A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Speech by Colin James to the Polytechnics Association conference, 2 November 2001

Here we are in “knowledge city” in the decade in which we are supposed to become the “knowledge society”, catch the “knowledge wave” to the “knowledge economy” and thereby fashion the “knowledge nation”. It’s a fad in our sorts of countries. And it’s your business.

Fads don’t last, of course. We could, as a nation, ignore all this sloganeering and retreat to that arcadian dell where agrarian societies go when the going gets greasy.

After all, the quiet life is a selling point to tourists and immigrants of a particular sort (cowards and those of a retiring inclination). Moreover, we would have a lot of company. Societies which have backed away from knowledge particularly new knowledge are thick on the ground.

It’s a valid democratic choice in fact, just the ticket for a society which has grown out of its pioneering myths of self-reliance and practical invention.

I was struck by Steve Maharey’s “rowing” analogy this morning, which seemed quite apt: all facing in the same direction except that he didn’t say we are all facing backwards. We have as a nation done a lot of looking backwards. Perhaps that is our competitive advantage.

Certainly, it is a valid democratic choice.

Except when we want something out of the health system.

We can’t staff the hospitals. The trickle of stories of people who have to go to Australia to get quite routine treatment is building into a stream. That sort of division of rich from poor is not what the quiet life is supposed to be about. It will get worse through this decade.

We are, as a society, at a point of choice.

The secure economy and society we fashioned by deep consensus after the second world war was blown away by the collapse in the terms of trade between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s a one-third drop in our earning power in 10 years.

We responded after a suitably arcadian delay by fast deregulation of the economy after 1984 amidst what amounted to revolutionary change as we at last claimed our independence, our own “voice”. That deregulation greatly improved the economy’s flexibility and now it can absorb shocks quite well. The 1990s were our best performing decade since the 1950s in raw overall numbers.

But deregulation did not greatly increase our wealth-creating capacity. It cleared away the gorse and briar that was choking enterprise. But there is no lush new growth in its place as Simon Arnold and Bridget Wickham said this afternoon, business is struggling. As a country, we have slid down the wealth league table.

To reverse that, we need to double productivity growth. And that requires a knowledge economy. A true knowledge economy should mean higher incomes for all. That is the point of it.

Actually, we do have a knowledge economy but only in patches. We have islands of knowledge economy activity. We have an archipelago economy.

This archipelago is made up of many small enterprises which are plugged into the international economy but not much connected with each other or the surrounding economy. A lot of them are high-tech and/or highly creative ICT or biotech or design or engineering enterprises and the like. There are also many small manufacturers which have found an international niche. The more successful of these plugged-in enterprises have international incomes. These are definitely knowledge-economy activities. They are impressive, smart and valuable.

As these islands pop up out of the sea, people clamber on to them or are hoisted on to them from the surrounding continental shelf into the international marketplace at international incomes. Judging by news and magazine reports, the number is growing, so the number of people plugged into the knowledge economy and its income rewards is growing.

But proportionately not many New Zealanders are part of this phenomenon. The great bulk of the population left on the continental shelf is on local rates sinking gently and getting wet feet.

Now add to that picture biculturalism and environmentalism.

Biculturalism is not multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is acceptance that people of minority cultures might maintain their customs, ceremonies and language and that the state might even help them do that. Biculturalism acknowledges that two cultures stand side by side as equals and command mutual recognition and respect. Glacially, but, on current evidence unmistakably, this country is going bicultural. Of course, this may reverse but on current evidence the direction is clear.

To quote the Prime Minister, who has herself been slow to recognise biculturalism: “We are not going to hang together as a country unless we respect other people’s worldview.” She made it clear she was referring to Maori.

We had a taste of biculturalism during the genetic modification debate. The predominant Maori view, as presented to the royal commission, declared GM to be knowledge abhorrent to mauri, to whakapapa, to Maori spiritual and cultural values too abhorrent even to pursue, let alone use. This is the clash at the deepest of levels, between animism and judaeo-christianity. And the Maori and polynesian proportion of the population is growing.

Environmentalism is another growing influence.

If you see society as a whole organism, not as a collection of consenting individuals, there will be some knowledge that, in the individual, threatens the cohesion of the collective. Some religions demonstrate this. And if you see the world in even broader terms, if you see nature and humans as part of one holistic organism, there will also be some knowledge that, in the individual, is dangerous to the environment and human society. Meet the greens.

Greens, like Maori, are a growing influence in our society, our politics and our consciousness. Again, like Maori, it is not inevitable the green view will prevail and strengthen. But the past 30 years have been unidirectional and on current evidence that direction will continue . A wider and wider swathe of the population believes some knowledge must not be pursued or, if pursued, must not be used.

I am not suggesting Maori or greens are anti-knowledge. Maori were quick to take up European technology in the early years after contact. I know some inventive and inquiring greens. They both have valuable stores of knowledge about humans and their environment valuable to this society now and in the future.

Moreover, they present two valuable pictures to foreigners and to ourselves about this society: a reputation among indigenous peoples as a society which is coming to value and respect the indigenous culture as equal with the colonising culture; and a reputation as a society which, more than most, respects the natural environment.

But the underlying philosophies of both are at odds with the Enlightenment values that have underpinned the science and technology that have driven productivity growth over the past four centuries and particularly the past century and a-half. It is new knowledge which has driven productivity growth. If we want higher incomes, we need to pursue and embrace new knowledge. That is the point of all the sloganeering.

Neither Maori mauri nor green holism is automatically a constraint on productivity growth. But we have not yet worked out how to marry the knowledge they promote to productivity growth.

OK, the knowledge society, economy, wave and nation are about new knowledge. What do we mean by that.

I see three broad branches.

The first is cutting-edge science and new technology and the development of saleable products and services from those discoveries. I would also put in this category highly inventive design.

The Prime Minister has grasped the economic value of this sort of new knowledge. Her strong statements on Tuesday about not being able to afford economically to “turn our backs on science” made that point.

This needs to be underlined because history and today’s geography are littered with examples of authorities who rejected new knowledge at a cost to their citizenry. The Catholic Church forced Galileo to recant his deductions from his observations of the movements of the planets. The Chinese bought clocks from Europeans as toys and rejected the potential they offered for economic organisation. Time-wise Europeans later humiliated the Chinese. Islamic countries have yet to climb on the economic wagon.

This cutting-edge branch of new knowledge is the place of theory, of the sorts of intellects to be found in or around universities. Or, perhaps I should say, the sorts of intellects that should be found in or around universities if universities can focus on their real job.

Policymakers have given this first branch of new knowledge a lot of attention over the past three years: centres of excellence, incubators, high-tech “clusters” on the Silicon Valley model. It’s the glamour end of new knowledge. It excites and scares people. It’s what most people think of as the “knowledge wave”. And most people cannot see a place for themselves on the surfboard.

The second branch of new knowledge is to be found among the staff that do the work of the new businesses founded on new science or who apply ideas creatively or imaginatively to what we might call traditional work. These are the technologists and technicians, creative designers and thinking managers who learn new skills or techniques to make the new ideas work or to do the work of the new ideas. It can be found, for example, among a new generation of farmers who figure they can no longer farm for eventual capital gain but must generate a real-time return on capital and are hungry for ideas to apply on their farms.

This second branch of new knowledge is not the discovery of a new technique but its application. It is the place of the sorts of intelligences, geared to applied analysis, to be found in or around polytechnics. Or perhaps I should say, the sorts of intelligences that should be found in or around polytechnics if they focus on their real job.

Most people can’t see themselves in this branch of new knowledge either. But that doesn’t necessarily stop them catching the knowledge wave. In fact, if they don’t, if, to put it another way, if they don’t thereby join the international economy, there won’t be much point in running ourselves ragged developing the first two branches of new knowledge.

So these people need new knowledge, too. This is my third branch and I am now probably about to invite ridicule.

My concept of this third branch is the acquisition of knowledge, even old knowledge, by those who have low or zero levels of knowledge and usually, as a result, low or no earned incomes. It might be a step up from basic work to technical work. It might be a step up from flipping hamburgers to nouvelle cuisine in a smart restaurant. It might be a step up from illiteracy and the benefit to basic work for an income, step on to the first rung of Sean McDonagh’s ladder.

Schools are supposed to do this. But large swathes of young people don’t have the aspirations, motivations or just plain learning skills to get it from schools. So it is also the role of the polytechnics.

It is a role no government has yet taken seriously. In the past “training schemes”, with a whip to make layabouts attend, kept the no-work people occupied but not in sustainable incomes. If we are to “catch the knowledge wave” there must be a heavy focus on stepping up low-income and no-income people who see no point or hope.

What unifies these three branches of new knowledge?

They all require us to think and to change. The status quo is reverse gear. Once you could be freezing worker or a mechanic or a middle manager for the whole of your life without having to change much the way you went about it. Now you can’t. A factory operative might well be doing at least part of the work through or with reference to a computer. Mindless repetition is less and less an option unless you want Nike wages.

So if there is a unifying strand for educational institutions it is to teach children and adults how to think. I have long said of myself that the value of my (dubious) university years, apart from having a really good time, was that I learnt (a) that I needed to think and (b) how to think.

That is still obviously the central role of a university. I think universities have muddled up their role: a good deal of what they do is teach blocks of existing knowledge. This has, I think, seduced universities into teaching applied courses, such as business and nursing, to which I would add law and accountancy. In the scramble for income, universities have trashed their mission.

At the same time, I can’t see what polytechnics are doing pretending to be purveyors of skills in theory when their specialisation has been in applied skills. I hasten to add that I am not saying polytechnics must not confer degrees. If trade lawyers and accountants can have degrees, so surely can creative designers. The point is to be clear about standards and not to overstretch capabilities and leave the core business underprovided. Outside the education industry, it is a common theme, at least as I hear it (and this includes from the minister) that polytechnics, by self-aggrandisement, have lost sight of the importance of the third branch of new knowledge, the hairdressers and mechanics, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. It is the same in Australia and Ireland.

If the universities are serious about trade training and the polytechnics are serious about theoretical research, there should be only one sort of institution that does the lot. Instead, we have got what looks from the outside like a ghastly hotchpotch. I can’t see the new economy emerging from that model.

It is time to sort this out. Steve Maharey has put his faith in Andrew West. Andrew had better develop a very thick skin. Drawing boundaries between fiefdoms is hazardous to the health. But if I was to venture into this crocodile swamp, which of course I have no desire to do, I would suggest Jack McDonald has got it about right.

And that says nothing about oversupply and rather silly competition. Massey and Otago Universities are under your feet wherever you turn and Massey even owns a polytechnic. Some of the polytechnics send out raiding parties on to others’ patches. If there is to be competition, it should be among types of institutions, to promote new ways of teaching and new ways of thinking. But this government can’t handle the idea that non-state institutions might have anything to offer; so we will hobble into the knowledge economy on one leg.

So to recap: the focus is new knowledge of all kinds, new to humankind and new to individuals. The mechanism is to think at work.

At this point we need to stir in two other ingredients that will determine whether a knowledge wave develops.

One is entrepreneurialism, the ability to spot a gap and opportunity and parlay that into wealth creation. And, if I can digress very briefly, we should hunt out and celebrate social, environmental and cultural entrepreneurs too, because they, too, can contribute to the knowledge wave. Policy should be relentlessly conscious of the need not to discourage entrepreneurs of all sorts. That will require some changes from current policy.

The second factor is aspirations. To be a knowledge society, to generate a knowledge economy, to catch the knowledge wave, we have to aspire to those outcomes and do what it takes. I don’t think most New Zealanders and especially most Aotearoans do aspire to those outcomes. We can still do OK, most of us. Why stir from the beach?

I don’t know how you lift aspirations. I could ramble on about leadership and offer some wild policy ideas, some of which would involve polytechnics. But I don’t know. What I do know is that if I was 33 now the age at which I came back from Britain to what turned out to be a fascinating time reporting and trying to comprehend our independence revolution I wouldn’t now for a second consider returning. Glance through the “heroes” on the upbeat nzedge.com site developed by Brian Sweeney and Kevin Roberts and quoted by Peter Biggs in his speech and ask how many of them performed their heroic feats here. And ask (but this is another story and one that is being actioned) how to draw these people back into our entrepreneurial and intellectual loop.

I want excellence. This society has preferred mediocrity and justifies it as avoiding “elitism”. I want challenge. This society wants manna from heaven. I want goals. This society wants steady-state. I want self-motivation. This society wants “them”, the authorities or the rich or the teachers, to do the thinking and the doing. The exceptions plug into the international economy on their islands in the archipelago economy and live well or just go somewhere else.

I exaggerate, of course but for a reason. It is to suggest that if we are serious about lifting productivity growth to make a good health system and liveable old age here it is time to stop pretending we can compromise our way their along some “third way” that pretends we are Scandinavia on Portuguese wages. It is time, to pick up a comment by Denis Snelgar this afternoon, to stop being “reasonable”, a favourite word of our politicians and commentariat.

If we are to catch the knowledge wave and skill ourselves to do that, if we are going to value and pursue and use new knowledge at all levels, we are going to have to be “unreasonable”: unreasonably aspirational, unreasonably demanding of ordinary folk to do more, better, faster and in pain, unreasonably deciding to punch above our weight, unreasonably demanding excellence from ourselves and everyone we deal with.

Why? Because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It leads us to grow relatively poorer by the year. We need a lot of knowledge. We need it quickly. And we need to value it. I am sure on that we in this tent can agree. But do the people outside?