"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world" (Nelson Mandela).

On July the 12th 2013 Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for attending classes, addressed hundreds of young people at the United Nations, urging them to use education as a weapon against extremism.

Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world,” she said. “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women.”

This call to action was delivered just as UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, launched a new policy paper spotlighting that globally, the number of children out of school has fallen from 60 million in 2008 to 57 million in 2011. However, 28 million children out of school live in the world’s conflict zones, and more than half of those are women and girls**.

While those of us in so-called ‘First World’ countries sit back smugly and reassure ourselves that we have compulsory state funded education for all, I think we need to reassess exactly what is of most value in regards to the education of young people, and to ask ourselves how we can do it better.

Last month I visited several schools around the country, speaking about writing and the issues that I raise in my books. I  met dedicated teachers and librarians, and wonderful young people (who were engaged and interested in the discussion.) I came away cheered by their enthusiasm and impressed by the people who support them, but also noted the incredible strain most teachers are under in trying to meet the bureaucratic nightmares inflicted upon them by our Ministry of Education.

It seems to me that we have lost sight of the purpose of education – and that neo-liberal governments the world over are undermining education’s true purpose and potential.

Education should not be the rote learning of facts or the regurgitation of current ideologies – and it should certainly not be solely for the benefit of specific employers… education, in its purest and most exciting sense, is about the opening up of minds and the teaching of skills to ask questions, seek information, find excitement in discoveries, reason through problems, make healthy decisions, look beneath the surface of what we’re being told and, most importantly, to make the best use of our intelligence in order to live richer (and kinder and more compassionate) lives.
But instead of cherishing the fact that we are in the position to make life-long learners (who are encouraged to find the thing that will most fulfil them) we shackle our young people with judgemental and highly debatable ‘standards’ of achievement, perpetrating a system that embeds failure by discounting the many and varied ways that young people learn, and by killing their desire for discovery and further learning in the process. We have turned ‘education’ into ‘vocation’ – the pumping out of worker ants who have had all the creativity, inquisitiveness and enthusiasm knocked out of them.

What I find particularly distasteful about the ideological shift that has taken place in education in Western ‘democracies’ over the last few profit-driven decades is the shift at tertiary education levels. When first I attended university (back in the early 1980s (sigh!!)) fees were minimal and allowances provided enough (if one was careful) to survive without having to take on numerous part-time jobs as well. And we were encouraged to try several different disciplines – to shift and change until we found the thing we were most passionate about. And, in utter contrast to the poor students of today, we did not come out with mortgage-sized student loans, we came out with an enthusiasm to put our learning into practice and to seek out additional experiences (often travel abroad) to further widen our horizons: learning could be for learning’s sake, to develop a citizenship of informed, independent thinkers whose desire was to use our knowledge to make our country a better place, not merely to feed the factory machine of business.

This is not a NZ problem alone. Thanks to the ‘global recession’ imposed on us by corrupt financial institutions and their cohorts in Big Business (whose criminal rates of tax avoidance rob our communities of the important social supports – see: Money trail leads home to NZ) neo-liberal governments use the mantra of  ‘austerity’ to cut and dice funding across all crucial social areas, and ‘free’ education is one of the big losers (ironic, given that most of the politicians who inflict oppressive student loans on our young people received free tertiary education themselves.) For an interesting look at how student loans are impacting on the US, for instance, read this great article Declines in state spending lead to soaring student debt.

NZ is no different. According to Statistics NZ, in 2010  Bachelor graduates had an average leaving debt of $25,750, while the average income received by borrowers and allowance recipients one year post-study was $29,900.  Meanwhile, latest IRD figures show the top 20 loan balances exceed $154,000. And in their latest attack on higher education, the government has scrapped an allowance for postgraduate study, while knocking on about how we need to ‘upskill’ our workforce. This is madness! As are the cuts to community education programmes – the ‘gateway’ back into education for tens of thousands of under-skilled New Zealanders.

It’s no wonder young people have no faith in the future. We have shackled them with huge debt, limited vocational-based education, and a world that is failing under the wash of pollution, violence and corrupt practice. If there is one thing we can do, as concerned citizens in any country, it is to enable and empower our young people by giving them the most and best free education that we can – education that develops their capacity for real-world thinking and problem solving (coz, boy, are they going to need it!)

The cynic in me wonders if this reduction in the capacity for real education is not, in fact, a ploy to keep us dumber and less questioning. As Malala Yousafzai so beautifully articulated, education opens our eyes and hands us back the power.
She knows that the key to change is by empowering young change-makers through education. She was prepared to put her life on the line so that others had this opportunity.

What are you prepared to do?




  1. Interesting post, Mandy. Last weekend I attended a session at the Au Contraire convention on 'Video Games as Literature.' I was fascinated by the highly engaged and highly interactive free-flowing discussion between the panel and the audience. This was real education–no assessment, no immediate success/fail criteria–but an obvious love of learning was apparent and also a high degree of thought. I run extension ‘classes’ during school lunch hours on Philosophy, Psychology and Creative Writing –we sit in a circle and read a book and share our thoughts. There is no pass/fail, no assessment, criteria. Or, to put it another way; everything is completed in our session and we have set our our goals! We are on our second book of Philosophy. We need to stop complaining about teenagers and moaning about phones and technology and try harder to make our schools more engaging, challenging, interesting. That's my daily challenge as a teacher.


  2. Hello,Mandy! I am really delighted about this scintillating and educative article of yours. I love your diction and the excellent flow of thoughts and/or ideas. I have already shared it on my facebook timeline because of the genuity of the article. Hmmmmmm…what a nice submissio!


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