The Gate of Wisdom: On Education and Democracy in New Zealand, or, Why We Need the Liberal Arts

Gate of Wisdom McCahon Gate III Victoria University of Wellington

“The eyes are not here

 There are no eyes here…

  Sightless, unless

  The eyes reappear.”

         — T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

— — — —

“He opened our eyes.”

That is what my grandparents always said appreciatively about the great, late professor John Beaglehole, scholar of Captain James Cook and one of this country’s foremost public intellectuals. During the many hours they and their classmates were lucky to spend with Beaglehole in his office at Victoria University and at his Karori home they saw a life and a mind filled with the best that had been thought, said, and created in New Zealand. My grandparents’ eyes were opened—opened to the history of this country, the inspirations and the consolations of art and music, and to the idea of a meaningful life spent in service to ideas and causes one believes in.

How different will be the recollections of university students today. We seem, often, to be exhorted not to open our eyes or to create meaningful lives, but rather to go about nothing more than maximising the monetary return on our educational “investment”—as if our time at university were no more than a matter of picking the right stock and knowing when to sell. That there might be more to an education than a ticket to a first job is a possibility rarely discussed, never praised; that we might learn of morals and values, or a sense of our responsibilities as individuals and as citizens, seems altogether too hard to believe, let alone to write about. Our present educational zeitgeist was summed up neatly by the Productivity Commission’s recent report on “New Models of Tertiary Education”, in which higher education has become naught but a matter of efficiency—professors, reduced merely to staff; students, to future workers. The report recommended that the government only fund university study based on the number and type of workers the country will need. It was all very well if we are intent on educating a nation of employees. Less so, if we are to be a country made up of citizens.

New Zealanders seem to me to be a people who understand implicitly that dollars are impotent when it comes to measuring the important things in life. Things like being able to take a walk in fresh air along the local beach, or the importance of our children having, you know, a childhood, rather than studying all night from age five. Whatever side of politics one lies on, I’ve always thought that we shared an essential belief in a Kiwi way of life being more important than money; that we all implicitly push against a system that sees children becoming automatons for the sake of economic gain.

So what I don’t understand is why, then, when it comes to our universities, we are a country that has so quickly and so readily given up the belief that there might be another kind of value in them. Values like individual discovery and civic responsibility: the opening of one’s eyes to what a good life might look like, and a belief in the power and obligations of citizenship. Why do we not see that it is precisely our education that determines the kind of values we see throughout life? Or how, in our eagerness to educate ourselves, and our children, merely for a first job, we miss out on the real ‘value’ that an education can provide? And why do we not remember, ultimately, that it is our education system that determines this country’s future: whether we slide easily into a winner-takes-all politics of the Trump era, or whether we are able to preserve some sense of community and some of the values we think to be uniquely our own?

This is about the future of education in this country. It’s therefore also about the future of our democracy. But most broadly, it’s about the victory of one kind of value at the ‘expense’ of all others: the extension of the tyranny of money and metrics into the very last place that can assert and preserve the value of all that is unmeasurable, including those things we New Zealanders value most highly.

It seems clear where we are heading. Yet thankfully these days distance seems not so tyrannical, and most of the time even beneficial. Might we use it to our advantage, looking with clear eyes at the future we are so eagerly running towards—and might we then step back from it; chart a different course?

— — — —

An article in a major New Zealand newspaper late last year called it the “Bachelor of Bugger All”—yes, that very kind of education that John Beaglehole so dedicatedly taught. The cheap formula summed up the prevailing attitude. Even people close to me have said similar about the Bachelor of Arts, in barely more polite terms. While clearly the ‘BA’ debate is alive and well in this country, what we don’t often think about is how circumstantial the terms of the debate here in New Zealand are—how our very understanding of the Bachelor of Arts is a result of the relative oddities of the development of our tertiary education system.

The history of the ‘arts’ is a long one. The term itself comes not from any reference to art or culture, but from the Greek idea of the ‘liberal arts’—liberal meaning done freely, or without compulsion, and arts meaning simply ways of doing things. In New Zealand we seem to have honed in on the less important of those two words, for it is the ‘liberal’ that matters more than the ‘arts’. The term ‘arts’ has no useful value on its own, for any way of doing something is an ‘art’.

The liberal arts always were contrasted with what can be called the instrumental arts—instrumental as in, done to achieve a productive, utilitarian end. For instance, writing is a skill that must be trained at, and when I write I attempt to manipulate words in order to persuade. Similarly, a pilot manipulates the controls in the cockpit of an airplane in order to safely fly passengers between two destinations. Instrumental arts require deep skill, as well as years of training and practice that often happens best in an educational institution.

But the liberal arts, by contrast, are not learned or studied for such practical ends. Learning about philosophy, or history, or reading literature (centrepieces of such an education): we study these not to get a job in these fields, but rather because these traditions help us to answer prior, human questions. Questions like what instrumental skills are worth learning, or what work one should dedicate oneself to; what a healthy democracy looks like, and how we can contribute to one. The liberal arts help us to determine what is worth wanting and what is worth doing, before we go about achieving those ends through instrumental arts we possess or may learn. The liberal arts are not productive in the way we usually understand the term (as immediately economically useful) and are therefore frequently criticised as useless, or impractical. But their role might in fact be to help us determine what is worth our valuing, and why.

It can be tempting here to keep the liberal and the instrumental arts dichotomised, to assume that one is for the more intellectual, the other for the more practical person. But in reality the one is useless without the other; they are two sides of the same coin. Knowing, from the liberal arts, what is worth doing and what is worth wanting is of limited ‘use’ if one cannot go about also achieving those things. We may decide that a given vaccine is of great importance to human health worldwide, but without instrumental arts like biology we cannot go about producing it. Contrariwise, knowing how to do many things, or how to produce a certain good or service, could be actively harmful if one does not first know whether that good or service is worth producing, worth humans’ wanting. Instrumental arts—science—created the atomic bomb, but no one asked the prior question of whether it should be created.

The one is not more important than the other, but the order in which we learn them does matter. This is something the American higher education system has right, amidst its many failings. In the United States, almost all undergraduate degrees are ‘arts’ degrees as we would understand them in New Zealand (they refer to theirs, more properly, as a system of ‘liberal education’). At Yale, for example, the only degree options at the undergraduate level are a BA or a BSc with Honours, completed over four years. And even under the BSc option, a number of what are called ‘distribution requirements’ necessitate that all undergraduates take a set of courses across all fields—philosophy, literature, history, art, science, math. All undergraduate degrees in America are ‘arts’ degrees as we call them.

That’s right: no law, no medicine, no commerce at the undergraduate level in the United States, those very vocations that here we seem to believe must be studied from age 18. In America, one studies these instrumental arts at a postgraduate ‘school’, once you have first spent four years immersing yourself in the liberal arts, so as to have a broad sense of the world before embarking on a narrow discipline of study. This strikes me as a sensible system, as I’ve come to see the interests and aspirations I held at age 18 change over the course of my education. For just how many young Kiwis know upon leaving high school what vocation they should dedicate themselves to for life? Where here in New Zealand I might have been forced to immediately turn youthful interests into a career, in my liberal arts education I’ve had the freedom to explore, to attempt to open my eyes to the world before specialising at a postgraduate level. In the words of the former president of an American undergraduate college, a liberal arts education is first and foremost about “making the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” A rather essential undertaking, one should think.

(I wonder, too, whether the United States’ economic success could in fact be due, at least in part, to the liberal arts system; whether their economic productivity could even be because of this time taken for intellectual breadth, rather than in spite of it.)

When we talk about ‘arts’ degrees, we are trying but failing to talk about liberal education: the idea that every young person should have the opportunity to explore and to survey what life offers before embarking on vocational career training—the opportunity to have their “eyes opened” to the world before inevitably closing off parts of it. This is not such a radical idea. One might even say it is common sense.

But the irony is this: it is liberal education, the asking of “what” and “why” before “how”, that allows us to see other kinds of value in the world aside from the kind with dollar signs before it. The more we view the value of an education in terms of a “return on investment”—the more we favour pre-professional and vocational courses at the undergraduate level—the more quickly we move away from the very kind of education that most allows us to see and to understand a plurality of values; the less capacity we have to understand other values in education, like individual development and civic responsibility. It is an inexorable shift towards a society and a world of only one kind of value, and great minds have worried it may be irreversible.

We are talking about education here, yes. But education is about the kind of world we want to live in—what values we hope for our children to have, what priority we wish to give to all the different spheres of human activity. The kind of education system we shape in the coming decades will shape the kind of New Zealand we have in the decades after. Forgive me, then, for thinking the ‘arts’ degree debate has very great consequences, and is worth more than a flippant article about a “bachelor of bugger all”. Forgive me for worrying that I and my peers might not be able to speak reverently in old age about a professor who “opened our eyes”—who showed us what a good life, and a healthy society, might look like.

— — — —

Institutions we have long taken for granted seem these days to be, like New Zealand itself, on more shaky ground. Democracy most of all has taken a battering, or at least is being stretched to the limits of its political possibilities. Democratic engagement is at an all-time low in many parts of the world, at the same time as the consequences of politics have arguably never been greater. Young people feel disengaged, disenfranchised; many baby boomers, with sheer voting power, seem intent on a fallacious golden-ageism, putting up barriers at the same time as young people seem most to want them taken down. Fraying of the social fabric is producing an extremism reminiscent of the early to mid 20th century, and we in New Zealand feel perhaps for the first time thankful for a distance from Europe and the Americas. Yet we worry, nonetheless, of when and how our own politics may take a similar turn.

A democracy is made up of citizens. That citizens are individuals is self-evident, but it is rarely recognised that the inverse does not hold: not all individuals are citizens in a sense that has any meaning. To be a true citizen an individual must think themselves one. They must see themselves as political subjects, and therefore political actors; they must recognise their own power to shape politics and the responsibility that the benefits of citizenship require. One is born a citizen only in law. In fact, one must become a citizen. We learn to be one.

Might there be a relationship between an ever-increasing vocationalism at the undergraduate level—characteristics that encourage, even necessitate, a coldly rational individualism—and the fragmenting of and disengagement from politics? In other words, when we educate ourselves only for jobs instead of to “open our eyes”, do we lose sight of ourselves as being more than individual workers—do we lose sight of ourselves as citizens?

I do think there is a relationship. And I worry it might be very strong.

For there is an uncanny resemblance between the kinds of questions a liberal arts education requires us to think about, and the kinds of skills and thought that being a citizen requires. The relationship isn’t a chance one: the very system of the liberal arts, from where we still today derive our notion of an ‘arts’ education, is a product of Athens—Athens, the democracy, from where the concept of citizenship itself first came to be.

It is the task of citizens to first and foremost answer fundamental questions about their community. Questions like: how should we live? What do we value most highly? Who in our community is deserving of care and protection? These are questions of what we should do, and what we should want—the kinds of questions we learn to answer not through any practical or vocational training, but through having our eyes opened to the world. Literature, philosophy, art and history: we struggle with understanding their ‘value’ precisely because their value lies in helping us to determine what to value. We read a novel and learn of how others have lived across the ages, we see how people could act in certain situations. We judge our own lives and our own communities against the results, coming to conclusions about what to want, what to do—conclusions which through our power to vote and to act politically we then introduce into a healthy democracy.

Instead today we are all concerned with the secondary questions, those of how to do things. How to ‘solve’ a housing crisis and how to protect our rivers. But we are simultaneously trying to grow our economy: increase our exports, raise tourist numbers. Remember that the housing crisis is a housing boon to property owners, and unswimmable rivers are the result of a thriving farming industry. When we only focus on the ‘how’, we will reach divergent conclusions, for individuals see far less the effects of their own self-interest on other members of the community. We think that every ‘problem’ supposedly has a solution, yet because we never ask all the prior questions—because we do not know how to ask the human questions —we trip over ourselves, contradict ourselves, and then we wonder what’s going wrong. Technocracy can only ever answer the how, never the what or the why; it takes a stab at the ‘public interest’, so frequently forgetting that ‘interest’ can mean much more than money.

A healthy democracy, with an engaged and aware citizenry, goes hand in hand with a liberal education, an education for life rather than for a career. In literature we read of what another life might be like: we are put behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and learn what life is like when we cannot afford a home, or when land we have known to be sacred is taken from us and then soiled. In philosophy we learn a vocabulary for life’s important things: a vocabulary of morals and values, and an understanding of what foundations these values must stand upon. In history we learn not to repeat our ancestors’ mistakes; in art, we are called to live more honestly. We all need to have a common language with which to talk about the prior, more human questions that come before technocratic action, and this language is the result of an education worthy of citizens, rather than one solely for our careers.

Stuck inside the straitjacket we have all been educated into, it is often difficult to see how what our democracy needs may be different to what our economy needs—how human value may lie somewhere other than economic value. Yet that is what we must see if we at all believe that education affects the health of our democracy, not just the productivity of our workforce.

— — — —

In the Rutherford Building of Victoria University’s campus in central Wellington hangs an enormous painting, over ten metres wide and three metres tall. Its scale is the first thing one cannot help but notice: it towers over you, envelops you, makes you feel quite tiny. But because of that it also seems to give us something to aspire to.

Painted by Colin McCahon in 1970, it is one of his works to declare ‘I AM’ in giant letters that soar above us. We might read the assertion of I AM differently in different times, but recently this declaration has seemed to me to be a challenge, asking us: WHO ARE YOU? The painting is sure of its self, but are we, New Zealanders, sure of our selves?

Between the ‘I’ and the ‘A’ of ‘I AM’ there is, in McCahon’s iconic scrawl, a passage of text that reads:

“Teach us to order

our days rightly,

that we may enter

the gate

of

wisdom.”

A statement of education if there ever were one. For what is wisdom but knowledge that we can apply to our lives?

The painting was purchased on behalf of Victoria University by Tim Beaglehole, son of my grandparents’ professor John, a man who himself opened so many of his students’ eyes during his life as a professor and later as chancellor of the university. Tim sadly died two years ago, yet I recently came across a video of him explaining why he thought the Victoria University art collection must have this painting.

In the video Beaglehole explains that a passage like the one above is, on the one hand, a religious text. Isn’t a secular university then an odd place, he asks, for a religious painting to hang? “But I didn’t see it that way at all”, Tim explains: “because I think a university too is concerned with the whole nature of life—and what we can make of it.”

We all need an education of the Beaglehole kind as individuals, if we are to live lives filled with meaning. And New Zealand needs its young people to have an education that opens their eyes to the whole nature of life, and what they can make of it, if this country is to find its own way in this Oedipus-like century, a century in which nations are seemingly intent on ignoring all prophecies and one day in desperation putting out their own eyes.

 


Privately circulated first in May 2017. Thank you to all who provided feedback and comments on the first drafts of this essay. 

Feature image of McCahon’s Gate III from Victoria University of Wellington’s Victorious Magazine, Autumn 2014.

Author: mmoorejones

New Zealander and Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Yale-NUS College.