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Pollyanna wants the cake both ways

We have heard all sorts of lament about the state of New Zealand education recently. At tertiary level specifically, the Government’s priority funding regime has sparked some fears that enrolments in Humanities and Social Science subjects will dry up and leave New Zealand without an ‘informed and thoughtful citizenry.’

Another article detailed how many graduates fail to find their way into employment, especially arts and fine arts students.

Both articles reflect a particular view about the purpose of education.

National goals

The underlying premise of the Government’s funding scheme, and that of the author of the second article, is that the sole purpose of education is the equipping of students for work.

The Education Ministry puts it this way, as one of its National Education Goals: “Development of the knowledge, understanding and skills needed by New Zealanders to compete successfully in the modern, ever-changing world.”

Certainly, this is an important goal; it is important that students gain employment after graduation.

Twin purpose

But there is an intrinsic purpose of education as well as an extrinsic, economic purpose. For example, there is enjoyment in the process of learning. There is also an opportunity for the development of the person in the process of learning.

Learning should be enjoyable in and of itself, and it should offer an opportunity to understand oneself and the world around us more deeply. We may develop from this understanding.

There are both intrinsic and extrinsic purposes of education, and it is rare that New Zealanders acknowledge both. Not only so, and perhaps controversially, I believe that humanities subjects can serve both purposes well, despite the pessimists who have been hailing the coming death of the humanities for some time, both overseas and in New Zealand.

Sciences score

There are certainly grounds for cynicism. The Government pours funding into its priority subjects: Mathematics, Science, Technology and Engineering.

Arts faculties see comparatively little money, largely because the humanities are seen to provide less economic utility.

I do not think that all hope is lost for the humanities.

Call me Pollyanna, but there is some hope at least. Work is required, even some restructuring and reimagining, but as the truism goes, anything worth having is worth working for.

Humanities are worth hanging on to because they educate about life and what is valuable about being human, as well as offering skills that are relevant in the ‘modern, ever-changing world.’

These include imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and written and oral expression. The ability to think incisively and flexibly about a range of topics is fundamental to many jobs.

Several friends whom I studied history with now work in banks and finance in London. There is also a swathe of evidence, largely out of the US that the skills imparted in well-taught and structured arts courses are embraced in the workplace.

Enhancing quality

To get the best out of the humanities, we need to address the quality of existing courses. This is a demanding task. It will require quality teachers and not just researchers.

Funding is increasingly dependent on research, and therein lays the rub: many researchers are not great teachers. They may try to be both, but many students who do arts degrees (I was one, once) will tell you that academics’ focus is rarely on teaching.

Inspiration in the lecture hall is thin on the ground.

The Government, and university leaders too, need to recognise that quality teaching in whatever discipline, teaching that pays searching attention to students, can address the country’s economic priorities (that New Zealanders compete successfully) while also developing the person; a far broader and perhaps more important concept.

The Governments narrow funding regime is narrow-minded.

Educating employers

Finally, we need to educate employers about what arts courses offer; these new and improved arts courses.

We need to forge connections and show that, in fact, arts graduates not only can work in a variety of fields, but also excel in them.

This too is a challenging task, and one that would require resources, time and effort. But it strikes me as worthwhile if we want some of the benefits that humanities subjects provide: personal development through studying the human, as well as an informed and thoughtful citizenry.

Education, even in the form of an arts degree, can serve more than a single, economic purpose. It can delight and promote personal development too.

Arts students can have all of this. Pass on the pessimism, this Pollyanna wants cake and to eat it too. University and political will, as well as information for employers, are what are required.

Dr Luke Fenwick is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland, with whose permission the above article has been reproduced.

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