $30,000 in costs and $500,000 in revenue. If a PhD student working under the same professor merited a course equivalent, you have $10,000 in costs, but only $1,000 in revenue. Quibble with the details; I don’t mind.

Finally, in order to keep its reputation, the institution must provide graduate students that can assist in the research by the more prominent faculty, thereby keeping these faculty members at that institution. A good proportion of graduate students, especially in the arts and sciences, receive fellowships from the institution. They are paid amateurs, like those playing sports. The large classes also go a long way toward supporting the basic research time allowed for each faculty member, since a proportion of faculty time, generally around 40-50 per cent, is allocated for research time, time that students and their parents pay for in large measure.

The university’s bind is that with declining government subsidies, the cost to the payers of tuition is beginning to grow too heavy for them to bear. Yet, to downplay the research focus is to run the risk of losing faculty and losing reputation, something too heavy for the institution to bear. It is hard to keep faculty with reputations from moving to places that will pay more and provide more perks for their services and name. There are many thousands of universities all over the world all playing in the same arena and where the courses and the research rules are almost the same. No one institution can challenge this system and no one professor can defy it without risking his or her future.

I am not condemning the way things are set up, but simply trying to explain a reality. A system whose structures and incentives were created around 1900 has evolved in ways never dreamed of then and is today under threat from funding pressures and its own dysfunctions. Yet, it is hard to see where any single institution can opt out or make any functional changes. Further, the manufacturing model presently in use is of declining relevancy, especially in the manufacturing sector that was its inspiration. Does this mean the emerging network society will exercise a similar effect, leading to a new model for higher education? We’ll look at that side of things next. 

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT dal.ca

Notes:
1. The Most Influential Man of the 20th Century by Jim McNiven on Facts and Opinions

Read Part 2: Things Fall Apart — and then Reassemble

Related reading on Facts and Opinions:
The Degree Bubble by Penney Kome
Convocation Address by Patrick Lane

 

SPREAD THE WORD: Please share this story.

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers who buy an inexpensive subscription or a $1 site day pass. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Sign up here for email notices of new work with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we also post small stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You want fries with that mortarboard?

With convocation season wrapping up, journalist Penney Kome is prompted by her own son’s graduation to consider the severe deflation of university degrees in trying economic times. Convocation at the University of Alberta was a bittersweet occasion for at least one family,”  writes Kome in The Degree Bubble. “Yielding to parental pressure to attend the graduation ceremony, our son the graduate irreverently considered adding a bright duct tape debt message to his mortar board: $47K. That’s the accumulated debt from a basic part-time seven-year Bachelor of Arts, not the fees to earn a medical or law degree   read more

While on the topic of education, read or revisit poet Patrick Lane’s essay, Convocation Address, delivered last fall at the University of Victoria and republished here with permission. It begins: “It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops.* It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses …. read more

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. 

Posted in Current Affairs Tagged , , , , |

A poet’s convocation address

With great pleasure, Facts and Opinions publishes an essay by Canadian poet and writer Patrick Lane, which he delivered as the Convocation Address at the University of Victoria in November. An excerpt:

Lane 2

Patrick Lane giving the Convocation Address at the University of Victoria, November 13, 2013. Photo courtesy of UVic Photo Services.

It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops. It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses.

The essay is here, in F&O’s Commentary section, free of charge at Dr. Lane’s request.

Posted in All, Gyroscope Tagged |

Convocation Address

British Columbia’s Thompson-Okanagan, dry grasslands mottled by Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests. Photo by Craig Pulsifer © Copyright 2013

 

By PATRICK LANE
Published December 3, 2013 

It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops.* It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses.

The men have saddles and boots and rifles and their horses shy at the clamour of the dogs. The man with the Winchester rifle is the one who owns the dog pack and he is the one who has led you out of the valley, following the dogs through the hills to the big tree where the cougar is trapped. You watch as the man with the rifle climbs down from the saddle and sets his boots among the slippery pine needles. When the man is sure of his footing he lifts the rifle, takes aim, and then…and then you shrink inside a cowl of silence as the cougar falls.

As you watch, the men raise their rifles and shoot them at the sun. You will not understand their triumph, their exultance. Not then. You are too young. It will take years for you to understand. But one day you will step up to a podium in an auditorium at a University on an island far to the west and you will talk about what those men did. You know now they shot at the sun because they wanted to bring a darkness into the world. Knowing that has changed you forever.

Today I look back at their generation. Most of them are dead. They were born into the First Great War of the last century. Most of their fathers did not come home from the slaughter. Most of their mothers were left lost and lonely. Their youth was wasted through the years of the Great Depression when they wandered the country in search of work, a bed or blanket, a friendly hand, a woman’s touch, a child’s quick cry. And then came the Second World War and more were lost. Millions upon millions of men, women, and children died in that old world. But we sometimes forget that untold numbers of creatures died with them: the sparrow and the rabbit, the salmon and the whale, the beetle and the butterfly, the deer and the wolf. And trees died too, the fir and spruce, the cedar and hemlock. Whole forests were sacrificed to the wars.

Those men bequeathed to me a devastated world. When my generation came of age in the mid-century we were ready for change. And we tried to make it happen, but the ones who wanted change were few. In the end we did what the generations before us did. We began to eat the world. We devoured the oceans and we devoured the land. We drank the lakes and the seas and we ate the mountains and plains. We ate and ate until there was almost nothing left for you or for your children to come.

The cougar that died that day back in 1949 was a question spoken into my life and I have tried to answer that question with my teaching, my poems, and my stories. Ten years after they killed the cougar I came of age. I had no education beyond high school, but I had a deep desire to become an artist, a poet. The death of the cougar stayed with me through the years of my young manhood. Then, one moonlit night in 1963, I stepped out of my little trailer perched on the side of a mountain above the North Thompson River. Below me was the saw mill where I worked as a first-aid man. Down a short path a little creek purled through the trees just beyond my door. I went there under the moon and kneeling in the moss cupped water in my hands for a drink. As I looked up I saw a cougar leaning over his paws in the thin shadows. He was six feet away, drinking from the same pool. I stared at the cougar and found myself alive in the eyes of the great cat. The cougar those men had killed when I was a boy came back to me. It was then I swore I would spend my life bearing witness to the past and the years to come.

I stand here looking out over this assembly and ask myself what I can offer you who are taking from my generation’s hands a troubled world. I am an elder now. There are times many of us old ones feel a deep regret, a profound sorrow, but our sorrow does not have to be yours. You are young and it is soon to be your time. A month ago I sat on a river estuary in the Great Bear Rain Forest north of here as a mother grizzly nursed her cubs. As the little ones suckled, the milk spilled down her chest and belly. As I watched her I thought of this day and I thought of you who not so long ago nursed at your own mother’s breast. There in the last intact rain forest on earth, the bear cubs became emblems of hope to me.

Out there are men and women only a few years older than you who are trying to remedy a broken world. I know and respect their passion. You too can change things. Just remember there are people who will try to stop you and when they do you will have to fight for your lives and the lives of the children to come.

Today you are graduating with the degrees you have worked so hard to attain. They will affect your lives forever. You are also one of the wild creatures of the earth. I want you for one moment to imagine you are a ten-year-old on a half-blind, grey horse. You are watching a cougar fall from the high limb of a Ponderosa Pine into a moil of raging dogs. The ones who have done this, the ones who have brought you here, are shooting at the sun. They are trying to bring a darkness into the world.

It’s your story now.

How do you want it to end?

COPYRIGHT © PATRICK LANE 2013

Canadian poet and writer Patrick Lane delivered this speech as the Convocation Address at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, Canada, on November 13, 2013. F&O publishes it here, free of charge to all readers, with Dr. Lane’s generous permission.

*Kamloops is a city in British Columbia, Canada
Photographer Craig Pulsifer is a world-beat photographer whose base is in Salmon Arm, British Columbia.

Further reading:
Patrick Lane’s web site: patricklane.ca
F&O contributor Rod Mickleburgh’s post, on his own blog, about Patrick Lane.

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Help F&O publish more great work: sign up for email notices with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we post small stories and announce new work, and  purchase a modestly-priced site day pass or subscription. Please spread the word by sharing Frontlines posts directly, and “liking” our Facebook page.

 

Patrick Lane Convocation Speech

Patrick Lane giving the Convocation Address at the University of Victoria, November 13, 2013. Photo courtesy of UVic Photo Services.

 

 

 

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Thousands turned out in Vancouver, Washington to hear Bernie Sanders. © Rod Mickleburgh 2016

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Rod Mickleburgh, 1989

Rod Mickleburgh, 1989

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Canada’s Justice Minister is Yesterday’s Man. By Charles Mandel (Public access)

Peter MacKay is yesterday’s man.  According to Canada’s Justice Minister, women are dedicated moms and caregivers around the clock who are busy changing diapers, packing lunches and dropping the kids off at daycare. In contrast, men are dedicated fathers who are shaping the minds of the next generation. This old-fashioned, blatantly sexist attitude recently surfaced in a pair of emails MacKay sent to his staff on the occasions of Mother’s and Father’s Days.

The Ugly Oil Sands Debate. By Tzeporah Berman (Public access)

I have family who work in Canada’s oil sands. They know that I have been a vocal critic of current oil sands operations and plans for expansion, yet they didn’t hesitate to welcome me into their homes and to invite me to a family gathering in Canmore, Alberta. We had a wonderful time. We shared some memories, laughed a lot and even tackled some hard stuff. The conversations were rich and surprisingly easy. Perhaps in part because although we have different opinions there already was a basis of trust and shared experiences.

Hurricane Carter, Champion of the World. By Cheryl Hawkes (Public access)

Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who spent 19 years in a United States prison for a triple murder he did not commit, died of prostate cancer on Easter Sunday at his home in Toronto. He was 76. Toronto journalist Cheryl Hawkes remembers the man who, for a few years, was her neighbour: “a man who had given a lot of thought to how we treat one another in this world and to the deadly power of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

512px-Archbishop-Tutu-mediumAn Argument for Carbon Divestment. By Desmond Tutu (Public access)

Scientists and public representatives gathered in Berlin are weighing up radical options for curbing carbon emissions contained in the third report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The bottom line, a draft of the report warns, is that we have 15 years to take the necessary steps to affordably reduce emissions to attain the targeted 2°C over pre-industrial times. The horse may not have already bolted, but it’s well on its way through the stable door. Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so.

Fred Phelps: Death of a Dinosaur. By Cheryl Hawkes (Public access)

Fred Phelps, the Christian crusader who led his flock of evangelical nut bars from Topeka, Kansas, on anti-gay crusades, died last month. It is mortifying for many Christians that Phelps defined himself as one, as he stalked the funerals of gays and straights, raging against his own United States government and a democracy that tolerated homosexuality. Phelps and his family at Westboro Baptist Church took full advantage of their constitutional rights while blasting the civil rights of others. His death has given the people he hurt and offended a moral choice.

The Pluck of the Irish: How a proud native cuts through the kitsch. By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

Here’s what I will not do this St. Patrick’s Day: I will not call it St. Paddy’s Day or the 17th of Ireland. I will not wear a green tie or sweater. I will not drink green beer. I will not wear a button that says, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” I will raise another glass to the poet Seamus Heaney, listen to Dublin pianist John O’Conor play the music of Irish composer John Field, and re-read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I will remember that many of us who become emigrants leave Ireland because we beg to differ, because we fear what Edna O’Brien calls the “psychological choke.”

Winter Swan. By E. Kaye Fulton (Public access)

Swan 3

© E. Kaye Fulton

This has been a hard, hard winter for wildlife  – the worst, locals say, in 70 years. For a month or more, the mute swans of Wellington, Ontario, have been buffeted by howling winds and driving snow. Unable to forage the frozen shorelines and bottom of Lake Ontario for food, they fend off starvation by curling themselves into snowy white mounds, immobile and defenceless on the impenetrable surface. Two nights ago, in search of easy prey, coyotes crept across the ice to claim two sleeping swans huddled at the end of the line formed by their 26-member flock.

Golden Age of American Journalism? By Paul Steiger, ProPublica (Public access)

… I too am thrilled with what the new digital tools can do, in capturing data, drawing knowledge it, and in displaying and distributing that knowledge.  I’m also delighted that the barriers to entry have shrunk so dramatically. Instead of spending millions on a printing press, you need only spend a few thousand on a laptop and a website and, boom, you’re a publisher. But creating millions of lone-wolf, single-person bloggers doesn’t get us to a golden age. It can give us cat photos that make us giggle, news scoops involving an original fact or two, a trenchant analysis of finance or politics or sculpture, video of Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift nuzzling their latest boyfriends, or possibly some movie and book reviews worth trusting. All nice to have but not game-changing. If you’re going to reliably produce journalism that improves the world, maybe you don’t need a village, but you need some collaborators. You need lots of reporters. You need editors, data journalists, a lawyer … (and) you need to find a way to get paid.


Pete Seeger: Farewell to a Giant
. By Silver Donald Cameron
(Public access)

silver_donald_cameronAuthor and filmmaker Silver Donald Cameron remembers American icon Pete Seeger, who died January 27, 2014:
In June, 1969, I was rattling away at my old Remington manual typewriter when my five-year-old daughter Leslie wandered into my workroom.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m writing a letter to Pete Seeger,” I said. I was hoping that Seeger would consider a benefit concert for The Mysterious East, a dissident magazine in Canada’s Maritimes that I helped to edit. At five, Leslie already knew and loved Seeger’s music, especially his children’s album Strangers and Cousins.
“Pete Seeger? Really?”
“Really.”
“You tell Pete Seeger,” she said gravely, “that I’m having my birthday — and he can come!”

My Last Day in Kenya. By Sheldon Fernandez  (Public access)

Kenya child 2

© Sheldon Fernandez 2008

In the summer of 2008 Sheldon Fernandez spent several weeks working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), he assisted with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but also had the opportunity to work with the school children of Kenya. The following essay recounts the very last day of his trip, when Fernandez discovered some hard truths about one of his students.

Behind Houghton Walls: on Nelson Mandela’s last days. By Iain T. Benson (Public access)

Madiba has been a long time a-dying.
I’ve driven, we all have,
past his Houghton home;
cream security walls
even him …

Convocation Address. By Patrick Lane(Public access)

Armstrong, BC - Purple Springs Nursery field location shoot with large lift.

© Craig Pulsifer 2013

It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops.* It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses.

Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery. Words and photos by Greg Locke (Subscription)

Spanish and Canadian offshore fishing trawlers at the Canadian 200mile limit on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. © Greg Locke 2000

© Greg Locke 2000

It’s a cold foggy day in the fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. Just 20 kilometers south from downtown St. John’s, it feels much further. There is not much activity or many people out and around the few remaining wharfs and twine lofts that once were buzzing hives of fishing activity ringing the harbour. Today, there are just a few frozen tourists looking to make photos of a Newfoundland that doesn’t exist anymore …  The grim faces and tears of the people of Petty Harbour, and other fishing communities around the eastern Canadian province, told the story of a great calamity.

Bangladesh and The Bay. By Rod Mickleburgh(Subscription)

The fair city of Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast is more than 11,000 kilometres from poor, benighted Bangladesh. But this week, the teeming flood plain came to the doorstep of the large Hudson’s Bay Company department store in the heart of downtown Vancouver, through the glass doors and up the escalator to the second floor. There, close to a hundred union protesters gathered in front of the store’s swank, high-priced merchandise, serenading shoppers, mannequins and suddenly-invisible Bay managers with chants of “Shame” and “Sign the Accord.” Their ire was directed at far-away Bangladesh, and Western retail chains like The Bay that peddle clothing items produced  by impoverished, poorly-paid Bangladeshi textile workers toiling in grim, frequently dangerous factories.

JFK: The Murdered King. By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

I was 20 years old at the time so I remember, of course, where I was the day Kennedy was shot. I had been out visiting with friends that afternoon and when I got home my mother was in tears. “The president’s been killed,” she said. “Dev’s been killed?” I said, thinking she was referring to Ireland’s Brooklyn-born president, Éamon de Valera. “No, President Kennedy,” said my mother. “Somebody shot him.” For my mother, as for many in Ireland, it was as if a member of the family had been taken from us.

A lesson passed on. By Jim McNiven (Subscription)

My wife and I spent a couple of months in the American Southwest last winter. We stayed out on the edge of the desert near Tucson, Arizona. It is dry, hot and utterly unlike where I live, in Halifax on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Our two married daughters, twins, came down together to visit, bringing one’s 9-year-old son. The three women were keen to explore shops and galleries and a mother-daughters expedition was formed. I was designated as official entertainer of the grandson.

A bale of  a good time. By Charles Mandel (Subscription)

Hay bales in the Peace Country

© Greg Locke 2009

Thursday night in Auburndale, Nova Scotia, and what’s the big entertainment? A drive-in movie, perhaps? Maybe dinner out? How about staring at a big field of hay? That doesn’t sound terribly promising, but over four balmy nights in July, Steph and I sit on our front porch, watching grass get cut in the field directly across from our house. We aren’t the only ones entranced. Everyone and his dog (literally, for half the vehicles zipping past have a mutt sharing the front seat) slows down and gawks at the haying that proceeds apace up the hill on the Oickle farm.

The Prince and the Prostitute: By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

When the heir to the British throne paid his first official visit to Canada in 1919, it was expected he would follow the usual royal routine of shaking hands, making speeches and inspecting troops. What wasn’t anticipated was that Edward, Prince of Wales, would buy a ranch while he was abroad. And what certainly wasn’t predicted was that the ranch would become a convenient hiding place for the prince four years later, when one of his former mistresses went on trial for murder in London.

Accordion Man: Born to Squeeze? Not me. By Brian Brennan (Subscription)

Brian Brennan, age 16, playing accordion at a talent contest in Dublin, 1960. (I didn't win, by the way!) You’ve heard the jokes. They’re not funny. What’s the difference between an accordionist and a terrorist? A terrorist has sympathizers. Not funny, I tell you. Syndicated cartoonist Gary Larson (The Far Side) used to lead the insult brigade. He put his favorite on a greeting card sold all over the world. The caption read, “Welcome to Heaven, here’s your harp. Welcome to Hell, here is your accordion.” Not funny? All right, maybe a little bit funny.  Accordionists get no respect. I know. I used to be an accordionist. OK, still am. No respect I get.

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.  Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Journalism matters: Facts, and Opinions, this week

“You are entitled to your opinion … you are not entitled to your own facts” –  Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Is Donald Trump a “Black Swan”? by Tom Regan   Column

Photo by Cindy Funk, 2009, Creative Commons

Cindy Funk

The definition of a black swan event —  impossible to predict yet with catastrophic ramifications — perfectly describes the rise of Donald Trump, from clown celebrity to the most powerful man in the world. And in that, there is hope.

China’s Waterways Reveal Our Superbug Future, by Michael Gillings.   Expert Witness

Somewhere on the planet, right now, there is a bacterial species quietly accumulating the genes that will turn it into the next superbug. There is still time to tackle antibiotic resistance.

Russia’s Military Buildup Focuses on Arctic, by Andrew Osborn   Report

Russia is again on the march in the Arctic and building new nuclear icebreakers. It is part of a push to firm Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States, and Norway as well as newcomer China.

Canada’s Trudeau Avoids Poking U.S. “Grizzly Bear,” by  David Ljunggren and Rod Nickel

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking a low key approach to dealing with U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking to avoid clashes while indirectly signalling the two leaders’ differences to a domestic audience.

Findings: items we found interesting elsewhere on the internet:

A ‘Resistance’ Stands Against Trump. But What Will It Stand For?, by Beverly Gage, the New York Times Magazine. Excerpt:

Resistance evokes the struggle against totalitarianism, conveying personal defiance and official powerlessness at the same time. So what does it mean to apply that word in an ostensibly democratic system? If you’ve lost at the ballot box but aren’t seeking full-blown revolution, what are the most useful forms of political action? If “yes” seems impossible but “no” seems insufficient, what fills the space between?

Dark Arts, by George Monbiot, the Guardian. Excerpt:

“Soon after the Second World War, some of America’s richest people began setting up a network of thinktanks to promote their interests. These purport to offer dispassionate opinions on public affairs. But they are more like corporate lobbyists, working on behalf of those who founded and fund them. These are the organisations now running much of the Trump administration. … We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates.

Sorry, American journalists: Canada is no press freedom paradise, by Delphine Halgand and Tom Henheffer, the Hill

Press freedom in Canada faces threats from the state that are every bit as severe as those in the United States.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders noted the Canada recently dropped ten places in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

 

Reader-Supported Facts and Opinions is employee-owned and ad-free. We survive on an honour system. Thanks for your interest and support. Details.

Posted in Current Affairs

Canadians and the Battle for Hong Kong

Map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, December 1941, by C. C. J. Bond / Historical Section, General Staff, Canadian Army - Stacey, C. P., maps drawn by C. C. J. Bond (1956) [1955].

Map of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, December 1941, by C. C. J. Bond / Historical Section, General Staff, Canadian Army – Stacey, C. P., maps drawn by C. C. J. Bond (1956) [1955].

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 11, 2016

On this day 75 years ago, 1,975 men, and two female nurses, of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were steaming across the East China Sea in the New Zealand liner-turned-troop ship, SS Awatea.

This small rough-hewn and makeshift expeditionary force was bound for the British colony of Hong Kong and the Awatea was escorted by the armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert, a hastily converted merchant ship mounted with guns left over from the First World War. Somewhere, chugging along behind after leaving Vancouver a few days after the main force’s departure on October 27, was the freighter SS Don Jose, carrying the regiments’ 212 vehicles.

With war with Japan looming, the first instinct of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had been to leave Hong Kong to its fate. But he changed his mind, and made the belated decision to reinforce the colony’s defences. He believed this would deter the Japanese armies lurking just over the colony’s northern border with China’s Guangdong province.

 

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Canada agreed to rustle up troops to bolster the Hong Kong garrison, then comprising about 12,000 men from a mishmash of units. Among them were only three top rank infantry units: the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots, the British Army’s most senior infantry regiment, and two highly regarded Indian regiments, the 5th Battalion of the 7th Rajput Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment.

The only warplanes at Kai Tak Airport were some ageing torpedo bombers, and the Royal Navy’s once indomitable China Squadron was reduced to a destroyer, a few gun-boats, a flotilla of torpedo boats and two minesweepers.

Much has been written in the years since 1941 about the lack of preparedness and training of the men of the two Canadian regiments. While it is true they had no combat experience, unlike the battle-hardened Japanese they were about to meet, they were far from being raw recruits. They were put under the command of the highly experienced professional officer, Brigadier John Lawson, whose last position before the deployment had been the army’s Director of Military Training. Moreover, many of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers were veterans of the First World War.

Six weeks before the battle, a Canadian contingent arrives to reinforce the garrison. Government of Canada archives, Public Domain

Six weeks before the battle, a Canadian contingent arrives to reinforce the garrison. Government of Canada archives, Public Domain

In the weeks that followed the Canadians’ arrival in Hong Kong on November 16 they proved yet again that this country produces unrivalled infantry soldiers. And they made the defence of Hong Kong not only one of this country’s premier battle honours, they forged an indelible bond between Canada and Hong Kong.

Over 550 of the Canadians died in the battle for Hong Kong and in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps afterwards. An equal number were wounded. Of those killed, 283 are buried in the lovely and haunting Sai Wan Bay Cemetery in eastern Hong Kong Island, just below the jungle-covered hills they defended longer than anyone thought possible. Since then, of course, other bonds have formed between Canada and Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have become Canadians in response to Britain handing back the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. And hundreds of thousands of Canadians spend at least part of their lives living and working in Hong Kong.

The arrival of the Canadians on November 16, 1941, prompted the British commander, Gen. Christopher Maltby, to change his plans for the defence of the colony. He had proposed to leave only a token force on the mainland peninsular of Kowloon and the New Territories, and to concentrate the defenders on Hong Kong Island. Maltby now decided to deploy three battalions to defend the mainland territory along the famous “Gin Drinkers’ Line,” an 18 kilometre stretch of trenches, bunkers and machinegun emplacements.

A Canadian signals unit was assigned to this brigade, but Brig. Lawson’s two Canadian battalions and the British machinegun battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, became the core of the Island Brigade on Hong Kong Island. Brig. Lawson’s headquarters was set up roughly in the middle of the island on Wong Nai Chong Gap Road.

The next three weeks were the lull before the storm. There remained some hope, though not much, that the reinforced garrison would deter the Japanese. And there was among senior officers and colonial officials a dangerous underestimation of the audacity and fighting ability of the Japanese military.

That insouciance collapsed on December 7 when the Japanese attacked the United States fleet in Pearl Harbour. So the Hong Kong defenders were alert and ready the next day, December 8, when the Japanese came pouring across the border from China.

Gen. Maltby hoped to be able to hold the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line for a week or more. At this point there was still some expectation of relief forces being hurried from other British Asian outposts, but that hope died when two ships heading from Malaya were sunk. And the hopes of holding the line across the New Territories vanished equally quickly.
Japanese fighter aircraft quickly established air superiority by destroying the few Royal Air Force planes and seriously damaged Kai Tak Airport along with them. This, as much as any of the actions in the battle, made the outcome inevitable.

On December 9 the Japanese showed just how serious was Maltby’s underestimation of their tactical fighting abilities. They launched a night-time attack on the Shing Mun Redoubt, the strategic hub of the Gin Drinkers’ Line, and captured it after heavy fighting.

The next day, “D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent from Hong Kong Island to bolster the defences, but on December 11 Gen. Maltby decided the Gin Drinkers’ Line could no longer be held. He ordered the withdrawal of the Royal Scots, the Rajuputs and the Punjabs down the Kowloon Peninsula and over to the island. This was covered by the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the troops along with most of their heavy equipment were successfully evacuated to Hong Kong proper.

The defences of Hong Kong Island were immediately reorganised. Canadian Brig. Lawson was put in command of the West Brigade, made up of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Royal Scots, the Punjabs and the Canadian signallers. The East Brigade was commanded by British Brigadier Cedric Wallis and comprised the Royal Rifles of Canada, and the Rajput Regiment. The Middlesex Regiment was under the command of Gen. Maltby at Fortress Headquarters.

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Wikipedia

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Wikipedia

The Japanese demanded the surrender of the defenders, and when this was rejected they began an artillery bombardment of the north shore – the Victoria Harbour side – of Hong Kong Island on December 15. After another rejected surrender, the Japanese troops began crossing the harbour on the evening of December 18, and after another successful night-time action were firmly entrenched on the island the following morning.

The Japanese troops then began committing the atrocities for which they became notorious throughout the Pacific War. About 20 gunners from the artillery Sai Wan battery, who had surrendered, were executed. The Japanese went on that night to kill the medical staff and wounded soldiers at the Salesian Mission hospital on Chai Wan Road. Among those killed were a Canadian doctor and two wounded men of the Royal Rifles.

Over the next days of the battle the Japanese continued to kill medical staff, wounded soldiers and prisoners as they were captured. Well over a hundred civilians and prisoners are believed to have been killed by the Japanese during the battle, and many more were killed deliberately or through murderous ill treatment while in captivity during the rest of the war.

On Hong Kong Island, the Japanese troops quickly took control of high ground from Jardine’s Lookout, above Causeway Bay and on the road to Brig. Lawson’s headquarters on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road, to Mount Parker in the east, on the approaches to Tai Tam Reservoir.

Brig Wallis then ordered the East Brigade to withdraw towards the Stanley Peninsula, which extends from the south-centre of the island, and from where he hoped to launch a counterattack. Unfortunately, crucial arms and equipment were lost during the withdrawal, and communications between the two Brigades were cut as the Japanese pushed through to reach the island’s south coast at Repulse Bay on December 19.

East Brigade had been seriously mauled and depleted in the course of the fighting. The Rajputs were virtually wiped out defending the island’s northern beaches against the Japanese invasion on December 18. There were some surviving units of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and some machinegun units from the Middlesex Regiment. The men of the Royal Rifles of Canada were exhausted, had had little sleep and had existed on field rations for several days.

Even so, over the following few days East Brigade led by the Canadians, attempted to drive the Japanese off the high ground and to re-establish contact with West Brigade. They first pushed along the shore from the peninsula to Repulse Bay, and managed to drive the Japanese from the famous Repulse Bay Hotel.

But the Royal Rifles were unable to drive the Japanese from their dominant positions in the hills, and had to withdraw to the Stanley Peninsula. Another attempt was made on December 21 to link up with West Brigade with a more easterly push towards Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. In heavy fighting the Royal Rifles managed to dislodge the Japanese from several of the jungle-clad hill tops. But the Canadians could not hold the positions, especially after they ran out of mortar ammunition.

On December 22 volunteers from the Royal Rifles made a night-time attack and captured Sugar Loaf Hill on the approaches to Stanley Peninsula. The Canadian troops were exhausted, while the Japanese had been reinforced and received supplies of arms and ammunition.

Brig. Wallis ordered the remnants of his command to withdraw to Stanley Peninsula, which the Brigade defended until the end, including a fierce action with many losses on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile the West Brigade was also heavily mauled after the Japanese successful amphibious attack across the harbour on December 18. On December 19, “A” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers was ordered to clear the Japanese from their dominant position on Jardine’s Lookout and to then move on to retake Mount Butler en route to Tai Tam Reservoir, with the intention of reconnecting with East Brigade.

The initial attack was successful. Thirty troops led by 42-year-old Company Sergeant-Major John Osborn, an Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1920 after serving in the Royal Navy in the First World War, seized Mount Butler. But the group was quickly surrounded by Japanese troops, who lobbed grenades into the Canadian position. Osborn caught several of the bombs and threw them back. But then one landed just out of his reach. He shouted a warning and threw himself on top of the grenade, which exploded and killed him. After the war Osborn was awarded the Victoria Cross and there is a monument to him in Victoria Park, just above Hong Kong’s Central business district.

On the same day, December 19, a large detachment of Japanese troops surrounded Brig. Lawson’s headquarters on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road. A company of Royal Scots attempted to break the encirclement, but were unable to do so. Late in the morning, with the Japanese firing into the command post from almost point-blank range, Brig. Lawson sent a message to Gen. Maltby that he was “going outside to fight it out with the Japs.”

Lawson, armed with two revolvers and with two of his officers, including his deputy Col. Patrick Hennessy, at his shoulders, rushed outside. All three were killed instantly.

A British colonel from the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps was appointed to command West Brigade.

“D” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers held out around the Wong Nai Chung Gap Road position for three days and only surrendered after they had run out of ammunition, food and water. The Japanese found only 37 wounded Grenadiers in the captured emplacements.

Meanwhile the remainder of the Grenadiers, together with the Royal Scots, elements of the Middlesex Regiment and what was left of the Indian battalions formed a defensive line centred on Mount Cameron and running from Victoria Harbour at Wan Chai to the south coast near Aberdeen Harbour. The defenders were under constant attack from dive bomber aircraft and mortars for three days, before the left sector above Wan Chai was breached by the Japanese.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers held their position on Bennet’s Hill near Aberdeen until mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, when Gen. Maltby decided further resistance was futile and ordered the surrender.

For the captured Canadians, the horrors did not end there. Their treatment in prisoner camps in Hong Kong and Japan was atrocious. Almost as many Canadians died in the prison camps over the next four years as died in the battle for Hong Kong.

There is, however, a poignant postscript to this story.

On August 30, 1945, British Admiral Cecil Harcourt arrived in Hong Kong on his flagship, aircraft carrier HMS Colossus, to take the surrender of the Japanese and set up an interim military command. On Harcourt’s immediate staff was a Canadian of Chinese heritage from Victoria, Commander William Law.

Twenty years ago I spent two days with Law in Hong Kong, where he had set up as a lawyer after the war, married a local woman and raised his family. As Law recalled it, Harcourt, very much aware of the role of the Canadians in the defence of Hong Kong in 1941, delegated Law to be one of the first ashore.

The day after their arrival, Harcourt delegated Law to find the prisoners of war, who were being held in terrible conditions in former British barracks at Sham Shui Po on the Kowloon side. Law told me he took two Petty Officers, went over to Kowloon on the Star Ferry and marched up to the Peninsula Hotel, where they confronted the Japanese Chief of Police. He was persuaded to give Law and his men a car and a driver who knew the way to the camp.

When they arrived at the gates of the camp the Japanese guards levelled their rifles at the car. Law ordered the Petty Officers to aim their pistols out of the car windows and the driver to burst through the gates.

They did, and once inside Law went to the first barracks building on his left. He went into the darkened room and several of the prisoners from the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers looked up at him, but didn’t react.

“I guess they saw an Asian-looking guy in a uniform and thought I was just another Japanese officer,” Law told me.

“So I said, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you know a Canadian when you see one?’”

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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