Down with so-called core values

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I'd like to join the argument over multiculturalism that Daniel Stoffman initiated here last Saturday. He says "culture is not just about superficial differences but also about core values." I'm afraid I don't see why culture is about values at all, much less core values. Values are always shifting, and they don't stay core for long: They compete, fade or find ways to coexist. Efforts to designate some as "core" or "essential" to "national identity" may simply be attempts by some to fortify their position against new challengers. That moves us into the realm of politics. In Canada 50 years ago, public health care was attacked as "unCanadian." So there is often something covertly anti-democratic in asserting core values, and sometimes something implicitly racial too. Culture, I'd say, is more about process: the styles, expression and modes of communication through which competing values etc. interact.

The melee over health care in the United States is a good example. The changing demographics there led to the election of the first non-white president. But many on the losing side use the claim of core values to either reject him as not a real American (the "birthers") or reject his policies, like health care, as unAmerican. Their role as defenders of core values emboldens them to defy the democratic facts. The adroit Obama strategy is also to invoke U.S. core values, in the name of a more perfect Union. But this really amounts to contesting current U.S. values.

In Canada, minorities have become more prominent too, but there isn't the same footing for an anti-democratic (and potentially violent) backlash here because we lack a strong myth of national core values that can help fight off challenges. There are certainly Canadian facsimiles. Minister for multiculti stuff Jason Kenney says that his "focus is on integration" and that the "Canadian identity" should be "first and foremost" among immigrants; Daniel Stoffman wants more stress on "traditional Canadian culture." I take these as code for their right to decide what the values and policies that guide our society should be. But they won't be as effective, due to the lack of a strong myth of the American sort. Its absence, you can say, opens us to openness.

Mr. Stoffman also says: "The basic tenet of muticulturalism is that all cultures are equally worthy." I have no idea how he'd back that definition up -- as opposed, for instance, to: All cultures are worthy of respect. Nor do I know what "integration" means. The Kenney notion implies assimilation to a "Canadian identity," as defined perhaps by minister Kenney or journalist Stoffman. But you can also have integration without assimilation into anyone else's "values." You can integrate via dialogue, co-operation, mutual respect, and working jointly toward common goals, none of which involves bowing down to predefined core values.

Finally, as a case of non-multiculti core valuism, consider the "red flags" raised in Ontario this week over results from its standardized "EQAO" tests in math and English. Kids who did poorly didn't improve; those who did well plateaued. So it's pointless, as everyone who's tried such tests knows. Teachers in England were ready to strike over them. Scandinavia, with the best school results anywhere, won't touch them. Here they suck up time and vats of anxiety. They undermine real teaching. Yet Ontario won't stop. Why?

Few core values are as primeval in our society as the "basics" or "fundamentals" or "3 Rs," which is all EQAO tests for. Ontario's Liberals surely recall the success that the Mike Harris Tories had campaigning against "unaccountable" teachers and "raising the bar." I don't underrate the need for political calculations, but those who pay the price here are the Grades 3 and 6 kids, who refer to EQAO as Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.

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