Steven Joyce…. channelling Plato

Steven Joyce is heavying universities, telling them that they must produce more engineering graduates, to meet the needs of the market.

“If [universities] want us to be more directive, I’m more than willing,” he said. “I’m watching them really closely to make sure they do respond to what the market wants, and if they don’t, I can go and tell them how many they should enrol for each department.”

It’s a telling quote. Joyce reveals exactly who he thinks the market is, and it’s not the people choosing a degree, or trying to work out what to train for.

Joyce, and Plato. Birds of a feather, at least when it comes to designing a state.

In “The Republic”, Plato designs a state, and he sets it up so that everyone has a job to do, the job for which they are best suited. But, he makes a rather cunning move, arguing that any society will work best when each person does the job for which they are best suited (Republic 433a – b). There is however, an ambiguity in what he means by “the job for which they are best suited.” The straightforward way of interpreting this phrase is to think that Plato means that each person is best at doing a particular type of work. For example, in contemporary society, we might think that David Beckham is best suited to being a soccer player, Kiri Te Kanawa is best suited to being an opera singer, Peter Jackson is best suited to being a film director, Stephen Hawking is best suited to being a scientist, and so on. Each of these people is very good indeed at the particular job they do, and they derive great satisfaction from doing that job. It’s hard to see anything controversial about each person doing the job for which they are best suited when “the job for which they are best suited” is interpreted in this way.

There is however, an alternative way of interpreting “the job for which they are best suited.” Plato is engaged in the task of designing a state. He argues that each state will need people to do baking, building, doctoring, farming, and so on, and people to do soldiering and ruling. Ideally, if each person does the job for which they are best suited, then every need in the state will be met. There will be someone to do the baking, someone to do the building, and so on. However, imagine this situation. You are a person who is best at baking, but you are also quite a good builder. Your polity has an over supply of bakers, but no builders. Perhaps you are best suited to baking, but of all the people in the state, you are also the person who is the best suited to building. In Plato’s state, even though you are best suited to baking, you will be required to be the builder, because the state needs you to be a builder. So what sounds like quite an innocuous division of labour, that is, that each person does the job for which they are personally best suited, turns out to have hidden teeth. Each person must do the job for which they happen to be the best suited person in the state. This division of labour makes people subservient to the state. That is, the citizens serve the needs of the state, rather than the state serving the needs of the citizens.

And that’s exactly what Steven Joyce is doing. To hell with what people want to study. They must be forced into courses that suit the needs of employers, even if being an engineer is the last thing they want to do.

There are some fairly straightforward things that Joyce and his friends in the National Party could do it they really want to increase the number of students graduating with engineering degrees. They could pour some effort into increasing the quality of teaching in mathematics and science, from primary school onwards, so that school kids aren’t scared by maths and science. They could provide many more scholarships for students in engineering, so that students don’t worry that spending four or five years pursuing a qualification in the area will only leave them with huge debts. The could get tough with employers, and point out that if employers want to have more highly qualified staff, then they might need to lift their game and pay some decent wages. (Pace wages and skills, check what Paul Krugman has to say about the fake skills shortage.)

And Joyce might just care to reflect on Plato’s totalitarian state, and think about whether or not he really wants to emulate it.

This entry was posted in Economics, Education, Employment, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Steven Joyce…. channelling Plato

  1. Denny says:

    I’m really enjoying reading your new blog. I like what you’ve written about Steven Joyce’s view on universities and “the market”.( And I agree with what you’ve written about improving the teaching of maths and science although I suspect that improving quality goes hand in hand with better resourcing so that teachers can work one on one and with small groups of children.) Advocates of Joyce’s views might say that it’s pointless studying unless there is a job at the end of it all, but it’s far more complex than that …

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