Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
Western civilisation, built on a foundation of individual freedom, rational, fact-based thinking and democracy, has been a major driver of progress around the world. Yet, the rules that constitute the basis of our civilisation are now under internal and external threat.
Internal critics — neo-Marxists and post-modernists — reject the very institutions that underpin our civilisation. A society of free, self-responsible citizens protected by rule-bound, limited government is to be replaced by subjects that are ruled by an elite of bureaucrats and activists.
They appeal to deeply engrained tribal sentiments, promising salvation and social welfare in exchange for subservience.
Western civilisation also faces external enemies, militant Islam and mass immigration from failing states. This in turn now gives rise to populism, which would undermine freedom and foster conflict.
Faced with these challenges, Western civilisation is going through a period of self-doubt, disorientation and timidity. In the past, such periods of tribulation were overcome by openness, enterprise and systems competition, specifically the rivalry of various European states that aimed to prosper by guaranteeing freedoms to attract capital, gifted people and entrepreneurs.
I argue in my paper, Does Western Civilisation Have a Future?, that hope for the future of our civilisation again hinges on the same systems competition that has always been the hallmark of our culture. Many of course do not welcome competitive challenges, but massive economic and cultural competition with the resurgent Confucian East is now unavoidable. Everything will depend on whether the West re-asserts the values of the Enlightenment, whether a more collectively oriented East continues to achieve unprecedented economic growth (which I doubt) and whether China follows a more individualistic Confucian-Daoist or a coercive Legalist development path.
Australia — a frontline state of the West with considerable exposure to Eastern values, virtues and ideas — is well placed to benefit from the coming ‘mother of all systems competitions’, not only because of our location on the globe, but also because this nation of immigrants has the potential of a good understanding of Eastern culture. However, it will be critical that we foreswear macroeconomic stupidity and reaffirm our rich civilisational inheritance.
Venezuela in social and economic collapse provides a contemporary case study of where socialism takes a country; but one too easily dismissed as a special case of gross mismanagement.
A recent visit to the region has reminded this tourist that Cuba’s experience has much to offer as an antidote to the affection for socialism increasingly evident in advanced western democracies, particularly among younger people.
The practice of socialism in Cuba dates back almost 60 years and includes not just the web of social benefits and ‘free’ public goods that are the hallmark of what is called socialism in many western democracies, but also public ownership and control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy.
Cuba has become a tourist hot-spot, with its blend of cultures from almost four centuries as a Spanish colony and liberal injections of African slave labour. It also offers a frozen-in-time 1950s authenticity reflecting a lack of economic development and the absence of American fast-food chains.
But Cuba is also home to 11 million people, most of whom have no realistic chance of leaving if they don’t like it. What is charming and authentic to the tourist is underdevelopment, dilapidation, bare shelves in austere stores and a generally low standard of living for Cubans themselves.
The visitor encounters few expressions of discontent, but can’t help wondering what sentiment lurks just below the surface. The more Cubans know about the world outside, the more they must realise what the visitor sees—– that their country remains in the horse and cart era (literally) and is so much less than it could be for its citizens.
Che Guevara played a pivotal role in the Cuban revolution and enjoys such hero status that a profile of his face — a huge version of the one seen on t-shirts — is displayed on the front of a building towering over Havana’s Revolution Square. Guevara is also something of a cult figure in the west — a symbol of rebellion and an icon of the left — particularly among young people.
If only Guevara’s fan club could join the dots between the ideology he promoted and helped put into practice in Cuba from 1959, the lack of political and economic freedom the people suffer, economic under-development and the palpably low standard of living. This is not to say Cuba’s pre-Castro government was a model — far from it — but there is a better road than the one Cuba has travelled since 1959.
Cuba provides a case study in where Hayek’s road to serfdom leads. It is a counter to the anti-market, anti-business, pro-redistribution ideas now gaining ground in the west.
Few people would disagree with the idea of investigating ways to improve student motivation. But the suggestion that we should pay kids to go to school is a large leap away from sensible policy.
Economics Professor Richard Holden is certainly right to describe the notion of his research showing that financial incentives improve student performance as ‘unorthodox and controversial’.
However, it raises serious educational concerns; and hopefully is a long way from the possibility of consideration — let alone trial implementation.
Perhaps the most alarming finding of the research relates to the varied long-term impacts of financial incentives on students. Higher ability students perform better with incentives and for longer than low ability students; with the former continuing to do well one year after the incentives were removed, while large and significant decreases in achievement were noted for lower ability students.
Arguably, programs that result in such inequitable, unsustainable outcomes should deservedly struggle to attract government attention and funding — given the broader economic context of limited resources, competing sectoral demands and school systems faced with a multitude of changing priorities and needs.
Perhaps the greatest concern is the failure of such schemes to recognize and build on all the educational goodness that has gone before: the research evidence that leads to the introduction of quality teaching, professional standards, and national curriculum and assessments aimed at delivering improvements in student learning.
At the school level, the primary focus in classrooms is learning. Teachers are expected to model and reinforce behavior; including integrity, excellence, respect, responsibility, cooperation and participation. There is a strong connection between these core values and the achievement of broad educational goals: a love of learning, high standards, respect for work, pursuit of excellence, care and respect for self and others.
The idea to inject financial incentives into these caring student-centric environments, in an attempt to boost motivation, contradicts their very nature.
Holden is right in recognising that “most people want Australia to have great schools and provide educational opportunities for all our children.” However, future innovation in the student-motivation space should recognise and build on existing effective evidence-based practices already successfully implemented in many schools across a range of socio-economic contexts.
Financial incentives designed to increase motivation would be best reserved for home life, where caring parents challenge and reward their children for achieving personal goals and contributing to the daily functions and activities of the home.
Kerrie Wratten is a retired secondary principal and PhD student at Macquarie University.