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Hyde Park: Mental health and Norman Cornett

Everyone agrees there is a crisis in education, but what does that mean? Buzz words abound – reform, underfunding, corporatization, privatization, secularization, dogmatism – while we debate ad nauseum.

My context is personal, working on the front lines at a public high school. But before pondering all of the big questions, let’s take a look at the the basic educational relationship: the teacher and the student. Teachers are exhausted and students are depressed.

Nearly a month ago, The Gazette ran an article on the Mental Health crisis at McGill (“Our Students are Hurting,” Feb. 9). Characterizing students as “angry, anxious, fragile,” McGill University psychiatrist Norman Hoffman noted an astronomical increase in students seeking help within the past decade, counting over 2,300 visits in 2007. The 300 per cent increase was numbed only by a clarification; that one in 10 turned to self-mutilation with razor blades or glass, usually choosing to slice open their arms or legs. Venues ranged from showers to secret locations to cutting parties, he explained. Why are we hurting so badly? What is being done to solve this problem?

Professor Norman Cornett was a McGill professor who tried to imagine a classroom that would challenge students without breaking them down. As a reward for his efforts, the Religious Studies instructor was ignominiously canned in 2007 after 15 years on the job. As a former student, I can attest to the weirdness, as well as the brillance, of his unorthodox teaching style. His class had a theme song. Marks were determined by attendance and participation; required materials included blindfold, pen, earplugs, and lots of paper. Participation entailed listening, watching, reading and reflection. The class was renamed according to theme (mine was “Live Poets Society”) and students crafted new names for themselves.

In conversation, Cornett still calls me by my classroom appellation. But the guiding philosophy of the class was dialogue and understanding. Cornett stressed personal relationships and raw data, a far cry from student numbers and Google Scholar. Instead of writing final exams, students confronted the artists, politicians, documentarians, and writers. Cornett turned to this method of classroom community after witnessing a student break down in front of him. He found that allowing people to write, no rules attached, brought insight and inspiration.

McGill fired Cornett last summer.

In contemporary higher education a purge is taking place, and students are suffering because of it. The bureaucratization of education is putting a heavy burden on the shoulders of students. Humans, social animals, require dialogue, feedback, and affirmation. As changes sweep through this institution, one must reflect on what “history [is] in the making”. While Cornett and his supporters continue to battle the administration, the reason for his dismissal is still secret. To me, it looks like the slow unmaking of a learning institution. Now that’s something to get depressed about.

Jesse Gutman is a teacher and a former Daily colunist.