Monday, 24 October 2016

Oh, the humanities

My employers’ employer, the University of Otago, has decided to cut staff positions in the humanities. Music is going to be hit the worst. As usual, the justification is money. It’s been suggested that maybe the University should ease off on its endless construction drive if it needs to free up some cash. (In twenty years I’ve never known the campus be without a big hole in the ground somewhere. Face it, Otago, the Richardson Building is a plug-ugly wodge of concrete and no amount of landscaping around it is going to change that.)

However, this wouldn’t fix the bigger problem, which is the government’s attitude. Statements from the Ministry make it clear – education is for fitting young people for the workforce; anything else is an indulgence. Here’s the official position in their Tertiary Education Strategy.

Skilled, knowledgeable individuals are essential to the success of businesses and other organizations. Access to skilled workers allows businesses to increase the value of their products and services and to pay higher wages. In turn, people are better off, healthier and happier, and New Zealand is a more attractive place to live and work.
For most young people, achieving a tertiary qualification is a crucial milestone towards a successful working career. Whether they study at a university, polytechnic, wānanga, private training establishment, or through an apprenticeship, a qualification gives them a concrete record of knowledge learned and skills gained that they can use to move up the employment ladder.

And in the Minister of Education’s own words, prefacing that document:

The new Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–19 has been developed to... contribute to the Government’s focus on improving New Zealand’s economic outcomes. The “Building Skilled and Safe Workplaces” programme of the Government’s Business Growth Agenda aims to materially lift New Zealand’s long-run productivity growth rate while maintaining our high rate of labour force participation. This requires tertiary education to better equip individuals with the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and in an innovative and successful New Zealand.

Sure enough, Priority 1 in the Strategy is “delivering skills for industry”. There is nothing anywhere about developing insight or critical thinking. Public education, to this government, is solely a means of polishing up new cogs to slot into the commercial-industrial machine.

My instinctive response to this is a string of expletives, but that’s not the way to build a counter-argument. If you want rational debate, start by taking your opponent’s concerns seriously. Education costs society money; don’t we then have a responsibility to pay that money back? Granted that some people derive personal value from knowing all about, say, the anti-imperial politics encoded in the Book of Revelation or the practice of cannibalism in indigenous South American funerary rites, shouldn’t they stump up their own cash for it?

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Why women are better than men

Once upon a time, people say, you could tell the plain truth about things and be admired for it. Now they make you shut up and call you, as it might be, racist, sexist, or homophobic. I’ve had my quarrels with these people before and I expect I will again. But today I share their experience. I have a truth to tell which will offend people because it upsets the illusion that we are all equal. Here it is:

Women are better than men.

This is not hyperbole, rhetorical or otherwise. Nor is it a joke, though I confess myself slightly amused to imagine the offended huffing and puffing it will cause among some who pride themselves on being immune to offended huffing and puffing. It is, I admit, a generalization; but it is, I insist, a valid generalization.

Consider, as a parallel, the statement “Women are shorter than men.” That’s a generalization, but a valid one. It doesn’t mean that women can walk upright under toilet stall doors while men frequently get their hair tangled in power lines. It doesn’t even mean that the tallest woman is shorter than the shortest man. You can’t falsify it by picking Gwendoline Christie as your exemplar of women and Peter Dinklage as your exemplar of men. No-one denies that the distributions overlap – that many men are shorter than many women. But you still know perfectly well that women, in general, are shorter than men, in general.

Likewise, I’m not claiming that all women are saints and all men are serial killers. I’m not claiming that the worst woman in the world is better than the best man. I am claiming that women, in general, are of better moral character than men, in general. This claim being a generalization, you can’t falsify it by picking, say, Ann Coulter as your woman versus William Kamkwamba as your man. And in case you didn’t believe me the first time, this is neither a hyperbole nor a joke. So you’re going to want some evidence, aren’t you?