Philanthropy and education policy


An exhibition (September 2015) at Pakuranga Gallery Te Tuhi by artist Mickey Smith referred to the “fraught legacy” of Andrew Carnegie, that famous philanthropist who made his billions through the steel mills of America, at the expense of the workers who slaved for minimal wages in conditions that were dangerous and dirty.  He donated his fortune to education, and most famously to the development of public libraries in communities all over the world.


It might have been “tainted money”, as many disdainfully claimed.  It at least prompted communities in New Zealand to fall in behind the idea that collections of books and archives of materials ought to not just be the preserve of the wealthy.  Of the 18 buildings Carnegie paid for in this country, 14 still exist in places once full of potential and pizzazz, like Onehunga, Thames, Westport, Oamaru.


They were meant to be free to all.  Mickey Smith’s exhibition prompts a reminder of the place that philanthropy plays in the expansion of new ideas.  Scholarship for the masses was once an out-of-reach idea.  It still has a gold-ringed tone.  And that is apparently a problem.


At least, this was the theme of a speech last week by Professor John O’Neill of Massey University to the Post Primary Teachers’ Association.  Philanthropists no longer make their fortunes in steel mills, but in the stock exchanges of New York and London, Hong Kong and Tokyo.  The vast fortunes of the 1-percent filter out to the rest of us through apparently sneaky channels, masked as public good.  And according to O’Neill, they constitute the undermining of the public realm in favour of the privatisation of services like education.


His thesis was that education policy in this country is being taken over by charities: not-for-profits with millions to spend on interventions which change the public sphere.  Public service voices are being joined by private voices—and their “hidden and secret” agenda is the take-over of public policy in education to serve private interest.  In scholarly investigation, he pored through the public accounts of charities and edu-businesses (“supporting the life-styles” of those who work for these organisations), and called them threats to the transparent voices of teachers through their union. The benevolence of the rich is apparently a Bad Thing.


Of interest to me was O’Neill’s take on the linkages between Teach First New Zealand and its funders and international connections.  I have had a founding involvement in Teach First New Zealand.  “Who are they playing with?” he asks.  While we look benign and friendly, we are apparently supping with the devil: the corporate world.  He paints a picture of tainted philanthropy, of much the same kind as Carnegie in the first Gilded Age of American wealth, of backers who carry conservative Christian or neo-liberal values, and whose intentions are to proselytise across the globe.  Apparently, they insidiously network to undermine the social democracy that underpins New Zealand public education.


There’s a piece missing in O’Neill’s analysis: the global history of philanthropy and its influence on society.  During Carnegie’s time, the labour masses defied bad conditions of work and rallied for recognition.  They were unafraid of confronting the power of capital.  But workers today have become embedded in the markets of the world, and actively and competitively seek benefit from it.


Social democracy is not a feature of New Zealand’s public education system any more.   Acquiescence to the market has been forced on teachers.  Markets are connected to capitalism and inequalities. Nevertheless, O’Neill avoids any reference to the comfortable and competitive capitalism in present-day teacher unions.  Their policies do not tackle the access of the poor to learning, but are self-interested defences of the market status quo (examples: the across-the-board call for more teachers in every school; and the refusal to commit to government initiatives as part of a public civil service).


Private philanthropy carries no worse baggage than middle-class individualism and market forces that allow whole suburbs of children to bus across town to supposedly “better” public schools, that turn some public schools into bastions of privilege, and that hollow out the opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged.  Teachers and unions have acquiesced, because they are working themselves into positions of benefit from it.


In all democracies, who influences public policy is subject to competitive behaviour. The internet age has ushered in new ways of connecting in the world; and the idea of rich kiwi ex-pats pulling strings in education is no more ludicrous than entrepreneurial kiwi ex-teachers owning or managing edu-businesses across the globe, or education professionals being the pre-eminent voices in public policy. Especially when it comes to the interface between education and poverty, disadvantage and inequality.


In life, Carnegie was hard-nosed, irascible, and opinionated. In death, his generosity and its impact is his biggest legacy. Only time will tell whether modern-day philanthropy follows the same trail.