I will not object to writing lines. I will not object to writing lines.

The February 2nd issue of Maclean's pours scorn on the concept of forcing students to write the same thing over and over again as a punishment. So, while its editors are writing "We will not put fictitious future dates on our publication" 100 times, allow me to explain why they are wrong. Maclean's "ScoreCard" praised "Donald Lucas: Gutsy Stirling, Ont. Grade 8er rebels at teacher's order to write lines for not doing homework. Says tedious task 'puts the mind into neutral.' Instead, negotiates right to pen essay on the folly of writing lines. Smart kid, sure. Smart teacher, too." And this very newspaper called his punishment "a mindless activity of repetition ... not something a learning institution should be encouraging. A school, and a teacher, for that matter, should strive for knowledge." They should. But knowledge comes in many forms and in many ways.

So let me tell you a tale. There was once this kid who spent years in a kind, nurturing school where they never made him do anything he didn't want to do lest, say, correcting his spelling were to give him a low "self of steam." If he disobeyed instructions he was rewarded with a really interesting assignment involving yet more impudence, and praised by the press. One day he graduated and got a job as an intern at a newspaper. But he was assigned a story he didn't feel like doing. It would involve tedious phone calls and slogging around in bad weather talking to dull people with no post-graduate degrees at all. So he blew it off and, when reproached, sassed his editor.

Now, how do you think my fable ends? Is our hero praised and told to write a big long feature on the virtues of non-conformity, taking as long as he wants, as much space as he wants and being assured the piece won't be edited once he's done? I don't want to spoil the surprise, but if you want to ask him directly, you can probably find him flipping burgers somewhere. Which, oddly, is a mindless activity of repetition that puts the mind into neutral. Why didn't somebody warn him?

People who encourage you to drift down the lost highway are not your friends. In the real world, if you have intelligence you don't learn to control, if instead of being grateful for your gifts you are obnoxious, self-willed and self-satisfied, your fellows will detest you. They will not go out of their way to ensure you rewarding experiences. They will go out of their way to avoid you.

The philosophy of the modern educationist seems to be that rather than risking a series of little dents and cracks in a student's overweening sense of self-worth, they should be encouraged to develop enormous, elaborate but fragile egos that can be shattered dramatically in a single blow. For instance, Simon Fraser University is now considering literacy tests even for students with good marks because, explains the head of their Undergraduate Curriculum Task Force, "a significant number of students arrive here unprepared to undertake university study. It's problematic, and it's not just something that is happening at our university. It's happening everywhere." I don't imagine most students will go back and thank their high school when told that despite an impressive average year after year they're too illiterate to go to a good university and gosh, yes, you squandered those youthful years when learning language is easiest but hey, we didn't want to say anything in case it upset you.

If there were nothing more to say about education it would, I admit, be a bit grim. But there is. That SFU task force recommended that students whose first language is not English and who have been here less than two years be exempted from the testing. You see, the university is confident that such students will not as a rule quit when they find that their English isn't yet good enough. If knocked down by a strong verb, they'll pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again. And one day, they'll not only have a degree and be fluent in English, but they'll be really prepared for adult life because they'll know they did something worthwhile even though it was difficult. And it will make them feel good about themselves.

Writing lines was not in ye olde days primarily a punishment. Rather, "copybooks" whose every blank, lined page was headed by a useful, elegant maxim let students learn penpersonship and memorable wisdom simultaneously. Maybe they still should.

Self-esteem isn't given, it's earned. That one small sentence is the key to a life not of frustration and boredom but of joy and fulfilment. If need be, it's even worth making someone write it on the blackboard 100 times.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson