Humanities on path to identity

Last updated 05:00 11/03/2014
Victoria University vice-chancellor Professor Grant Guilford
TOP JOB: New Victoria University vice-chancellor Professor Grant Guilford.

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OPINION: The Government has just announced its strategy for tertiary education in New Zealand – a document that aims to guide the way the sector shapes its priorities and sets its goals.

There is much to be applauded, particularly the focus on positive outcomes for students from all backgrounds, the desire for closer links with industry and the ongoing encouragement of the sciences and engineering.

Quite rightly, the Government sees an important link between the tertiary-education strategy and its business-growth agenda, noting that a skilled workforce and an innovative society are two critical drivers of a growing economy.

What is perhaps less apparent is whether Government understands that healthy economies are a subset of healthy societies and that creativity is the driver of innovation. Why else would the tertiary education strategy neglect the humanities?

The humanities and social sciences are not just about the joy of living – reason enough to treasure these subjects. They are also pivotal in the development of a progressive, inclusive and internationally connected society. The arts, languages and literature, and other humanities subjects, play a central role in the celebration and critical reinterpretation of our national identity and our place in the world.

This is of particular importance in post-colonial, multicultural young nations like ours, which are still on a journey of self-discovery.

As a nation, we need be no less proud of the achievements of Man Booker Prize winner and Victoria alumna Eleanor Catton than we are of those that happen on the sporting field. Her success has helped engender pride in our nation and provided a role model for others.

A clear sense of national identity is also important for more prosaic economic reasons such as differentiating New Zealand in the cluttered international education market – growth of which is a key priority of the Government's tertiary education strategy. Furthermore, an understanding of the commonalities and differences between our culture and that of others is critical to our success as a trading nation.

The humanities are also central to the cultivation of creative capital, which is tightly bound with Wellington's identity and Victoria's. We should celebrate and support the capacity of our community to imagine – to express new possibilities through creative activity.

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Creative capital is the genius behind art, music and writing; it is also the curiosity and insight that finds new solutions to complex issues. It is the entrepreneurship that establishes new businesses. It is inspiration, innovation and leadership.

There is no reason this can't be articulated in the strategy of what New Zealand needs to achieve in tertiary education. Cultivating creative capital is what great universities do and is compatible with what the Government is already trying to achieve.

As a university with a long and distinctive history of providing education of high quality in the humanities and social sciences disciplines, and one that is based in our nation's capital, we feel a particular responsibility to protect and enhance these disciplines. We will grow and develop our sciences and engineering.

However, with the support of the sophisticated city that is Wellington, this growth will not be at the expense of the humanities.

We take our responsibilities in this area very seriously, which is why you'll be hearing more from Victoria University of Wellington on the topic of national identity, the value of creative capital and the need to celebrate the arts.

- The Dominion Post


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