Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Right school may not have the right stuff

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Wanganui Collegiate. Photo / Stuart Munro
Wanganui Collegiate. Photo / Stuart Munro

So taxpayers have generously decided to bail out Wanganui Collegiate - what, no H? - to the tune of $3 million a year and $4 million for upgrading its buildings.

I don't get how that is fair for all, but I suppose it will keep a bunch of National-voting Hooray Henries happy. Yes, I am aware I sound most unattractively chippy.

The odd thing is I'm all for elitism, not for dumbing down; the problem is I don't agree that the elite in this country, the ones who went to schools like "Collegiate", are all that excellent.

A lot of them seem to suffer from Head Boy Syndrome. They've done well within the limited construct of having gone to the right schools, known the right people, passed the right exams, given the right answers.

This has given them a reassuring patina of confidence and entitlement that used to smooth the way to a professional career: law, medicine, politics, smug bastard.

Parents who send their children to schools like Collegiate - and not all private schools are that way - actually want their children to be like this: pinstriped. Or maybe they just hate seeing their kids in a cheap polo shirt like state schools, as if they're already in training as a checkout operator. They want their kids to have special status - and a blazer.

In this regard, I think they will prove to have been misguided. The world is changing fast and I don't know that an education that teaches you how to be a tidy conformist, which worked well in my generation, is going to count for diddly.

Andrew McAfee, a former Harvard professor and co-author of Race Against the Machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity and irreversibly transforming employment, paints a rather alarming picture for aspiring white-collar professionals. Don't do it!

As he spelled out in a long interview with Kathryn Ryan this week, the professional jobs are just not going to be there. You no longer need to employ an army of lawyers if you're taking a court case because discovery software can do the grunt work.

And so much for all the jobs in the knowledge economy. The four biggest new economy companies - Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google - have a combined market cap of $900 billion but employ just 190,000 people, fewer than the number of new job market entrants in the US every couple of months.

So what can you do if you want your child to succeed? McAfee says to future-proof yourself you need to train to be good at something computers are not going to be good at; something "rare". He quotes Google's chief economist, Hal Varian, who says you need to make yourself an expensive complement to something that is getting cheaper every day, such as being a data scientist who can extract meaning from ridiculous amounts of data.

But if you're going to have the kind of personality that can be flexible enough to come up with ideas like this in a fast-changing world, you're not going to be a head boy type whose sense of identity is fixed on "I'm a lawyer, I'm a doctor, I'm an accountant".

You need to have a robust idea of your identity and who you are, separate from your path of going to the right private school and getting the right qualification and getting the right job. You need to see things in a unique way.

To this end, coming from a place of privilege may not be an advantage but an impediment, as illustrated in this story from psychiatrist Adrian Preda in Psychology Today.

Once upon a time, there was a country where there was a very rich man who owned all the land in that country as far as one could see, and a very poor man who owned nothing. Each man had a son. When the rich man's son was almost ready to be a man, the rich man took him up the top of the tallest mountain in the country and said: "Son, look. One day everything you see will be yours."

When the poor man's son was almost ready to be a man, the poor man took him up the top of the tallest mountain in the country. And he said: "Son, look."

- NZ Herald

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