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ICOM Australia Award 2016

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

I thought it would be appropriate to place on the site the details of the ICOM Australia Individual Award “recognising sustained international achievement over a long period” which I received at the dinner at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the Museums Australasia Conference in Auckland New Zealand 17 May this year, 2016.

Details have been published in the the ICOM Australia newsletter, Museums Australia Magazine 24(4), Winter 2016 (“ICOM Australia’s International Awards 2016” by Nancy Ladas) and Museum Matters for July 2016 published by Museums Australia New South Wales.

It was a great honour to receive the Award, presented by Dr Robin Hirst, Museum Victoria and past Chair of ICOM Australia

I was especially pleased that following the award to me, the National Museum of Australia was presented with the ICOM Australia Institutional Award for the exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, shown at the British Museum in 2015 and Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, shown at the NMA in Canberra over the Summer of 2015-2016. That award was accepted by Museum Director Mathew Trinca and colleagues.

The link is to the citation and my response.

My response draws on the ideas already presented on this website, not least in the paper presented to the conference for the late Stephen Weil.

The Myth of School Choice and the Distortion of Education Policy

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

 

At the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March Education Director for the OECD Andreas Schleicher criticised the Australian education system for falling behind global standards. He pointed to the very significant drop in the results of students at the top of the PISA test rankings in the past year. He said “[Australia] more or less defines teachers by the number of hours that [they] teach in front of students. That is part of the problem. We treat teachers as interchangeable widgets on the frontline – they are just there to implement prefabricated knowledge.” Schleicher said many countries were struggling to keep the best teachers in the profession because of curriculums that restrict creativity.

The OECD through its PISA program which explores literacy in 15 year olds in writing, math and science every three years has been criticised very heavily in some countries as driving the education agenda. Countries determine their own policies but unfortunately the ideology which underlies PISA – standardised testing, along with performance pay and independent schooling – has been adopted too vigorously by some countries. The important findings about effective school education policies and practices brought out in the comprehensive reports of PISA and Education at a Glance are ignored or even deliberately misinterpreted.

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In Australia parents are moving their kids in ever larger numbers to schools they perceive to be better based mainly on scores in standardised tests – NAPLAN – published on the MySchool website. What is happening is a drift of students from advantaged backgrounds away from public schools, which generally have large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to independent schools. As a result learning gaps between children from different backgrounds are widening. Parents are responding to test scores and to other factors. That should have been anticipated by those deciding to privilege standardised testing and support extra funding for independent schools.

The Myth of School Choice: Government support for Independent Schools and Standardised Tests traverses the recent report from the Grattan Institute which illuminates important outcomes of the Howard Government’s support of independent schools and the reactions of parents to that. The focus on NAPLAN has problems drawn out in a report by Chris Bonner and Bernie Shepherd for the Centre for Policy Development and a study by David Zyngier of Monash University. That independent schools do not contribute to better educational achievement when socioeconomic background is taken into account is shown by a sophisticated report by researchers from the University of Queensland and colleagues. As it has been by many previous analyses!

Study after study has shown no significant educational gain by the much better resourced independent schools. The extra funds would have been better spent supporting those children with greatest needs, those from disadvantaged backgrounds having trouble with the learning program.

The Turnbull Coalition Government, like the Abbott Government before it, has refused to fund the last two years of the National Plan for School Improvement framed in response to the Gonski Panel’s recommendations: it maintains there are insufficient funds. However, there is substantial evidence to the effect that funds are available by addressing the substantial tax expenditures – tax concessions – introduced in recent years; Australia is a relatively low tax country and a major contribution to debt is private debt funding purchase of houses and apartments.

The response by the Turnbull Government to the States’ refusal to consider operating their own income tax systems has left unresolved the funding of schools (and hospitals) through agreements between the former government and the states, with the Prime Minister maintaining that the states have no grounds on which to ask the Commonwealth to raise taxes and claiming the previous agreements were made in “barely credible circumstances”. The Myth of School Choice: the Economics of Independent Schools and Australian Government Policy shows just how wrong this is and how billions of taxpayer funds have been wasted. A report by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow and detailed analysis by Trevor Cobbold illuminate the situation.

Proposals to have the Commonwealth fund independent schools and the States fund public schools were strongly criticised and are not supported by the Government’s own Green Paper on the Future of the Federation. In Victoria a review by former Premier Steve Bracks recommends policies reinforcing the Gonski reforms.

Despite adoption of policies in the US and UK based mainly on neoclassical economics which privilege private sector participation in generating public goods like education, favour competition and choice and deploy financial incentives to drive change, there are examples in those countries, as in Australia, of exciting outcomes from schools which do address the main features of effective learning in schools.

The Myth of School Choice: Genuine improvement happens when everyone collaborates for the benefit of the children summarises an important review by education historian Diane Ravitch of two very interesting books on schools in the United States.  It isn’t simply quality teachers or the administrative independence of school principals and it certainly isn’t standardised testing which make the difference! Kristina Rizga, author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, about a high school in San Francisco with an enrolment of students from a wide cultural diversity, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, points out, “too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists are making decisions about the best solutions for schools. In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.””

Despite everything, at Mission High in San Francisco great gains were made by students through the intense enthusiasm of their teachers.

Rizga says, “What matters in quality education – critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills – exist in realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.

Diane Ravitch points out “grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children.”

And education does not by itself fix poverty.

Successful Museums – An Anniversary Tribute to Stephen Weil

Monday, December 7th, 2015

One of the Museum world’s most distinguished museum scholars, Steve Weil, died just over 10 years ago. He was a mentor and friend to myriads of people in many museums, of many ages, in many countries, at numerous conferences and elsewhere. Steve had been Scholar Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Education and Museum Studies and longtime deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian.

A brief biography appeared in the Washington Post and also in the New York Times.

[This introductory post is a work in progress: it concerns one of my principal interests, how organisations work and how decisions get made and why. Additional paragraphs will be added from time to time.]

A very fitting conference supported in part by the Getty Leadership Institute, ‘A Tribute to Stephen Weil: Making Museums Matter, 2006’ was held at the University of Victoria BC, Canada September 11-13. The Institute commissioned this presentation and for support of that I am grateful.

Though parts of this essay have appeared elsewhere the entire piece has not previously been published.

The essay addresses the matter of accountability, how museums might be judged to be effective in the pursuit of their mission and responsibility. Weil was a long time advocate of an approach to this which went beyond the dreaded metrics so beloved of those who believe they are in a position to judge such things. As the decade since 2006 has progressed accountability has become much degraded as corporatisation has invaded museums as it has so many other non-commercial sectors.

Many museums have been increasingly active in embracing change, most particularly in engaging visitors in their learning journey where they make a particular contribution. Likewise in advocating for issues concerning meaning, the value of cultural activities in individual life and in other areas such as biodiversity and evolution and social justice in respect of minorities including Indigenous Peoples. Yet they nevertheless have fallen to the ongoing drive to reduce government expenditure and been affected also by cycles of economic collapse including the Global Financial Crisis.

How museums respond to these pressures is a daily concern of those who lead museums as well as most of those who work in or are associated with museums. How often are they recognised for their success? The Natural History Museum in London, the Melbourne Museum, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. Many others.

At that vitally important level of leadership and governance how common is it to find superior performance? Too often government intrusion and the pressures to maintain the budget both through careful oversight and attracting greater community financial support comes to be the main concern. Too often, leadership ends up in the hands of those who believe they know about money, the law and marketing but understand little of the core mission of museums, the nature of their business and their history.

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The concluding paragraphs of the presentation outline the meaning of the (unusual) terms purposiveness and capability as Weil used them. What follows then is a list of issues which the board, the board and executive leadership together and leadership by itself should regularly review. Some may say this is far too process driven. Professional judgement should suffice. Those who say you don’t learn leadership you do it. But organisations are complex and judgements are critical but seldom effective if they are only the judgments of one person. The Cuban Missile Crisis and much of American foreign policy and that of other countries illustrates that convincingly.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and writer practicing at major hospitals in Boston Massachusetts. He was the 2014 Reith lecturer for the BBC. In those lectures he recalled the importance of using lists which had to be checked off by everyone. These helped significantly in major recovery surgery, of people who had been overcome by avalanches on mountains, for instance. Reference was made to the checklists which airline pilots use. In his second lecture he said:

We have made tremendous discoveries, but find it’s extremely complex to deliver on them. We have inadequate homicide investigations, for instance. We have flawed software design. We have intelligence failures. We’ve had tottering banks. And what we see repeatedly, again and again, I think is that as we embark on the 21st century we have found that the 20th century has given us a volume and knowledge and skill that is beyond what any individual can simply hold in their head, can know how to deliver on, and simply do it on their own. The volume of knowledge and skill has exceeded our individual capabilities.

And so then we went to the medieval approach… We’ve issued standards and guidelines and regulations. We’ll take away your licence if you don’t do this. Or, if we’re being nice about it – we’ll pay you more, if you do it, we’ll give you incentives. And that did make improvements in matters, but only a bit. It didn’t get us to what we want. And what we want in the modern version of the world is that the norm is to do X. And the way that we make it the norm are systems. And they can be as simple a system as just checklists. It can be defaults, it can be feedback loops. The important insight is that what we have to focus on is how to deliver on the guidelines and standards and knowledge that we have discovered, how to make it easy for everybody to follow.

These are lists but they are not the simple recitation of statistics, performance indicators which supposedly tell us what has been achieved but lack any information about the factors contributing to the outcomes that have been measured. Worse such lists often reveal what has happened after it is too late to take action to change course or remove impediments. As the enterprise collapses the only course of action is to sack large numbers of staff, cancel programs or restructure with all the damaging outcomes that attend such action. None of that amounts to good governance or leadership! Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere and the systems in place have to manage that. That means the right oversight as well as the honesty to recognise when programs and policies don’t work.

In every consideration of policy and achievement a major focus should be on creativity and how people work together. I find it interesting that organisations highly successful in research and development share some features with other types of successful organisations. In the former, considerable effort is put into encouraging staff from different parts of the organisation to meet frequently to discuss issues central to the organisation’s main activity: people have morning tea or coffee and/or lunch together and the most senior staff attend those events. In one, lunch tables have places for a maximum of eight people because it is difficult for a larger number of people to conduct a single conversation. In one, staff have to present a seminar each year on a topic outside their own field of research. In another there are whiteboards in the foyers between section laboratories, and in the garden, which staff use during their discussions.

In a recent discussion on the ABC RN Late Night Live program journalist Laura Tingle, discussing her latest Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern, mentioned that at the Reserve Bank of Australia, a successful organisation which has mostly escaped the depredations of the efficiency experts at the Department of Finance, all the staff go to morning tea.

The point is that in almost all organisations ideas are central to the future and ideas get worked through by conversation where they are evaluated and challenged. Without those discussions ideas may become solidified and enshrined as articles of faith, immune from challenge. That is precisely why boards, when they meet, benefit from a chairperson skilled at encouraging the exchange of views. A relevant story concerns a chairman who put forth a proposal and then asked for contrary views: when none were offered he postponed the meeting for a week by which time he said he wanted to receive contrary opinions.

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Too often those responsible for governance do not see their role as both encouraging above average performance by the museum’s leadership, as Peter Drucker would say, and defending the museum against the depredations of those who would marginalise the museum as of little relevance and deserving of less support. The result is inevitable decline. What this essay contributes is, I believe, as apposite now as it was when delivered. There are too few Steve Weil’s around to urge us to think about what is really important.

The Year 2014: Governments and Corporations – Are they Fit for Purpose?

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

This year 2014 has been one of the most difficult years Australians have faced in peacetime. It is a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing and the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.

So, the following constitutes a kind of end of year rave about Australia and the world at this time. It started out as a commentary on the response to friends about the article of last May by Warwick Smith in The Guardian on the budget: number of economists who agree with government economic policy? Nil.

I am deliberately posting this instead of placing it as an article amongst the pages of this site. This post has also been published on my blog.

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The Abbott-led Opposition had consistently criticised the Gillard government as illegitimate and non-functional when it was in fact legitimate (as are many coalition governments around the world) and was able to pass substantial amounts of legislation, albeit not all representing the best that could be put in place. In government, Abbott faced trouble from cross bench Senators throughout the year, passing little legislation.

Government claims of a welfare crisis were undermined by a Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research report that has tracked more than 12,000 people since 2001. The Survey showed working age Australians have become far less reliant on welfare payments since the turn of the century. As Peter Whiteford,Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University pointed out, Australia has the most targeted social security system in the OECD and that total social security payments in Australia, at 12 per cent of average household income, are the third-lowest in the OECD. Strategies aimed at getting more people on welfare, including youth and those receiving disability benefits, into work have nothing to say about job creation!

The Prime Minister Tony Abbott ended the year in very bad shape and indeed Treasurer Hockey is said to have failed. Many have been the commentators giving vent to their views on that: I don’t need to here. I have in recent posts. Except it is worth recalling that, on gaining office on September 8 2013, Mr Abbott declared the  Nation “open for business”. Instead business confidence weakened, terms of trade declined and the deficit grew. There are multiple reasons which only shows the folly of making grand predictions about financial outcomes!

I do want to point out that the posts on this site have changed from ones that commented in a perhaps fairly staid manner on various issues to increasingly strident condemnation of trends in Australia and more generally. Apart from failures in education in many places the overwhelming failure has been in respect of climate change, though the outcomes of the meetings in Lima atd the end of 2014  perhaps give some hope.

It is fair to say that Australia is involved in conflicts in the Middle East which probably have nothing to do with Australia, or more correctly are unlikely to solved by our intervention or indeed the intervention of any outside power, hideous as the situation is.

Immigration has become a nightmare which decent Australians find appalling, policies based on lies, as pointed out by many including Julian Burnside, Malcolm Fraser and Sarah Hanson-Young, and a level of meanness which is hard to imagine.

Consider this contrasting decision: “Sweden has become the first European Union country to announce it will give asylum to all Syrian refugees who apply as reported by SBS for instance. “All Syrian asylum seekers who apply for asylum in Sweden will get it,” Annie Hoernblad, the spokeswoman for Sweden’s migration agency, told AFP. The agency made this decision now because it believes the violence in Syria will not end in the near future.” The decision, which will give refugees permanent resident status, is valid until further notice, added Hoernblad.”

The government has pursued energy policies totally at odds with any verifiable facts: carbon emissions were decreasing before the carbon tax was repealed and have increased since then with brown coal being burned in much higher amounts. Declines in household energy consumption and in petrol prices have delivered significantly much more financial gain to people than any action of the government. Energy retailers have been profligate – spending some $40 billions on infrastructure that will never be needed – and the Energy Regulator lacked discipline. The arguments for a reduction of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) are merely a sop to retailers and coal miners. (The actions of the Victorian State government in promoting urban transport infrastructure in a process which concealed the lies underlying the asserted outcome and unnecessary desalination infrastructure are similarly egregious.)

Government policies on health are utterly irrelevant. A co-paymdent has nothing to do with maintaining a healthy citizenry and the proposed $20 billion dollar research fund does not address chronic disease. Anyway the health minister was shoved off to Immigration in the December reshuffle whilst Social Services are to be subject to the discipline up to now imposed on Immigration. No hint there of increasing revenue other than further arguments about the regressive GST bolstered by ongoing assertions from Western Australia.

Proposals for funding education so that the major issue of disparities in advantage would be reduced have been trashed in a welter of lies and misrepresentations. Why hasn’t the media reported these two comments by the chair of the panel, the redoubtable David Gonski in his Jean Blackburn Oration to the Australian College of Educators?

“I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.

“To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.

Continuing to talk of what he saw, Gonski noted, “The outstanding professionalism of both the leaders of the commonwealth department involved in school education and a number of the equivalents in states.

“I confess that my un-researched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite. The people I met, who dealt with me, were on the whole open to change, experienced, intelligent and well-meaning. In my view we are lucky to have them.

“I should also mention that dealing with the representatives of the various sectors be they from the catholic system, the independent school sector, the education unions and others was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively. This I found very reassuring for the future – and I take the opportunity of this “postscript speech” to thank them.”

Despite evidence that universities are vitally important but that there are needs for improvement in teaching and that for reasons not explained large numbers of graduates have difficulty finding jobs, the government adopted policies for higher education that, like those for schools, had no basis whatsoever in evidence, were promoted by focus groups (which are relevant to what?) at great cost and advocated through an advertising program which did not mention the great cuts to research funding.

And the ABC and SBS had their funds further reduced. Like CSIRO, excuses were made and the issues ignored and the blame avoided. That any government concerned for education and an informed citizenry and future prosperity would of necessity generously fund scientific research and public broadcasting escapes these people. The ABC and SBS deliver an extraordinary array of material of extremely high quality. But as ABC’s Mark Scott has said the focus is on some small part of what they do. Skilled and experienced people left. Skilled and experienced scientists continued to leave CSIRO after a plethora of reviews over more than 25 years. In both places corporatisation has delivered exactly what?

The greatest tragedy of the budget, though in this sense the present government is not completely different only much worse, is the way it has ignored the major challenges facing humanity. Those will always be argued about but inequality, addressed by CEO of the IMF, the Governor of the Bank of England and French academic Thomas Piketty as well as a host of others, immediately comes to mind.

Of the many excellent reports of those challenges, the Oxford Martin Commission, “Now for the Long Term”, chaired by former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy (and including an astonishing array of internationally respected economists, specialists and political leaders) can be mentioned. And there are several insightful reports from the United Nations and the OECD. When Lamy visited Australia mid-year the Commission’s report received media attention only from the ABC and he met no government Minister! I don’t know if he met any business group. His talks in capital cities were booked out. (The visit was promoted by the Centre for Policy development.)

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Here are three recent tweets of mine, relevant to the above, that those who do not tweet will have missed (no doubt to the relief of some):

Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates astronomy would hardly have advanced beyond Galileo. More

Try this. If scientific organisations employed methods of banks & corporates we wd b drawing blood 2 cure illness. DNA search wd b 2 risky!

Advances gain f prev unknown knowledge & skills. Instead of colonisation & takeover try join w others 2 leverage knowledge Mkt econ model NO

If the meaning of these ravings are not clear, I can explain. I consider that banks and too many (not all) other corporates are engaged, not in innovative solutions to advance society, but simple behaviours merely to enrich a few people who fund them.

After all banks have gotten into trouble because they did things like decide to reward people for lending money without any regard to whether the loan would likely be repaid; they could have decided to reward only those who had made successful loans. Even better they could have engaged with a multiple of reinforcing goals such as “advance economic performance whilst encouraging innovation in pursuit of improving the health of minorities (or even the middle class)”.

Consider the recent behaviour of the ANZ bank (whose chair is a climate change denier) which bought an investment vehicle at a knock down price and then pursued the debtors, closing their mortgages if they missed one payment. These are farmers: what were National Party politicians like Barnaby Joyce doing? Answer: nothing!

The chair of the National Australia Bank Michael Chaney recently said that banks had a duty to fund the mining of coal! This is even more stupid than Abbott’s comment that coal was good. Banks have no obligation to fund anything other than what is consistent with their goals and prudent. Chaney was once chair of the Business Council and advocated then, as the BCA still does, nonsensical views about financial incentives driving teacher performance and test scores representing teacher competence.

The behaviour of the Commonwealth Bank is well known.

For the rest, consider corporate failings and illegal behaviours. I have a list.

As to colonisation and takeovers. The first thing to recognise is the huge cost over time. Most of these ventures are loss-making.  Consider Vietnam and Algeria, not to mention French and British interests in the Middle East. (The British betrayed those who gave their support to the defeat of the Turkish forces in WW1 and British and French representatives divided up the land as they had in Africa to suit themselves.) The present insurgencies in Syria and Iraq represent the ongoing return on investment by those powers.

All colonised peoples have knowledge and skills of great value which are completely ignored and supressed so that the people can be applied to the simple tasks of working at little or no wages in enterprises which the colonizers have dreamed up as appropriate to achieving their own ends. Such as ground nut farming in East Africa. (See the history of pioneer ANU anthropologist Bill Stanner whose writings were recently edited by Robert Manne, the novel and play “The Secret River”, Bill Gammage’s book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and “Into the Heart of Darkness”, etc, etc)

Most company mergers in the end benefit only the lawyers who arrange the mergers and a few people who get “success fees”. What generally follows is downsizing or, in other words in not a few cases, at least temporary unemployment sometimes leading to worse. The simple solution to “wealth generation” is followed: cut the costs by increasing the margins which results in increase in the stock price which, since the “investors” leverage their borrowing against stock, represents a considerable gain for them. When they have made enough they sell on the company which by now is diminished. All a result of companies considering the main role to be generation of wealth for their shareholders rather than providing needed goods and services to a specific market.

The boards of such merged companies often contain no person who actually knows anything about the business; the directors are rewarded with large fees, a process which makes virtually no difference to performance as has been demonstrated by research on behavioural economics. Employees are hired by another company so the principal company doesn’t have to worry about the workplace conditions. And employees are engaged in whatever country pays the lowest wages with little or no regard to conditions of employment or any sense of decency. (See ‘Why Work Is More and More Debased’ by Robert Kuttner in New York Review of Books October 23, 2014 reviewing ‘The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It’ by David Weil and ‘Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street’ by Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt.)

The very much more productive alternative would be for companies to merge when each recognises the other has experience and skills which the principal company, or both, lacks but has identified as critical to its progress. What would follow is not sackings but a period of considerable training and development of all staff in the new company in the areas critical to success. Those asked to leave are only those who reveal that they are not comfortable with the nature of the new business. (IR policies rest on best practice as revealed by best research and law.)

If this seems too much like naïve and ignorant nonsense answer this question: how has the European Space Agency managed to land vehicles on a moon of Jupiter and a comet, a process which in each case involved hundreds of scientists from many different countries over a very long time? And how did they get the Hadron Super Collider to “discover” the Higgs particle? In the latter case the machinery broke down at one point: 3,000 scientists and technicians worked at fixing it! How have the hospitals which are expert at managing the most critical medical problems got to be that way? (This year’s Reith lectures by Michael Gawande give a clue about managing complex problems such as bringing back to life persons severely injured and seemingly dead after accidents. A clue: the answer isn’t money or competition. You guessed it, it is cooperation!)

Compare the ESA achievements with the relatively simple tasks of rolling out the NBN, installing pink bats, putting in place a universal ticketing system for Sydney’s public transport system and – yes I know that is very much more difficult than putting a decent education or health system in place against the wishes of entrenched privilege) – transiting to a low carbon economy!

The fact is that the politicians and the corporate boards we have in place are not fit for purpose, mainly through intellectual laziness and an overwhelming belief that what they have been brought up to believe is the eternal truth. The influence of those in leadership positions is followed almost unquestionably until they are found to be no longer of use! Sensible decision-making requires constant challenge and exposure to alternative views!

Almost none of these people would dare to consider the proposition that we would all be better off if there was a substantial reduction in inequality, if those on the margin, especially indigenous people*, were granted the dignity and recognition to which they are entitled including equitable access to the judicial system, if the poor were adequately housed rather than living on the street and the seriously disadvantaged cared for, if drug addiction were treated as an illness and not a crime, if children were encouraged to play by themselves unsupervised as part of their learning, if test scores at school were abandoned because all that can be measured is of little consequence, if investment in childhood education was considered the key to the future, if health care were paid for through taxes because the net gain to the community at large is positive over the longer term, if public transport, urban planning and health were recognised as fundamental to a just society and to gains in other areas, if industrial relations were recognised as constituting the processes for mutual satisfaction of competing wants in the alternative village that workplaces are, if investment in scientific research, certainly not economic growth or population growth, was recognised as the principal driver of future prosperity broadly defined. And if the military had to run cake stalls to generate the funding for their weapons!

I believe these are amongst the most important and critical issues. The economy is not the principal issue, at individual, family, local or national or international level. Writers like the Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay have been saying this for some time and so have many people who have pointed to the importance of issues beyond the economic.

In his commencement address at American University Jine 10 1963, President John F Kennedy said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal…

I finish with some of my favourite quotes. They come from the 2010 Deakin lecture by Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey. (Jackson is featured on TED. One of the first actions of the UK government of David Cameron was to dismiss the UK Sustainable Development Commission: the parallels with Australia will be obvious.)

“The concept of prosperity as an ongoing drive for growth is inconsistent with human nature. … prosperity has a meaningful sense that isn’t directly about income growth. It’s about the health of our families. It’s about the trust of our friends. It’s about the security of our communities. It’s about participation in the life of society. It’s about some sense perhaps of having a meaningful life and a hope for the future…

“We evolved as much as social beings as we did as individual beings. We evolved as much in laying down the foundations for a stable society as we did in continually pursuing novelty…”

Some of these ideas are explored in my book “Education: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity” (published early this year by Springer) and in other posts on this site.

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A Challenge to our Vision of Humanity

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

‘Are we all here, Do we really count?’ references a statement Australian sociologist and writer Hugh Mackay made some years ago. In his most recent non-fiction book he points out that The Good Life is not one “lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust … It is one in which we treat people the way we would like to be treated… A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.” Mackay has written 14 books including novels, his latest being Infidelity.

Mackay’s lesson is the basis for contrasting statements about humanity with observations of the horrors which ordinary human beings have perpetrated or simply allowed. That humanity has made progress is an arguable statement which is too seldom not seriously thought about or realistically discussed. It is also a view which contrasts with the dominant economic view, one that as Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and one time Sustainability Commissioner for the UK, has pointed out shows we have evolved as social rather than economic beings.

Two books, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Bernard Schlinck’s The Reader are among many scores of books and films which draw out the horrors and the conflicts faced by ordinary human beings, not politicians or generals or soldiers. Do these books and films make any difference to how we run out lives and influence the future of our society? Though there is greater international peace, the horrors continue within national boundaries, sometimes boundaries artificially drawn by colonising powers.

Conflicts continue to generate millions of refugees, deny a future to men, women and children, destroy towns and cities, economies and futures. Yet countries with influence seem unable to agree to stop them. Aid becomes another just another business, another opportunity for colonisation in another guise.

Faced with the need to help those fleeing persecution, arguments are advanced about queue jumping, about illegal asylum seekers, about population growth at the same time as skilled people from poorer countries are recruited to jobs in rich countries so corporations can avoid the costs of  training people already resident in that country. Inequality increases as fewer people gain greater wealth and what should be self evident truths remain denied. And discrimination on the basis of race and more continues, as it has for centuries.

A Prime Minister apologises, people weep, then what?

Continue to essay, “Are we really all here. do we all really count?