The Eyes and Times of Frank and Lyn Corner

Frank Lyn Corner New Zealand Art Collection Art+Object

This essay was published in the catalogue of The Collection of Frank and Lyn Corner by Art + Object. My grandparents’ significant collection of New Zealand art was presented to the market on Sunday 18th March 2018.


Growing up with Frank and Lyn as parents and grandparents meant growing roots firmly in New Zealand, no matter where in the world we happened to be. Our eyes became tuned, through the art, books and conversation that surrounded us, to see New Zealand as a firm part of the modern international world, holding its own from the bottom of the South Pacific.

But this view of New Zealand’s place in the world wasn’t always so clear for Frank and Lyn. Their backgrounds—in 1920s and 30s Napier for Frank, and Hamilton, Masterton, and Whanganui for Lyn—were happy but not remarkable ones, apart from a very memorable earthquake and considerable academic self-discipline. Frank always maintained that “Life, for me, began when I came to Wellington.”

It has even been said that, in the 1940s—when Frank and Lyn came to Wellington, met, and started discovering art together—New Zealand didn’t exist yet: “it remains to be created—should I say invented—–by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help”, went Curnow’s cry in 1945. That period between when New Zealand “didn’t exist yet”, and now, when New Zealand seems to stand upright here and when we can travel abroad, to Venice, to see our emissaries, is the period of Frank and Lyn’s lives.

When we stand amidst Frank and Lyn’s lifelong collection of artworks, in their lifelong home, we view a record of that invention of New Zealand, a visual and a personal history of New Zealand’s declaration of intellectual independence.

It is not the only record, and nor is it the largest; Frank and Lyn certainly never set out to create a survey collection, and in fact they long resisted entirely the idea that they were “collectors”. But theirs is a unique collection, and a significant one, because of the two sets of eyes that created it—and, as Frank and Lyn would be the first to point out, because of the sheer good fortune of the times that they happened to live in. Through this collection, and in the lives of Frank and Lyn, we see the abundance of New Zealand life.

— — — —

First, the eyes. Frank and Lyn always spoke of “having [their] eyes opened” to the world, and to art, during their years studying at Victoria University. From the time they met in 1941, at the Easter Tournament, theirs was a partnership of minds and of eyes. In their library one can see the intellectual efforts of their university years and of those afterwards. Frank was studying history, and Lyn French; but their books show little of this, so widely did they read. They studied the classics, but seemingly in equal measure would pick up all the latest books that arrived in Wellington from overseas (Forster’s What I Believe, for instance, they found as soon as it arrived, and his case for “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” seems to define Frank and Lyn’s outlook).

The great good fortune of Frank and Lyn’s university years was the intellectual stimulation provided by John Beaglehole and the circle of faculty and students he surrounded himself with. Their first invitation to the Beaglehole house in Messines Road, Karori, was also the occasion of their awakening to art. There, Lyn later recounted, “He [Beaglehole] had art hanging on the walls—including some of the very early breakthrough artists like John Weeks, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. This was different from the tame drawing-room landscapes we’d seen before, and excited us.” It seems important to remember in this context, however, that art was always just a part of Frank and Lyn’s education and of their lives. Frank describes the kind of discussion they would have at the Beagleholes’ house:

“On some occasions he would play Bach’s preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E. M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.”

The Beaglehole influence extended through the full range of culture that Curnow described as necessary for the invention of New Zealand, down to architects, and even politicians. Frank and Lyn were later to copy the Beagleholes in their commissioning architect Cedric Firth to design modern cabinetry for their 1930s house; and it was likely in Messines Road that they first heard of the arrival of a distinguished Austrian architect, Ernst Plischke, to Wellington. Frank was intrigued; he arranged for Plishke to give a series of public talks, and they got to know one another. Plischke would later design the modernist pavilion across the garden from the Gray Young-designed, Cedric Firth-renovated house that Frank and Lyn lived in for the best part of their lives.

The Beagleholes and the Corners remained lifelong friends, but after graduating from Victoria in 1942 and joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1943 Frank soon began travelling, and the couple continued their informal education overseas. Frank was one of the first to visit postwar Japan in late 1945, and Frank and Lyn both worked in Paris for several months in 1946 during the Peace Conference. Postings took them to Washington D.C. twice, to London and New York. They read widely and kept everything. In their attic are boxes of gallery catalogues, many in French, that they collected while haunting the galleries during their travels.

— — — —

And then there were the times they lived in—times so full of activity and excitement, in both art and world affairs, that from the perspective of grandchildren in 2018 they seemed always to be in the very middle of history in the making. They were in London for the Queen’s coronation, the same day Edmund Hillary summited Mount Everest; they were in New York during the fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis; they were in Washington D.C. when Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand, with Frank overseeing the visit. Yet this was work and everyday life for this diplomatic couple, however thrilling it all may seem from a perspective half a century later.

The upheavals going on in the world of art were almost as grand and exciting as those happening in world affairs, so much so that Lyn later described art during this period being an “automatic, easy addiction.” They certainly appreciated their good fortune to live in London, New York and Washington during these formative decades. While Frank was busy at the United Nations, Lyn would head to the galleries, often with two young children in tow. In London, it was during a brief lunch break that Frank dropped by the Redfern Gallery and returned with Frances Hodgkins’ Pleasure Boat.

As with their eyes, for which art was just one of many great passions, the times they lived in seem to have blurred the boundaries between work and other parts of life. The eyes and the times are one and the same, in the end: so that social and political changes are reflected in the art they bought, and the art they bought influenced diplomatic and political advances. When Lyn was once asked if they had consciously bought artworks that would serve to represent New Zealand well abroad, she rejected any such idea: “We simply purchased the irresistible.” We have to take that statement at face value; and yet Frank and Lyn knew that the art they bought would be the backdrop to so many diplomatic functions, and that art has a unique power to represent and to find commonality. We have always thought of Lyn’s comment as a sign of how inseparable their lives were from the times they lived in, the work they did for New Zealand, and their passion for art, books, music and architecture. What was irresistible to Frank and Lyn Corner, a couple who spent their lives serving New Zealand abroad, was precisely the kind of art that represented the modern, confident and vibrant country they represented and spoke about to countless dignitaries every day.

So when Frank wrote in 1962 that “…for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth-century NZ turned its eyes away from the Pacific”, this was at once a statement of foreign policy and of national and personal outlook. He went on: “Has not a country become in some way unbalanced when it knows little and cares less about its own geographic environment?” He argued over many years, after New Zealand’s two great twentieth century crises—the fall of Singapore, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community—that our future lay in this part of the world, in the Pacific. He made this argument formally for New Zealand’s foreign policy; but it was the argument that increasingly our writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers, and, yes, even our politicians, were formulating in their own realms. For Frank Corner, the search for national security was also a part of the search for national and cultural identity.

— — — —

In the minds of diplomats one’s country can paradoxically seem closer while living in a foreign capital, for it is while there that your everyday experience is marked entirely by your nationality. You are only in Washington, London or New York by virtue of being a New Zealander; you only meet people as a New Zealander. In many ways you live through your country’s identity, and are forced to understand on a deep level what it is that you are representing. This seems different from the expatriate’s experience: he or she goes abroad by their own volition, and for the duration that they are away from home they are more or less cut off from home. They are expatrias. The point is the great extent to which Frank and Lyn’s life experiences were marked by being New Zealanders and, in turn, how their vision for New Zealand affected their art collecting.

To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view. Now we today inhabit the New Zealand that was created and invented during their lifetimes. To look at the individual works in this collection is to see a New Zealand coming to its modernity, coming to terms with its geography, and coming to understand its identity. But to look at this collection as a whole: well, that is to see the modern, vibrant, educated Pacific New Zealand that we now know. To look at this collection is to see the abundance of New Zealand life.

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

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

“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.