The New Zealand Scholar: J. C. Beaglehole’s Essential 1954 Lecture

John Beaglehole The New Zealand Scholar lecture essay
John Beaglehole’s desk as he left it on 9 October 1971. Photograph by Lyn Corner.

If there is one New Zealander who has a claim to be the New Zealand scholar, it is John Cawte Beaglehole: authority on Captain James Cook, lifelong professor at Victoria University in Wellington, man of culture and letters. Beaglehole studied Cook, a man whose journeys and discoveries “enlarged the world”, as Allen Curnow’s poem put it, and in doing so Beaglehole both enlarged the world of knowledge and created a tradition of scholarship in this country.

117 years after Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his lecture on the nature and aspirations of The American ScholarBeaglehole delivered his own lecture taking up the same question in the New Zealand context. The date was the 21st of April 1954; the occasion, the Margaret Condliffe Memorial Lecture at Canterbury University College. The lecture Beaglehole delivered, later turned into an essay, is a New Zealand classic. When I first read it a couple of years ago on a brief trip back to New Zealand while studying overseas I was stunned by how deftly Beaglehole took up Emerson’s challenge, moved beyond it, and seemed to embed all the while a sense of what New Zealand uniquely needs in its minds.

However, the lecture/essay is notoriously difficult to track down. There is certainly a Digital Emerson, but nothing similar for Beaglehole. The only stand-alone book produced with the essay was done in an edition of 100, and, so far as I can tell, the essay has never been published online. Your best bet in finding the essay has been a book published in 1969 on the occasion of John Beaglehole’s retirement: The Feel of Truth, edited by Peter Munz.

Like Emerson’s was to so many Americans, Beaglehole’s essay is a guiding beacon for New Zealanders wondering where and how to direct their mental energies. It was a particularly bright beacon during a time when New Zealand had little in the way of culture to speak of; but culture and tradition is never-ending, so the beacon should not be much less bright today. Beaglehole calls Emerson’s lecture America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence”; and I hazard that Beaglehole’s own lecture might be seen in similar terms in this former colony.

Beaglehole’s description of the war of intellectual independence:

“A war of intellectual independence is, in the region of the mind, a pretty bloody, painful and wearing thing. It is a civil war; and it shocks into division not merely society—that would not matter so much perhaps—but also the mind of the individual.”

For America, before the declaration of intellectual independence, Beaglehole says that “Culture, the life of the mind, still came from the east.” Ambitious Americans travelled to England, to be “in contact with the heart of things”:

“The expatriates come not from the colony, but from the province. The individual becomes mature—or rather, the potentially mature individual has the unease, the discontent, the growing pains that afflict him in a limited society, and he turns his eyes and his feet towards the metropolis. Nor is this simply a matter of the ambitious young person wanting to make his fortune; not inadequate fortunes are to be made in the province, as every shrewd metropolitan businessman knows. It is a matter of the provincial wanting more life, as a writer perhaps or an artist—to be in contact with the heart of things, even if the heart of things is felt in poverty in a garrett.”

And for the New Zealander prior to 1954, Beaglehole says (though we can ask whether the same is still true today) that:

“For the New Zealander, to go home was to go into exile; the New Zealander was like an Antaeus who sucked up not life but death from the soil, the death of the mind. Is this too melodramatic? Then consider the plight of the sensitive and articulate New Zealanders who have lived much abroad. They are people torn in twain. They are a Katherine Mansfield, with “New Zealand in her bones”, but with New Zealand perforce taking on a rather romantic distant haze, of her own remembered childhood and youth; they are a Robin Hyde, who (to quote Mr McCormick) “knew her country with an intimacy and an understanding that few have equalled, but… was drawn by an irresistible compulsion to Europe where she was to meet her death”—her physical death; they are a John Mulgan, to the first few paragraphs of whose Report on Experience I refer you; they are others to whom I have talked within the last five years, and for whom it is, now, too soon, or too late, to come back.”

After that declaration of intellectual independence America had its own tradition, its own culture, that meant its citizens were not to go into exile should they come home—and it is that idea of how New Zealand might come to have the same thing that Beaglehole takes up in the rest of the lecture:

“Must we continue to consider him as a “post-graduate scholar”, fleeing to the other end of the earth for salvation, driven back only by circumstance to a state where he feels damned? My autobiographical fragment will show that my own answer to this has become No; and I think that the concept of tradition may give us a lead into the function that should be his.”

Beaglehole is using Emerson’s definition of a scholar as man thinking. This is a broad definition and allows for not only academics but writers and artists and musicians, people of any kind who use their minds to “enlarge the world”. And it is the creation of a tradition by people thinking that can allow life to be “rich and varied” in a place that is not already a cultural ‘centre’:

“Now existence in a provincial context can be very satisfying if the province communicates life: if the individual, however highly cultivated (I do not say the intellectual snob) can feel at home in it, and has demands made upon him that he feels it worth while to meet. The province will communicate life only if it has a rich and varied life; and the province that has a rich and varied life has a rich and varied tradition.”

How, then, can the province have a rich and varied life, and therefore a rich and varied tradition? This takes Beaglehole to the thrust of his lecture, of the very role of the scholar, of anyone thinking deeply in the country. It is this passage that stands out for me of the whole lecture, particularly where Beaglehole draws attention to the double role that thought must play, being both within the “old-world tradition” and the “tradition that is peculiar to ourselves”:

“A tradition is not a thing that just happens, and persists without the conscious knowledge of those it affects. If we are to profit from it in the best possible way, to extract from its riches the maximum nourishment, we must discover it. It needs critical enquiry, conscious exploration. It is the scholar’s job to make the tradition plain. As a scholar, he must be in the tradition; but he must also stand outside it, and with a double duty, to make real in New Zealand both the old-world tradition, that which we share with others, and the tradition that is peculiar to ourselves. He is concerned with the pattern of life we have got from our own past, as a community in this country, and so with our sense of the age we live in, in this place now. Our scholar, for this purpose, tended to be a literary critic; but in a broad sense he must be a historian, whether his subject-matter be literature, art, politics, economic development, social relations of any sort at all… Whatever he is, he must be conscious of what he is doing, he must be critical.”

Beaglehole draws attention to a tension in T. S. Eliot’s writing, where he says at one point that tradition must be “in the blood”, but that we must also obtain it “by great labour”. But, Beaglehole says,

“I do not think the paradox that emerges from the changed emphasis of the Eliotian mind is at all a real contradiction. For our scholar, our critical historian, is also according to the measure of his greatness in some sort a creator. As he disentangles our tradition, as he makes us conscious of ourselves, he gives us ourselves.”

The measure of success of New Zealand’s culture and tradition might be measured not in how many New Zealanders we manage to encourage to stay in this country for study and beyond, but, rather, how many of those New Zealanders who do leave happen to come back:

“We can, I think, discern with due joy some auspicious signs of the coming days. It would not be auspicious if fewer New Zealanders left New Zealand; I would increase the flow from the province to the metropolis… Obviously some, having gone, will never find it in their hearts to come back. But a province with a tradition rich enough, with a pattern of life varied enough, with a sense of its own identity and its own time lively enough, will always bring enough of them back.”

More on Beaglehole:

“I think I am becoming a New Zealander”: Letters of J. C. Beaglehole, edited by Tim Beaglehole

A Life of J. C. Beaglehole, by Tim Beaglehole

J. C. Beaglehole: Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience by Doug Munro

Tutira: Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the Story of a Now-Toxic Lake

Tutira, Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station by William Herbert Guthrie SmithBrowsing grandparents’ bookshelves is always an experience of rediscovery. Books often seem to skip a generation, and then come back to teach the next. Finding William Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s book Tutira in my grandparents’ bookshelves left me embarrassed that I had not heard of it before—wondering, even, why I’d not been taught about it at school.

Tutira is, according to its subtitle, “The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station”. Its author came out to New Zealand as a young man of just 21, and set about finding a farm of his own. He first tried Canterbury, where he learned his skills, but soon moved to the norther climate of Hawkes Bay, finding the area north of Napier around Lake Tūtira to suit his purposes well. The book—large, heavy, and filled with maps and photos taken by Guthrie-Smith himself—is a record of 40 years spent farming the land, and was published in 1921, almost 100 years ago.

Lake Tutira photograph William Guthrie Herbert-Smith

No detail about the process of farming or the changes of the seasons and animals is too small for Guthrie-Smith. It’s a stunning work of patience and observation. We learn of the arrival of the willow tree in New Zealand direct from the seeds of the trees that planted Napoleon’s tomb on Saint Helena; we read descriptions of the floor of the lake as Guthrie-Smith plumbed it like Thoreau plumbed Walden pond. Spending a spring weekend reading Tutira is itself an exercise in patience; page after page of minute detail does not make for easy reading, but the whole picture built up is one of sensitivity and care for a natural environment that is changing beyond anyone’s understanding.

And that was Guthrie-Smith’s motivation for writing the book—to note what nature in early New Zealand was like, for those who may someday never see it. With great foresight Guthrie-Smith explains in his preface:

“So vast and rapid have been the alterations which have occurred in New Zealand during the past forty years, that even those who, like myself, have noted them day by day, find it difficult to connect past and present—the pleasant past so completely obliterated, the changeful present so full of possibility. These alterations are not traceable merely in the fauna, avifauna, and flora of the Dominion, nor are they only to be noted on the physical surface of the countryside: more profound, they permeate the whole outlook in regard to agriculture, stock-raising, and land tenure.

The story of Tutira is the record of such change noted on one sheep-station in one province. Should its pages be found to contain matter of any permanent interest, it will be owing to the fact that the life portrayed has for ever finished, the conditions sketched passed away beyond recall. A virgin countryside cannot be restocked; the vicissitudes of its pioneers cannot be re-enacted; its invasion by alien plants, animals, and birds cannot be repeated; its ancient vegetation cannot be resuscitated,—the words “terra incognito” have been expunged from the map of little New Zealand.”

And then I remembered, after reading about half the book, when I had last read the name Tutira—earlier this year, in a New Zealand Herald article titled simply, “Lake Tutira Turns Toxic.”

“Lake Tutira has an algal bloom likely to be toxic to people and animals… Warning signs were permanently in place at Lake Tutira but people were urged to avoid contact with the lake water and to keep animals away while the cyanobacteria were present.”

It seems too great an irony—too painful a one—that it is Guthrie-Smith’s lake (he gifted the land to the Crown after his death and it is now managed by the Department of Conservation) to be now a feature example of the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. Cleaning up rivers to make them once again swimmable was one of the few points of agreements by virtually all parties in New Zealand’s recent general election, which is at once a promising sign, but also a depressing one for how it came to needing to clean them up in the first place.

And though the decrepit state of Lake Tutira is recent, one of Guthrie-Smith’s central messages is that the environment is changing all the time—species of trees were dying in his day, rare birds disappearing frequently. Environmental change is itself perhaps the only constant in Tutira. Later in his life, while preparing the third edition of his book, Guthrie-Smith began to repent for so many of the changes he himself had caused on the land; Tutira Station itself had once been native bushed, burned down to make way for his farm. Though Guthrie-Smith seems resistant to any grand narratives or messages, one can sense a message of encouraging people to have care and compassion for the land and its species—to understand the necessity of change, but to be thoughtful and caring in it.

If New Zealand had a Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Guthrie-Smith would seem to be it—minus a political message but with a whole lot more conviction and example.

My family’s copy of the book belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles William Corner, who spent his life tending Napier’s parks and gardens. I don’t know if he ever met Guthrie-Smith, but in the small world of Hawkes Bay at that point—and the smaller world of naturalists and gardeners—I think it quite likely.

Note: After writing this I came across an article reviving Guthrie-Smith in the context of Hawkes Bay today. It’s a great read, with more detail than I’ve given here.

Herbert Guthrie Smith, Tutira 1926 William Blackwood

Montaigne on the Education of Children

“The greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge,” Montaigne says, “seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education of children.” That seems right; and yet it’s hard to argue that we’ve solved the difficulties.

The problems Montaigne diagnosed with education in his day, almost five hundred years ago, are really no different to the problems we still see today. He pleas for an education system that focusses on the individual, even going so far as to advise the person to whom his letter is addressed to not send her son to school, but to instead find a full-time private tutor. Our education focusses so much on the masses that it fails to give anyone a real education:

“If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance, it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.” 

What is the ultimate point of our education? We debate that question keenly, but for Montaigne it was clear: “The gain from our study is to have become better and wiser by it.” By this he means understanding or a kind of judgement that informs thought and action. Memorisation is the enemy of understanding:

“It is the understanding… that sees and hears; it is the understanding that makes profit of everything, that arranges everything, that acts, dominates, and reigns; all other things are blind, deaf and soulless. Truly we make it servile and cowardly, by leaving it no freedom to anything by itself. Who ever asked his pupil what he thinks of rhetoric or grammar, or of such-and-such a saying of Cicero? They slap them into our memory with all their feathers on, like oracles in which the letters and syllables are the substance of the matter. To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep.”

Memorisation is unrelated to education, for an education properly understood must be about understanding and judgement. And yet our schools continue to teach to tests, and tests require almost nothing but memorisation. This recalls Seneca’s lament that “We learn not for life, but for the schoolroom.” Likewise, when studying history, our schools focus on the irrelevant parts that are easily taught, and not on the essence of how what we learn could inform our lives:

“But let my guide (the teacher) remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.

Montaigne makes what is today a most controversial argument, arguing that science should be left entirely aside until students have acquainted themselves thoroughly with the philosophy of how to live. The common logic today is that students should prepare themselves with technical skills first, and learn about life later; but Montaigne entirely reverses this:

“It is very silly to teach our children ‘What effect have Pisces and Leo, fierce and brave,/Or Capricorn, that bathes in the Hesperian wave,’ the knowledge of the stars and the movement of the eighth sphere before the knowledge of themselves and their own movements.”

It is an argument for the humanities: that our first task in education is to come to know ourselves, so that we can then devote ourselves to a vocation once we are sure on the direction we wish our life to take. The sciences are a luxury; if we don’t know how to live, there’s no point in thinking about them. Montaigne argues, again following Seneca, that the reason so many people leap straight to vocational training before having learned how to live is because they misunderstand philosophy. Philosophy has been confused with complex constructions of logic (and philosophers are mostly to blame for that), when its essence is how to live.

I think all too often we feel the problems Montaigne diagnoses—the rote learning, the mass production that education has become, the sense that we leap into a career before we truly know ourselves—but are inclined to put these down to modern education. His is an important reminder that formal education throughout the ages has changed but little, with students, teachers, parents and public figures all concerned about the same things, but with entirely no idea what to do about it on a system-wide level. If anything, Montaigne demands that we—as students or as parents—take responsibility for our own education and the education of those around us, limiting whatever harms are done, and guiding towards a lifelong ability to learn in order to understand.

The edition I’ve quoted from is The Complete Essays of Montaigne from Stanford University Press, translated by Donald Frame.

Can New Zealanders and Australians Afford To Study at a US University?

When I’m asked about how one goes about studying at a US university, or at least one modelled on the American higher education system, I’m usually first asked something along the lines of: is “college” the same thing as “university”, and what is a liberal arts degree? I decided to start writing up my responses to these questions I get asked all the time, and I answered that first general question in my article A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

The second question people ask is often not even phrased as a question. It goes something along the lines of, “Oh, there’s no way I could afford to study in the US. It’s too expensive, and I’m not that rich.” The question embedded in that is, how do you afford it? Did you get a scholarship, or are you simply very wealthy?

The answer, to both of the above questions, is no. Well, mostly no. I have received a scholarship to study at Yale-NUS and for my time at Yale, but there’s still no chance I could afford to study there if that was the only financial support I’d received. So here’s a guide to how it works, and you should, for the most part, find reason to be pleased: if you are committed to working incredibly hard for a few years to gain admission to a top US university, the finances will work themselves out. Really.

If one of the first things you’ve done is looked at the fees listed on US college and university websites, most of us would indeed have reason to close our browsers, run a mile from the computer, and never again consider studying in America. Yale, for instance, says that the base cost of attendance for one year for an undergraduate in 2016-17 is USD$68,230. I emphasise: United. States. Dollars. At current exchange rates, that’s NZD$98,000 and AUD$93,000. Of those fees, USD$50,000 is the tuition cost, and the remainder is for room, board, and other expenses. I’m taking Yale as my example, but the numbers are really very similar for most universities as an international student (we aren’t eligible for any subsidies).

But unfortunately for those of us from countries outside the United States, things get even more expensive. Roundtrip flights from Wellington, New Zealand to New York, for instance, come to roughly NZD$2,500, and you’d be looking at doing that flight twice a year. The reality is you’re unlikely to stay in your room on campus for the entire semester, so you’re going to need money to cover other living expenses, maybe a couple of thousand per semester. Exchange rate differences can come to be truly scary—some of my friends have seen their cost of attendance double or even triple in the course of a year depending on how the exchange rate swings.

To put it simply: the sticker price for a year of study at a US university is going to be over $100,000, whether in Australian or New Zealand dollars. For a degree, then (four years at US universities), it’s going to come to roughly half a million NZ/AU dollars.

Before I get onto the details of how that amount is very rarely what you would be paying, here’s one brutal reality: only the top universities have the financial resources to subsidise the cost of your education. The middle band of US universities—the ones which in all likelihood you haven’t heard of—will not provide financial assistance to international students. This means that unless you can afford the full price of the education as above, you need to gain admission to one of the top universities to have your education subsidised. The Ivy League.

And what of the Ivies, the other top small liberal arts colleges, and international universities like Yale-NUS College and New York University in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai? What do they do differently? The key term you want to know is financial aid.

Here’s a statement taken directly from Yale’s page on financial aid:

“Yale admits students without regard to their ability to pay and meets 100% of demonstrated financial need. For all students. Without loans.”

Financial Aid at US UniversitiesRestated, this means that if you are admitted, Yale will then look at your family’s financial situation and make an offer of financial support that will make it feasible for you to attend. It’s not about taking out a loan. It’s simply a subsidy on the total cost of attendance, and the subsidy can vary from a few thousand dollars to 100% of the cost. Yale also states that “Families whose total gross income is less than USD$65,000 (with typical assets) are not expected to make a contribution towards their child’s Yale education. Over 10% of Yale undergraduate families have an Expected Family Contribution of $0.” In 2015-16, the average financial aid award amount was USD$43,989; in other words, the average award cut fees by almost two thirds.

I’m taking Yale’s statements here as examples, but most other top universities offer almost identically-worded policies. The immense endowments of these universities make these generous financial aid policies possible, where other universities are simply unable to offer them.

It’s disappointing that many immensely talented young New Zealanders don’t bother applying to top international universities each year simply because they assume it will be too expensive. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who had dismissed the idea of international study from the start because their parents had told them not to even think about it, without knowing about financial aid.

The hard part is getting in. It is hard, but not impossible. If you have the brain and the work ethic, gaining admission should be your only focus; you should not let concern of finances stand in your way.

If you haven’t already, I do encourage you to read my post on liberal arts colleges in the US. US higher education is unique for its focus on the liberal arts, which offer students an opportunity to figure out what you should do, before then going on to learn how to do it for postgraduate study. That’s very, very different to what our universities in this part of the world offer, and it’s an idea that I think we should take far more seriously.

Some links to additional information and examples are below.

Harvard’s financial aid information

Yale-NUS College’s financial aid information

The University: An Owner’s Manualby Henry Rosovsky

A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

An introduction to American higher education and the liberal arts for New Zealanders and Australians considering tertiary study in the US

Applying as a New Zealander to study for university in the United States was a daunting process. There were so many things I’d never heard of: the SATs, the Common App, “safety schools”, “reach schools”, financial aid, liberal arts, to name just a few. But I think what made the process most daunting right from the start—and what made it difficult to find the right information—was that I didn’t understand the fundamental terms to describe the university itself in the American system.

Americans do not go to university for undergraduate study. They go to “college”. In New Zealand everyone talks about going to “uni” straight out of high school, and we’ll be choosing between doing law, medicine, commerce, engineering, architecture, and other vocational degrees. But when you go to American universities’ websites to look at studying those things, you’ll soon see that all of them require a “college” degree as a prerequisite. And no, that doesn’t mean a high school diploma, despite us in NZ using “college” to refer to high school. This can all be overwhelming and can make little sense for those of us in countries that follow a roughly “British” model of education, and it’s something I get asked about often. So here’s a brief guide.

The first thing to know is that in the American system of higher education (that’s what we call “tertiary” education), you can only complete a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science for your undergraduate degree. That’s right—no BCom, MB ChB, LLB, BAS, BE etc. In the United States, your undergraduate degree will only be a BA or a BSc, with honours, and it will take you four years to complete. (There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are in a very small minority). The “honours” part is usually not optional, as it is in Australia or New Zealand—if you get into the college, you’re going to do the honours part of the degree. This is why you’ll often hear many top schools in the United States called “honours colleges”, because simply by being admitted, every student is doing an honours program—it’s not something you apply for in your third year of study depending on how well you’ve done so far, as it is in New Zealand and Australia.

The term “college” itself comes from the fact that traditionally, higher education in America was conducted at liberal arts colleges. There were no universities. Yale was Yale College, not Yale University. Harvard was likewise Harvard College. These were usually small institutions at which students spent four years (as they do today) and completed a BA(Hons) (as they do today), and what made them truly unique was that all students lived on campus accommodation for all four years of their education (as they do today). Very often, professors lived and dined with students as well (as they often still do today!) So “college” is a physical place where you live and study for four years while completing your undergraduate education.

Universities later grew up around the colleges and began to offer professional or vocational degrees, which in the American system can only be studied at the postgraduate level. Yale University today, for instance, is now comprised of fourteen “schools”—one of which is Yale College, the only part of Yale to offer an undergraduate education. The other thirteen schools all offer postgraduate degrees, and twelve of them offer professional/vocational degrees—law, medicine, architecture, business, and so on. And yes, you first need an undergraduate “college” degree (or an equivalent undergraduate degree from another country) to gain admission into one of the “schools”.

So “colleges” are now often small parts of overall universities in the United States, but they remain an important centre for the whole institution. Sometimes, the original colleges declined to set up larger universities around the small college—these are now usually referred to as “small liberal arts colleges”, where the whole institution still only offers a BA or a BSc with Honours. Examples are Pomona College, Swarthmore College, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, Haverford, Middlebury, Carleton, to name some of the better known ones.

One other thing to note is that because you live on campus in the American college, you will be placed in a specific residential college for your four years of study. While studying at Yale College, for example (itself one of the fourteen schools of Yale University), I was placed into Branford College, one of the fourteen constituent residential colleges that make up Yale College. Each of the fourteen colleges is its own residential community with student rooms, a dining hall, a courtyard, and other facilities. (Fourteen is not a significant number; it’s merely random that that is the number of schools and colleges at Yale.) Each residential college will have a “Rector” or a “Head”, who is responsible for your residential life, as well as numerous other staff. Residential colleges truly are like smaller families or communities within the larger college, which itself is a smaller part of the overall university. (That’s a lot of uses of the word “college”—I hope it’s all clear!)

In New Zealand and Australia, as well as many other countries, we have a certain disdain for “arts degrees”. The implication is that students who do an arts degree either weren’t smart enough to get into a program like law or medicine, or simply wanted an easy time at university. I got a great deal of flack from friends and friends’ parents when I was applying to US universities when they heard I would be doing an arts degree—they assumed I was giving up and wanted to party at university, as is often the stereotype here in New Zealand. But in the United States, this couldn’t be further from the reality, since all undergraduate programs are what we call “arts degrees”. The American model of higher education is entirely built around the arts degree, and it is virtually impossible to study anything other than an arts degree for your undergraduate education. Even doing a BSc for your undergraduate years will require you to have taken many courses in the humanities and social sciences—the BSc is essentially an indication that you majored in a science subject at college, and intend to pursue some kind of science-related study for your postgraduate degree.

This emphasis on the arts in the American system, and the impossibility of doing any professional or vocational study for undergraduate education, gets to the heart of what makes higher education in the US truly unique. It all comes down to “liberal education”, or the “liberal arts degree”. The term is widely misunderstood, even in the United States, and yet it’s critical to understanding US colleges and to determining whether study in the US might be for you.

Here’s how I explain liberal education: whereas university study in Australia and New Zealand is concerned with learning how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson, and so on—undergraduate college education in the United States is intended to be about learning what you should do. 

Let’s delve into this a bit more. Undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the US—and those based on the US model, like Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where I study—often sell themselves based on the breadth of education you’ll receive. The idea is that whereas in Australia or NZ we immediately do highly specialised professional degrees and learn little outside that subject area, in the US undergraduate education is about broadening one’s mind, trying a whole range of subjects, and essentially having four years to explore intellectually before committing to a “vocation” which you will study at the postgraduate level. You’ll choose a “major”, which is the area you think you’re most interested in, but often there is a “common curriculum” or “distribution requirements” that forces you to take a range of subjects and classes outside that area. At Yale-NUS, for instance, one’s major (mine is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, for instance) is only 30% of all the courses that you take during the four years.

Breadth is an important characteristic of the liberal arts, but it is not the defining characteristic. What breadth achieves—and the reason all liberal arts colleges offer it—is that the point of your undergraduate education is to figure out what you want in life. Liberal education is about having four years to learn not about how to do things, though that may indeed be a part of your education, but instead to explore so that you can work out what you should want to do. Instead of asking during your undergraduate years, “How do I be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a journalist?”, liberal education is about asking “Should I want to be a doctor? Or should I be a writer instead?” It’s about using classes, and professors, and books, and mealtimes every day in the dining hall with friends and teachers, to learn about yourself for four years before committing to a profession or a vocation. With those four years of exploration, you should then be much more confident in the decisions you make about what to do with the rest of your life. And, of course, you then specialise to become a lawyer or a doctor during your postgraduate study.

Another way of explaining it is that university in Australia or New Zealand trains you to be a specialist in a certain subject area in which you’ll work for life; college in the US educates you on what it means to be human, so you’re more sure of what you should later train to be.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to each system. In the US you’re more likely to become a well-rounded human being with wide-ranging knowledge and interests, and you’re more likely to be confident and sure of what vocation you choose to commit to by the time you think about postgraduate education and beyond. The downside is that you spend an extra four years doing this, whereas in Australia and New Zealand (as well as South Africa, India, and really anywhere that has developed its education system from the British model) you would spend that time specialising and then beginning your career earlier. You can therefore find yourself further behind in a career than those who had studied the vocation for their undergraduate study. A college education, then, is a luxury; not everyone can afford it, and we should remember that this kind of choice in education is a huge privilege.

Which system better suits you is therefore an individual choice, though I personally am a strong proponent of taking the extra time to learn about ourselves and the rest of our lives that comes from the American system. I think it encourages people to discover what truly matters to them—what kind of interests and work you’re willing to devote your life to. Without being very sure of the decision you make in the Australian and New Zealand education systems, you might find yourself waking up in your mid-twenties realising that the degree you’ve spent five or more years training for is in fact not what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s a costly and disappointing realisation to have. Studying at an American college, by contrast, will give you a foundational understanding of yourself—will have (if it lives up to its ideal) helped you answer the questions of what you should do with your life, rather than how to do it—that will help you be a good person, whatever you later go on to do. Of course, you can have this kind of education for yourself in an Australian or New Zealand university by structuring your own education: you can do a BA(Hons) as you would in the United States. This is a great option, but you will need a degree of self-motivation and determination that you might not need at college in the US; here, you’ll face the stigma attached to “arts degrees” and won’t have the encouragement to explore intellectually that you would at a US college.

I’ll leave it there, and further note only that the picture I’ve painted of US colleges is a kind of ideal type. The degree to which colleges live up to that ideal will depend on the institution, and even down to the classes you take and professors you get—but nonetheless the fundamentals stand. That’s a brief primer on colleges vs universities, and what truly makes the American “liberal arts college” unique. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have other questions, and I can always delve into specifics on other college-related questions in another blog post.

To end, here’s some additional reading I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the US higher education system and the difference between education and training:

Why Teach?, by Mark Edmundson

The Voice of Liberal Learning, by Michael Oakeshott

College: What it Was, Is and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

Explaining the Value of Liberal Arts Education in New Zealand

An article in Wellington’s Dominion Post today describes how an “unpredictable labour market makes arts degree more relevant.” The gist of the article, by Richard Shaw, a professor and director of Massey University’s BA program, is that the workplace of the future will require more arts degree graduates. As the speed of technological change increases, technical jobs are becoming computerised, and entirely new jobs are being created. The workforce therefore needs graduates with “the capacities to think critically, communicate clearly, and cope with cultural diversity”, those skills that an arts degree teaches.

The argument is the one that arts and humanities programs the world over have been using over the past decade as the call for technical specialisation has seen graduation numbers decline. Arts programs have found themselves needing to justify their existence on the same terms as technical programs, which speak from ideas of productivity, employability, and ‘usefulness’. Specialised university degrees boast of higher employment rates of graduates, higher salaries, and moreover make the assertion that they are more practically useful to economies and societies. But by attempting to counter those claims, arts programs have merely subordinated the arts and humanities to the values of science and technology—values that the arts and humanities always stood as a counterbalance to.

I should say up front that I entirely agree all these arguments that defend the arts and humanities on terms of employability and usefulness. Arts degrees are the best foundation for anyone entering a world in which the meaning of work and technical skill changes annually. But while agreeing with the argument, I also think it is counterproductive; that by subordinating arts degrees to the terms of value set out by technical programs, we lose the essential values—and, yes, usefulness—of the arts and humanities. Simultaneously, we make it less likely that those students who study the arts and humanities will actually receive that kind of education; they will seek in it instead the kind of practical usefulness of technical programs, and look past what the arts and humanities truly offer.

Shaw fell into the trap when he says in his second paragraph, “Let’s put aside, for the purposes of this argument, all of those socially desirable things that a BA can impart: knowledge of self and curiosity regarding the world, the capacity to listen as well as to mount a cogent argument, and the ability to ask awkward questions of those in positions of power.” If we set those aside, we set aside the essence of an arts education. We set those aside, and then the only argument left is an attempt at saying, no, arts degrees are better for your job prospects. And if I were a prospective arts student struggling to justify that path against those who told me to be practical, to be realistic and think about a job, I’m not sure I’d listen to Shaw on blind faith that employers would leap at the chance of having me after graduation. And even if I did trust that, I would then be taking an arts degree for practical, prudential reasons—looking daily during my time at university for chances to improve a CV, taking classes and reading books for how they might put me ahead of others in the hunt for jobs. In doing that, I’d then have missed what an arts degree can offer that nothing else can—precisely those qualities that Shaw lists and then dismisses.

The real challenge for proponents of the arts and humanities—what a different tradition calls ‘liberal’ education—is to define its value on its own terms, and to resist the easy option of merely throwing statistics back at technical programs. Doing that makes for a neat op-ed, but does not help with the harder task of persuading students and society of the essential value of liberal education on its own terms.

In the United States this debate over arts degrees and technical training is much further developed, likely because the BA degree is the norm for American undergraduates. In the US, and in a range of other countries following the US system (including at my university, Yale-NUS College in Singapore), undergraduates complete a four-year BA degree, and then follow it by specialised training in postgraduate study. There, the debate is not so much on whether students should undertake BA degrees or other degrees, but rather what a BA should encompass—whether students should major in humanities subjects, or the sciences and social sciences for employability, within their BA.

As a result, most US colleges and universities take a broad approach to encourage students to study arts degrees, or the “liberal arts” as it is known. There is a focus on the intangible but very real benefits of a liberal education, captured in a slogan like “Four years to transform your life”, through to the same kinds of statistics advanced by Shaw in the New Zealand context. At the very least there is the recognition that the arts and humanities bring value of a different kind to the focus on statistics and productivity of other disciplines—and that those values are ones students should feel proud, rather than worried and concerned, to pursue.

Judging from this debate over the usefulness of liberal education in other countries, ours in New Zealand is just getting started. We should ensure that arguments made in favour of the arts and humanities demonstrate and advance the values that those disciplines bring, and not append them as garnish to the values of specialist university degrees.

A Future Without Personal History

Note: In 2011 I wrote this article for ReadWrite, a widely-read blog covering the technology industry, on what would happen if we didn’t make an effort to store our communication history. I lamented how older generations could look back through letters, physical records of their lives with one another, and yet we would seemingly be left with nothing. The article inspired an impassioned response from journalist Paul Carr at the blog TechCrunch and a lively online debate. I ultimately ended up founding a company based on the premise I wrote about.

I thought I’d re-share the article as I rediscovered it. I was sixteen at the time—things have certainly changed, and you’ll have to excuse the writing. And, irony of ironies, I now rather enjoy writing letters.

Remember those pieces of paper with handwritten words on them that you used to post to people? “Letters” I think they’re called. To be honest though, I wouldn’t have a clue, as I’ve neither sent nor received one in my 16-year-old life.

I’m sure the majority of readers here have at least sent a personal letter to friends or family in their lifetime. However, the same cannot be said about my generation. I’ve sent tens of thousands of emails, Facebook messages, SMSs, and IMs – but never a single letter.

More than solely being a form of communication, letters are a very effective historical item. Think about letters sent home to families from the soldiers on the battlefields of both world wars. Letters were kept because they have a perceived value – it took time and effort to send a letter, and therefore people viewed them as much more valuable.

My parents still have letters that they received more than 30 years ago, and when they read them now they say that they detail entire relationships and friendships. They have vast amounts of information about their own history stored inside the letters that they sent and received. It goes even further than that. My grandmother still has letters she received from her grandmother. If it weren’t for those letters, all that information about my own family history would have been lost, or confined to memory (which, as my parents are discovering, fails us all eventually).

And yet, I can’t tell anyone what I was discussing with someone a month ago. That’s testament to the digital age that I, and everyone in my generation, is a native member of. I find myself feeling incredibly guilty that my parents and grandparents went to so much effort to ensure that our family history was kept, and here I am frequently losing information about my life.

The frequency and brevity of messages sent today combined with the numerous mediums used means that this personal information now has a much lower perceived value: Your email storage fills up – you delete all your messages. You get a new mobile phone – all of your SMS’s are lost.

Some people are already worrying about what may happen if we continue to throw away our information. For example, the U.S. Library of Congress announced in April last year that it would be archiving every Twitter message ever sent. Sure it’s a phenomenal undertaking, but in no way is it enough. Think about all the different mediums of communication you use.

For example, today alone I have communicated with people via SMS, email, Facebook messages, Facebook chat, Whatsapp Messenger, Skype chat, and Twitter. Out of those, only my public Twitter updates are being stored. There are other efforts like the Library of Congress’ undertaking, but mass archiving won’t help us store our individual histories in a way that we can access.

What happens if, in three years, I want to go back through all my communications with my girlfriend? I may not be using an iPhone in three years, so all of my messages on Whatsapp Messenger will be gone. I definitely won’t be using the same mobile phone, so all of my SMS’s will be gone. My Gmail storage will have filled up, so I won’t have any of our emails any more. I doubt I’ll even still be using Facebook – there’s all of that communication gone.

All of this information that is so important and so relevant to me personally is just disappearing, and I won’t be able to track the relationships and friendships that I have had.

Personally, I am now backing up my computer daily, and copying and pasting communication from all different formats into different documents stored both on hard drive and in the cloud. While it’s a start, it’s an absolutely horrific task, and doesn’t completely work (I’m not going to be transcribing my SMS’s into a document).

The abundance of technology is severely devaluing information. Do we go on ignoring this fact, and losing the details of our lives? Or do we do the hard work, and attempt to effectively store our communications? I know that I’ll be putting in the hard work – at least until the magicians in Silicon Valley come up with a better solution.