College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Notes Narratives in the Making: Teaching and Learning at Corktown Community High School.
Mary Beattie
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Close to forty years ago, the Doors were lighting our fires, Dylan was moseying down Highway 61, the Rolling Stones were letting it bleed and the Beatles were … well, breaking up. At the time, progressive educators were in full dudgeon, complaining about institutionalized education, authoritarianism in the classroom, the inherent fascism of awarding grades or imposing course requirements as a precondition for awarding degrees. Those interested in the education of the young knelt at the knee of A. S. Neill and proclaimed Summerhill Summer. Those engaged with the instruction of young adults paid heed to the anti-institutional polemics of Ivan Illich. In the City of Toronto, Rochdale College embodied the new liberation, until the authorities decided to move in with billy clubs.

Things have changed. Alternative schools now conjure up a sense of imminent disaster in the minds of those progressive educators who have not fallen victim to despair or yielded to the temptations of careerism. Instead of libertarian free spirits, it seems that religious fundamentalists have captured the momentum as private institutions of various descriptions seek tax relief or vouchers in a persistent assault on the public school system. Meanwhile, in those public schools, it is no longer autocratic habits of disciplinarians and outmoded techniques of instruction (typified by alphabetical seating arrangements) that represent the crushing burden of the so-called establishment. Instead, it is the comprehensive corporatization of the classroom, complete with computer simulations promoting entrepreneurship and a wholesale commitment to PowerPoint.

O tempore! O mores!

In this generally dismal environment, however, occasional and unexpected books can be found that are as refreshing as a spring breeze after a hard winter. One is Mary Beattie’s Narratives in the Making. At first glance, everything is against it. The product of a research project undertaken a decade and more ago at an alternative high school in Toronto, it has finally found print. Part of a five year national study called The Exemplary Schools Project, it investigates life and learning at a small high school (114 students). Its methodology seems almost quaint. Mary Beattie, now an associate professor of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, actually spent time interviewing administrators, teachers, students, alumni and parents. She even learned their names and came to know the people she was studying. Her results, therefore, were not based on anonymous questionnaires, aggregate analysis and desiccated quantitative data. Though she occasionally lapses into terminology and techniques that have come to be associated more with market research than education (particularly the annoying “focus group”), she has to some extent revived and rehabilitated such methodological antiquities as participant-observation. Pressed, her work might even fall into the category of ethnomethodology. It is a humane approach. It bespeaks a sense of humanity that is monstrously lacking in market-driven, corporatist studies of educational effectiveness and efficiency as defined by allegedly objective measures of institutional performance.

Why bother with it? What interest could postsecondary educators have in the doings of a small high school apparently dedicated to odd and “at risk” adolescents? The answer is deceptively simple: the school does what few others do and stands as a model for what educators at all levels might emulate.

Listen. Corktown (an obvious alias) embraces a “holistic” approach to education. It defines the school as a “learning community,” not as a business that sees students either as “consumers” or “products” depending upon what audience is being addressed. Unlike the hierarchical industrial model that defines labour relations in most colleges, it fosters a culture of caring, community, connectedness and collaboration. The word democracy seems not to be an alien abstraction but a possible dream.

Corktown obviously exists in an exotic world far, far away. Mary Beattie must be an anthropologist and not a contemporary researcher. Unless it doesn’t and she isn’t. Whatever the case may be, her book ought to remind us of educational aspirations that have too easily disappeared and that might one day reappear, were we to gather the strength and the imagination to bring them back into the light.

Surgo in lucem!

Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology