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Education is more than useful knowledge

Non scholae sed vitae discimus (“We do not learn for school but for life.”). That could have been the Government’s motto for its proposed reforms to the NCEA school qualification system.

I doubt that Education Minister Chris Hipkins would have considered a Latin proverb for his plans. But what he explained on the Q+A programme this weekend sounded like a stronger orientation of teaching at school to the requirements of life and business in the 21st century.

Commenting on the ideas of his Ministerial Advisory Group, Hipkins clarified what he regards as the goals of education: a “broad-based education for everybody” that also delivers the “soft skills that employers also view as incredibly important”.

Specifically, he emphasised the need to strengthen literacy and numeracy requirements throughout a student’s passage through the qualification system.

There is a lot to applaud in these goals. A few years ago, the Tertiary Education Commission revealed that 40 percent of NCEA level 2 graduates failed an international test of functional reading while 42 percent failed it in numeracy. It is outrageous that twelve years spent at school do not equip such large proportions of our students with basic and essential skills.

Because NCEA reforms firmly anchor literacy and numeracy by assigning half the required credits at NCEA level 1 to them and requiring further dedicated credits later, this will be a step in the right direction.

Hipkins’ reforms are less convincing with their focus on “soft skills” and what seems to be regarded as “broad-based education”.

As the Ministerial Advisory Group suggests, even at NCEA level 1, half the credits should be earned through participation in projects driven by learners’ passions. It would be up to students to pick what they would like to learn.

Then, at NCEA levels 2 and 3, a quarter of credits could be earned through so-called pathway activities. These could range from trade courses to community work.

Of course, one could argue that such a practical orientation to life and work outside school is just what education should aim for – non scholae sed vitae and all that. But this would mischaracterise what school education should be about. Latin as a subject is the perfect example to explain the difference.

When I went to school (a state school in an industrial part of Germany), I “enjoyed” five and a half years of Latin. From the perspective of making me employable, this was a complete waste of time. I never met a Roman employer in my life. Reading Caesar’s De Bello Gallico taught me plenty about ancient warfare but nothing about business strategy. I still wonder why there are dozens Latin verbs all meaning “to kill” (and why I should remember them).

Having said that, learning Latin was worthwhile. It taught me discipline, problem-solving, grammatical structures – and it opened me to the world of classics I would not have encountered otherwise. Plus, I memorised a bunch of phrases that can be used for opening newspaper articles.

Before anyone now thinks I am an education elitist advocating the teaching ancient languages, the same arguments for studying Latin apply to many other subjects. Think of Te Reo Maori. Or higher chemistry. Or medieval history.

Learning challenging subjects teaches students how to learn, how to achieve goals and how to solve problems. It broadens one’s horizon and lays the foundation for developing creativity. And so it helps to establish precisely those traits in young people that potential employers love to see.

Few 21st century employers would ever ask for Latin, Te Reo or history knowledge. Yet many employers will appreciate the rounded, curious and knowledgeful minds that learning any of these subjects creates.

Let’s learn for life and not for school. But let’s not misunderstand this phrase and discard all school learnings as useless if they do not directly relate to later employment.

There is more to education than useful knowledge.

And if you care about 21st century skills (as I do), then do not try to teach these skills in a vacuum but in the context of a rich and enriching curriculum.

Written by our Executive Director Oliver Hartwich.

1 Comment on Education is more than useful knowledge

  1. Have you read Bryan Caplan’s Against Education yet? I’d be interested in your responses to his points.


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