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.

Thoughts on New Zealand’s School Decile Funding System

New Zealand’s school decile funding system has hit the news again, with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill English making public his opposition during a visit to Taita School outside of Wellington.

The idea of decile funding is sound. It is an attempt to take a proxy for the average level of socioeconomic need in a given school, and then to target additional school funding above the baseline to those schools with greatest need. It is, at its most fundamental, a recognition of the fact that the hardships of socioeconomic deprivation can affect the educational opportunities of students, and that providing equality of opportunity requires a concerted effort to counter the effects of deprivation.

Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement (TFEA) is the primary means by which additional funding is provided to students. For 2016, for instance, a Decile 1A school (the lowest on the decile measure, indicating severe socioeconomic need) will receive an additional $915 of funding per student above the baseline funding that all schools receive per student.

Again, I believe the decile system and TFEA are sound ideas to counter one of the most critical problems a country can face, and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to make of their life what they wish. And yet, when one delves into how they work in practice, it becomes clear that a good idea does not necessarily solve the problem.

1. Only 45% of students of low socioeconomic status (SES) students attend a low decile school.

This is a critical failure of the use of a proxy to make an assumption about all students in a given school. Deciles are calculated using five socioeconomic measures of the geographic area in which a school is located. But within that area, there will clearly be disparities—some students will be severely deprived, while others may in fact not have great need.

Furthermore, the decile funding system does not correlate to school zoning, meaning that students outside of the area used to calculate a school’s decile may attend a low decile school.

And yet the decile system and TFEA treat all students within a school as of the same decile. The statistics show us that the failure of this proxy is stark: over half of students in a school receiving maximum TFEA do not in fact have the lowest level of socioeconomic need. This also means that there are 55% of students with severe deprivation who attend schools receiving less than maximum TFEA.

Deciles target schools as a whole, but students have their own lives and their own stories. Proxies are necessary tools of policy; but the decile proxy is one that is not working.

2. A decile includes 10% of schools, but only 6.8% of students in New Zealand attend a decile 1 school.

Deciles count the number of schools, but schools do not all take the same number of students. Indeed, higher decile schools have higher numbers of students than low decile school. This means that, as above, fewer students receive the TFEA that they should.

To put this another way, Targeted Funding for Education Achievement should in theory reach 90% of students (all students aside from those in decile 10 schools), and yet in practice it reaches 84%. This is another sign of the failure of the proxy to get resources where they need to be.
Those are two data points that to my mind are all that are necessary to show why deciles aren’t working in practice. And yet, of course, part of the bigger debate over deciles has been the stigmatisation of students because of the decile of the school they attend. It is the sad irony that decile funding doesn’t target individual students, and so much of this funding does not reach the students it’s meant for; and yet the stigmatisation of a decile is very much attached to individual students. This stigmatisation can be as harmful as socioeconomic need itself.

The decile system is at once too transparent in the message it sends of students’ backgrounds, as well as too opaque to work correctly. There are better proxies that could be used, especially with the kinds of data collection possible today. But whatever system is designed, it needs to ensure accurate targeting of funding, and it needs to do so without any stigmatisation being attached to schools or students. Opacity is not necessarily a bad thing in this context; and nor could be eschewing labels entirely, instead simply directing actual resources (especially the best teachers) to schools with the highest levels of need.

This is one of the most important problems, and the decile system has been a serious attempt to solve it. But it’s time to try something new.

The Future of Social Networks

Note: I wrote this article in 2011, looking at how social networks could more accurately mimic real life societies. It ended up being the single most-read and most-commented-on piece on my blog. I was sixteen at the time, so excuse the writing. Interesting to see both how the numbers have changed since 2011 (600 million users! One and a half years!), as well as how Facebook has and has not moved closer to the vision I outlined.


So Facebook has 600 million users. Many people are saying that Facebook will now be here for ever, and the entire planet will eventually be on Facebook. The same people are saying it will grow to be the biggest company in history, and that it’ll make a killing for investors. I disagree. This article explains why I disagree, and discusses what social networks should look like to succeed.

Social networks are still in early days. I don’t think they’ve really matured in any way, because they are still built on false assumptions that were made beginning with the first few mainstream social networks. The system of “friending” is completely broken, and yet many people don’t realize it because they don’t stop to ask why it is that way.

Facebook says that all my friends and contacts are of equal importance to me. They know this isn’t true, but there is no way for me to distinguish between friends I am truly close with or contacts that I met at a conference and felt obliged to accept on Facebook. In real life, we rank our connections in order of how important they are to us and how close we are with them. But on Facebook, this system has gone out the window because that functionality is not built into the social network.

But there is more about Facebook that is broken. Facebook is a “one-size-fits-all” social network. In other words, it thinks that everyone will find use in Facebook as long as they are on it with their friends. They believe that the higher the number of users they have, the more likely it is that people will keep joining. But this view goes against societal laws.

We live in societies in real life because we surround ourselves with people who share similar values, beliefs, and interests. Sure, the fact that I support one political party over another says that I have slightly different values to the person next to me, but fundamentally our values and beliefs are very similar. And living in a society allows me to know that anybody I meet will have fundamentally the same mindset as me. People who share similar religions live in the same societies, because they understand each other. This means that I can meet new people, and be social with a group outside of my existing close friends, with the knowledge that anybody I meet will be essentially similar to me.

Think about the term social network for a moment. When we hear it, we think of online social networks, like Facebook, with a system of “friending” and where we only communicate with our existing contacts. But social network is a broad term. Actually, it kind of describes how we relate to our contacts in real life. We have our own social network in real life, and you know what? It works. It’s called our society, and it’s been around for decades, if not centuries.

My question is: why aren’t online social networks built like physical societies?

Imagine this model as three circles, one inside of the other. The inner circle has your core group of friends and family – you share everything with them. There may only be 25 people in there, but these are the people who you would call to tell them something important that has just happened. They mean a lot to you. You’ll connect with these people by “friending” them – ie. mutual designation.

The next circle, which is quite a few times larger than the inner circle, is made up of your connections. These are the people who you’ve met at conferences, or know from school – you’re not close with them, but you’d talk to them if you saw them on the street. To connect with these people, you just have to specify them as a connection. It’s more like “following” them, only they will see that you have specified them as a connection and they can specify you back.

The third and final circle is made up of outer society. People you don’t know, but who you may meet someday. You cross paths with these people every day, but just haven’t yet taken the time to stop and talk to them. This final circle is huge – many, many times bigger than the previous two – and you have no direct link to them unless you choose to.

What this model allows is for us to differentiate between true “friends”, and mere “connections”. You can have a clear distinction between the two, allowing you to know more clearly who what you are sharing will reach. It gives you the ability to share more with those you really care about, without annoying connections. And, likewise, it allows you to share things with connections that you wouldn’t share with your family. And what about “outer society”? Well, you can interact with them as much or as little as you want.

The beauty of this model is that it allows us to choose how we want to use our social network. If we want to use it like Facebook, we can do that – the choice is entirely up to us.

But there will not be just one social network that looks like this. There will be tens, if not hundreds of them – each with millions of users. The social network that you are a part of will be a representation of who you are as a person. It will signify your values, beliefs, and interests.

When will this shift in model of social networks occur? I believe it will start in a year and a half, and reach the mainstream in about three years from now. That’s time for these new social networks to be built and perfected.

In any case, the battle of the social networks is far from over. Facebook hasn’t won, and there are plenty of genius programmers at colleges around the world. Good luck.