Celebrate the Arts! VUW and Paekakariki show the way
By Prue Hyman
I feel like a change from being gloomy at current politics and instead celebrating NZ’s artistic, literary and musical life; and the training that goes into it.
Late in my career at Victoria University, I enjoyed it less than in the past, as the neo-liberal economic policies spoilt the collaborative habits of academics and made competition between departments and universities central.
Marketing for student numbers and job oriented degrees became the order of the day. Students had little time to reflect, instead wanting to know what they needed to do to pass
exams while trying to find enough paid work to keep body and soul together.
Humanities remain the shining light
And yet while the humanities may be squeezed in tertiary education, they remain the shining light in helping to produce truly educated, thoughtful citizens able to express themselves orally and in writing.
And many young people continue to realize this and to emerge with the ability to think and evaluate, helped by inspiring teachers.
A Bachelor of Arts degree studied diligently produces such people and it is very sad that the numbers of students and staff are being squeezed in favour of supposedly more vocational degrees. This is one rare area where I agree with Bob Jones, who has espoused Arts degrees.
The ability to think, talk and write thoughtfully and be flexible is more important than narrow vocational degrees both for itself and for producing informed thoughtful citizens. We also need to recognize that technological change will mean many changes of career for most people so the vocational degrees may not be as useful as they appear.
I was reminded of all this by Gregory O’Brien’s speech at the recent VUW graduation ceremonies where he deservedly received an honorary doctorate of literature (well done Dominion Post for publishing extracts).
Distinguished ‘cultural odd job’ man
Lara Strongman has described him as “one of New Zealand’s most distinguished ‘cultural odd job men’. As a curator, poet, novelist, art writer, and visual artist he makes major contributions to our culture. His great achievement is to uncover, and to bring into the light, the overlooked and undersung.” A perfect result of an Arts degree!
In his graduation speech, O’Brien acknowledged “the status of Maori and other Pacific peoples as our older, wiser siblings in this oceanic realm”. He talked about his continuing to “raid the academic fridge for provisions” in the years after finishing his studies. Universities should continue to be our intellectual and spiritual homes as well as continuing to be society’s critic and conscience.
Rejecting the ideas of universities as service providers with clients, or as trade schools for the professions, he talks enthusiastically about the Humanities and how essential they are ”to the well-being of our society, our cultures and possibly even our species… In an era characterized by doubt, anxiety and stress, we need the Arts generally, not to fill an ornamental function but to complete who we are.” Spot on.
And maybe I have to restore a little of my old faith in Victoria University or at least its International Institute of Modern Letters when I read that VU Press dominated the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
It won all five categories where it was shortlisted including the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, awarded to Catherine Chidgey for The Wish Child.
The other winners were Best First Non-Fiction for My Father’s Island by Adam Dudding, Best First Poetry for Hera Lindsay Bird, Best Non-Fiction for Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young and Best Poetry for Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston. They are all on my list of books to be read as soon as possible.
1600 arts lovers — that’s Paekakariki
And it’s wonderful living at Paekakariki where almost all of the 1600 or so who live there seem to be artists, musicians or poets – or at least very interested in all of the arts.
Where else does a village this size run its own radio programme, have a wonderful series of mulled wine concerts and music gigs every weekend, a brilliant art show and much besides?
And it also has a huge Greens vote, a real community feel and enough concern for its people to set up a housing trust to try to contribute to keeping in the village some of those who can’t manage the house prices and rents.
I feel very lucky.