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Weekend reflections

December 18th, 2004

A bit late, again, but weekend reflections is back.

It’s your chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I welcome pieces a little longer than the usual comments, but not full-length essays. If you want to draw attention to something longer, try an extract or summary with a link. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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  1. December 18th, 2004 at 17:13 | #1

    Some thoughts on education and the universities

    I am planning to write more about education next year, especially on the state of the universities. For a warm up, find below a comment on a piece by Barry Hindess in the paper last week (first posted on Catallaxy) and a link to a compilation of thoughts on education by my favorite philosopher who trained as a schoolteacher and taught high school maths and science.

    Extract

    ‘…Plato utterly confused the theory and practice of education by linking it up with his theory of leadership. The damage done is, if possible, even greater than that inflicted upon ethics by the identification of collectivism with altruism, and upon political theory by the introduction of the principle of sovereignty. Plato’s assumption that it should be the task of education (or, more precisely, of the educational institutions) to select the future leaders, and to train them for leadership, is still largely taken for granted. By burdening these institutions with a task which must go beyond the scope of any institution, Plato is partly responsible for their deplorable state’ (Open Society, I p. 127).

    ‘In fact, we are faced here with a fundamental difficulty for the leader principle. The very idea of selecting or (specially) educating future leaders is self-contradictory…(because) the spirit of intellectual excellence is the spirit of criticism; it is intellectual independence…Institutions for the selection of the outstanding can hardly be devised. …(Institutional selection) will always tend to eliminate initiative and originality, and, more generally, qualities which are unusual or unexpected…This (use of education as a selection mechanism) transforms our educational system into a race-course, and turns the course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career…In other words, even in the field of science, our methods of selection are based upon an appeal to personal ambition of a somewhat crude form. (It is a natural reaction to this appeal if the eager student is looked upon with suspicion by his colleagues)’ (p. 134-35)

    Popper on
    education

    Barry Hindess in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian (15 Dec) blamed the rise of neo-liberalism for the decline of the traditional model of the universities as centres of broad learning and scholarship.

    While sharing his concern with the sickness of the universities I want to suggest that his diagnosis is radically wrong and is seriously misleading as a basis for taking action to improve the situation.

    Some work is required to tease out his argument, in fact the more it is teased out the less sense it makes and that probably reflects the muddle in his perceptions of neo-liberalism and cognate issues of concern.

    His argument starts with some comments on the vogue of “anti-elitism” whereby (mostly) university educated people accuse other university educated people of various misdemenours including moral self-rigteousness. The bottom line is that there is a new transnational neo-liberal elite abroad which has captured the handles of power and has formed an alliance with populist anti-elitism to put down the old elite idea of the university as a centre for spreading liberal learning. He suggests that the power of that alliance means that the hopes for reviving the old concept of the universities is dim.

    My diagnosis of the situation is different although I share his view on the hope for progress in the short term.

    In my view the universities or large sections of them had lost it by the time Whitlam came to office in 1972, at least a decade before there was any talk of neoliberalism. His reforms accelerated the process of decline and also, by centralising control at the Commonwealth level, permitted Dawkins to implement further steps to make the damage practically irreversible. A further reduction of the rubble if you like.

    To condense a long story, the decline came from a combination of too rapid growth and politicisation of the humanities in the course of the Vietnam debate.

    My take on economic rationalism in economic policy is entirely compatible with the traditional model of the university, at least in its essential elements. Economic rationalism, for me, has nothing to do with putting extra regulations and constraints into a system that was not (administratively) broken in the first place. The system did not need top down bureaucratic regulation, it needed the bottom up regulation of genuine scholarship and civilised exchange of critical discourse in search for the truth. Of course I feel silly writing that. How old fashioned!

    On funding, the HECS scheme could have been introduced pre-Whitlam, or after Whitlam, without need for any structural changes or other administrative changes to the system, certainly without any of the bureaucratic superstructure that has been put in place, with absurd demands on teachers for extra non-teaching duties.

    If the so-called neoliberal reformers wanted a model for the effective engagement of academics to promote the Gross Domestic Product they had under their noses arguable the best working model of synergistic collaboration of researchers, teachers, public and private agencies and industry in the world. That is the system that evolved in rural research and practice, coordinating the efforts of teachers and researchers in the universities, the CSIRO, State departments of agriculture, the organised industry groups (Wheat Board, Meat Board etc) and the farmers.

    Of course saying all this does not fix the universities but my hope is to address real issues and not waste time and effort abusing the bogey of neoliberalism. The people who do this are the linear descendents or even the same people who did most of the damage in the first place.

  2. overheated
    December 18th, 2004 at 18:47 | #2

    coal exports and greenhouse credibility

    The Treasurer has predicted booming coal exports
    will help reverse Australia’s trade deficit. This means about 40% of huge amounts of carbon now safely underground in Australia will be permanently added to atmospheric CO2. There seems to be no mention of carbon taxes or emissions buy-backs as a condition of export approval, a situation no doubt viewed with relief by Australian coal miners and customers such as China. Obviously tough anti-greenhouse measures would reduce Australia’s coal exports particularly if other suppliers didn’t have such qualms. What is astonishing is the hypocrisy of the Howard government; it will subsidise a few wind farms that save thousands of tonnes of CO2, while giving the green light to exports that will create tens of millions of tonnes of CO2.

    A few people might note the inconsistency, perhaps if and when Beijing fails to clean its municipal air quality in time for the 2008 Olympics. On current form the governments concerned will simply shrug this off and busy themselves with more populist issues. Surely a milestone of the 21st century will be when governments admit problems rather than hope they go away.

  3. December 18th, 2004 at 19:37 | #3

    Not “permanently” added to the atmospheric CO2, just until it can be turned back into fossil fuel or, in the even longer term, mopped up by the geological cycle.

  4. observa
    December 18th, 2004 at 23:26 | #4

    “What is astonishing is the hypocrisy of the Howard government”

    Far from being hypocrites, both the Howard and Bush govts are being pragmatists by not signing up to Kyoto. As you point out PML, they may well be cynical about the notion that a nation that trades services (eg a university education or perhaps Microsoft software) as well as coal and LPG for the products of the smokestack industries of LDCs, whilst running on nuclear power itself, is somehow virtuosly clean and green. Of course the real issue is the per capita consumption level of greenhouse gases tied up in the consumtion of goods and services, no matter what the source. Real reductions in greenhouse gases, naturally implies MDC per capita consumption should fall to meet current levels of LDCs, but of course bang goes the lifestyle baby, for university professors as well as workers on the line at Holdens. Talk’s cheap of course, unlike cycling to work and going without overseas jet holidays and the like. Unlike the rest of the feel good signatories to Kyoto, Howard simply refuses to join this conga line of hypocrites, naturally enough on our well oiled behalf.

  5. December 19th, 2004 at 11:08 | #5

    Observa,

    Howard simply refuses to join this conga line of hypocrites, naturally enough on our well oiled behalf.

    More like for our (sulphur rich) brown coal selling Victorians and Tasmanians.

  6. David Morris
    December 19th, 2004 at 20:09 | #6

    Maybe I am just an optimist, but there are some very positive noises coming out of the US in relation President Bush’s “social security” reform.

    In an article in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10900-2004Dec18.html) President Bush is quoted as saying “Thrift Savings Plan could be a starting point for overhauling Social Security”.

    The article goes on to describe the features of the TSP, which is a tax-advantaged saving scheme available to US Federal government employees that has averaged high rates of return over the past 10 years.

    It is interesting because the TSP (through Barclays Global Investors) invests in stock and bond indexes (i.e. index tracking) and has a fantastically low management charges. Apparently investors pay only 60 cents for every $1000 invested. That is an expense ratio of only 0.006%!

    Why don’t you run off and check your latest statement from your Superannuation fund and see how much you are being gouged… sorry, charged. Good luck if you can find exactly what what you are paying, but I have seen figures where people are being charged as much 4% to cover the administration and distribution costs of investing in managed funds.

    Over a lifetime of savings, these are *big* numbers. Do the sums yourself. We are talking hundreds of thousands for the average person. It can mean the difference between a comfortable retirement or a subsistance existence on the pension.

    The TSP model is ideal because it overcomes the inefficiencies inherent in an unregulated retail investment product market (in particular, consumers’ bounded rationality and information assymetries).

    If the TSP became the model for the US system, one can only hope that it will help to illuminate the terribly wasteful Australian approach.

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