Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The word we ignore at our peril

Symbolism is important because it affects the way people think and act. Symbolism is particularly important to politicians because it influences people's perceptions, and pollies know that, with voters, perceptions are often more real than the reality.

That's why it was such a bad sign for Julia Gillard to announce her cabinet - initially, at least - without mention of the word ''education''. She had Chris Evans as Minister for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations, Peter Garrett as Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth, and Kim Carr as Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science. So research didn't rate a mention, either.

This from the party that promised an Education Revolution? This from the woman responsible for advancing that revolution during Labor's first term?

Turns out we were meant to know that ''skills'' was a reference to universities as well as tech colleges. No wonder the academics complained. And no wonder Gillard quickly saw the wisdom of restoring the E-word to prominence.

One of the big questions for Gillard's new term is: does she still believe in anything apart from whatever it takes to get re-elected? Labor's apparent lack of convictions and the courage to fight for them - whether under Kevin Rudd or Gillard - was a big part of the explanation for its poor showing in the election. Not only did it fail to attract the swinging voters, but many in its heartland turned away in disillusionment.

If Labor and its leader can't rediscover some values, I don't fancy their chances at the next election. If they have any sense they'll stop portraying themselves as a pale imitation of the Liberals.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Gillard does seem to understand the need to be seen to stand for something. She keeps saying she believes in the value of hard work, and it's clear she practises what she preaches - what careerist doesn't? - but that's hardly enough to get people rallying round the flag.

She also says she believes in the ''transformative power of education'', which is another less than controversial sentiment, but does meet the needs of the hour. The truth is that education suffered during the Howard years. The universities' funding was squeezed unmercifully, while technical education was neglected, early childhood development got little more than lip-service and the main achievement with schools was to bias the government's grants in favour of the better-off private schools.

If ever there was a time to be leaving education on automatic pilot, now is not it. As the returning resources boom and the high exchange rate it engenders put the squeeze on agriculture, manufacturing and our main service exports - education and tourism - there'll be much concern about the way the boom is hollowing out the rest of industry. What will be left when the boom is over? And what will we have to show for the exploitation of our non-renewable resources?

There'll be much pressure on the government to increase assistance to manufacturing - pressure to which Labor's links to the union movement will make it particularly susceptible. But to yield to that pressure would be to try to hold back time, to resist change in the industrial structure of our economy that's inevitable. Around the world, manufacturing is moving from the developed to the developing countries.

No, the way for us to secure the future rather than the past, the way to ensure workers of the future have clean, safe, well paid, intellectually satisfying jobs, is to emphasise education. The way to ensure we have something to show for the resources boom - apart from encouraging people to save rather than spend - is to foster the accumulation of ''human capital'' via increased education and training.

Overseas, economists are abuzz over the discovery that technological change is hollowing out the structure of occupations in developed countries. There are more unskilled jobs at the bottom and a lot more very high-skilled professional and management jobs at the top, but computerisation means there are fewer jobs in the middle: salespeople, bank clerks, secretaries, machine operators and factory supervisors.

This should come as no surprise to us. Mark Cully, now of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in Adelaide, showed the existence of this phenomenon in Australia almost a decade ago.

Again the answer is obvious: more emphasis on raising the level of educational attainment among our young people (with more scope for middle-aged workers to return to the education system for additional training).

So far, I've been conforming to the modern, economics-obsessed fashion of emphasising the utilitarian dimension of education: education as a handmaiden to commerce, education meeting the needs of business (and increasingly taking its marching orders from business people).

As we've seen, it's all true: education is a key to greater material prosperity. But we're already prosperous, and it's entirely appropriate for a prosperous nation to devote a fair bit of its treasure to education and research, to finding out more and more about how humans, their world and their universe work. In other words, education should be seen not just as a means, but also as an end in itself.

One of the great characteristics of the human animal is its insatiable curiosity. Just as George Mallory's best explanation of why he wanted to climb Everest was ''because it's there'', so we need no better justification for the pursuit of education and knowledge than that we just want to know.

Education increases life satisfaction. It opens minds to the wonders of science and glories of history and culture. We learn about ourselves and about others, which makes us more tolerant of people different to us (including boat people).

All this, I suspect, is why the vice-chancellors were so disturbed to find the word education replaced by ''skills'' and no mention of ''research''. It's a pity they didn't have the courage to spell it out: we believe in knowledge for its own sake.