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Geoff Johnson: We should try to lift the weakest among us

Rosemary Brown, the first black woman elected to a Canadian legislature, is remembered for her insightful and succinct remarks about the political condition.

Rosemary Brown, the first black woman elected to a Canadian legislature, is remembered for her insightful and succinct remarks about the political condition. One of her best was the observation that “until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.” She said many times that until that happens, we can’t truly call ourselves civilized.

Teachers like that quote because they know what teaching in the public system is all about. The public system gets them all — the weak, the strong, the kids from supportive home situations and the kids from home situations that are worse than anyone wants to ever imagine.

Teachers work with the kids who are from strong, loving homes that support an autistic child in every way, and they work with kids who have been subjected to fetal-alcohol abuse by parents who just did not care.

Teachers work with kids who have been emotionally, physically and sexually abused to the point of social instability.

But it’s later on, when even the best parents can no longer provide support, that those young adults, having passed the perimeters of the public education safety net, fall off the edges of a society already inadequately equipped to meet their needs.

Teachers and parents wince to read that the B.C. government might be planning to drastically reduce the average amount of money it spends on adults with developmental disabilities over the next three years, as budget documents are reported to show.

The same reports indicate that adults with fetal-alcohol disorder and other disorders, including autism, who now receive service under the Personal Supports Initiative, will see the biggest decline in assistance. Documents are purported to show that the average cost per client in that program may drop from $24,000 to $16,000 this year alone.

Scholars, political theorists, philosophers and social scientists have different criteria for measuring what qualifies a society as civilized, but there is consensus about the general criteria by which the value of a social contract between a government and its citizens might be assessed.

Personal safety is a fundamental characteristic of a civilized society. The personal safety of all citizens should be guaranteed. Safety includes being protected from external forces and insecurity within the society.

No person, especially the disabled, should fear loss of life or physical harm in civilized society.

A child who has been affected by autism or fetal-alcohol disorder or any other disorder should not be marginalized as an adult by a civilized society.

Many philosophers believe that how a society treats its most vulnerable, those least able to cope, is how that society should be measured.

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon suggests that Roman decline was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity had ripened to the point of moral decay. A succession of Roman emperors relied on “bread and circuses” to satisfy and impress those governed.

Reality and prosperity in our 21st century dictate that government has a broader responsibility that includes the building of new highways and bridges, funding major international sports events, and even building new mega-million-dollar roofs for a sports coliseum, if needed.

Our prosperous society desires those things, but those symbols of affluence, affordable or not, can’t be what define us.

Teachers and all of us can understand only too well what U.S. president Bill Clinton meant when he jogged our collective conscience, saying: “By lifting the weakest and the poorest among us, we lift the rest of us as well.”

That conviction alone, we might all agree, is what really should define us.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.