Nothing in public life – that vast area beyond the intense, chaotic world of the family – riles up people like their kids’ education. Try writing on it and see. Who would have thought that Ontario’s Harris government would look most vulnerable not on health care, i.e., life and death, but on education? I’m willing to bet that the people Mike Harris most wishes didn’t exist when he rises each morning aren’t the supposedly mighty public-sector unions, but a handful of moms called People for Education who critique his policies relentlessly.

Antonio Davis worries about his kids’ education, too. He’s the Toronto Raptors basketball player who performed so well in the playoffs. Last May, he said he wanted to play for a U.S. team because of – not the dollar or the border hassles – his kids. “Canada teaches a lot of different things – the metric system … Every day, they’re singing the Canadian national anthem … There are some different things they need to learn.” The sports stations were full of it. He recently re-signed with the Raptors, saying he’d “personally hire a teacher to work at his children’s school and help them understand subjects such as American history.”

He gives the impression of being serious and thoughtful, even in games, which is not common in sports. You get intense and you get joyous, but not serious. Fred McGriff looked serious when he played for the Blue Jays. I’m trying to think of a hockey player, but nobody comes to mind. When asked about considering other offers, he said – this is Antonio Davis, not his agent – “I did what any normal human being would do, continue to take calls and see what was going on.” So his thoughts on kids and schooling are worth thinking about.

He starts, like most parents, with what his kids will learn, the skills they’ll acquire to survive in a competitive, pretty heartless, adult world. (The metric system?) But he moves quickly to other matters such as who they are (the national anthem) and what view of the world they’ll hold (American history). Education in the U.S. has always meant more than transmitting information and skills. American kids pledge allegiance and learn that their country is the world’s number-one repository of freedom, justice and truth. That, in turn, provides wiggle room for its leaders to defy the rest of the world by turning their backs on accords over global warming, landmines, child soldiers or, this week, germ warfare.

This propaganda function of U.S. schools (I wonder if Antonio Davis would resist the term) is especially important for less privileged parts of the population, including descendants of those who were slaves. I don’t think this is a simple matter. It’s true the propaganda function of education can confuse or delude people, but it can also become a tool for demanding their rights – as black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson have always used American myths.

Canadian schools must indeed seem different to the Davises. The diffidence, the absence of preening and therefore the different reaction when disillusion sets in. Canadians acquire fewer absurd expectations, so when our country’s feet of clay start to show, our reaction is less rage at betrayal (Bruce Springsteen) than irony (Rick Mercer).

We owe people like Antonio Davis, who remind us that education is about things beyond acquiring marketable skills, and that these include a sense of national identity. I think this view of the stakes corresponds to what kids feel. A teacher once told me that parents make their demands but kids have their own agenda, which includes connecting to their peers and the larger world. In this light, it makes sense that the debate in Ontario now centres around the value of public versus private education. If you walk through an elite school such as Upper Canada College, for instance, you just smell the sense of destiny and future control.

It’s interesting that the man who runs the Raptors, general manager Glen Grunwald – who also came here from the U.S. – became a Canadian citizen last winter, along with his two young kids. He, too, has a thoughtful (I can’t help saying), almost Canadian quality. He took his oath in citizenship court, alongside seventy-three others from twenty-six countries, rather than centre court at halftime of a Raptors game, as someone proposed. The only media person there was his fiancé, Sun columnist Heather Bird, who wrote about it in a characteristically reticent way. The sole interview I heard him do was with CBC Radio’s Andy Barrie, who emigrated from the States long ago and studiously Canadianized himself. Some of our best Canadian nationalists have always been Americans. Unlike many of our politicians, they know how perilous living next to the U.S. can be, and they have a sense of the power and unavoidability of national identity.

“Antonio Davis?” said my friend Kevin Connolly, always an astute commenter on the cultural scene. “I think he’d make an awfully good Canadian. He just doesn’t know it yet.”


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.