Where Will All the Smart Kids Go?

September 1st, 1995 at 12:00 am David Frum | No Comments |

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I entered UTS in January of 1976, halfway through my Grade 10 year. I still cannot decide whether the term that followed was the best or worst experience of my life.

Until that January, I had been comfortably lazing through public school: nobody ever asked me to work, and so I never did. But when my indulgent teachers went on prolonged strike in the fall of 1975, my parents’ fraying patience with the public schools snapped.

They yanked me out of York Mills Collegiate and somehow persuaded UTS to take me on.

I had been plucked out of Lotusland and sent to boot camp.

I had barely begun algebra my new classmates were burning through trigonometry.

I had read about computers in science-fiction stories they were programming them.

I could painstakingly parse Mater est in culina.

They were reading The Gallic War. I vividly remember the canvas backpack I carried when I first entered the mouldy halls of the Edwardian firetrap that houses the school. The pack filled up with books and papers weighing more than forty pounds.

I can still hear the noise it made when it hit the floor of the subway car.

Nor were the students at UTS merely hardworking.

They were brilliant.

My seventy classmates had been admitted on the basis of only one criterion: an admissions exam modelled on the IQ test. The boy who eventually stood first in my class habitually invented solutions to math problems that took about half as many steps as the answers in the teacher’s crib-book.

A girl with a locker four or five down from mine went on to teach at Columbia and advise the Clinton White House on its health-care plan.

(She warned them it was a turkey.)

Never in my life have I had to work as hard as I did to catch up with those gifted fifteen-year-olds.

I don’t know that I ever fully did.

But I do know that the day the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation voted to go on strike was one of the most decisive of my life.

This September, the school that so shocked and transformed me will be shocked and transformed itself.

The UTS I knew was a quasi-public school, operating under the aegis of the University of Toronto.

(It shared its Bloor and Huron Street premises with the Faculty of Education.)

Tuition in 1978 cost just $700.

As late as 1993-94, a year’s tuition was just $3,500.

But in April 1993, the Ontario government announced it would cut off its $1.3-million subsidy to UTS. Starting in September, the school will charge $6,900 per student.

Not every family will have to pay full freight.

In the early 1980s, the school raised more than one million dollars to fund bursaries.

After the provincial cutoff, UTS launched a ten-million-dollar five-year endowment drive, and more than half that sum has already been pledged. Ultimately, the interest on seven million dollars of the endowment will hold down tuition, while the income from the next three million will fund an array of new bursaries.

The alumni association has already amassed its own bursary fund of more than a million dollars.

Still, the harsh truth remains: UTS is demanding more sacrifices from the parents of its students and that may lead some parents who would once have put their kids into UTS to turn elsewhere.

This upheaval has provoked much nostalgia for the school’s old ways of doing business. Michele Landsberg, of all people, wrote a column in The Toronto Star deploring the provincial cutoff.

She pointed to UTS’s remarkable achievements in teaching math to girls and praised its racial heterogeneity.

(The school elected its first nonwhite school captain in 1975, and there appear to be nearly as many Chinese and East Indian faces as Caucasian ones in its corridors.)

Many UTS parents agreed.

During the organization of the endowment campaign, some of them argued that the school should refuse to accept its independence, and try to insert itself into the public system instead.

This attempt to save the old UTS faced one huge obstacle: the total hostility of Ontario’s educrats to everything the school stands for.

UTS is dedicated to the proposition that all people are not created equal, that learning requires hard work and that the best way to find out whether students are doing their work is to test and grade them.

It was, and seems still to be, a relentlessly competitive place students spend endless hours pondering each other’s relative intelligence.

Some are energized by this rough treatment.

Others wilt.

Novelist Douglas Cooper, a 1978 alumnus now winning literary fame in New York, bitterly compares the atmosphere of UTS to that of Lord of the Flies.

He’s not far off.

UTS was the sort of place where a wrong or foolish answer in class provoked audible–and unreprimanded–snickers.

“Look,” says Cooper, “I quite believe in meritocracy, in the cultivation of an intellectual elite.

But UTS prided itself on its brutality, its Gradgrindery.

They were concerned primarily with honing the efficient, instrumental mind.

When I think about it, the only place I was ever abused for writing poetry was at UTS.”

And indeed, the school can be brutal.

UTS has little patience with the therapeutic ideals that seem to animate much of Ontario’s public-education system.

“It’s not a fix-it school,” observes 1981. alumnus John Duffy, now an influential Toronto lobbyist.

“Or, it’s a fix-it for boredom in bright kids, not for anything else.”

On the other hand, for bright kids who would have spent their adolescence dumbing down in order not to look odd in high school, UTS was a salvation.

And not just during adolescence, either: guidance counsellor Clare Pace laboured as hard to fit students into precisely the appropriate universities as any village matchmaker.

“In terms of competition, it was a free-fire zone,” says Duffy.

“But in terms of tolerance, it was a comfort zone. I’ve never figured out exactly how it worked.

I failed math one year, and they didn’t boot me.

I don’t know why.

I guess it’s that the place was small and the teachers really cared.”

What UTS did do, what it does, is carve the widest possible berth for eccentrics–on the faculty and among the students. Its teachers taught.

History teacher Neil McLean, who died a year ago, delivered impromptu descriptions of seventeenth-century battles that made your flesh creep.

Former principal H. D. Gutteridge read a poem in a way that engraved it in your memory for life.

Classics teacher Harry Maynard took time out from a summer holiday to correct exercises by mail for students who wanted to keep their Greek and Latin alive.

In response, the students learned.

Of course, there were misfits even at UTS–but the misfits I knew expressed their dissent by submerging themselves in Dadaist poetry and books filled with the works of Marcel Duchamp.

If UTS proves anything, it is the total irrelevance of the quality of facilities to the quality of education.

It’s unlikely that there exists elsewhere in Ontario a school as dismally outfitted.

Its eighty-five-year-old home looks like a lycee in some once-prosperous, now-seedy Third World country.

The labs are antiquated, the auditorium dismal, the classrooms dreary and the gym downright unhealthy.

What UTS offers instead are teachers free of the sullen union mentalities on display in the public schools, classmates who think it’s better to be smart than cool and, best of all, the right to borrow books from Robarts Library.

Had the provincial subsidy somehow survived, it’s hard to imagine the Ministry of Education keeping its mitts off UTS for much longer.

One can call the roll of the school’s transgressions against educational orthodoxy as set down, for example, in the recent Begin-Caplan Royal Commission on Learning.

While Chinese and East Indian students abound, there are virtually no black children at UTS.

Girls learn math, yes, but no thanks to innovative educational techniques math is a compulsory subject for everybody, and if you fail–John Duffy’s exception notwithstanding–you don’t graduate.

The English curriculum teaches literature, not self-esteem.

History means European and Canadian history, taught with a blissful lack of self-consciousness.

Driver education, respect for First Nations and other frothy new causes that fill the hours in the public schools are brutally ignored.

In other words, at a time when destreaming has become orthodoxy in the public schools, UTS’s days as a publicly funded but academically elitist institution were almost certainly numbered.

If the funding hadn’t vanished, the school’s permission to insist on excellence sooner or later would have.

UTS may stay truer to its old self by exiting the public system than by remaining inside it.

Undoubtedly, at the margin, some families that might have sent a child at $3,500 a year will decide against it at $6,900.

But UTS was never the Bronx High School of Science–the school did not teem with the brilliant children of seamstresses and janitors. It was always a middle-class institution.

Nor does UTS’s exit from the public system mean a revival of its more distant past as a cheap relation of Toronto’s posh British-style private schools.

UTS never possessed the social cachet of UCC or Trinity College School–where tuitions cost much more–and is hardly likely to now.

The girls (who arrived in 1973) are there to stay the principal will not resume his old title of headmaster.

Even so, something has changed at 371 Bloor West.

UTS incarnated the old ideal that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is what you can do.

That once seemed a highly egalitarian idea.

No more. The public schools now reject meritocracy in favour of ever-stricter definitions of equality of result.

As a consequence, the UTS of the future will be a place where native ability matters a little less and family wealth matters a little more.

Moreover, some alumni, like John Duffy, believe that the loss of funding is as problematic as the end of another tradition: teachers who spent their entire careers at UTS. Increasingly, the faculty is composed of young teachers who spend half a dozen years at the school and move on, depriving it of the cadre of lifelong UTSers who dominated the faculty into the mid-1980s.

The new teachers may know their subjects better than the old Messrs. Chips, but they cannot carry the traditions of the school through the decades the way former English teacher Stewart Bull and retired principal Al Fleming did.

Still, there’s no need to weep for the old school.

It will do just fine–provided it doesn’t burn down first.

Think instead of this: UTS can accept only seventy-eight students a year.

What happens to all the other bright children born in our city?

Children perhaps born to families that have never heard of UTS?

Who will bring out the gifts implanted in them in an education system that–as the treatment of UTS reminds us–seems to feel no special obligation to the academically able?

Without testing, we have no way to find gifted children, and until they reach Grade 10 we offer scant public programs for them.

Those programs we do offer (such as Northern Secondary’s Level Six) don’t begin to approximate the rigour of UTS.

The province of Ontario and its municipalities spend dozens of millions of dollars a year to avoid the waste of tin cans and old bottles.

Isn’t it time we started worrying a little more about the waste of our best minds?

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