Kia ora: In our December 2015 newsletter I wrote “As I begin this final newsletter for 2015 I wonder what will have transpired between now and February when I begin the 2016 newsletter round.” Sadly we have had the devastating cyclone Winston destroy Fiji. On a positive note Syrian refugees have arrived in NZ, but unfortunately some medical clinics have declared that they do not have adequate funding to deal with their medical needs. It is good news that there is now a fragile ceasefire in Syria, and at the time of writing it seems to be holding. More good news is that after 4 months the Nepal –India blockade has been lifted. There is the ghastly thought of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination. And for NZ, Christchurch has been experiencing an unsettling return of earthquakes and aftershocks. But holidays are also for reading! I found this rather amusing observation in a novel The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson who wrote the Mars science fiction trilogy. “I was a prominent man, and people enjoyed watching my fall, of course they did, and they watch still! So what kind of story am I going to give them next? Because that’s what we are to other people, boy, we are their gossip. That’s all civilisation is, a giant mill grinding out gossip.”

Monthly meeting: Monday 7 March 6.30 pm

Godless–o–meter!!!! And other fun!!!!

What kind of non-believer are you? Atheist? Freethinker? Secular Humanist? Agnostic? Unitarian Universalist? Other?

Join us for some fun with this Godless-o-Meter as we meet in our new venue. Do bring your ipad, tablet, smartphone, or laptop, as with the availability of Wi Fi we can bring the digital world to our meeting. Our new meeting venue is the Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St, near the Wellington Railway Station. We will meet upstairs in their Capacity George’s Room. As long as we purchase some food and liquid refreshment there will be no charge for the use of this room. This venue will be our meeting place for the year.

Please note CHANGE OF VENUE and TIME – Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St – George Room

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.

Darwin’s Birthday Friday 12 February 2016: A very pleasant gathering was enjoyed at the Southern Cross Garden Bar, although we did have to compete with cricket fans enjoying the ANZ International Cricket Series at the Basin Reserve. With all of us contributing, the Evolution Quiz made for great conversation.

Eileen Bone Charitable Trust

We wish to thank the Eileen Bone Trust for funding the 2016 Naenae College, Victoria University Scholarship of $1000. As detailed in the December 2015 newsletter the recipient was Rahma Siraj. The Trust has also contributed $405, which was the cost of the venue at Victoria University for our 2015 AGM and Debate. We appreciate and thank the Trust for this additional financial support.

Secular Education Network (SEN)

This group has been campaigning to end religious discrimination in schools The campaign began in July 2014 when an application was made to the Human Rights Commission, who set up a mediation between SEN and the Ministry of Education. These negotiations are continuing and could lead to new guidelines for schools to reduce religious discrimination. In August 2015 the next step was taken, to go to the Human Rights Review Tribunal, to complain about the laws that permit religious bullying and other harm. On 2 February 2016, legal advisors were engaged to guide the next move. They said: the Human Rights Review Tribunal is not the way to go. The best way to get the law changes required, is to apply to the High Court, and to join another legal campaign which is already under way. This is great news and will happen in a couple of weeks. However, it means fundraising for thousands of dollars. A Givealittle page has been set up and 45 donors have contributed $2,675. If you would like to add to this fund then go to:  https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/tanyajacob-davidhines

Basic Income NZ (BINZ) AGM, Saturday 26 March 2.00pm6.00pm, Napier

This group is continuing the work begun in the 1980’s in NZ and joins with other small local NZ networks. The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a system which ensures that all adults, young adults and children receive a Basic income irrespective of working. There is much discussion in the media about a jobless future with the rapid advance of technology. The UBI offers a new possibility. Professor Guy Standing will join us informally at the end of the AGM. For further information see: www.basicincomenz.org.

Society of Humanism Nepal/Humanist School/Kathmandu

With Lorraine Butler’s help we are now sponsoring a seventh student, 11 year old Pabitra who writes: “Both of my parents are unemployed. I am living with my mum in Kathmandu along with my little sister.  My dad is living in village to look after my grandparents.  Both of my grandparents are very old.  My grandmother is blind whereas my grandfather is suffering from partial paralysis.  My mum use to make some homemade incense and sold it for our daily living.  My sister is also suffering from kidney disease.  We need to see the doctor twice in a month. We are economically not strong; we all depend upon our mother’s income for our daily living.”  Our website http://humanist.nz/what/school/ has information if you would like to help.

Book Reviews

I have included two book reviews from the recent Australian Humanist which seem timely as the two issues of education and inequality are growing in importance. The Secular Education Network is working towards robust secular education and another group which touches on the inequality issue is Basic Income NZ (BINZ)

Income inequality, equality of opportunity and intergenerational mobility, by Miles Corak

Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn University. 2013. 32 pages.

Reviewer: Robert Bender

The Institute for Study of Labour in Bonn publishes many papers on social policy issues. In 2013, a study by Miles Corak (University of Ottawa), examined how income inequality tends to persist from one generation to the next.

Corak is particularly concerned that income inequality in the USA is widening and this will limit the social mobility of the next generation. He concludes that unless there are positive programs to reduce disadvantage, the USA will become even more stratified. He does this by comparing the transmission of advantages among the top 1% of income-earners with the rest of society.Corak looked at the relevance of the American dream of the self-made success story, of being able to rise through hard work to achieve comfort and success. He presents evidence to show that children tend to retain the same social status as their parents. The opportunity for social mobility is much less than popular mythology proclaims. An OECD study concluded that income inequality ‘can stifle upward social mobility, making it harder for talented and hard­working people to get the rewards they deserve.’

Many lower-paid USA workers object to progressive taxes as they imagine getting to the top and want low tax rates when they arrive. However, recent evidence suggests that greater inequality increases reliance on family back­ground rather than hard work i.e. inequality stifles upward mobility. Corak’s focus is on transmission of inequality and of economic advantage from generation to generation, and how unequal access to education affects this.

The ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ ranks countries by income inequality on one axis and intergenerational mobility (father’s earnings vs son’s) on the other, putting USA, UK and Italy at the least mobile and most unequal end, and the Scandinavian countries at the other end.

Socioeconomic status and neighbourhood quality influence children’s health, their aptitudes, their cognitive and social development, success at school, the connections that help with first jobs, and the resources parents have for investing in children’s education. Countries differ in the mix of family influence, the labour market and public policy measures to manage children’s opportunities.

The Great Gatsby Curve

Parents differ in their ability to pass on ’employability’ skills, to make children able to respond positively to invest­ment in their education, and to help guide them into jobs that bring big returns on what parents spent on children’s education. These skills involve using one’s connections, ability to set goals and personal drive. If advantaged parents transmit these advantageous skills to their children, then the children start life without the handicaps.

Government spending can be used to perpetuate inequality or to reduce it. One issue is whether government invests more in universities (favouring the already advantaged) or in early learning—kindergartens and primary schools (spreading more equal opportunity). Another is whether healthcare is universal (as in Australia) or whether it is primarily only affordable for the wealthy.

Since the 1970s the labour market has become more unequal in many high-income countries. The incomes earned by high school leavers compared with those completing university degrees can be ranked according to the size of the income gap. This can be measured against indicators of social mobility. It shows that the higher the returns to university education (mainly paid for by wealthier parents), the less mobility in that country, with again USA and UK as the more extreme examples. Norway and Denmark show the greatest intergenerational mobility, with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Sweden scoring less favourably, but all well below USA and UK.

Given that all societies have inequalities in family connections and wealth, the only way to reduce immobility is for public policy to focus on early childhood learning in primary schools rather than on the universities. This kind of universal investment in ‘human capital’ could to some extent counteract the drift to a more stratified society with reduced opportunity and mobility for those at the bottom.

This thrust of public policy recommendations is of great importance to Humanists who usually favour greater equality of opportunity.

Australian Humanist No. 121 Autumn 2016

NOT FOR PROFIT: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Princeton University Press, 2012, xv + 168 pp. $27.95

Reviewer: Ken Wright

Martha Nussbaum is a distinguished American academic with very definite views on how a democratic nation should educate its future citizens. This book is her educational manifesto.

She sees the education system of a democracy as serving two distinct objectives: the persons emerging from it should be capable of leading useful and productive lives that contribute to the economic welfare of their nation, and they should also be competent and thoughtfully critical citizens of their society. A proper balance of these objectives must be sought when choosing the content of education (what is to be taught) and the pedagogy (how it should be taught).

The opening chapter presents a rather gloomy picture of the prevailing trends:

The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. … Thirsty for national profit, nations and their systems of education are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves … The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance, (p. 2)

What is it that makes the humanities and the arts such essential components of the education of citizens in a democracy? According to the author, the following abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts:

the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person, (p.7)

But there is nothing magical about the information conveyed by the study of history, geography or politics that will ensure the development of those desired abilities in a student. It is not the content of the subjects that matters but how they are taught.

When practiced at their best, [science and social science] are infused by what we might call the spirit of the humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in. … Science, rightly pursued, is a friend of the humanities rather than their enemy, (pp. 7-8)

So who is the enemy of education for democracy? It is anyone who sees economic growth or the fulfilment of national ambitions as the principal goal of education.

… educators for economic growth will not want a study of history that focuses on injustices of class, caste, gender, and ethnico-religious membership, because this will prompt critical thinking about the present. Nor will such educators want any serious consideration of the rise of nationalism, of the damages done by nationalist ideals. … So the version of history that will be presented will present national ambition, especially ambition for wealth, as a great good, and will downplay issues of poverty and global accountability, (p.21)

An education for economic growth will … have contempt for [arts and literature], because they don’t look like they lead to personal or national economic advancement. … But educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality. It is easier to treat people as objects to be manipulated if you have never learned any other way to see them. (p. 23)

Having identified the antithesis of a liberal education, the author proceeds to describe how children should be taught. In a chapter entitled ‘Socratic Pedagogy: The Importance of Argument’, she adopts an historical approach, outlining the individual contributions of her heroes of educational reform: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Rabindranath Tagore, and the Americans Bronson Alcott, Horace Mann and John Dewey. She concludes that ‘the aspiration to make elementary and secondary classrooms Socratic is not Utopian; nor does it require genius. It is well within the reach of any community that respects the minds of its children and the needs of a developing democracy, (p. 76)

The next two chapters focus on encouraging children to see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’, and on cultivating their imagination through literature and the arts.

In her concluding chapters, ‘Democracy on the Ropes’ and ‘The Future of the Humanities’, the author assesses the status of liberal education in various democratic nations around the world.

In the tertiary institutions of the USA, with their long tradition of liberal education, she perceives a distinct improvement over the last fifty years. This contrasts with what is happening in that nation’s school systems, ‘where the demands of the global market have made everyone focus on scientific and technical proficiencies as the key abilities, and the humanities and the arts are increasingly perceived as useless frills that we can prune away to make sure that our nation remains competitive.’ The author believes that the introduction of national testing has made things worse because ‘critical thinking and sympathetic imagining are not testable by quantitative multiple-choice exams.’ Such testing leads to a ‘baneful shift… away from teaching that seeks to promote questioning and individual responsibility towards force-feeding for good exam results.’ (pp. 133-4)

Despite the pioneering achievements of Rabindranath Tagore early in the twentieth century, Indian education today is dominated by the goal of economic growth. There is a disdain for humanistic content at university level, and rote learning dominates in government schools.

Britain comes in for some harsh comment, but also gets a favourable mention for teaching philosophy in schools and for examining it in ways that really test Socratic philosophical ability. In other areas, too, British examinations are said to be ‘ambitious and qualitative.’ (p. 135)

Australian Humanist No. 121 Autumn 2016