Daily Archives: September 16, 2013

What I have been reading

Some time travelling last month gave me a chance to read some good books about things other than higher education:

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Some countries do much better in OECD school tests than others, prompting much investigation about why (my Grattan colleagues among them).

Ripley successfully uses a journalistic device of following the experiences of American exchange students in Poland, Finland, and South Korea to give a very readable introduction to the differences between their education systems and America’s. The material on South Korea is the highlight, explaining how a country in which students sleep during class tops OECD rankings.

Jackie Dickenson, Trust Me: Australians and their politicians. An appropriate book to read during an election campaign in which many people were saying that they were disillusioned by politicians and the major parties. As Dickenson shows, similar complaints have been made many times over more than a hundred years.

As Dickenson suggests, these attitudes can be a pose – cliched views that don’t translate into diminished expectations of government or even necessarily into opinions about individual politicians. But she usefully analyses real-world trends that foster mistrust.

The party system can be a force for mistrust, as it means that politicians often have to say things we suspect they don’t believe or don’t care about. Yet parties remain the key mechanism by which voters get the things that they are promised (Dickenson makes the point that, contrary to the impression of many voters, most promises are kept). The introduction of pay for politicians meant that people who were not rich could run for office, but set off a century and more of media outrage at politicians’ pay and perks.

This book tended to reinforce my view that voters are far too cynical about politicians as people and far too naive about government as an institution.

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist. Several reviewers (eg Tim Wu) have said the Morozov is too mean to the many people he attacks in this book. I suspect they are right, but not being one of his targets I enjoyed the erudition and intellectual energy on display.

Given the American connotations of the word ‘conservative’, Morozov (a US resident from Belarus) probably would not like being described that way. But underlying this book is a conservatism for which I have a fair amount of sympathy. Different spheres of activity have their own norms and logics that should not necessarily be swept aside by values supposedly intrinsic to the internet (such as more information being better, or transparency). We should not necessarily try to solve all problems (‘solutionism’).

Anyone who is explaining the parallels between Ivan Illich, Michael Oakeshott, Jane Jacobs and Friedrich Hayek by page 7 in my view has something interesting to say.