Association Day (UCC Blues Part 2)

I took the bus to Association Day, Upper Canada College’s annual “open house”, where the school teems with students, parents, Old Boys like me, and an striking number of blond teenage girls. Heading up Avenue Road, the clock tower looms up the hill (officially it is the Rogers clock tower, a donation from long ago by the Rogers family that predates corporate naming trends like the Rogers Centre, formerly known as SkyDome, and other markers of the modern Rogers brand). I thought it fitting to take the bus, as I once did as a student, and as an advocate of public transportation. I was probably the only one. Back in my day there used to be another bus, the Forest Hill 33, that no longer exists because all of today’s students get dropped off by car (if they do not have their own; a few in my year were given new cars for their sixteenth birthdays).

Stepping onto the grounds, it is clear that UCC is more than a school; it is an institution, known to all, experienced by the few. Dating back to 1829, well before Canada existed as a country, there is a deep reservoir of history and tradition associated with UCC. That well is tapped by powerful symbolism in the omnipresent form of the school crest. The laurels of the crest wrap around a crown, with the motto from Nelson’s tomb, Palmam qui meruit ferat (“Let he who has earned it bear the palm”). You can feel the pride, and see the prestige on the faces of the parents; a child at UCC is a status marker of social class, of having made it.

But to truly be immortalized in the world of the wealthy takes even bigger bucks. UCC is always in the midst of some new capital campaign or another, and these afford those with the means to distinguish themselves through naming rights on buildings or facilities. In addition to the Rogers tower, there are, among others, the John David Eaton wing at the Prep (the K-8 “Preparatory school”), the Elizabeth Lee Wing (no relation to yours truly), and the Richard Wernham and Julia West Centre for Learning – all multimillion dollar contributions. What a contrast to public schools pressed to find corporate sponsors for the aging computer lab.

The school is also in the midst of a environmental push, a desire to become a green campus. That the new double hockey arena will be a green facility shows that environmentalism is not incompatible with class distinctions. And even though the campus sports many beautiful mature trees and lush playing fields, for a donation of $2,500 you can have a tree planted on the campus with your name on a plaque.

UCC is more than just a playground for the rich – it is what education looks like when money is no object. What that means in practice is that the resources are there to have small class sizes and a wide range of programs in arts, music, drama, clubs and sports. It is these latter elements – which tend to get cut or reduced in public schools – that are a big part of the difference in a classic liberal education. This was certainly the case in my day – I did five years of flute – but several major capital projects later, it is even moreso today.

The UCC of twenty years ago still resembled a school, albeit one with a 38.5 acre campus. Since then, a whole new wing has been added to the school, with a double gymnasium (doubling as the spot for our reunion dinner), and phenomenal space devoted to the arts program. In an upstairs room, there was a digital media studio with twenty or so brand new iMacs (the sexy brushed steel models that I covet). The week before a teacher used them for an interactive poetry class. Whether or not this makes a difference in exam scores impossible to say, but it is nonetheless intriguing to see what the “best of everything” looks like in the classroom.

The point is that all kids should be able to have such opportunities when they go to school (I plan on a visit to my local public high school for comparison purposes). Our schools should be palaces of learning, just like UCC. But consider that tuition starts around $23,000 per year last I checked, compared to maybe $8,000 per year in annual funding for a BC public school (and UCC gets considerable additional dollars from its annual fundraising campaigns). And when the children of the rich opt out of the public system, the support for that system – and paying the requisite taxes – erodes considerably (a similar argument holds for health care). Perhaps there are diminishing returns to additional funding, but if we were to entertain doubling the budget of the K-12 system, what would that mean for our kids?

One answer I got to that question at the reunion dinner was: nothing. In my classmate’s view, its all about IQ and smart people will succeed no matter what, and tough luck for the dullards. In other words, all of that superstructure of the school did not matter one iota to the long-term life chances of a UCC student. I found this intellectual Darwinism deeply unsettling, and offered myself as an example of someone who benefited immensely from the enriched learning environment at UCC, and also the unquestioned expectation that we would go on to university after.

And in dryer economic terms, we know that the social return to education (the benefit to everyone, including the public treasury due to increased tax revenues) exceeds by a large margin the private return to that particular person. There are huge spillovers to education spending, and that is a core economic reason why we have public education, and why we should expand it.

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