Tuesday 23 August 2011


Dumbstruck: What the progressives forgot, and the reactionaries remembered, is that while the human bell curve is, indeed, moveable; it can be moved in both directions.

AT THE HEART of the progressive vision is a single, very powerful idea: that the human bell curve is moveable. Humanity can become healthier, smarter, more cultured and more caring – by its own efforts.

The average height of the Roman legionary was just 165 cms. Fifteen hundred years later, the soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé weren’t much taller. From the middle of the 19th Century, however, Europeans enjoyed a century-and-a-half of “betters”: better sanitation, better medicine, better education, better housing and, of course, better diet. As a result, the average height of the European male rose steadily from 165 to 180 cms – roughly one centimetre every ten years.

No wonder they called it “The Age of Progress”.

For much of the 20th Century New Zealand was the international exemplar of Progress. In World War I the Kiwi “diggers”  towered above the English “Tommies”. Denied the ordinary New Zealander’s protein-rich diet, the English troops stood half-a-head shorter than their colonial cousins.

Our famed Plunket Society turned out healthy mothers and healthy babies. Fluoridated water supplies and free school-milk gave Kiwi kids bright white smiles and big strong bones.

Big strong morals, too, were no less a feature of the progressive society bequeathed to posterity by Seddon and Savage – the fathers of New Zealand’s welfare state.

We were a nation of joiners and helpers. New Zealanders were renowned the world over as people who could get along with just about anybody, and who were never afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. They could not, however, abide the “stuck up”. People who gave themselves airs and believed they were a cut above everyone else offended the ordinary New Zealanders’ egalitarian instincts.

It was our greatest strength, but also our greatest weakness.

BECAUSE WHAT HAPPENS when the only bell curve left to shift is the bell-curve of knowledge and culture? In an egalitarian society, how do the aristocrats of talent in the arts and sciences, win themselves an audience? How is the nation’s cultural wealth, formerly the preserve of the ruling elites, to be equitably redistributed across the whole of society?

The answer, both here in New Zealand and across the world, has been for the state to create and maintain a broad range of publicly-owned media dedicated to making the sort of cultural experiences hitherto restricted to a wealthy few available to the whole nation. Public libraries and public broadcasting, a state-funded orchestra and ballet company, generous state support for scientists and artists of all kinds: these were the starting-points for the progressive democratisation of knowledge and culture.

They were also the starting point for all those reactionary forces whose steady retreat before the forces of progress had left them with nowhere to look but down. A society which had already given its entire population access to health, housing, education and employment really had nothing left to seize from their reactionary masters except the crucial cultural tools required for transforming a comfortable subaltern existence into a full, free, self-actualising life.

FACED WITH THIS last great surge of progressive social action, the forces of reaction made a fateful decision. Rather than surrender, and let the people come up, they would come down. What had been the prized tools of individual growth and liberation would now be derided as the ultimate symbols of elite domination.

Knowledge and culture, the reactionaries told a New Zealand public already highly suspicious of intellectuals and artists, are the weapons your enemies use to oppress you. Who are these so-called “experts” to tell you the earth is getting warmer? These elitists who pour scorn on the TV programmes you watch and the music you enjoy? Why are all these novelists and artists so determined to undermine your values. Why should taxpayers fund institutions that belittle their way of life?

The right to rule, which had for centuries been associated not merely with brute force, but with the accomplishments of civilisation – with virtue – would henceforth be associated with the rulers’ promise to protect the people from those very same accomplishments. All that will separate the rulers from the ruled in the reactionaries’ dystopic future is the width of their wallets.

SO, WELCOME to “The Age of Stupid”; to the great “dumbing down” of New Zealand. The place where educational standards are being reduced to readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. Where the universities are already very close to becoming public-private investment partnerships for turning out the officer corps of global capitalism. Where “public television” turns out to mean installing a couple of cheap video cameras in Radio New Zealand’s studios.

Let no one try to convince you there isn’t method to this madness. Because what the progressives forgot, and the reactionaries, facing extinction, finally remembered, is that the human bell-curve may, indeed, be moveable, but that its movement is in both directions.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 August 2011.


Victor said...

I'm not sure I buy the grand conspiracy trope in this context.

Today's masters of the universe are a pretty dumbed-down lot themselves. I don't think many of them would see anything wrong with the global triumph of their own banal tastes.

But maybe I'm just being a nouveau pauvre snob.

Allan Alach said...

Great article. For a school principal battling to save our world class primary schools from the horrors of national standards, and the agenda that lies beyond them, articles like this are vitally important. I've been working hard to convince people that the problems are much bigger than mere non-compliance in school charters. Not an easy task, I can tell you.

There's a wealth of online trails that makes the overall education agenda very clear, but, as with so many things about NZ in 2011, people just don't get it. The subservient media plays a major part in this. Fortunately in today's world, it is possible for those who really want to know to sidestep this, through blogs like this, and through overseas websites. Sadly people would rather get distracted by trivia.

However I live in hope that if we all do our little bit, our combined voices will finally prevail.

Madison said...

Just awesome Chris. A sentiment I couldn't express better no matter how long I might try. This isn'ta current generational whenge about the younger generation not caring. They're being trained not to care and gradually mind-numbed to the point where they can't care or think. And it has to stop.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Victor.

"Today's masters of the universe are a pretty dumbed-down lot themselves. I don't think many of them would see anything wrong with the global triumph of their own banal tastes."

And that's my point exactly, Victor.

That was the sacrifice they were willing to make to hold onto their wealth and power.

And if you don't believe it was conscious, then just read a few books on American politics - starting with Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

Methodical madness - with a vengeance!

Phil Sage said...

Don't despair so deeply for the souls of New Zealanders Chris.

"Public libraries and public broadcasting, a state-funded orchestra and ballet company, generous state support for scientists and artists of all kinds"
Up until very recently only the European and Asian elites had wide access to the most recent intellectual thinking. Now anybody with access to a computer can read the best that is out there. Not everyone has the urge for the cerebral but that is as it ever was. We have high literacy and an outward looking attitude. The computer age had democratised information. Our human development is able to compete with the best in the world.

Phil Sage said...

"a state-funded orchestra and ballet company"
Olympic athletes, international rugby players, elite sailors, concert pianists and ballerinas are distinguished from the rest of the population by talent and an enormous amount of practice from a young age.

And yet when they perform the elite concert pianist and ballerinsa need only stick to the preset script in order to be able to perform at their peak. Athletes must react to the dynamic changing thoughts of their opposition to achieve success. Which of those is more demanding?

The chosen New Zealand leisure activities we give our support to are not those of the elite Europeans or Asians, but they are more demanding for perfection. You cannot justifiably argue that a preference for rugby and a deserved global reputation for sailing skills and the requisite technological experience represent a dumbing down. They merely reflect a different cultural preference.

If you do that you reflect and promote the cultural bias of the existing old elite. Is that what you want?

I would find it difficult to argue that New Zealand's elite made such deliberate choices but that does not make their egalitarian nature any less valid. Have you never considered how rugby copes with a multitude of shapes and aptitudes? from the short fat prop who must only push through the tall lock and out to the slim speedster on the wing. Egalitarian certainly but dumbed down, not at all.

Phil Sage said...

As for sciences, you have a more valid point.
The New Zealand culture grew with farmers wanting to turn bush into valuable pasture. That obviously meant a pragmatic focus. New Zealand has the highest share of internationally traded dairy product. Meaning it is the most competitive country in the world in that area. That competitiveness comes from ongoing innovation by New Zealanders. Farmers do not get state support but they still succeed.

The rest of us have had an extended period of resting upon our economic laurels. The people we produce go out into the world and are able to compete because of the values and skills they built in New Zealand. New Zealand is distant from the world and human nature means inevitably that people will tend towards the bigger cities where increased specialisation will mean greater productivity and success for the kiwi individual, albeit it at the cost of the New Zealand economy. As with much of the west New Zealand hollowed out its manufacturing and added value sectors leaving less for the less highly educated and cerebral workers to do. We have all benefited from the substantially cheaper consumer goods that have resulted even though our growth has lagged larger economies.

Now that China is being forced to increase its wages as a result of its economic success the pendulum will start to turn back in New Zealand's favour. Both in terms of being more competitive and in terms of a greater demand for the higher value products that New Zealand produces such as pure dairy products and distant pristine tourism.

"The right to rule, which had for centuries been associated not merely with brute force, but with the accomplishments of civilisation – with virtue – would henceforth be associated with the rulers’ promise to protect the people from those very same accomplishments. "

Victims of Genghis Khan through to Saddam Hussein and Gadaffi would be disinclined to agree with you on their virtues.

"All that will separate the rulers from the ruled in the reactionaries’ dystopic future is the width of their wallets."

We all have a democratic vote and almost free access to the information we need to make an informed decision. They will always be opinion makers, like yourself and opinion followers. that is simply human nature.

As for a focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, it is a truism that mastering the basics properly will lead to success. I dont know enough about the national standards that are being brought into education, but it seems to me they will enable informed comparison between educators. And that seems to be exactly what scares them.

Sanctuary said...

I think one of the unexamined phenomena of the political right in New Zealand is the importance of the arrival of the internet and of Fox via pay TV and the rise of the influence of the paranoid politics of the US extreme right in this country. David Farrar represents one stream of this - it is clear the investment the US government put into him has paid dividends, the guys blog is everyday revaling himself as a fawningly pro-US style capitalist/ACT plus extremist - yet his blog is widely read by mainstream media pundits. Similarly, the likes of "big bruv' with their relentlessly self-absorbed bombast, cultural philistinism and general loathing of anything "other" clearly take their talking point cues from O'Reilley and Beck.

Perhaps the best thing to do would be to adopt French instead of English as our national language? An inevitable idiotic Anglophobia would mean the likes of big bruv would hardly bother to learn English as a second language, and I doubt that Fox would have a service in the language of the cheese eating surrender monkeys.

Victor said...


I'd misread you. My apologies.

I thought you were propounding a conspiracy theory as the explanation for dumbing-down.

In fact we're in the hands of an apparently self-perpetuating 'Confederacy of Dunces', who need no excess of Machiavellian guile to prompt them down paths of cultural destruction.

And the dumbing-down shows not just in the constant corruption of public taste or the reduction of education to mere 'training'.

It also shows in the quality of decisions on those very issues of economic or foreign policy, concerning which the masters of the universe are meant to be experts.

I recall a soul-withering conversation I had with a minor master of the universe just ahead of the much-heralded US-led invasion of Iraq.

He just couldn't see what the fuss was about. Stocks would keep climbing whatever happened.

Except that, long term, they didn't!

Anonymous said...

"Big strong morals, too, were no less a feature of the progressive society bequeathed to posterity by Seddon and Savage – the fathers of New Zealand’s welfare state."

That was down to the strong church/relegion of the period. Then we came into the "progressive" /atheist age of declining morals and accountability.

The dumbing down came with our "everyone" is a winner - rather than shift your bell curve upwards - the politicised education system was happy to just ignore the true bell curve of abilities and outcomes, and to just take a short cut and shift the measurement to the left!

Why strive when there was no reward? when everyone tells you you're doing well...

Anonymous said...

Much as I would like to agree with you Chris – and I usually do – to characterise this as some sort of nefarious plot on the part of our overlords seems quite unrealistic to me.

Yes it is true that conservative interests have downplayed "book larnin" because they (correctly in my view) feared that the submission of fundamental social questions to the tribunal of reason and evidence would inevitably lead to socialism and the supplanting of the market. Yes, that's why the right like Hayek. We all know that.

However, the war on high culture has as much to do with the left wing anti-authoritarian politics of the 1960s and following decades. After all, who was it who told us all that we should abandon the dead white men and start looking at the cultural products of oppressed minorities.

The establishment version of this was to shift focus to women's writing and post colonial literature, and some of this turned out to be good, while (following Sturgeon's Law) much of it was dreck. The popular version was to discover the authenticity of various folk arts (most famously the Afro-American country blues and its electrified Chicago descendant). Such arts were held to display an authenticity that high culture supposedly lacked. Similarly, everyone is familiar with the Rousseau-inspired revisionist western in which the lives of native Americans are seen as more authentic and rewarding human lives than our own.

This has nothing to do with a plot by conservative interests (who detested these things), but everything to do with individualistic rebellion against the norms set down by "the man" and a search for individual authenticity and a genuine freedom which meant being different from mass society.

Of course this just is consumerism (no matter how hard people on the left try to deny it), since it is individualism and the quest for social distinction and not conformity that drives modern capitalism (the bohemian seeking a superior "alternative" music is no different than the yuppie wanting to wear an "exclusive" tie. Both are caught up in a race for social status, and the capitalist system is happy to supply goods to satisfy their desires).

But if individualism is taken to its conceptual limit, then freedom means freedom from the constraints of reason and evidence (which are by their nature collectively binding concepts). This is why we have a postmodern society. Stefan Collini in the latest LRB has it quite right:

"Very broadly speaking, the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism. The claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as ‘elitism’. Arguments are downgraded to ‘opinions’: all opinions are equally valuable (or valueless), so the only agreed criterion is what people say they think they want, and the only value with any indefeasible standing is ‘value for money’."

Of course the political right are quite happy to go along with this. After all, it gives them the Hayekian society they would prefer. But it would never have gotten off the ground if it were not for the leftist countercultural project that dominates popular culture and mandates individualist irrationalism. Similarly, the right would not have been able to institute their consumer focused school reforms (Tomorrow's Schools, etc.) without the left wing suspicion of the education system and the corresponding desire of progressives to make schools more accountable to parents rather than centralised education boards. The left's insistence on anti-authoritarianism and individualism at all costs is the major source of this problem, not conservatives.

Blaming this on conservative interests is misguided. The real problem is that the left has spent all its energy in the last 50 years on a self defeating project. And they still do not understand why things keep getting worse.

From a certain point of view it is really quite comical.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism requires only greed, and a certain cunning to become successful in the business world Chris. Given that NZ over the last 20 years has colonised the arts & sciences with business leaders (think John Hood - from Fletchers to Uni of Akld vice chancellor to Uni of Oxford VC), it is no surprise they now act as 'corporate warrior' output machines.

There seem to be 4 factors though:
- the century long introduction of new media, whose content distracts people from the intellectual workers discourse of the late 19th C enlightenment.
- the shift from Judeo-Christian morality to liberalism, which promotes caring only for yourself; hard then to muster interest in debating wider society issues.
- demographics; the 'long tail of underachievement' is hugely Polynesian, and the welcome assertion by Polynesians of their culture following the civil rights successes of the 1980s, has sadly resulted in suppression of the academic values tagged as being 'associated' with European/Asian cultures. Hence the flight of almost all students of ANY ethnicity wanting academic success to central city schools (if their parents can afford it) - they want a *student* culture that values academic success.
- the total reliance of arts & science graduates on state funded jobs. NZ has IIRC the lowest corporate funding of R&D, and artists & scientists continually seek funding from council or govt grants. The capitalists have learnt to squeeze that state funding, and choke off the bread supply of those who so often are their political opponents (e.g. climate change). How then can you honestly encourage students into those fields of endeavour which may see them unemployed and in debt?

I know this can be a touchy subject - no-one wants to be called a 'dumb and you like it' worker, but we must discuss the non-decile roots of educational failure in NZ. Academic (and arts & sports) success used to be celebrated in the south Auckland schools I went to; now it is very secondary to art & sport, which are 'fun', personally gratifying, and less hard work mentally. The trades are where the money is. That sets the background to our educational malaise.

Mad Marxist.

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