The New Zealand Initiative last night released the results of the general knowledge quiz conducted for them by a polling company.     It is a good way to get media coverage –  and I’m as much a data junkie as anyone.

The real point of the exercise was as a prop in making the case for a greater emphasis on a knowledge-based education system rather than the current skills-based focus.  I’ve told the story before about going to a meeting for parents of new entrants at the local school a decade or so ago, where the Principal –  a fairly vocal figure in the world of educational politics –  told us that they weren’t going to teach our children facts, because they would soon be outdated.  Fortunately, when I tried the NZI quiz on my now 16 year old he got 12/13, despite the New Zealand education system.

The headline, of course, was that this sample of New Zealand resident adults wasn’t particularly good at answering the NZI’s questions, many of which look pretty simple or basic (at least to the sort of people who read either NZI material or blogs like this).  Across 13 questions –  of which five were either yes/no or limited multi-choice questions –  the median proportion of respondents answering correctly was 53 per cent (that was the question about how long it took earth to orbit the sun).   And although much of this post will be a sceptical take on the significance of the survey, even I will concede to being surprised that only 32 per cent of respondents could correctly name the year the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed.  I doubt the Treaty was ever mentioned in my whole schooling, but it is (repeatedly) today, and yet the worst results were for the 18-30 age group (where only 23 per cent got the answer right).

The NZI released the detailed breakdown of the responses: we have all the answers by age, sex, metro/provincial/rural, by “deprivation decile”, and by whether schooling had taken place in New Zealand or abroad.  Curiously, there was no ethnic breakdown.

One thing I haven’t seen covered elsewhere – or, of course, in the NZI write-up – is the systematic male/female differences.   For quite a few questions there is almost no difference between male and female responses, but for seven of the questions the differences looked to be material and in only one of them did women outperform men.

Per cent correct
Female Male
How long does it take for earth to go round sun 44 62
What year was the Treaty first signed 29 35
Native Land Court purpose 32 36
Correct use of “their/there” 83 77
Derive distance travelled from speed and time 41 56
Name seven continents 39 50
Compound interest question 1 49 66
(Harder) compound interest question 23 46

I’m not sure what to make of those differences, but since I work on the assumption that women are just as intelligent as men, perhaps it suggests something about how the questions are framed, or…..? (Note that the NZI person responsible for this project is a woman.)

There were some differences between those schooled here and those schooled abroad.  Knowledge of when the Treaty was signed and about the Native Land Court was less good among those schooled abroad, while the migrants were more likely to be able to name all seven continents and to be able to answer correctly the harder compound interest question.

People from poorer areas typically knew (or could work out) fewer correct answers, but by age the answers were a bit mixed. The only one surprised me was (see above) the Treaty response where the older people were the more likely they were to know the correct answer.    Of the other questions, there were quite a few where younger people now knew more the older people now but where you would have to wonder whether those same young people will know as much 50 years hence.  There are plenty of details I learned at school that I’ve either forgotten or are now rather hazy –  while other, mostly unused, things stay locked in the brain and are never asked about in surveys or quizzes (here I’m thinking of the quadratic formula as an example).

In general, I am sympathetic to the Initiative’s cause, for a greater and more systematic emphasis on knowledge in our schools.  But I am left quite sceptical about the value of surveys like this, except as a way of getting media coverage, and perhaps feeding the self-esteem of a certain class of well-educated and knowledgeable adults.  Most people actually do manage to get through life tolerably well and the world is richer and more materially prosperous than ever (as the Initiative would often rightly point out, in pushing back against other nanny-state proposals) and I’m left wondering why, if at all, I should be bothered if people can’t answer particularly well over the phone –  perhaps caught while they are cooking dinner or doing the ironing – compound interest questions (green are the correct answers).

nzi quiz.png

Most people don’t leave a fixed amount in an account for five years and reinvest all the proceeds, there are fees and taxes, interest rates change over time, and actually if you invest for five years at 2 per cent interest per annum and spend none of it and pay not fees/taxes, you’ll end up with with $110.41 which most people would round to $110.

But this isn’t enough for the Initiative

Our poor grasp of maths is also concerning. Basic arithmetic is critical for personal financial literacy. It is difficult to understand mortgages, savings and investments without the mathematical keys. But knowledge of maths goes beyond finance to everyday life. Try renovating your house, baking a cake or calculating medicine doses without basic maths. It is true that the 20th century provided us with calculators, but if you do not understand maths you are poorly placed to check your electronic answer.

And yet people do get on.  We don’t have some mortgage default crisis, we have pretty low rates of elderly poverty, nothing about finance (at a personal or national level) seems to be spinning out of control.  And while the main thing for which I now use the formula for the area of a circle is to adjust recipes to the desired size of cake tin, somehow I expect most homemakers get on just fine without it.  (I raised some doubts about the value of “financial literacy” programmes in a post here.)

And is it particularly useful to know the antibiotics are about bacteria not viruses?  I did know that, but it isn’t particularly useful to me.  Instead, when I go to the doctor I typically take his advice, and when he prescribes something I try to follow the prescribed instructions.  It probably matters rather more –  in term of keeping antibiotics useful – that (a) doctors don’t over-prescribe and (b) patients follow instructions.  Or so I’ve been told, and I’ll operate of those rules of thumbs (especially the latter) for now.

Which brings me to the paper Briar Lipson has written using the quiz results as a prop for calls for reform of the education system.    It is a curious piece in many ways, perhaps especially coming from a think-tank which is generally regarded as fairly libertarian in its inclinations.   Their chief economist Eric Crampton often cites approvingly the stimulating work of GMU economist Bryan Caplan, one of whose books was devoted to casting considerably doubt on the value of much of education (facts-based or not) in building skills –  as distinct from certifying a work ethic, conformity, and basic intelligence.  A screening and sorting mechanism more than anything (as I’m sure knowledgeable parents recognise when they hold conversations with smart teenagers and have to distinguish between richer and deeper answers and those that will jump through the right hoops to secure NCEA credits).

I was a little amused to note her claim that

As a bicultural nation with a colonial past whose ongoing legacy is playing out in our troubling national statistics, it will never be easy to answer these questions.

It could have been written by the Maori Party, but it was actually written by someone who isn’t a New Zealander and who appears to have been in the country for not much more than two years.  It doesn’t invalidate her expertise on education itself, but that ‘our’ is surely just a bit of a stretch?

There is a quite of this black armband approach.  For example, we are told that “inequality…threatens wellbeing and prosperity”, which is a rather different (questionable) tone than we typically get from the Initiative.   I presume the audience for this is the Labour Party, but even so……facts, knowledge etc.  It carries over to the caricature of history.

For most of history, only the wealthiest had the time and resources to pursue disciplinary knowledge. For the rest of society, knowledge beyond daily experience was an unaffordable luxury. Accordingly, the ability to read and write was limited to the elite: noblemen (yes, only men) and clergymen (again, men). If you toiled for a living, your horizons were narrow.

Yes, poverty was quite limiting, but all that “only men” stuff would surely have come as quite a surprise to Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Anna Comnena, Teresa of Avila as just four fairly prominent examples.   Lipson’s treatment of history here is the sort of thing that makes people like me –  who fairly strong support, in principle, the idea of more systematic history in our schools –  rather nervous of what it will turn into in practice.

There is more dodgy –  or at least highly arguable – history: thus on her telling it is the Enlightenment that brought us literacy. Pretty sure it had almost nothing to do with the first New Zealand schools.

I totally agree with Lipson here

Whether you are building a house, playing the violin or deciding to immunise your child, knowledge is essential, because there is not a generic skill of problem-solving or critical thinking. As anyone who has lifted the bonnet of a broken-down car knows, problem-solving skills do not exist in the abstract.

And yet she starts her note with the observation that

For most of history, only the wealthiest in society had the time and resources to pursue disciplinary knowledge. For everyone else, knowledge beyond daily experience was an unaffordable luxury.

And yet I don’t need to know how the engine in my car works.  Most knowledge most people actually use day to day is really rather specific.

A few other questionable snippets

To converse meaningfully with each other, and evaluate the performance of our political leaders, we need to have knowledge that takes us beyond our daily lives.

Set aside the evaluation of political leaders, but does Lipson really suppose that the vast mass of people –  who couldn’t answer her quiz questions correctly –  somehow don’t manage meaningful interactions and conversations?  The revealed evidence seems to be against her on this count.  It won’t be Wellington elite dinner table conversations, but are the relations and interactions –  the thick web of connections that makes up most individuals’ place in society – any less effective or profound?

We get another of those “Wellington elite” type of perspectives in this comment

To grow into active, engaged citizens who can think critically about the wider world, children need to know about language, science, maths and culture (including but not only their own). However, only 44% of New Zealand adults can name the seven continents, let alone locate Afghanistan or South Korea on a map – countries where our defence force has personnel in the field. Issues like national defence, along with migration and trade, are all critical to New Zealand’s role in the world. But how can we expect voting-age adults to engage with New Zealand’s geopolitical challenges – and how our nation should respond to them – if they do not even know where in the world the challenges lie?

I’m simply not bothered if people can’t find Afghanistan on a map. One could mount a –  slightly flippant perhaps – argument that it would be better if fewer people could, because it would probably have meant fewer western armies and associated headlines there, and from there, over the last 18 years.  More importantly, it is delusional to suppose that a school education –  no matter how good –  is going to equip people for debates about the nature, and source, of geopolitical challenge or (to take another topic close to this blog’s heart) the pros and cons of a large scale immigration programme to a remote corner of the earth.

Lipson goes on

We might debate whether these skills are any more important this century than they were in the past; either way, we must agree it would be difficult to think critically about the Hong Kong riots without knowing something about Hong Kong’s history and geography. It would be equally difficult to evaluate policies on use of plastic without a basic knowledge of biochemistry and economics.

I think I am safe in saying that, for better or worse, most New Zealanders have little interest in the Hong Kong riots and although, in some sense, I personally might wish it were otherwise, it isn’t really clear why that is a bad thing.   (As it is our government tries to pretend to having little interest).  And –  while perhaps I’m missing something crucial –  I’m not clear quite what Hong Kong’s geography (does she mean a tight city-state, or located next to China?) really has to do with it.  Personally, when I think about Hong Kong I worry most about the fate –  persecution and repression –  that awaits my fellow Christians under mainland rule, but I wouldn’t really expect that concern to be universal.

(As for plastics, personally I found the values of choices, self-responsibility, and ensuring I  – and my kids –  don’t litter, more relevant to my views on plastics policy than my knowledge of biochemistry –  next to none –  or economics.)

You can read Lipson’s piece for yourself (and it is an important issue). I guess my bottom-line concern is that she has grossly over-reached.    Across her scattergun range of examples, she encompasses a range of topics/knowledge that few (if any) are likely to master, or have much interest in doing so –  even building on decades of adult acquisition of knowledge, not 11 or 12 years of schooling.    I’m all for getting a better balance between on the one hand concrete fact-based knowledge and sketch narratives of things like our history and that of societies to which we are heirs (the narratives, if pushed, matter more than the dates) and on the other the research, reasoning and problem solving skills the current New Zealand system tends to emphasise.

But the modern world relies on a considerable degree of specialisation –  indeed it is integral to our prosperity –  and that is as true of public life, political and social choices, as anywhere else.  I’m not promoting, let alone defending, any sort of “rule of experts” (and I’m pleased to see that here the Initiative is not heading off after things like epistocracy) but hardly anyone votes based on a comprehensive review of in-depth party policies across the board.  Even on a specific issue like climate change, few of us (really can) vote that way – I might claim some expertise in the economics, but not in the science, and there are very few people who combine both.  And values count a great deal, and yet nothing in the NZI quiz –  and almost nothing in Lipson’s note –  was about forming people in the values that make for a successful, stable, and prosperous society.

In truth, we take our lead from others –  rules, precedents, examples, people who enunciate values that relate to our own –  and leave much of the detail to others.  It is unavoidably so –  and I say this as someone who has more time, and probably more capacity, to dig into lots of issues at a fairly technical level.  We rely on others in almost all areas of life, and one could at least mount an argument that learning how to think about who and what one might trust is much more important than, say, learning the details of the Danzig question, Hong Kong’s geography, the biochemistry of plastics, or the precise reason for the establishment of the Native Land Court.   As Lipson puts it in her title, ignorance is not (generally) bliss and yet –  on the other hand – a little learning can, in Alexander Pope’s words, be a dangerous thing.

I could go on, but won’t.    But I’ll end where Lipson starts. In the entire body of her seven page text there is nothing about forming people in the values that a society should live by.  I suspect she is probably an adherent of some fact/value distinction (Winston Churchill was a real person, regardless of you views of the nature of good), and clearly there is something to that split, and yet if her goal is a functioning cohesive effective society and polity values formation is likely to be at least as important as specific factual knowledge.  It isn’t enough to say that home is the place for that, since we all know that nature abhors a vacuum and that what our schools teach is heavily value-laden, by default if not always by design.  Lipson begins with a quote, which appears to be from an Australian teacher

It is not the natural state of humans to live in relatively free, democratic societies that tolerate difference. Because of this, we need education to protect and preserve these societies; to transmit important cultural knowledge from one generation to the next, and value our civilisation.

I’m not sure those two sentences really relate to each other, but if you take seriously the second sentence –  as I do –  you’d find it bearing almost no relation to either the facts quiz that got NZI its media coverage, or to the thrust of Lipson’s appeal to teach facts.  It is about a cohesive narrative that recognises what is good and what is not, what is great (eg art, music, literature, ideas) and what is not, and takes pride in what has been built.  And that requires an ethos, a mindset, that has made sense of life and the world.   You might call it a worldview or a religion.   But it is very different from knowing the names and dates of the kings and queens, the names and dates of all our Prime Ministers (useful as, in some sense, those latter might be).    The (narrow) facts just don’t get you far.  I’d rather people “knew” that Communism has been, and is, a great evil than that, say, they knew the geography of Hong Kong or the biochemistry of plastic