In Quebec, according to 1994 OECD figures, 38% of the adult population was considered illiterate to various degrees, that is, 2 million people aged 16 to 65 out of a total population of about 7 million at the time, with a higher proportion in the 16 to 25 age group, revealing that the problem was getting worse.
Indeed, in 2003 (9 years later), a rate of 50% of the same population aged 16 years or older was now considered functionally illiterate to varying degrees by the OECD, an increase of 12%, according to an International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS).
In 2013, this rate had risen to 53%. Finally, in 2021, we are talking about a rate as high as 60% in some regions of Quebec, still in the adult population aged 16 to 65.
So what would be the cause of this constant drop in the level of knowledge of our population, that deprives so many of our fellow citizens of any access to any job that requires the minimum level of reading autonomy?
This cause was identified and publicized in 1999, without arousing the slightest level of interest on the part of the province's intellectual elite and more specifically on the part of the political and educational authorities, which is still the case towards the end of 2021, as can be seen as the outcome of a fresh attempt at raising awareness.
In short, in the "Parent" Reform of the 1960s, the requirement to learn French to the point of autonomy in reading by the the end of the first grade of primary school, which was compulsory and very closely supervised before the reform, and more advanced mastery afterwards, which was henceforth neglected, was abandoned. This resulted in generations of children with only an approximate knowledge of French, from whom the first generations of teachers emerged in the 1980s with the same approximate knowledge of French, henceforth unable to understand and teach the great classics of literature and to explain our history, which led to the disappearance of these courses, which were now considered too difficult, including the history of our people, a situation that has only worsened since.
According to 1994 OECD figures, since the 1970s, the rate of functional illiteracy has reportedly increased progressively over time in the province of Quebec to an alarming 34% of the adult population aged 16 to 65, in a province where all children were required to be able to read autonomously by the end of grade one of elementary school in the 1950s under penalty of having to repeat the grade one program before moving on to grade two, and where schooling has been compulsory until age 16 since the 1960s, conditions in spite of which such a steadily growing proportion of our population ended up illiterate.
As a result of the concern generated by the increasing prescription of psychostimulants to treat learning problems in children, who were dropping out of school in increasing numbers before the end of high school without even knowing how to read properly, an in-depth sociological study was undertaken in the second half of the 1990s to identify the cause of this uncontrolled deterioration in the quality of French language training in the French-Canadian community of the province of Quebec, a deterioration which, obviously, could be the consequence of the poor quality of that training.
The paperback version of the study, entitled Élite en faillite/ Our Bankrupt Elite was published in 1999, complemented by a systematic awareness-raising operation in all the faculties of education of Quebec universities as well as with the then Minister of Education, without arousing the slightest sign of interest.
The clear evidence of this indifference is the fact that the chronic trend of deteriorating functional literacy levels continued unabated, eventually reaching over time the barely believable level of 53% of the adult population in the province of Quebec in 2013, again according to OECD figures, apparently with no indication that radical measures are being implemented or even considered to reverse this negative trend.
In Canada, education falls entirely under provincial jurisdiction, which means that each province developed its own education system. The sociological study carried out in the 1990s therefore concerns exclusively the evolution of the educational system of the province of Quebec, so that the deterioration observed does not apply in any way to French-Canadian communities in other Canadian provinces.
Quebec's education system was unique in North America prior to the reform of the 1960s in that, unlike the education systems in other Canadian provinces that were based on the traditional university teaching methods of the Anglo-Saxon communities, it was the result of a local tradition that had evolved over the previous 350 years and was based on traditional teaching methods that were entirely European in inspiration. These teaching methods also served as a model for the education systems of French Canadian communities in other Canadian provinces, since many teachers from these communities came to be trained in Quebec's "normal schools", thus contributing to the standardization and maintenance of French Canadian culture throughout the country.
This system was run by a specialized master's-level elite in educational pedagogy, trained in a European-style system distinct from the North American university system, who had been training field teachers for generations in a network of normal schools ("Écoles normales") where the importance of correct and timely learning of the mother tongue was considered paramount for all children. These field teachers, under the supervision of inspectors appointed by the teacher training schools, ensured that all children learned to read to autonomy in reading in the first year of elementary school so that they would experience no difficulties in learning all other subjects due to inadequate mastery of their mother tongue.
In an effort to harmonize and integrate the educational system of the Quebec French-Canadian community with Quebec's French-language university system, which at the time did not include a Faculty of Education, such faculties were created in the 1960s by academics from diverse backgrounds who were not part of Quebec's then-elite pedagogical community that traditionally trained field teachers in the province.
This elite was then relieved of the responsibility for training field teachers, and most of them were invited either to retire or to become field teachers, and all normal schools were closed without their proven teacher training programs and methods being imported into the new faculties of education, and apparently without these academics, newcomers to the field of education, being sufficiently familiar with the traditional pedagogical knowledge provided in the Anglo-Saxon university system in the rest of Canada.
This new educational elite, now in charge of managing the educational system of the French-Canadian community in Quebec, led by a newly created Ministry of Education, unfortunately did not realize the need to continue to teach all children to read to the level of autonomy in reading by the end of the first grade of elementary school in order to facilitate their later learning of all other subjects, which was mandated and closely supervised before the reform.
The indifference shown by the Quebec educational community to the 1999 sociological study was the impetus which is at the origin of the General Neurolinguistics research project that led to the formal publication of books and articles, that provide a general overview of the research that was already formally published in the 1960s on conceptual thinking, and which already confirmed the necessity of this timely learning of the mother tongue in order for all children to achieve optimal intellectual development, i.e., findings on conceptual thinking now confirmed by newly acquired functional knowledge of the brain, now made available through modern magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and EEG.
The purpose of this project was to make available to the teaching communities, who may not yet be aware of the need for early mother tongue learning by all children, a large body of references to long-standing conclusive research in this area, which is currently not sufficiently referenced in the international community due to the fact that the main research papers and related books have still not been translated into English, which is currently the general language of communication in the scientific community.
It is consistently observed that when children are properly trained to read before the age of 7, they generally tend to remain calm by their age standards, in line with the findings of Chauchard, Doman, Dodson & Durkin, and finally Piaget, because they think and analyze more and more clearly as they master with greater sophistication the language with which they think, and thus become progressively better equipped to understand and control the increasing complexity of the challenges they face as they grow up.
It can be observed that a promising practice is currently being implemented in some communities, which is proving to positively address this problem, in the neighboring province of Ontario, as well as in France, where this method is being introduced starting at age three.
In adapted classrooms, young children are gradually introduced to the first rudiments of reading as if it were a game, for early learning to read is the most effective incentive for children to develop a love of reading and eventually acquire a broad base of general knowledge, a process necessary for the development of social awareness in enough people to make a difference in our societies.
This systematic approach should enable our companies to improve in the medium term.
In summary, the 1999 sociological study reveals that the Quebec Ministry of Education that was created in the 1960s, led by an anonymous elite apparently uninformed about sound educational practices, improvised itself as educational specialists, and stopped the teaching of the mother tongue to the level of minimal autonomy in reading that was previously compulsory from the end of the first year of elementary school, and arbitrarily spread this learning over the first three years of elementary school, despite the fact that it was already scientifically established that reaching this level of reading autonomy becomes much more difficult after the age of 7, due to an irreversible physiological maturation process (myelination of the verbal areas of the brain) that occurs in all children around the age of 7, which makes it all the more difficult to subsequently improve all the verbal skills for which the threshold of minimal fluency has not been reached before that age.
The consequence of their decision was a steady increase thereafter in the rate of functional illiteracy in the adult population of the province of Quebec, which reached a barely believable 53% of the population in 2013. At the same time, there has been a steady increase in the prescription of psychostimulant drugs to control behaviours that were already known, in truly informed circles, to occur in children who do not achieve sufficient mastery of their language in a timely manner, with no indication that drastic measures are being implemented, or even contemplated, to reverse this rate of deterioration.
Apparently completely unaware of the difficulties in comprehension caused to children by insufficient mastery in a timely manner of all language skills, but perceiving that fewer and fewer students were succeeding in their learning, these anonymous pedagogues found nothing better to do to restore success rates than to progressively lower the level of difficulty of the passing exams, even, the height of absurdity, for the very level of language mastery, and to reduce the content of courses deemed too difficult to teach in general knowledge at the secondary level.
The result over time was that subsequent generations of teachers who emerged from this failing system, even less informed and not proficient enough in their native language to teach it well, began to train subsequent generations of children. This is what drew the attention of this author in the 1990s when we received a short note from our daughter's teacher filled with spelling errors.
Having run out of resources to increase the success rate, given their limited knowledge of pedagogy, these anonymous pedagogues found nothing better to solve the problem than to finally eliminate from the high school curriculum other subjects deemed too difficult, such as classical literature and the history of our people, two of the pillars of our French-Canadian culture, causing it to wither over time to the point at which the last generations of our people are barely aware of their history and of their own culture.
These anonymous pedagogues were eventually replaced by anonymous newcomers educated in the failing system that their predecessors had put in place, from which are now emerging generation after generation of a new elite with insufficient general knowledge for them to develop any social awareness and sufficient competence for rational management of public affairs. This is what also explains, moreover, that by the end of the 1990s, no one in this poorly informed elite now in control of all the levers, was able to understand and react to the alarm signals given by the Field Report of Cohen et al. and by the sociological study conducted in parallel, when they were published in 1999.
The height of unawareness, 20 years after the publication of the Cohen et al. survey report and the parallel sociological study, that is, 60 years after the improvised reform of our education system, our Minister of Higher Education is now preparing to ban the teaching of the history of Western civilization, the last remaining pillar of our culture.
Historically, our elite is not the first to commit such a cultural suicide. The Romans had already paved the way for us by forbidding the teaching of science inherited from the Greeks, reminding us of this statement by George Santayana in The Life of Reason, Vol. 1, 1905: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The quality of education subsequently degraded in the Roman Empire to the point where eventually no one received an education sufficient to allow for rational management of public affairs. The Empire then gradually disintegrated under the indifferent gaze of those who prided themselves on being part of the Empire's "elite."
In Quebec, the capacity to intelligently manage public affairs has diminished so much over the past 40 years due to a too low level of general knowledge in the province's elite, that at all decision-making levels of the government structure, many managers in place are reduced to managing all cases blindly, following their general rule book and procedures as thoroughly as possible, without regard to the particularities of each case, so as to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the negative consequences of some of their decisions, which can be particularly disastrous in areas that concern the most vulnerable, such as health and child protection.
When alarm signals are raised by those aware of evolving problems that fall outside the narrow confines of the procedures that secure them, these managers typically offer only silence or noncommittal responses to those signals and maintain, against all common sense, situations that have become unacceptable to their victims, instead of referring the problem to the next upper level of authority to intervene, which is constantly blocking the chain of communication and decision making from top to bottom in the management structure.
Some recent dramas amply reported in the local media indeed painfully demonstrate this. For example, in the first 2 months of the pandemic, in some long-term care hospitals, thousands of people died of covid-19 (about ten times more than in the neighboring provinces), or worse, from hunger and thirst, abandoned to their fate by staff who fled the premises, without anyone in the management structure succeeding in alerting the highest levels of decision-making, until the day a journalist publicly documented the out-of-control hecatomb in a local newspaper.
Another case of neglect, so unspeakable that one hardly manages to believe it, of a little 7-year-old girl, whose name it is forbidden under penalty of legal action to publish, was found one morning suffocated to death from being completely wrapped with packing tape, after having been abused for years. Happy in the first years of her life while living with her grandmother, she was later forcibly placed in the custody of people who apparently did not love her, a custody that was maintained even after one of them was found guilty of aggravated assault against her when she was only 5 years old. None of the alarm bells rung by concerned people, or even directly observed, elicited the slightest reaction of help from the authorities for this little girl who, emaciated and looking constantly hungry, was rummaging the garbage cans at school towards the end of her life in search of food, in full view of and to the knowledge of the immediate authorities.
Some cases on the chronic side, that no decision maker seems in a position to help turn around: For decades, food so deficient and unpalatable is served in some long-term care hospitals that patients often cannot bring themselves to eat it, leading them gradually and inexorably into a state of chronic malnutrition. On the general population side, hundreds of thousands of people no longer have access to a doctor in the public system, or even to immediate emergency care in many hospitals unless they can afford to go private or out-of-province for treatment. In short, the overall management structure has become so deficient in so many areas that it is now the subject of almost daily denunciations in the media.
Sixty years after the reform of the 1960s, then, it must be noted that after the enthusiasm of the early years, aroused by the expected but never realized benefits of this improvised reform, the entire political and intellectual elite of the province of Quebec, with the indifferent collaboration of the teachers' unions, quickly became completely indifferent to the quality of education of its own successor generation, with the results that can now be observed.
In 2021, we are now hearing about an illiteracy rate reaching 60% in some regions of Quebec, without any perceptible awareness in educational circles, or even in political circles, of the urgency to act and that the solution to this catastrophic situation for the survival of our culture necessarily involves consistent learning of all verbal skills in a timely manner, i.e., before age 7 for all children.
What is happening in Quebec in the field of education should be a warning to all societies tempted to neglect the adequate teaching of the mother tongue to a level of minimal autonomy in due course, i.e. at the latest in the first year of primary school, and to favour hasty specialization at the expense of the teaching of a broad general knowledge base in secondary school.
This research project now makes available to the educational community the body of research that confirms
the benefits of early learning of all language skills.
All publications from the "General Neurolinguistics" project are available here:
INDEX - General Neurolinguistics