The Productivity Commission is two months away from delivering its draft report on the future of higher education in New Zealand. Its inquiry into new models of tertiary education aims to find ways of achieving better economic outcomes from New Zealand’s investment in the sector. This should be put into the context of ambitions to turn the ‘education industry’ into a million-dollar enterprise – but there is also a larger context.
Environmentalist David Orr says education systems are how we shape future generations to think about the world. Sadly, education per se is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. As Orr points out, the destruction of the natural world to date has not been the work of ignorant people. It has been, largely, the result of the work of educated people. What kind of education do we need?
There are dots to be joined here. Donald Trump in the United States, xenophobia in Europe, the brutality of detention centres in Australia – these are the end result of an authoritarianism that will not tolerate dissent. We see the same thing in corporate malfeasance and government corruption. And now we can see it shaping education.
Meaningful education entails critique, reflexivity and conversation; when education is cast in terms of the management of provision and performance, it is rendered meaningless. As our education becomes more managed, more ‘effective’ in economic terms, it offers less and less of a barrier to barbarity. Today my students want to be efficient consumers and they want me to be an efficient courier. Under the pressure of productivity, education is turned into making sure the vending machine always works.
Up until this point it is the pretty standard rant against tertiary education management. But then he goes on and jumps the shark:
In her famous book about Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term ‘banality of evil’ to describe the tendency of people to obey orders without critical evaluation. She pointed out that Eichmann did not want to think about the nature of his work – he just wanted to get on with the job and his job was organising transport. And as we know, he was very efficient. We know, because the forms were properly filled and the process was well-audited. Job done.
Education is a constant struggle against the banality of evil. To educate is to insist on thinking. It cultivates the capacity to contest. While it seems unthinkable that horrors such as the holocaust could ever take root here in New Zealand, it was also unthinkable in Germany in the 1930s. If we are going to fashion higher education policy here today along the fault lines identified by Wiesel in Germany preceding World War II, then perhaps it is not as unthinkable as we think.
So our tertiary education system is “evil” and may lead to New Zealand turning into Nazi Germany.
I despair that this is the level of argument a senior academic resorts to. It is also deeply deeply insulting to those who were affected by the Holocaust.