Geographic illiteracy shocks people. Well, it should, just like they should be appalled that 44% of the people over 15 years of age in this province read below the minimum level needed to function in modern society. And they should be left speechless at the idea that 66% of the people in Newfoundland and Labrador over 15 years of age lack the numeracy skills for modern society.
We are not talking about intelligence. None of these people are stupid. Nor are we talking about people with a physical impairment that won’t let their brains work properly.
The university student who had been to Spain but couldn’t find it on the map will likely graduate from university armed with a whole bunch of information he didn’t have before. That’s what university is for.
The problem for this student and a whole bunch of others is that they won't know what to do with all that information. What all these people lack is not information, it's skills. The people with literacy or numeracy problems actually have problems with understanding what the words mean or how to express themselves clearly. The numeracy problems are not just about the basic math functions like addition and multiplication. They also have difficulty reasoning, problem solving, and thinking logically.
But all of that can change. It just takes a bit of effort.
“Education is the key to economic development.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about literacy and numeracy. There’s a well-established connection between education and income: the higher the education, the higher the income. There’s also a well-established connection between literacy and economic development for countries and regions as well.
In his last published paper before his untimely death, economic historian David Alexander examined the relationship between literacy and development in Newfoundland in the 19th century. He found evidence of a strong correlation between low literacy levels and the seeming chronic economic underdevelopment in the country and in the post-Confederation province. It doesn’t take too much imagine to understand that there is a connection between the education levels in the province these days and the fact that two thirds of the work force earns less than $35,000 annually, before taxes.
You can’t get there from here
For decades, people in Newfoundland and Labrador have imagined all sorts of answers to that question – why is Newfoundland lagging behind everyone else. They pondered how to change the province’s economic future. As often as not, the explanations they have come up with have been conspiracies involving foreigners - European overfishing or Quebec - and the solution has been the megaproject of the moment.
As it turns out, part of the answer was a lot less dramatic, a lot simpler. It's education.
This isn’t some stunning new idea. Lots of bright people figured it out a long time ago. There’s a whole section on education in the 1992 Strategic Economic Plan. The connection between education and economic development is one of the reasons the 1990s included so many reforms in education across the province, including the creation of regional school boards that matched the economic development board regions.
There's also a connection in all that to the students who couldn’t figure out where in the world they are with the provincial government’s strategic planning lately. In order to have a strategy that works, you first have to know where you are. Then you have to figure out where you want to be, and then you have to figure out how to get from where you are to the goal. That “how to get there” bit is the strategy.
If you don't know where you are, odds are that you won't be able to figure out how to get to the place you want to be. Same thing with economic development. If you don't understand the problem and what's causing it, then your solution – in this case, megaprojects – is also likely to be wrong.
You can see how wrong the Muskrat Falls diagnosis is – to risk beating the message to death - when you realize that the whole thing is built around adding enormous debt on top of enormous public debt and then paying for it by syphoning even more money from the local taxpayers whose incomes are already so distressingly low.
But you can get there from here
The answer to changing the economy and producing real prosperity is not Muskrat Falls with its massive increase in public debt.
Nor is it about putting aside some money in a fund with a clever name Wade Locke thought up.
Nor can we find economic wealth and genuine prosperity by increasing taxes on the poor or on corporations.
You can't get to prosperity from where these people think we are using the ideas they’ve offered.
One part of an effective strategy for sustainable economic development is education. We need to make sure that we have well-built, properly equipped schools. We have to make sure the curriculum is right. This is not just a matter of pumping more cash into the primary, elementary, and secondary schools as the current administration is doing.
We will have to change how we spend money: how many schools do we need? Where will they be located? This isn’t something that can come from politicians in a provincial government dedicated to centralised control as the current one is. We are going to have to decentralize control and link it up with communities and economic development.
In addition to those changes, we will also have to shift our heads. We have to change the public attitude to learning. Frankly, we don’t do that right now. Imagine, for example, if the Premier, other cabinet ministers, and Conservative backbenchers didn't reflexively insult other people let alone insult them about their supposed lack of knowledge.
And just imagine if we held an annual dinner and awards ceremony, hosted by the Premier, and attended by community leaders from across the province that celebrated academic achievement the way the past two Premiers have cheered for people who take part in sports.