Sunday, February 5, 2017

Working Class Illusions...Australia Style

Over the past few months, I’ve been exposed to the Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system.  In a class-based, caste-inspired social engineering experiment, Australia took Adam Smith’s division of labor principle to the extreme insuring that the erudite universities preserve their fraternity of elitism and broad irrelevance (Australia ranks last on the OECD’s measure of industrial engagement with universities – behind Mexico!) while the “working class” are afforded sufficient skills to serve as grist for the industrial mill.  In 1946, Sir Eric Ashby callously observed:

“Here is the criterion for determining what subject or parts of a subject should be taught at a university. If the subject lends itself to disinterested thinking; if generalisation can be extracted from it; if it can be advanced by research; if in brief, it breeds ideas in the mind, then the subject is appropriate for a university. If, on the other hand, the subject borrows all its principles from an older study (as journalism does from literature, or salesmanship from psychology, or massage from anatomy and physiology) and does not lead to generalisation, then the subject is not a proper one for a university. Let it be taught somewhere by all means. It is important that there should be opportunities for training in it. But it is a technique, not an exercise for maintaining intellectual health; and the place for technique is a technical college.”

“If it breeds ideas in the mind”!  As though a plumber may not be as likely to encounter a notion of genius as an ivory tower ensconced academic!  Really?  And the Committee on Australian Universities in 1957 warned of the risk of any technical institution daring to venture into the realm of the Academy as they would present a risk to the “urgent national need” for skilled and semi-skilled labor.   In 1899, the State of Victoria was the home of the first inquiry of the Fink Commission (named for Theodore Fink) which sought to improve the quality of the mechanical and technical training efforts of the 19th century.  In what was to overhaul both primary and secondary education (as well as reify the divide between university and vocational tertiary education), the turn of the century brought with it the “development” imperative to insure that sufficient tradesmen were available to meet the requirements of the industrial and mining mandates of the country.  In short, with the exception of the University elite, education is a means to a “gainful” employment for the industrial, social, or economic mandate determined by…, well, no one is really quite sure.  At no point is the individual considered relevant in setting the purpose for their industry – they are just expected to rent their labor to whatever industry the establishment deems relevant.

I am fundamentally concerned with the absence of a meaningful critique of the theoretical underpinnings of the Adam Smith and Marxian argument which merely recites the dogma of labor vs. elite.  From the fourth century BC forward, the notion of division of labor has been rooted in the meeting of sufficiency at a caloric level (consumption to combustion / extinction).  Ibn Khaldun would be appropriately referenced in his work Muqaddimah in which he discussed the communal requirement for division of labor.  Arguing that division of labor allows for the needs of a community to be met more efficiently if tasks are divided than if individuals have sole responsibility for all necessities, Khaldun anticipated the rise of the industrial model in the 14th century.  Focusing on Smith and Marx orthodoxy (not to mention Alexis de Tocqueville, Immanuel Kant and others) leads to the reification of the linear notion of production as a means to consumption and extinction without addressing the underlying moral constructs surrounding:

  • A.     Replenishment of matter and energy rather than the extractive / extinction utility;
  • B.     Consideration of who sets the priority for what is manufactured and to what end;
  • C.      Purposeful despotism when labor is allocated against priorities set by hierarchy into which choice labor allocation has no correlation to real or perceived need; and,
  • D.     Notions of equivalence to those things that do not serve a consensus “need” but rather are seen as standards of “development” or artifacts of “status”.

When one is building a ship or a road, technical precision is the difference between fit-for-service and structural failure.  When one is dressing a wound, changing a bed-pan, welding a steel frame, designing a house – some standard of care is essential.  And I’ve been engrossed in reading what is required to meet the technical education standards for these and hundreds of other careers.  At the same time, I’ve been examining the University end of town.  The profligate elitism that permeates the dichotomy between tertiary education in Australia borders on the comical.  I’ve made the very recent mistake of reading doctoral dissertations from several of Australia’s leading universities and what I find amazing is the degree to which they are largely over-weight literature review and underweight substantive contribution to advancing the state-of-the-art.  Ironically, Australian universities measure their academic relevance in large part on the number of times their work is cited paying no attention to whether their work is being celebrated or impugned.  All publicity is good – apparently. 

In short, neither end of the social engineering experiment is serving the public good or global relevance.  But the failure is one that transcends the current social discourse.  The root concern is that there is no clear vision – no organizing principle – around which the industry of education can rally.  Complacency fueled by the illusion of over two decades of economic growth without a recession has led to a generation of politicians and civil servants who merely recite their mantras about jobs, innovation, and growth, without a single clue as to what any of these mean in a global market context.  Australia will be spending over $120 billion dollars on defense over the budgeted future without a clear doctrine justifying what it’s actually defending and against whom these defenses are aligned.  Australia will be building infrastructure for growth but cannot articulate what purpose this growth will serve.  And nowhere in the dialogue is any recognition that Australia – a net consumer of other people’s ideas, services, and programs – could invert that dynamic and become the world’s leader in the unleashing of innovation from across the globe. 

What does this mean?  First we must examine the core capabilities of the fully functioning education ecosystem.  As the abject failure of pundits and analysts have shown in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, if you measure consensus assumptions, your conclusions are entirely wrong.  In 2006 and 2007, I correctly described the conditions and the timing of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008[1].  Was I forecasting an outcome using predictive analytics?  No.  I was merely observing irrefutable documented behaviour in an occult industry and critiquing the system level convergence that was certain.  From mass pandemics (the Asian bird flu) to resource shocks to social paroxysm (the Egyptian multi-coups), the “trained” and the “expert” are left agape when linear regression behaviour is punctuated by disequilibrium events.  Regrettably, education’s obsession with the scientific method have taught regression but have assiduously ignored its dominant fallacy – that we know the variables that matter and we recognize that which is significant.  Elementary statistics teach us that interrogatory inquiry presupposes:

  • 1.      Known variables;
  • 2.      Known scale in which these variables operate;
  • 3.      And Measurement Error.
Interestingly, the same discipline teaches us the error of untested assumptions about normalcy, kurtosis, skewness, and orthogonality.  However, the modern education system and the scientific method upon which it is built fails to account for these in every instance diminishing the efficacy of social and technical interventions.  We are not as much facing a 4th Industrial Revolution[2] as we are a Scientific Renaissance.

And while the exceptional “successes” of modernity – from Bill Gates to Mohammed Yunnus to Eleanor Ostrom – have changed the scale, scope and impact of incumbent modes of human interaction, they have not fundamentally ushered in new modes of thinking, examining and engaging a world in a regenerative and productive way.  At the margins, Hunter Lovins and others have pointed to an opaque future in which biomimicry opens new design and engineering consideration.  This is an important harbinger of humanity’s future.  But for global citizenship to be possible with as many at 10 billion inhabitants (or more) on the Earth, integral isomorphism will be required.

What is Integral Isomorphism?  Ironically, it’s quite simple.  It’s the way the world and the cosmos works.  From intergalactic conductive matter, to light and magnetism, to photosynthesis to mitochondrial respiration within our cells, observable principles are evident in unconstrained fractals and these principles underpin the animating impulses of relativity, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics.  Unconcerned with linear duality, integral isomorphism engages persistent, generative, infinitely orthogonal dynamics of activation, transmission and perpetuation where systems are regenerative at every level.  In other words, to be a productive citizen in the 21st century, a person has to expand their sensory ability, entertain divergent contextual perspectives, synthesize and integrate multiple perspectives and narratives with tolerance, see the costs and benefits of all actions to all actors within the ecosystem, select appropriate tools to form reproducible experiences, and optimally engage rather than consume the environment in which we live. 

For education to be relevant in the 21st century, it must be emancipated from the linear industrial construct of creating rent-based industrial employment and social pacification and liberated to enable citizens to productively engage in valuable pursuits at the individual and collective level.  This is not an indictment of industry – it is the recognition that as industry is already in the throes of transformation, so too must education transform. 


.[1] Martin, David E. “Social Contingent Liabilities and Synthetic Derivative Options” EUPACO-2, Brussels.  15, May 2007.
[2] Schwab, Klaus.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave