Once upon a time here in New Zealand, when political dinosaurs still roamed the earth, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake startled a visiting British diplomat by boasting that, in the words of a biographer, ‘he was no intellectual, he was not well educated, he left school when he was fourteen, and had never been near a university.’ His excellency was not terribly impressed. The electorate warmed to Holyoake’s autodidactic heart, however, giving him a historic four terms in office before he stepped down from the position ahead of the country’s 1972 general election.
Sixteen elections on, as New Zealand enters the home straight of what has been a refreshingly dull campaign, the two current candidates for the top political job would cause no such diplomatic palpitations. Jacinda Ardern and her main conservative rival, Judith Collins, are both more than qualified to lead their South Pacific nation — at least if qualifications are really what it’s all about.
Collins earned her law degree at the University of Auckland while Ardern majored in public relations for her bachelor’s from the University of Waikato. Each of their first names also begins with the letter ‘J’. Time was, and not so long ago, those biographical facts would have shared about the same weight.
Of all the things I was recently reminded of when writing Fridays with Jim, a collection of conversational interludes with former prime minister Jim Bolger, one of the most striking was the number of past Kiwi premiers who followed G. K. Chesterton’s useful injunction to never let education get in the way of one’s career.
Bolger himself left school at fifteen to look after the cows in the crater-strewn fields of his family home in Taranaki. Twenty-two years later he ended up in Wellington tending political swine. The man Bolger replaced as premier in 1990, Mike Moore, called it an educational day at fourteen before zig-zagging his occupational way through jobs at the local meat processing plant, print shops, trade union office, even the presidency of the World Trade Organisation. Moore, who died earlier this year, suffered for much of his life from lalochezia — the use of swear words to relieve stress or anxiety — but otherwise seemed to have been in more than rude shape for all of these roles, along with the top political job he briefly held in 1990.
Norman Kirk was positively Chestertonian, too: he quit school aged twelve for a string of desultory positions in South Canterbury. A notably successful political career yet beckoned, which may have been all the more glittering had he not unexpectedly died while serving as PM in 1974.
On the other hand, why would any aspiring national leader in New Zealand have even needed a degree? Most of them were successful farmers. Politics figured as a part-time activity. In the early 1970s, the salary for a backbench MP was just $7,800; a modest reward for what was seen as a strictly modest calling. Politicians ambled into parliament early in the winter, hung around in the capital for a few months, and would be back on the fields in time for the lambing season and the opportunity to earn real money.
Surprisingly, at least when considered against the perpetual churn of urgent legislation and policy nowadays, no great political crises occurred while they were out of town. For most of any given year, the legislative diary in Wellington more closely resembled the BBC’s news diary of 18 April 1930, when the announcer simply said, ‘There is no news’, and instead played piano music for the rest of the 15-minute segment.
It would not be until 2002 that New Zealand held its first election in which the leaders of both major parties brandished degrees. At the time, only around one in every ten of their fellow citizens had the equivalent; today it’s nearly half the population, including every prime minister since the turn of the century. And each new cohort of politicians seems better educated than the last. The chances of an academic outrider ever holding the job again would appear slim.
Coincidentally, perhaps, the professionalising of politics has also seen the salary packages for politicians in general, and prime ministers in particular, go through the roof. The leader of New Zealand now earns comfortably more than her equivalents in Canada, France or the United Kingdom, and draws more or less the same salary as the prime minister of Australia, which has five times as many people and occupies God knows how much more space.
Still, it isn’t always clear how the move to mass higher education has notably improved the polity, any more than the proliferation of on-campus creative writing programmes, say, has produced any more great writers or the abundance of journalism diplomas now on offer has particularly boosted the fortunes of the downtown media.
The country’s eight universities still struggle with the problem of translating much of their research into commercial gain. What tangible academic improvements have been achieved often have had the unintended consequence of simply turning the country into a more efficient exporter of talented graduates.
At the same time, the nature of higher education is also changing; especially in the humanities, which have largely veered away from the luminous carriers of European civilisation in favour of identity-based concerns and adversarial pedagogy, victimology mainly, which in turn has become far more the local political rage.
The market, which has a way of sorting these things out in the end, may yet have the final word. In the United States, especially, but also Britain, an increasing number of companies, including IBM, Apple and Google, are now offering decent jobs to those with non-traditional education — which is to say, people who have lived rather than studied.
‘When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings,’ Laszlo Bock, a former senior vice president at Google, told The New York Times. ‘And we should do everything we can to find those people.’
In Britain, The Spectator has been doing something similar with a number of entry-level jobs, telling applicants not to bother sending in a CV or touring their educational bona fides, but instead clearly explain why their experience in the university of life qualifies them.
Imagine if the same trend happened in New Zealand politics. What would it be like? Search me, guv. I never went to university and couldn’t possibly speculate. But then again, when you think about it, neither could the redoubtable Keith Holyoake.
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