If it’s smart people you want, we’ve got a great education system. If you want good people, we’re not doing so well.
We’ve got cosmetic surgery, 3G cell phones, flat screen TV, the new Airbus 380B with reclining seats, and we’ve even got flavoured water with added vitamins. The education system is playing its part in producing people who can make things better faster and more stylish. And the system is producing people who are successfully persauding us that we need to go faster, better, funkier.
But if the function of education is to produce balanced, thoughtful virtuous citizens in a just and honourable society, the education system, along with the rest of the body politic, pulls up a bit short.
People will argue till the cows come home about how much should be spend on health, education and welfare. The answer is as much as you’ve got, and then can borrow. Thus mountains of money are spent in Wellington on policy process and curriculum development … all garnished with smart offices, smart perks and lots of overseas conferences. Any one who has dealt with the education hierarachy can tell tales of monunmental waste, inefficiency and stupidity, comparable only to the social welfare and health departments, councils and, the most useless organisation in the history of the world, the Sudan railway company.
The result is that most children learn to read and write, and from then on largely educate themselves with a little help from the ministry. Curriculae change with fashion. Maori and Mandarin replace Latin and Greek. Media Studies replaces manual training, but essentially the proletariat is trained up sufficently to keep the economy rolling along. The lattes will never go cold and the milk will be ever trim.
But do we train people to think?
Hardly. Logic and reason catapulted the western world from the tyranny and bondage of feudalism and superstition to our present position of privilege and material comfort. The pen is mightier than the sword, and when the sword is allowed precedence, as in Zimbabawe and Israel, the result is a swift return to chaos and barbarism.
Our forebears taught the classics not because they thought it was essential to know greek and latin and history and political science. They taught these subjects because they believed it was essential that we could could think. And people who can think produce a society, generally based on sound democratic principles, which produces the greatest opportunity for the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
A poignant example of our failure to rationally debate important issues is the decision to build two more prisons. There is widely researched and irrefutable evidence that apart from a tiny minority of mad psyschopaths, imprisonment fails to benefit anyone – innocent or guilty – and is a completely non-productive waste of time and money. Criminals should be punished and rehabilitated, but prison is not the way to do it. People who believe that locking up criminals and throwing away the key are basically idiots. The causes of crime are poverty, deprivation, ignorance and the social tolerance of vice. Yet both the past and present administrations are committed to building more prisons.
Alexander Pope maintained that an honest man is the noblest work of God. A computer programmer is the noblest work of our present education system. At the moment, I’d prefer Alexander Pope over Anne Tolley as Minister of Education, and that’s despite the fact that Pope has been been dead for over 200 years. And as for travelling by rail in the Sudan, that’s another story.