Joining the Initiative

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
15 July, 2022

Since this is my first Insights column, I thought it might be good just to introduce myself and say a little bit about why I’ve joined the Initiative and what I’m hoping to achieve here.

I came to New Zealand almost a decade ago to take up a position as a lecturer in Classics. It’s a position I’m still proud and happy to hold – the ancient Greeks have been one of my passions since I was a boy, and it’s great to have the opportunity to share that passion with others through my teaching and research.

So why have I decided to come down the hill a few days a week and lend a hand at the Initiative, an organisation known more for up-to-the-minute political commentary than for ancient historical research?

Two reasons. The first is a persistent sense that, although the very best Kiwi students are as good as students anywhere, there’s also a long tail in terms of performance at the undergraduate level. It’s a sense that I know I share with colleagues at Victoria University as well as at other New Zealand universities.

Is our intuition correct? If so, in what ways, exactly, are the standards being attained lower than we might have hoped? What might explain this? Is it just a matter of poor standards at NCEA level being passed onto universities, or could the universities themselves be doing something differently? These are all questions that deserve the kind of rigorous analysis the New Zealand Initiative has become known for.

The other reason I’ve decided to join the Initiative requires a little more explanation. Alongside my passion for the Greeks, I’ve long had an interest in the study of politics – in particular, in democracy, from ancient times to the modern day. And I’ve always felt extremely fortunate to have lived all my life in a liberal democracy, a form of governance which, research has shown, is associated with a whole basket of good things, from prosperity through security to human rights.

Though the idea that New Zealand democracy is about to be literally overthrown is overblown, I’m not the only one who’s concerned about a creeping tide of illiberalism that is starting to affect our online interactions, our media, and especially our universities. And this sense that New Zealand, in some subtle but definite ways, is becoming less free is something else I’m interested in throwing more light on during my time here.   

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