Maybe it's time to be unreasonable

One of my favourite small companies is Learning Media. A CROC (Crown-owned company), it is no crock. Jim Anderton could cite it in his anti-privatisation speeches.

Learning Media was once a departmental supplier of classroom fodder. Rogergnomes turned the bureaucrats into a company and told them to find ways of making money. And they have: revenue doubled (to $24 million) and profits quadrupled (to $2.7 million) in the past five years, with exports now at 40% of sales.

Its annual bash around this time to report to stakeholders and others is among the most optimistic events on my calendar. It oozes talent, creativity and enthusiasm. It lifts the spirits.

And Learning Media is in the knowledge business, which, in the knowledge society, is where we are all supposed to be.

The problem is defining that.

At one end the knowledge society is cutting-edge science and transfer of that research into products and services that sell. It is openness to, and exploitation of, new knowledge.

Sounds nice, until you get to genetic modification (GM), the next and more potent phase of the information revolution. Middle-class fears of hobgoblins suddenly range against exploiters, and even pursuers, of new knowledge. As it worked up to its decision the government had to pick its way between twin spectres of Labour and Alliance voters deserting to the Greens and scientists and businesses deserting to countries that celebrate new knowledge.

The Prime Minister in advance categorised you by your reaction: all reasonable people will agree with the government’s position, she said at the weekend.

Spoken like a humanities graduate, used to weighing evidence and opining qualified judgments. But cutting-edge science is not “reasonable”.

Nor are those people “reasonable” who use science or whatever else is at hand to effect “economic transformation”, proclaimed by the government in February but little heard of since, or who “catch the knowledge wave”, the vogue slogan of August. That requires of us innovation, aspiration and risk-taking — in a word, to be unreasonable.

Beyond cutting-edge science, the knowledge society is about getting everybody, or nearly everybody, thinking more and better as they work — and, to enable that, implanting aspirations in young souls and lifting aspirations among others.

Which is why the government has prioritised early childhood education and the tertiary sector.

The last brick will go in Steve Maharey’s tertiary education edifice next week, with the much-delayed publication of the much-rewritten Tertiary Education Advisory Commission (TEAC) report on funding.

This report has triggered tense exchanges in several directions. Maharey told TEAC it should work on the basis of existing funding. That set up a zero-sum game: fur flew when university vice-chancellors faced cuts elsewhere to pay for Maharey’s “centres of excellence” to promote cutting-edge science.

So TEAC proposed cuts to student fee subsidies (the interest-forgiveness element of which is in any case becoming a fiscal nightmare). More fur flew — between Maharey and TEAC chair Russell Marshall, Labour Education Minister 1984-87. Maharey will ignore that recommendation and will instead dollop up an extra $100 million (secondary teachers take note).

Universities and centres of excellence are the glamour studios of the knowledge wave. Much overlooked are the polytechnics.

The knowledge economy is not just new activities. It is applying new knowledge to old activities. That requires knowledge-capable workers: from technologists and designers to technicians and computer-literate mechanics. Producing those people is the polytechnics’ job.

Polytechnics have another job: picking up people who never got started. The point of the knowledge society is not knowledge but incomes — higher incomes through smarter work but also incomes instead of welfare, even if only low incomes in, say, commodity tourism.

That partly requires polytechnics to stop aping universities and focus on work needs. It also means lifting aspirations across the board.

To do that, forget “reasonable” people. We (and the government) will need to be unreasonable: unreasonably determined, unreasonably demanding and unreasonably ambitious. Like Learning Media.