I’ve been news-fasting recently. For those of you who haven’t heard the term, it’s a deliberate decision to not listen to, watch or read any media for a while based on the premise that it’s always skewed towards doom, disaster and destruction.

The upside is you miss out on the endless photographs of road crashes on the front page of our daily newspaper, the inane stories about reality TV stars on our main television news channels, and the latest round of depressing job cuts across New Zealand’s public and private sectors. The downside (and I would argue there isn’t one) is that you can be accused of hiding from reality, being brainwashed by the mindfulness meditation course you went to recently (it was fantastic), or – my husband’s personal favourite – going all menopausal.

Mind you, he would say that. How else to explain my public and ‘irrational’ attacks on the relevance of his mathematics teaching in this magazine?

Anyway, irrational or not, it was a privilege to attend a conference in Adelaide recently for senior tertiary education managers from New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea, and to have the opportunity to ditch the local doom and disaster and take a helicopter view of tertiary education trends and challenges across Australasia.

Three speakers in particular provided inspiration for the more world-weary of us, and it’s their key messages that I want to focus on here, as I believe they have resonance for all of us in Hawke’s Bay.

Story-teller in action

The opening keynote speaker was Khoa Do – film director, screenwriter, philanthropist and Young Australian of the Year 2005. A Vietnamese refugee, he was nearly dropped into the sea by pirates when he travelled to Australia in a leaky boat as a baby with his family. Now only 33, he has achieved international renown in the film industry, particularly in choosing underprivileged young people from the wrong side of the tracks to help make and star in his films. In so doing, he has transformed many lives, with many of his teams going on to make and star in international films, and many also taking up second chance tertiary education. He was a fantastic speaker – a real story-teller in action.

Khao Do

Three key messages from Do have direct relevance in my view to the challenges many of our communities face at this time.

“In great obstacles lie great opportunities.” Do’s point was, of course, that his obstacles and those of the young people he works with are seemingly insurmountable, but can be addressed with vision and determination. He always did things that people said he could or should not do because of his ethnicity, his background, and his small stature, including aspiring to playing rugby for his school’s 1st XV!

In addition, he exhorted us to “focus on what you have, not on what you have not got.” Instead of bemoaning his poverty, and life as a refugee, he focused on what he had to get him to the heights he has achieved – family support, determination, vision, passion for film (as opposed to the law which he originally trained for) and a real sense of mission – to make life better for others who have also experienced being marginalised by various societies.

Finally (and this point will go down well with those enamoured of cost-cutting measures to bring New Zealand’s balance account back into the black) he emphasised that “You don’t need a lot of money to achieve great things.” Do’s first film with disadvantaged youth was made on a pittance scraped together – it won accolades and the young stars trod the red carpet with likes of Cate Blanchett. Again Do made the most of what he and his team had, not what they lacked.

Wilful stupity

By this time, I was starting to feel energised again, and things only got better. For those of us who appreciate wry, witty and occasionally vicious humour, Phillip Adams – broadcaster, filmmaker, author, archaeologist and controversialist – was a delight. He is considered an Australian national treasure, and runs a national late-night radio show – a thinking person’s radio show.

Phillip Adams

Adams’ main theme was that the role of higher education is to “slow the march of the hordes of the stupid.” His view is that the wilful stupidity of huge numbers of people these days is terrifying. His examples included the conspiracy theorists re 9/11; the climate change sceptics; the bigots; the anti-evolutionists – all delivered with dry and searing wit. The stupid, according to Adams, do not listen to science, or reasoned argument – they are wilful in their stupidity which heightens their danger to society. He cited the USA as arguably the most educated country in history, which is now rejecting evolution in favour of fundamentalist religious teaching in many schools. Where once we had evolution – ape to standing thinking man – in Adams’ view we now have begun devolution – people getting more stupid instead of more clever.

So how can higher education help? Adams started with two apparently contradictory statements: “The situation is hopeless” countered by “We must take the next step”. He argued that the fight against stupidity has to be taken one day at a time, a conversation at a time. It’s important to get engaged in issues. Crisis can create communities that will fight against stupidity. In some cases, the only choice is to fight or surrender – and we as individuals, and higher education in general, have a duty to fight.

Against the odds geek

The third hero of the conference from my perspective was Adam Spencer. Adam is now a media personality in Australia who grew up on the wrong side of town in Sydney, but who loved mathematics with a passion and cultivated himself as a self-confessed “geek” against the odds to achieve a PhD in his discipline.

Adam Spencer

As the first in his family to attend university, tertiary education transformed his life. He pointed out that it was critical that all of us in education keep an eye out for people like him and cultivate their potential. He gave some superb examples of the technology revolution – young people taking advantage of university environments to create amazing technological advances in science, medicine, and other disciplines, some of which cost hardly anything to then use in real world situations.

This was a feel good presentation about the power of a passion (maths) and the mentoring and inspiration provided by the tertiary education system and its people to immerse himself in that passion for its own sake, and utilise what he learned for the greater good.

The point of all this? [And remember, I’m currently apparently irrational.] It’s great to be inspired sometimes. Our passion for what we do can sometimes be lost in the day-to-day busyness of our lives. Not everything of value in education can be counted, graphed, and analysed. There are some amazing people in Australia doing some wonderful things; and there are some equally amazing people in Hawke’s Bay doing equally wonderful things. Let’s read, hear, and see more of them in our media.

And finally, there’s another person on the planet apart from my long-suffering husband who is passionate about maths. Who would have thought it?

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