4 Dec 2017

The more you know, the more you know you don't know

9:11 pm on 4 December 2017

By Kris Taylor

Opinion - If you were listening to Don Brash's responses to Kim Hill about why he dislikes the increasing use of te reo on Radio New Zealand, you might think that value is measured by 'utility'.

Don Brash

Don Brash Photo: ACT Party

Or if you read about the recent report from Business and Economic Research Limited (BERL) comparing the earning potential between tradies and university degree holders, you might think that value depends on earning potential.

I certainly don't doubt that both 'utility' and 'earning potential' are vectors that we can use to measure value, but I wonder if they are telling us the whole story.

When speaking to the findings of the BERL report, Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan mentioned that "young people should follow their hearts", a sentiment that I could not agree with more because when I began my undergraduate degree I was doing just that.

Since leaving school, (without achieving university entrance) I had worked as a screen printer in Christchurch and London, a dishwasher and cook in Wellington, and as a skilled labourer in Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland, all the while maintaining an interest in history, geography, philosophy, and sociology.

Eventually I traded my tools for books, not because I wanted to maximise my utility, or because I wanted to make more money (I was making more then than I do now), but because I had a passion for learning new things.

I was a 24-year-old following my heart, replacing the reliable and lucrative world of full time work, to begin my own humbling pilgrimage to knowledge: "the more you know, the more you know you don't know".

Along the way I was repeatedly asked "what will you do when you graduate?", and repeatedly I had to justify a desire to learn by squeezing my expansive interests into a model of 40-hour weeks, consumer spending, and Kiwisaver contributions.

The very first thing I learned from my undergraduate degree was that an expansion of thought was not reason enough. I had to demonstrate monetary value.

We seem locked into a rigid way of thinking about value, and this has a number of repercussions that strike very closely to my heart. While business and commerce degrees are lauded, we see a systematic stripping of the arts and humanities.

Returning to Dr Brash's argument for the utility of English above and beyond te reo, we see a hierarchy in which the rich cultural and artistic identity of one culture is again over-ridden and discounted by the dominance of another.

Kim Hill

Kim Hill Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

There has been a renewed debate over the use of te reo on RNZ in recent weeks.

Dr Brash states that having both English and te reo in schools is not feasible, utilising the microeconomic theory of 'opportunity cost'.

And during his interview Mr Whelan suggested that "your pol sci majors are not going to want to be carpenters and your carpenters are not going to want to be pol sci majors".

Why must this be the case? Isn't it possible to be an art historian and a screen printer, a psychologist and a cook, or historian and a stonemason, just as we can value both te reo and English? Without my background working in trades I would certainly be a less effective scholar, and without the critical thinking of my scholarship I would be a less capable worker.

Instead, this kind of thinking pulls us apart in unhelpful directions: arts versus science, te reo versus English, trades versus degrees.

* Kris Taylor is a PhD candidate at the School of Psychology, University of Auckland | Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau

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