The Liberal Arts in Global Context

Liberal education today is in some quarters seen as being in decline; headlines almost daily question its value and predict its demise. It is increasingly passed over in favour of pre-professional or vocational degrees, and the rise of the glamorous Silicon Valley technology industry is encouraging undergraduates to specialise earlier. This, alongside the reality that the idea of the liberal arts college has hardly existed outside of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one could be forgiven for assuming liberal education’s days are numbered.

And yet, simultaneously, liberal education is expanding globally. Yale-NUS College is perhaps the flagship of this expansion, but across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, liberal arts programs and colleges are increasing in number. Liberal education is seen as an antidote to overly rigid career and workforce structures, and a way of claiming back personality and individual meaning in cultures that demand conformity. In these circles, liberal education is to experience not decline but a surge in both interest and enrolment.

These views cannot both be right. But how should we understand liberal education amidst the two narratives? What has liberal education been, what is it today, and what should we expect it to be in future? Can we expect it to expand globally, or will such an expansion be to lose the essence of the liberal arts? How should we think about Yale-NUS College in terms of these larger trends in liberal education, and what lessons can we draw for the further expansion of liberal education into other countries and contexts? And perhaps above all, how will these different facets of liberal education affect its original political purpose of educating informed, actively engaged and critical citizens?

I’m to attempt to answer some of these questions over the next year as part of my senior thesis project at Yale-NUS. For a while I deliberated over the topic that I should focus on for the next year; and thought there were many others, and one in particular which spoke to a question I had around how small states function in the world, these questions on the liberal arts spoke much more meaningfully to my education as a whole and an interest that I’ve never particularly done anything to cultivate.

My own experience with the liberal arts has been struggling to understand what the term even meant, coming from a country where there is no such educational tradition. But I now believe liberal education is a component of personal growth not to be passed up; I feel I understand the opportunity a liberal education offers on a deeper level, and yet do not know how to make sense of this in terms of the liberal arts tradition globally. And, especially pertinent to a New Zealander studying at a liberal arts college in Singapore, I wonder whether the liberal education I’ve received is a result of studying at an American-styled institution with predominantly American professors. Is the idea unique to America today? Can it ever truly be spread globally? Or can it only spread by maintaining the people and structures present at liberal arts colleges in the United States?

I anticipate writing with increasing frequency on the liberal arts here on this blog. My blog has always been a space to hone my own thinking on topics, and to hear from readers about what books I should be reading next or who I should be talking to. So please, if you do have thoughts, get in touch.

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.

A Vision or a Plan?

The National Party of New Zealand presents on its website a “plan” for the country’s future. “We have a clear plan to make New Zealand a stronger, more prosperous country and it’s a plan that’s working”, they say.

National Party has a plan

The Labour Party, by contrast, presents on their homepage a “vision” for the country: “New Zealanders don’t ask a lot, but there are some things that make us who we are and define our place in the world. We call it the Kiwi dream.”

Labour Party has a VisionThese approaches, at least in the political realm, are often mutually exclusive. The Nats makes no mention of a vision for where their plan will take them, and Labour does not describe a plan for achieving their vision.

In politics that might simply be a function of where each party expects to gain support. For the governing party, a plan is really all that matters; they’ve been elected on a vision, and now all people are about is whether they have a plan to govern effectively. Results are now what count. By contrast, the opposition requires a sweeping vision for an alternative future for those who believe the incumbent’s plan is not working. They need not worry about a plan until elected, when the narratives might be expected to switch between the parties.

In the non-zero-sum worlds that are our lives, a vision is only worth describing if backed by a plan; and a plan is only relevant if one has a vision for where that plan might take them. Visions and plans are not mutually exclusive, but too often—whether in a hangover of the political world, where we encounter them most often, or in some failure of nature—people seem still to swing one way or the other. Too often it is vision without a plan or a plan without a vision.

This can explain the failure of many startups. Some have brilliant execution, but no one cares because they don’t inspire. Others have a grand vision to mobilise people, but then can’t back that up with a plan to achieve anything.

And it can explain the failure of many people to achieve aims and goals they’ve set for themselves, even those that deal with lives as a whole. We often oscillate between the extremes of visions and plans without finding the middle ground where they meet, which is the only place that truly matters.

Political narratives can box our minds in, encouraging us subconsciously to mimic in our lives the approaches taken on the campaign trail. But when it comes to visions and plans, the difference between the zero-sum world of politics and the positive nature of our lives means we need to be aware of those narratives and take pains to grasp at both sides of the picture.

There’s only point having a vision if backed by a plan, and a plan is only worthwhile if it serves some vision. Perhaps, ultimately, what politics really needs is a party willing to risk putting the two together—at the same time.

Studying Abroad in the Asia Pacific Century

If New Zealand is to gain from its proximity to new global economic power, we cannot simply expect the rewards to come to us.

New Zealand is fortunate both to be located in the Asia Pacific, and to have deep and long-standing ties with other countries in this region. As global economic power is increasingly focussed on our part of the world, our relative proximity to Asia rather than Europe has made it easier for more people to visit New Zealand, and has reduced costs for businesses exporting goods and services. Economically, we are reaping the rewards.

But one area in which we seem to neglect the importance of our location is in education. When government thinks about education in terms of the Asia Pacific century, it is thought about primarily as an “export”. In other words, education is a service that we can sell to other countries. Through thinking of education only in this way, we are missing out on the real educational opportunities that the Asia Pacific century presents us with.

The government has even established a new agency to develop our education exports to Asia. Education New Zealand (separate from the Ministry of Education) states explicitly that its two near-term outcomes are both to increase the economic value of international students studying in New Zealand, and to increase the economic value of education products and services delivered offshore. These are both worthy goals that will help to achieve the government’s goal of growing export markets, and to ensure that New Zealand has a competitive and productive economy.

However, in economic terms, we are neglecting the benefits to be had from the other side of the education equation. This side deals with sending young New Zealanders overseas to develop deep personal connections, to learn languages and skills, and to come to understand in a meaningful way the other countries in the Asia Pacific that will be so important to New Zealand’s future.

One reason we shy away from thinking about this side of the equation is that in the immediate term, it is thought about as an “import”. In other words, sending young New Zealanders overseas is an economic cost to New Zealand, because the money they spend on education is spent overseas and not domestically. The other reason we neglect this part of education in the Asia Pacific century is that we have a deep-rooted fear that sending young New Zealanders overseas will be to lose them forever to the brain drain.

But what I’ve learned from the past few years studying at a university in Singapore, in the heart of the Asia Pacific, is that two-way educational links are one of the most fundamental components necessary for New Zealand to take advantage of what this century will offer. And they must be two-way linkages. Just as we bring bright students from around the Asia Pacific to study at our schools and universities, so too must we send young Kiwis to spend extended periods of time at schools and universities throughout the region.

These young Kiwis will make deep friendships, will learn languages, and will move beyond the crass stereotypes we hold of other countries in the region. In the longer-term, these connections and understandings will come to bear on New Zealand’s economy in a meaningful way. They will ensure New Zealanders have the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to participate actively, even centrally, in the Asia Pacific. We would be, in this sense, “importing” critical connections in the region, and an accurate understanding of countries throughout it.

What I’ve also seen is that fears of a brain drain from New Zealanders studying overseas are overblown. In fact, they may be made up. What I’ve observed in myself and in the many other young Kiwis I know who study overseas is that time away from home in these formative years heightens our sense of our own national identities. At home, being a New Zealander is not something to be considered daily. Yet abroad, our national identity is always a sense of our own personal identity, and this can manifest as a strong desire to return home and to contribute to the life of this country.

One laudable government effort is the Prime Minister’s Scholarships for Asia, awarded twice annually to encourage young Kiwis to study in Asia. However, a sizeable portion of these scholarships is spent on brief study tours of just a few weeks, where there is little time for deep connections and understandings to be formed. The length and depth of the connections we form are vitally important.

If we are to gain from the Asia Pacific century we cannot simply expect the rewards to come to us. Just as international students from around Asia make long journeys to come here to understand us, we must think carefully about the decisions we can make, both personally and nationally, to participate actively in this region, to come to understand properly its diversity and its opportunities. We should think about the individual life experiences and opportunities that will come to young New Zealanders from choosing to study overseas, as well as the longer-term benefits to New Zealand from those individual decisions to do so. The higher cost of studying overseas is an important consideration, but it can be thought about as an investment—an intelligent one at that, with critical and long-standing value to New Zealand.

Chopping Off Their Heads

In New Zealand we call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Leslie Lipson, an American political scientist who came to New Zealand to do a Tocquevillian study of our democracy, described it like this:

“Democray itself can imitate the policy of Periander the Greek and remove the heads that stand above the crowd. There is a tendency for the idolaters of equality to sacrifice talent on the altar of their God.”

And Ray Bradbury wrote of the phenomenon like this:

“Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.”

It is the mocking of those students who dare to take an interest in their classes, the disdain for the politician who attempts to inspire with their voice, the half-hearted congratulations to an employee who wins an award for hard work. It is not a public policy nor a conscious act, and the most well-meaning are often among the most guilty.

I’ve thought a lot about why this seems to be a circumstance in small democracies like ours and not in all. It seems to me that it is the peculiar combination of a love for equality and the fact of proximity. Because most New Zealanders have only two degrees of separation from the prime minister, they demand similarity. In a larger country like the United States there may be a similar love for equality, but without proximity there is no expectation of similarity.

Valls Calls Down Under: Another World Leader Woos the South Pacific

Which country wouldn’t want to be a Pacific nation these days? It was a sign of the times when Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, declared during a visit to New Zealand on May 1st that “I also come as a neighbour, as France is also a nation of the Pacific!” One could almost picture the notes his aides had prepared on the flight over, suggesting, one suspects, that Mr Valls emphasise France’s deep ties and connections to the Asia Pacific. His visit to New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand comes at a time when many countries are dispatching leaders to the South Pacific to strengthen economic and political ties with friendly countries in the region.

France does indeed have colonial-era ties to the Pacific. New Caledonia, an archipelago roughly 1,000km from Australia’s eastern coast, remains a “special collectivity” of France. France also counts as possessions the islands collectively making up French Polynesia in the central South Pacific, as well as the tiny Wallis and Futuna. Yet this, too, is changing. Part of the reason for Mr Valls’ visit to the Pacific was to discuss with New Caledonia’s leaders details of the islands’ 2018 referendum on independence. As a vote nears, France looks to be seeking continued influence. While in Noumea, Mr Valls announced a $240 million loan to help Societe Le Nickel, a New Caledonian producer that has been struggling with low nickel prices.

But Mr Valls’ need to quite literally exclaim his country’s ties to the Pacific seemed to emphasise the insecurity behind the statement. He is not the first world leader to emphasise the ties. In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” As with France, the statement is not untruthful. But the circular logic in proclaiming a “new focus” with reference to a “fundamental truth” of history does show the urgency with which these pivots to the Pacific are being undertaken.

These declarations of Pacific identity may nevertheless help to give the impression of friendliness, which is useful for countries hoping to tap into economic opportunity in the Pacific. Much to Japan and Germany’s dismay, Australia announced on April 26th that it had chosen France to build its new fleet of submarines. The A$50 billion ($38 billion) contract was highly prized, and explains Mr Valls’ last minute addition of Australia to his Pacific tour.

Pacific countries seem to be rather enjoying the flirtation. The French leader’s visit gave John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, an opportunity to make former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s case to be United Nations Secretary General, as well as argue for a long sought-after New Zealand-EU trade deal. Mr Valls may also have encountered Pranab Mukherjee, India’s President, on the tarmac in Wellington — Mr Mukherjee was calling on New Zealand’s political and business leaders, the first ever visit to the country by an Indian head of state. He, too, brought the possibility of some large cheques, announcing the agreement of direct flights between the two countries.

In the end, it is deals like that which mean countries are unlikely to pay much attention to the historical or geographic accuracy of claims to Pacific identity. In the world of global trade and security nothing is either true or false, but declaring makes it so. Mr Valls’ over-eager exclamation might have been worth it after all.

What’s in a Flag?

If I had been looking for an example to describe a lilliputian dilemma, the phrase I decided to have title this blog, I would’ve done well to have chosen the “great debates” nations go through to change their ultimate symbols, their flags. It’s the sort of example where there isn’t truly a bad outcome, yet one where passions run high, and debate occasionally runs through to apocalyptic scenarios if change happens this way or that. I’m guilty of these passions myself, and am guilty of raising the topic far too many times with my friends in Singapore, for whom changing the New Zealand flag was not exactly vital world news.

What’s in a flag? Why the radically opposing views, to the extent that votes were sharply split between non-voters, pro-change and protest votes? And how does a nation decide on a flag when everyone seems to conceptualise of a flag in a different way?

For a flag is not viewed uniformly. I think first of our flag at the United Nations. I think of it flying outside our embassies and on our ambassadors’ cars in fifty capitals, and I think of it flying on the Beehive and sewn onto our soldier’s sleeves. Our Prime Minister first thinks of the flag being waved by thousands as the All Blacks play the Wallabies, and my friends think of it in their bedrooms at universities around the world. Others think of it as a sticker on their laptop, a patch on their backpack, or a profile photo on Facebook.

I do think of our flag in these other contexts, but after thinking of it in the international context, as a symbol of our country to the world. My international upbringing, and the fact that I currently live overseas, leads the international portrayal to be the one to come first to my mind. This situation will likely be reversed for other New Zealanders; indeed, many may find it incomprehensible that I first view what is fundamentally a domestic symbol in an international context.

Effective symbols must unite the different backgrounds that everyone, even those under one banner, inevitably have; they must take the variety of contexts that individuals’ backgrounds lead them to conceptualise of the symbol in, and look good in all situations. This is not an easy task. And I think it’s also the reason why so many of us in this country, amongst our friends and in our own families, have struggled over the past months to understand others’ points of view. For my part, I will admit that I cannot understand the perspective of wanting to keep our current flag with the Union Jack on it. I can conceive that others’ life experiences, and others’ mental visualisations of the flag, may lead to that conclusion; but because I don’t have those experiences or visualisation, I cannot actually understand that perspective. Some people very close to me cannot understand my support for the so-called Red Peak, and likewise I cannot understand why a logo-like flag could be preferred over it.

These debates and misunderstandings—in fact, not misunderstandings, but inabilities to understand—happening across New Zealand aren’t a result of the way that this flag referendum has been run. The process has been fine, in my opinion. No, these inabilities to understand are simply the result of the difficulties in choosing a single symbol that must conform best, on average, to the multitude of mental conceptualisations of the flag that four million New Zealanders have. Should we be surprised that many weren’t happy with the four shortlisted designs? I suggest not. Should we be surprised that the vote was split many different ways, including indifference and protest? Again, probably not. And should we be surprised if, at our first attempt, we don’t change our flag? No. Symbols are complex, they function through one’s own lived and thought experiences, and to find one that a majority of us prefer over the status quo is a task that should be expected to take time.

We will have referenda on the flag in future, and it might not be surprising if it does not succeed even at the second try. But merely having the debate, having the issue in the public mind for stretches of time, increases the likelihood of convergence in those conceptualisations of symbols. The longer people discuss, debate, and think about the issues, the more—gradually, yes—there will be subtle changes in opinion, just as polls have shown change in flag preferences since the debate started earlier this year. Over years, perhaps I will come to conceive of the flag more at sporting events than the United Nations, and perhaps others will come to see the vitality I see in the Red Peak. Gradually there will become more overlap in thinking and conceiving of a flag to represent this country, and as time goes on so therefore will the likelihood that we will get both a new flag and a flag that will best serve us.

“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object”—this describes my idea of the point at which people must be when there is convergence on a single symbol. Only when those metaphorical hearts speak in a similar way, and in ways that people cannot fully find words to describe, will there have been enough convergence in views of the symbol that there will be sufficient support to change the flag. I fully agree with Rowan Simpson on his reasons for supporting the Red Peak, for instance; but I feel that by having to explain in detail all the aspects of the flag that make it desirable, the inexplicable strong feelings that some have towards it are somehow lost. Only when we cannot explain the strength of identity we feel towards one of the symbols is it likely enough to get the groundswell needed for change.

For the record, I will be spoiling my vote in the second round of this referendum. I desperately want a new flag for this country. But the blue and black Silver Fern with Southern Cross is not, for me, the one, precisely because it is so easily rationalised, and because it gives me no feeling of pride and excitement that I cannot explain. Nor could I bring myself to vote against the blue and black for our current flag, which I truly feel does not represent this country I know. Change takes time, especially when it comes to finding a single symbol to represent millions. If what’s in a flag are the experiences and aspirations of millions, we shouldn’t be surprised that the first four designs we are presented with don’t quite cut it. As much as I want a new flag, I’d rather wait for the right one.

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