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ScienceFebruary 9, 2017

The impersonal is political, too: a report from the frontline of the culture wars

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Do we have our priorities right when it comes to the emphasis on economic ‘usefulness’ of education? In a companion piece to her article Why scientists need to go to the barricades against Trump – and for the humanities, Nicola Gaston asks if NZ is in danger of plunging into a culture war of its own.

Politicians are political, that’s their job. But here’s the thing: they get to be political about, well … everything. From literature and the arts …

“While our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us”

Former Prime Minister John Key on the arts

… to the merits of scientific research and expertise:

“Well that might be Mike Joy’s view, but I don’t share that view… He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview.”

Former Prime Minister John Key on science

So which bothers you more? And why?

The culture wars between the arts and the sciences have a bit of a history. A pivotal reference point is the 1959 Rede Lecture ‘The Two Cultures’ given in Cambridge by the scientist and novelist CP Snow, in which he warned of the divide between science and the arts, with a plea that the importance of the sciences be recognised by a snobbish elite who – as he put it – couldn’t care less about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but who would sneer with the deepest disdain at someone who had not read Shakespeare. It’s a readable essay, and many of its points still resonate:

“Our tendency to let our social forms crystallise… appears to get stronger, not weaker, the more we iron out economic inequalities: and this is especially true in education. It means that once anything like a cultural divide gets established, all the social forces operate to make it not less rigid, but more so.”

If we can let go for now his overly optimistic take on our ability to address economic inequality, the two cultures of which Snow speaks are deeply embedded in the British class system, and he makes no bones about this. The non-vocational nature of the Bachelor of Arts degree means that it is more likely to attract students from families familiar with the value of the humanities (which is to say, students with a certain form of privilege), and this is perhaps still an issue insofar as equal access to education is concerned. However: it is simply no longer true that the arts and humanities have a cultural – let alone practical – value that they hold over the sciences.

In NZ, the university system has been given strong signals from the government to produce graduates that are “useful”, and this has meant for quite some time now, and unabashedly, talking up the economic value of science and engineering graduates over those in the arts. What else does this achieve, by the by? Well, it certainly facilitates a reframing of the value of education in terms of the private benefit to the individual, and a consequent undervaluing of the data regarding public returns on investment from education. But maybe the public value is what matters most for us all – in societal terms – when we think about what education is intended to achieve?

It’s not just in education per se that this matters, but in the flipside of the coin that is university-based research: the ongoing reframing of the value of scientific research as being more or less all about “the economy, stupid” should worry all of us who value blue-skies research, long-term studies, and research into issues of public good. Accepting any framing of the value of science as merely relative –  as based on a status which is greater than, and in a way dependent on, that of the arts – should concern us all. Those divided are easily conquered – and by conquered, I am asking you to consider exactly the kind of policy changes that will decimate scholarship of all kinds, under the Trump regime.

Unfortunately, scientific culture doesn’t have a great track record on this sort of thing.  Even Rutherford – who I have a lot of time for as a human being, for his activism in rescuing scientists from Nazi Europe – was not immune: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he said. I’ve always been inclined to invert this to mean that anyone doing science can call themselves a physicist – given that the etymology from the Greek implies that physics is simply the (empirical) study of natural things. (This definition also corresponds more closely to the German word for science: Naturwissenschaften – just another lesson in the extent to which the words we give to things matter, in determining both our perception of the thing… and the nature of the thing itself.)

But what do we lose, when we buy in to false framings of relative value?

Science is unquestionably political. If there is one single lesson to be taken from Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, then I vote for this one. This is true because of the relative value that we place on what it tells us, as a function of our relative forms of privilege in society, but even more crucially, in terms of the impact that it can have on society, and just who then benefits from that impact. (Of course I’d be inclined to say that it benefits all of us – but you should never underestimate the ability of people to vote against their own interests in order to maintain a relative level of advantage over others).

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Last week I declared one conflict of interest, but here’s another: I work at a university, and I have an absolute interest in the education of my fellow citizens: those of all ages, and of all interests and backgrounds. (Even more so in the case of those citizens who live in and work in New Zealand; but that’s another story.)

There’s an interesting coda to the relationship between science and politics that is more about the relationship between education and politics. I’m not going to revisit all of the discussion that has happened about the demographics of the recent US elections, though it is pertinent. In simple terms the pessimistic take would be that, when those of us who work in the government-funded education system speak up about the value of education, we do it out of self-interest (to be blunt, because the left spend more on education, on the whole, and therefore on our jobs). The other side of the coin might be to consider that those of us who choose to work in university education do so because we care about the future of our nation (or in less nationalistic terms, the world) and therefore … we vote accordingly.

Is education therefore political?

We should be careful about some of the underlying assumptions here, constructed as they are out of stereotypes: in NZ it was the Labour Party that introduced student fees, whether or not they then saw where it would take us. Optimistic, Pessimistic; Left, Right; Progressive, Conservative: none of these things are uniquely defined, and all of them conceal a multitude of sins.

Yet politics matters. Education matters. And we should absolutely be critical about the feedback loop that means that political decisions – about funding of science, research and education – have consequences for our political systems, for our political consensus, and for the very determination of whether an act, or a statement, or a person speaking in public is considered “political”.

What does it mean, that most students at NZ universities, signing off on their student loan, will do so before they’ve ever had the chance to vote?

In my opinion, it’s just yet another example of why we can’t afford to vote in our own interests, nor to accept that such a mode of argumentation is considered the default – the apolitical status quo – no matter how “rational” it might be. Citizenship matters: and consideration of the needs of others – based on an awareness of those needs founded in common interest – is precisely why it matters when we go to the polls.

What would Waitangi Day look like, 20 years from now, if we implemented universal Te Reo Māori teaching – accompanied by a knowledge of Tikanga Māori – in New Zealand schools?

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson is sometimes claimed to have said. Maybe social engineering is indeed the right phrase: the world will keep getting smaller, and that may mean that educating ourselves, in order to live together, is precisely the form of vigilance that is required. Maybe this is work that needs to be done.

This is the human project – the common kaupapa that makes us human. When even the relative value ascribed to knowledge of Shakespeare or the Second Law of Thermodynamics is political, the time has come to acknowledge that everything is.

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