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The current debate about the Confucius Institute focuses primarily on whether a nation that restricts discussion about its human rights record should be given a select place within New Brunswick schools to promote its language and culture (and by extension a highly selective understanding of Chinese politics and history). This is an important, and long overdue, conversation. But this focus belies a larger issue: our province’s delegation of educational programming to organizations that are outside of the education system. 

Delegating (or outsourcing) offers both risks and rewards. Whether at work or at home, we might save time and money by finding someone to tackle a problem or perform a task, but, in doing so, we inevitably surrender some measure of control over the process by which the task is performed. A few missteps here and there are to be expected. But too much delegation leads to a lack of oversight and suggests a lack of engagement with the matter at hand.

Which brings us to our province’s school system. Successive governments have proclaimed their commitment to improving a system that by almost any measure is underperforming in comparison with other Canadian jurisdictions. And yet despite the heated rhetoric between political parties their solutions are eerily consistent. Rather than building and monitoring innovative programs from within the school system itself, we appear to have settled on a convenient, if lazy, alternative: find someone else to do the job.

The Confucius Institute is a good example.  Ostensibly eager to prepare our children for new economic realities, our school system could have incorporated knowledge of Chinese language and culture into the formal curriculum – and trusted its administrators to devise lessons and hire instructors that would have given voice to an accurate assessment of China’s political reality. Instead, our political leaders opted to embrace China’s Confucius Institute, which is very clearly part of that country’s strategy of exerting soft power. 

The harm in turning to the Institute is (likely) not in what is taught but rather in what is not: it celebrates Chinese culture without offering a broader outlook on China’s political and human rights record. That record is easily accessible to students and their families in books and on the Internet. Which begs the question – why does it seem to be off limits in our province’s classrooms? The answer, of course, is delegation. We’ve effectively surrendered control over classroom content for at least a portion of our children’s schooling. 

The Confucius Institute is only the most controversial of the government’s outsourcing initiatives.  Should we be encouraging our kids to take an interest in cyber security? Probably. But we’ve decided that we need help on that front as well. Hence, the growing prevalence of CyberTitan in our schools – a program that offers students opportunities to explore computer security. It is affiliated with the U.S. Air Force Association’s CyperPatriot competition, sponsored by, among others, the Northrup Grumman Foundation, a major American defense contractor. Like the Confucius Institute such organizations are keen to promote a particular understanding of the world. Hence, New Brunswick kids are presented with CyberPatriot t-shirts emblazoned with advertisements for the US Department of Homeland Security, Mastercard, and (wait for it…) Facebook – a company with a rather underwhelming record when it comes to data security.

Even healthy eating has been delegated to entities outside of the school system. Rather than address this issue in the classroom, more and more schools send kids off on “field trips” to the local Atlantic Superstore to gain presumably unbiased insights about where one might obtain good quality food. Meanwhile hot lunch programs are outsourced to fastfood franchises such as Great Canadian Bagel Co., Pizza Delight, and Pita Pit. No wonder kids are confused about what constitutes healthy eating.  In a province that suffers from high rates of obesity this is clearly a missed educational opportunity.

Schools, school districts, and education officials, now draw on a host of programs conceived, directed, and provided by organizations that function outside the school system.  As the Confucius Institute controversy reminds us, if they are outside the school system they are, ultimately, outside of its authority. That, ultimately, is the price of delegating responsibility for our children’s education.

Catherine Gidney and Michael Dawson are parents of school-age children in New Brunswick. They are also historians at St. Thomas University and members of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists.

"Voices of the RSC” is a series of written interventions from Members of the Royal Society of Canada. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Society of Canada.