Whether motivated by opportunity, adventure, war, or speedier student debt repayment, overseas experience (OE) has for generations been part of becoming a New Zealander.

One of the virtues is learning which differences between our nation and others are interesting and which are worth adapting. We do not have to go far to realise solutions to growth or social problems by self-proclaimed strong leaders can be at the expense of the basic freedoms we New Zealanders enjoy.

Overseas experience by itself does not guarantee a broad mind, however. Whether from misreading, touro-skimming or indifference, many have the experience but miss the meaning. What is always mind-broadening is a liberal education. It gives its students the thinking tools to compare systems in terms of long-term values and relative importance.

In her first parliamentary speech MP Chloe Swarbrick used a simple fable to illustrate how hard it can be to analyse things we are immersed in.

“A dog calls out to a fish swimming upstream, ‘What’s the water like?’ To which the fish replies, ‘What water?'”

Recently many columnists and teachers have been calling for a review of the water we call education. They recognise that while mega-information is now accessible, the ability to judge significance and value requires analytical skills. With such skills any citizen can put aside prejudices and cultural biases to become more tolerant, more rational and engaged citizens.

The rise of insider terrorism, remote radicalisation, and citizens leaving mainstream media for narrower, often prejudice-reinforcing sources, has helped us realise the importance of liberal education. That has resulted in many European countries coming to regard subjects such as citizenship and history as too important not to be a compulsory part of any national curriculum.

To make liberal arts more popular – and enliven curriculum choices that have been narrowed by credit-crunching or will-this-get-me-a-job criteria – why not promote senior colleges capable of offering broader choices?

And what could revolutionise a liberal arts programme, for all ability levels, are user-friendly, IT backups. Experts could produce and continuously edit the growing explosion of YouTubes, Ted-talks, animations and Discovery-style video clips.

What a huge time-save for actual teaching if the most relevant IT resources could be readily accessible – and discussion-ready – by category, duration and ability level.

Another change needed to allow students to become contributing citizens is the abolition of five years’ single-sex secondary schools. The collaboration needed between men and women if they are to have fulfilling lives and live in a harmonious society is not nurtured by separating boys and girls for most of their teens.

There is no reason why some local schools couldn’t combine for at least senior-class co-education.

The principal of Adelaide’s Scotch College, Dr John Newton, says he wouldn’t dream of sending his children to single-sex schools even though both he and his wife attended them. Graduates of single-sex schools “carried an emotional handicap that could last 20 years”, he says.

Oxford-educated and formerly principal at an established English co-ed for 10 years, Newton questions why parents would want to send their children to schools where they “miss out on that vital piece of emotional intelligence, how to work with the opposite sex”. And girls need confidence, he believes, to take on boys and work with them.

There is nothing wrong with pupils studying subjects such as tourism and hospitality or being taught to work with their hands, but today they need also to understand the basics of mind-broadening subjects like classical studies, art history, literature, psychology, comparative religions, philosophy and ethics.

If students are denied that wide sweep of knowledge their adult lives will be bereft. They will not fully understand who they are, where they came from and the workings of the society that surrounds them.

The lack of federal-wide civics education in high schools may explain much about modern America’s dysfunctional democracy and woeful voter turnout. New Zealand should learn from the narrowing of the American mind.

As a nation we need to review our curriculum and include the compulsory teaching of subjects long recognised as necessary to the formation of mature and contributing adults.

Steve Liddle, a researcher based in Napier, is a former teacher in both co-ed and single-sex schools in New Zealand and the UK.

Source: NZ Herald

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