Archive for ‘Education’ Category

Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?

datePosted on 15:11, September 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?

I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.

To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy.  That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.

The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of  the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.

I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here:; and here:>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<

The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?

I shall leave the answers to you.

Young and free

datePosted on 13:19, July 28th, 2009 by Lew

It seems that Australia is considering a measure which would give 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in federal elections.

There are some aspects of Australia’s political system which make this sort of measure perhaps less controversial than in NZ. Australia’s electoral system is more complex than NZ’s; there are many more levels of representation, with two chambers at federal and state level (excluding Queensland); the right being proposed only extends to federal elections, not to state elections which are arguably more important to local electors; and it is a right to vote in a country where adult electors are required to vote. In a sense, proferring the opportunity to vote to those young’uns who consider themselves sufficiently informed and engaged to do so could limit cases of people being thrown into the deep end of compulsory voting in a complex system without a clue.

Politically, this was poison in NZ not so long ago, with most of the vitriol directed at Sue Bradford (who sponsored the Civics Education and Voting Age Bill), and the Greens’ secret conspiracy to take over the country.

But wait a minute, didn’t that bill include civics education? Wouldn’t that make NZ’s electorate more aware of and engaged with political systems and norms? While those with an ideological barrow to push would deride the teaching of civics as a propaganda exercise wherever it didn’t take their particular viewpoint, it is perfectly possible to teach the broad strands of political history, principles of government and representation and the bones of the major ideologies in a non-partisan manner – not an unbiased manner, mind; in a manner which makes the presence of bias clear and obvious enough for students to go and educate themselves. As far as I’m concerned, civics education and democracy should go hand in hand – and civics education and compulsory voting must go together. As it stands, we rely exclusively on the media to give us the information we need to be free and self-governing – without any sort of formal idea about what it means to be free and self-governing, or any critical tools to judge whether we are, or whether the information we get is sufficient to that end.

So, while I’m unconvinced that 16 and 17 year-olds should vote, the idea of them voting with a civics education is frankly less frightening than the idea of adults voting without one.


Adult Community Education serves two key purposes: reducing poverty and building strong skilled adults active within their communities. The National government is drastically cutting it, consigning people to lives trapped in poverty and weakening communities. 

The cuts are both deep and vicious, school ACE funding is being cut by 80% from 2010, tertiary ACE funding from 2011, and inflation indexing goes from both, and the funding to help providers develop community education vanished overnight.

National has been banging on about “moroccan cooking courses” and describing them as “hobby courses”, but the reality is very different. Firstly a quick look at any ACE provider will show a very different picture of courses from the one Anne Tolley would like to paint. My local school provider, for instance, is teaching first aid, assertiveness, anger management, effective communication, and how to teach adults – all valuable, all losing funding in 2010.

Secondly, hands on life skills courses are an effective bridge back into education. Within my extended family and network of friends I can think of several people who’ve taken a first easy step back into education through a “hobby” course, found that they could succeed in education and taken another course, and blossomed from there. A concrete example: bike maintenance -> communication skills -> effective writing -> interview preparation -> a brand new job and career. By removing the bridging courses National are consigning a whole raft of people to on-going poverty and no access to education.

Thirdly, we suffer from relatively weak communities in New Zealand: individuals are isolated, people want to help others but don’t know how, community organisations are underfunded, under resourced and lack structural skills. Community Education has been one of the more effective mechanisms for addressing this, not only do they build relationships and create community facilities and meeting places, but they also teach the skills that effective community organisations need.

Anne Tolley, by butchering the Community Education sector, has acted both to keep the weak ill-educated, isolated and unskilled, and to undermine the community organisations that try to help them.

Hope springs eternal

datePosted on 11:06, May 1st, 2009 by Lew

Over at The Standard the aptly-titled Mathemagician has been snapped trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat to prove that the government’s student loan carrot is in fact a stick.

This is fundamentally the problem with True Believers – they’re so committed to an ideological position (in this case, that National are trying to rip everyone off) that they’re credulous to the point of naïvete. Skeptic founder Michael Shermer lists this as one of the five core reasons Why People Believe Weird Things in his book of the same name: if it suits people’s worldview to believe something, they don’t bother to examine it too closely for fear they might prove themselves wrong.

The most cursory bit of critical thinking about this topic ought to have revealed it was all smoke and mirrors, but there wasn’t even that – in this sense it’s sort of like Schneier’s Law, viz:

Any person can invent a security system so clever that he or she can’t imagine a way of breaking it.

Since they’ve deleted the old table showing the original calculation, here’s a screenshot. Good work, Pat.


Identity politics behind school stabbing?

datePosted on 13:01, March 4th, 2009 by Lew

An article in the Herald gives a clue in favour of what I suspected: that there might be more to the assault by an Avondale College student on teacher David Warren than meets the eye. A few bullet-points below:

  • Warren was a Japanese-language teacher with a brusque and sometimes offensive manner, who allegedly joked about the Republic of Korea. His attacker was new to NZ and likely unfamiliar with our ways had apparently been here for two years and at Avondale College all of 2008.
  • Korean students (and I’ve taught hundreds) are quite strongly inculcated to respect and admire teachers. It’s part of their Confucian socialisation. I simply can’t imagine one attacking a teacher, or even speaking rudely to a teacher they don’t know very well indeed, much less while in a foreign country.
  • Probably the only thing stronger than this is the Korean sense of national pride. If the two things came into conflict, it would have to be a grave insult indeed to result in this sort of response.
  • Koreans have an abiding hatred of the Japanese, founded (among other things) on the crushing occupation they suffered through the first half of the 20th Century and not helped by a) pervasive anti-Japanese propaganda at home and b) continual denial by the Japanese of any imperial wrongdoing (not unlike their attitude to China and elsewhere).
  • If a joke was made in the context of the Japanese language, which Koreans were forced to adopt, learn, and use, even to the point of taking Japanese names (not unlike how Māori was here, though more brutal) about Korea, then I can certainly see it being grave enough.
  • Students are speaking anonymously about the case for fear of expulsion – WTF? Why does the school get to impose this sort of constraint?
  • Avondale College Principal Brent Lewis claims to know nothing of the sort, contradicted by his own staff and pupils. I detect arse-covering.
  • I can’t find any reference to the incident on Korean English-language news sources, but if there emerges a sniff that this may be a matter of national identity, it could turn into a Big Freaking Deal. Especially with Lee Myung-bak here to gladhand and the chance of a Free Trade Agreement being floated. Talk about bad timing. Update: exexpat notes below that Korean-language media have picked it up, with the nationalism line intact.

None of this is to excuse the student’s attack, of course. But it doesn’t look like a random bit o’ violence to me.

Update: The attacker has been named, and a bunch of the details seem to be disputed, see here. I’ve amended the post to remove details which seem to be incorrect.

Disclaimer: Can I be completely explicit for people who are too suspicious to believe or too stupid to read the statement above (which I almost didn’t put in because I thought it was bleeding obvious): I am not trying to blame Warren or defend Chung – I am trying to consider the dynamic in play here. If you attempt to call this into question or engage in any such behaviour yourself, expect to be soundly ridiculed. You might note I’ve tagged this post hate crimes.


Four-day week – analysis?

datePosted on 23:17, February 19th, 2009 by Lew

Since I spend my workday up to my eyeballs in the media, it’s very rare that I watch ONE News Tonight, and even rarer that I come across something I don’t already know.

(Red Planet Cartoons)

Today, I managed to elude the fact that the government is considering support for a four-day week for businesses which might otherwise consider layoffs, paying (part of?) the fifth day’s income, while staff undertake training or community work. Until Tonight, that is. This seems to me an excellent idea, if it can be well-implemented. It accounts for the necessary scaling-back in production which some industries will experience, while subsidising future productivity increases to come from improving the skill base of NZ workers, which means that once the recession passes, the country will be better-positioned to hit the ground running, as it were, and enable the government to pay back the debt which will necessarily accrue from the scheme.

(As a sidebar: that a National government is even considering such a thing represents a huge change in political culture.)

There are certainly pro- and contra- arguments to this sort of scheme which I’ve not considered; as you can tell by the cartoon, I’m not unaware of the general uselessness of make-work-for-the-sake-of-making-work schemes. Friedman’s quote, on the linked site, is especially well-taken:

“If all we want are jobs, we can create any number — for example, have people dig holes and then fill them up again, or perform other useless tasks. […] Our real objective is not just jobs but productive jobs”

The question is one of implementation: what would be necessary for a make-work scheme which results in productivity improvements down the line to be better than redundancy – the consequent productivity increase that brings as they try to better themselves, less the productivity drain they represent, being out of money and therefore not consuming, or on welfare?

This is a complex question, and I invite you to argue your corner. But please, I’m not interested in ideology-bound doggerel of the `OMG statist corrupt meddling communism’ sort, or its inverse – I’m not an economist, but I expect a high standard of analysis, the more formal the better.


Because she’s Indian

datePosted on 23:51, February 13th, 2009 by Lew

Now, I don’t have a Facebook account. I’ll rant to you another time about why I consider social networking to be a form of mass surveillance; just let it be said than before hiring anyone, and I’ve hired a lot of people in the past few years, I check out their social networking pages. But damn, it’s wild what some people will put up there in public.

Anyhow, my wife has a Facebook account, and she just found that someone she knows has a child whose ethnicity is listed on some official form as `Indian/NZ European/Pakeha’, who got automatically enrolled in an ESOL course upon enrolment at some school. Yes; apparently you can get yourself automatically enrolled in a course in school because of your ethnicity. (Think of the possibilities! I’d start with enrolling everyone of `NZ European/Pakeha’ in the full suite of Te Reo Māori courses).

Apparently she found it pretty easy and reckoned she was the best in the class; she’d been speaking English and nothing else ever since she was born.

Now, there was a fair bit of the old `moribund bureaucratic state schools’, and rightly so. But what I think was grand about the ensuing discussion was that people universally found it absurd that someone would be prejudged on their stated ethnicity. Best quote: “Maybe they could teach her Indian as a second language?”

Good stuff.


The politics of state funding to private schools

datePosted on 06:00, January 21st, 2009 by Anita

In the United States for a long time the Christian Right and the Economic Right existed in parallel trajectories. They campaigned for different things, they didn’t co-ordinate, and they didn’t overlap in membership. Then they started flirting, they each recognised the political power the other had. The issue that brought them together was public funding to religious schools; it was something they both wanted. For one it was direct funding, for the other it was tax payer subsidisation of the education of the rich. The Republicans, keen to draw in the conservative Christians hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools

In Australia as John Howard built his brand off his Methodist values, rolled back liberal measures and developed and used the conservative Christians, his government hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools.

In New Zealand, as the Brash and then Key led National Party fought against a liberal incumbent and developed its relationship with the conservative Christians both leaders promised church groups that they would increase funding to religious schools. Now they have been elected and are promising to nearly double the funding to private (religious) schools.