We Don’t Need No Education?

The news in New Zealand is that the kids are revolting, along with kids in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom and dozens of other countries. Just as previous generations of teenagers challenged their parents to widen their perspective on what’s possible, today’s students are protesting the world’s lack of progress in addressing climate change.

At this point, the implications of climate change are widely known: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and more chaotic weather events – which will be both more frequent and more extreme than their present-day counterparts. Climate change will damage global ecosystems, disrupt farming and agriculture, accelerate extinction events, and create instability in countries unable to mitigate the impact of a changing climate on the lives of their citizens. For today’s teenagers, climate change holds a similar position to nuclear war in their parents and grandparents’ generations. The difference is that climate change — unlike nuclear war — has actually begun.

What has not yet begun is a response with the scale and scope needed to make a genuine difference. The good news is that we know what needs to be done. We need to minimise greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane), and we can do this by developing and introducing new transport technologies, decarbonising energy production, changing industrial and agricultural practices, and modifying some of our own habits and choices.

My mother and father – whose own childhoods took place against the backdrop of the Pacific War and the Blitz, respectively – hoped that their children’s lives would be safer and more comfortable than their own. But parents today should have no such illusions about what our children could face in the anthropocene if climate action does not begin right now. We remind our children to do their chores and homework, chivvying them through breakfast and off to school when they don’t particularly want to go. But on March 15, striking students are reminding the grownups of the jobs we need to do and the messes we should be cleaning up. It won’t be a small job; it may in fact be the biggest challenge we have ever tackled as a species, but it is both describable and doable. But just as we say to our kids about doing their homework, the sooner we start, the easier it will be to make progress.

This is an uneasy moment for educators; schools have programmes and plans that are carefully fitted to the teaching term. And indeed, the Chair of the Secondary Principals’ Council, James Morris was less than enthusiastic when interviewed in the Herald. Mr Morris helpfully added that “It would be a real sign of the students’ commitment to the cause if they chose to give up after-school jobs or weekend activities to ‘strike’ rather than school time.”  This may be well-meaning, but “kids protest climate on a weekend” would be a quick newsblip, but “school strike for climate” certainly has our full attention.

In short, these young people know what they are doing. And, if my memory serves you can actually wag school for a day without going to the media about it – if all these kids wanted was a day off, they don’t need to organise a march.

Principals are charged with ensuring that the schools they lead run smoothly and deliver the results their communities expect; it is easy to see why they might be cautious. But some principals fully understand what is at stake. At Western Springs College a classroom was made available for students to hold meetings to organise their strike and their principal clearly knows that leadership is sometimes about more than just sticking to the timetable. We expect that schools will nurture our children toward informed and engaged citizenship, producing society members equipped to innovate, lead, and respond to the challenges of a changing world. From this perspective, a climate strike at your school is a marker of success as well as an administrative challenge.

Better yet, engaged students are teachable students. Climate touches almost any NCEA subject you care to name: chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, statistics, art, technology, economics, social studies, media studies and no doubt many more. Clever teachers will find ways to tie climate to content, using the interest and passion of their students to facilitate their learning.

Normally, I would agree with Mr Morris but right now, things are not “normal” – and will become less and less normal the longer we wait. Just like the principals, striking students are seeking control and order. But what our children are hoping to control is the environment they inherit, and it is easy to see why they are pushing their communities to start real work on climate now,. And, let’s face it, if you can take a day out of lessons for the cross-country, and the athletic sports you can probably take time out to call for climate action across the country – and beyond.

What’s In A Name?

Showing visitors around the University of Auckland can be a quick lesson in our colonial history. The University is named for the city, which is named for a spectacularly unsuccessful Governor-General of India. Our oldest streets are centred on Queen Street — which is crossed by Victoria Street: the settlers took a belt and braces approach to honouring their young monarch when the city was laid out in 1841. And my office overlooks Albert Park, named in the 1880s in memory of the Prince Consort at about the time the University itself was founded.

Of all New Zealand’s universities, though, the name of Victoria University of Wellington ties it the most tightly to our colonial past. Their founding coincided with that long-lived monarch’s 60th year on the throne, and the name commemorates the anniversary. Unsurprisingly, a number of outposts of Empire had similar ideas as they built their own replica Englands. Consequently, our “Vic” is one of several dotted round the world and there is very little about the name that says “New Zealand”. So it is not surprising that Victoria’s leadership felt that “University of Wellington” would be a better name and would assist with the near-sacred tasks of international student recruitment and gaining a notch or two in the rankings.

What was possibly more surprising was that those leaders actually initiated the long and laborious process involved with a name change. The arguments in favour are mainly technocratic, but the arguments against have roots in the visceral connections many students and alumni feel for their alma mater, so the latter were advanced with more passion and intensity. And what was truly surprising is that while the University was happy to shoulder aside this opposition from within the community, the Minister overruled the University Council and decreed that Victoria it would stay.


That said, Victoria is not the only oddly named institution of higher learning in New Zealand. To most people, Cornell University is an Ivy League school with all the trimmings: a handful of resident Nobelists, cut-throat competition for admission, a glorious campus, and shops that are entirely devoted to selling clothing, mugs and other paraphenalia adorned with the university name, along with bumper stickers reading “My kid and my money go to Cornell.” But there is also a Cornell in Auckland, the Cornell Institute of Business and Technology.

Our “Cornell” is most definitely not an offshoot of Cornell University, even if its logo does rather remind you of a place whose sports teams are affectionately known as Big Red. And while Cornell University offers advanced degrees in everything from archaeology to zoology, the Auckland Cornell is more practical, with non-degree qualifications in cooking, business administration and computing. There is even short course in Barista Skills. Like the real Cornell, our Cornell does make the news on a regular basis, just not in particularly positive ways. Here’s one on Filipinos angry over an alleged immigration scam, or last year’s coverage of courses with rampant plagiarism and incomprehensible English in student work, and an older tale of students being admitted who couldn’t speak English.

The government doesn’t approve the names of private providers, but it does approve their courses, and it beats me how a place engaging in this sort of blatant misrepresentation gets a license to operate. If the Minister is taking an interest in names, the fake Cornell would be my nomination for the next spot on his to-do list.

Image: The Cornell campus and Lake Cayuga, in Ithaca, New York. Auckland’s “Cornell” is located in a scruffy looking building in the central city – on Hobson Street, named for the young colony’s first governor.

There’s A Creationist In the Science Class!

Given how often astrophysics shows up in the news, you might think it was one of the biggest branches of science. And yet, everyone working in my personal subfield (the cosmology of the early universe) would plausibly fit into a single 777. Per participant, astrophysics – and its sibling, astronomy – may be one of the most mediagenic fields of human endeavour.

Consequently, I was not particularly surprised to get a media query on Sunday asking about the beginning of the universe. However the stories we generate (“underground lake on Mars”, “cosmic rays from come a distant galaxy”) often function as highbrow entertainment, since they usually lack the potential for controversy and conflict. So I was surprised that the query was part of a hard news item about creationism being slipped into science classes at an Auckland school.

A key part of the story was a 30 minute video played by a science teacher to a high school class, claiming that astrophysicists increasingly acknowledge that the origin and structure of the universe are evidence for the existence of God. I confirmed to the reporter that this would indeed be news to many astrophysicists, including this one. I watched the video, gave a couple of pithy quotes about its accuracy and appropriateness for a science class, and got on with my day. 

However, the story is about more than a dodgy science class. While the identity of the teacher was not known to me when I offered my comments, she is the sister of the current Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges.  More than that: his party had, over the weekend, doubled down on its support for charter schools. The school in which the video was shown is not a charter school, but its parent organisation runs two of them in Auckland and the issue lit up the Twitters for most of the day.

And at the end of that day, here are my personal takes….

Just which video are we talking about here? It has 12 million views, so you don’t need to worry about driving a few extra hits their way. You’ll never get that 30 minutes back, though, so click wisely and hit stop when you’ve had enough: 

<div class="sqs-video-wrapper" data-provider-name="YouTube" data-html="[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Er9D00DXQQs&w=854&h=480]”>

The video in question…

The school in question is not a charter school Mt Hobson Middle School is run by Villa Education Trust, which also runs charter schools. The Newsroom story was clear about this, but it got lost in the telling on Twitter. 

The video is really, really bad It should embarrass its makers. Beyond the cheesy music, it cherry-picks quotes from people like Stephen Hawking, whose opinion on religion was unequivocal: 

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

— Stephen Hawking

Given his life-defining battle with ALS, Hawking was probably more aware of his own mortality than most of us, but his particular foxhole housed an unapologetic atheist. Quoting him to bolster a creationist argument seems patently dishonest from the outset.

Can you give another example? At the 8-minute mark, the narrator – quoting Hawking again – intones: “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size.” This is presented as an example of “fine tuning” since, if things were ever so slightly different, the universe could not provide a home for human beings. This line of reasoning goes by a number of names – the “God of the gaps“, the “watchmaker argument“, or the “teleological argument“; claims that the universe shows evidence of purpose and design in ways which cannot be plausibly accounted for by blind chance are a longstanding part of debates around the existence of God (or gods). We are asked to draw the inference that the “fine tuning” needed to ensure that the early universe is sufficiently delicately balanced for humans to appear on schedule is part of God’s handiwork.

This apparent “tuning” is undoubtedly a feature of the first mathematical descriptions of the Big Bang which were written down in the 1920s, and most scientists did see this as something that needs an explanation. Hawking certainly wrote the words attributed to him: they are from Chapter 8 of his blockbuster, A Brief History of Time. However, by the 1980s (when Hawking wrote his book) we had a far more sophisticated understanding of how the early universe might have worked, and much of Chapter 8 is spent explaining the idea of “inflation”, a burst of exceptionally rapid expansion that can occur right after the Big Bang. Inflation would drive the universe toward this state of balance, removing the need for any supernatural explanation. To be clear, the status of inflation is an active research topic today [I spend a lot of my time thinking about it] but anyone who has read Chapter 8 – including the makers of the video – should know that this quote misrepresents both Hawking and the science.

I could go on; there are dozens of howlers. But life is short, whether or not divine judgement waits for us at the end of it. Even if you believe in God, the video is not even honest creationism, if such a thing exists.

What does this incident tell us about the school? No-one seems to dispute that the video was played, but minimising it as a conversation starter or “just one viewpoint” will not inspire confidence. If this was part of a wider programme to slip creationism into science classes, it speaks to a failure of leadership and, I believe, integrity. On the other hand, if this was simply a good teacher having a bad day, the implications for the school depend on whether it passes it off as a legitimate teaching strategy or promises that it won’t happen again.

Why not teach kids about creationism? For me the question comes downs to honesty and openness; I am not aware of any credible arguments for the existence of a deity which are rooted in what scientists actually know about science, so creationism shouldn’t be taught in a science class. On the one hand it’s only half an hour and at least one kid seemed to spot that it was garbage. But to be clear, there is no way to present this material in a science class without misrepresenting the science and undermining the principles and values you are supposedly imparting to your students.

Are cosmologists all atheists? No, we’re not. I know, respect, and work with cosmologists who are devout adherents of most of the world’s major religions. I also know plenty of noisy and outspoken atheists in science. (In fact, given this diversity of viewpoints my own suspicion is that science and religion actually have far less overlap than both hard-core atheists and creationists seem to think.)

Am I an atheist? Yes, I am, but I don’t think it makes much difference here. 

What would I do to help? If any New Zealand school – charter, private or public – is looking to improve their science teaching I would be happy to talk to them, or put them in touch with colleagues who could help.

IMAGE: It’s the “troll in the basement” moment from the first Harry Potter movie.