Can too much education be bad for you?

In my post on graduates in the labour market, commenter Russell was keen to defend his thesis that education is valuable, even when it is hard to point to any advantage gained. But could over-education be worse than not actually producing any benefits? Could it be making life worse for the over-educated?

I took a look at the 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes to see how use of abilities/qualifications at work was linked to various other questions in the survey (I would have used the 2005 survey, except the site was playing up). I was looking at all workers, not just university graduates.

There were clear differences on job satisfaction. Among those who thought they were using their abilities/qualifications at work, only 4% were clearly dissatisfied with their jobs (which I defined as rating themselves between 0 and 5 on a 0 to 10 job satisfaction scale). But among those who thought they were not using their abilities/qualifications, 28% were dissatisfied.

This seemed to spillover into financial dissatisfaction. Of those not using their abilities/qualifications, 29% said they were finding it difficult or very difficult to manage on their current household income, compared to 13% of the appropriately qualified group. Optimism about the future was also affected, with 40% of the over-educated believing that people like themselves had a good chance of improving their standard of living, compared to 55% of the appropriately educated group.

The over-educated were more prone to unhappiness as well, with 22% below 6 on the 0-10 happiness scale, compared to 10% among those who thought they were using their abilities/qualifications at work.

I found only one indicator on which the over-educated appeared to be better off – they were less likely to report their work interfering with their family/personal life (31% compared to 40%).

These figures are not inconsistent with many over-educated workers being satisfied with their lot, as I accepted as a possibility in my analysis of the graduate labour market. But it also suggests that these workers are at considerably higher risk of high levels of dissatisfaction across a range of indicators. As with marriage and happiness
we need to be cautious about assuming that over-education is always the problem here; there may be personal attributes that both make employers reluctant to give these people jobs matching their theoretical potential and lead to low scores on other variables.

But there are also findings in the happiness research that would support a theory that over-education is a problem in itself. Skills mismatch would make it harder to achieve the experience of flow popularised by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I always have to cut and paste his name), which typically needs a balance between ability and challenge. So it’s not that the jobs mismatched people have are necessarily bad in themselves, they are just not suited to the person who holds them.

Another potential problem is that education raises an expectation that workers will find jobs that are more interesting and/or more remunerative than those they could have achieved without further study. When that expectation is not met dissatisfaction sets in. An added possible difficulty is that as most people perceive themselves as being appropriately qualified for their jobs, those who are not may feel dissatisfied relative to the peer group formed during education or training as well as against their own expectations.

As I suggested in my mismatch paper, some people are too quick to assume that more education is a good thing. Often it is, but there is enough evidence that its costs can outweigh its benefits to exercise considerable caution.

54 Responses to “Can too much education be bad for you?

  • 1
    March 27th, 2007 21:44

    I am not surprised by these findings, but I am surprised how easy it is to do such an analysis (good marks for availability of data).
    Russell may think that the role of the university is not solely to equip students with a profession, but a large proportion of students study precisely for this purpose and are really disappointed when they discover that the majority of them won’t be able to become, say, professional psychologists after completing BSc in psychology. But never mind, we still think it is good for them – or for the country – even if they don’t share our view:)

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    March 27th, 2007 22:10

    “but I am surprised how easy it is to do such an analysis (good marks for availability of data).”

    Indeed, the Australian Social Science Data Archive has lots of interesting statistics. However, it is quite hard to find your way around it, so I have stopped routinely linking to it when using its data, as occasional users would not easily be able to find what they are looking for.

  • 3
    March 27th, 2007 22:48

    I defer to Boris on the subject of unhappiness – Russians have such a talent for it (see Chekhov et al.)

    There’s education, and there’s vocational training – I guess people who have trained for an occupation but aren’t in it might begrudge the HECS debt etc. but I referred to “fine arts, and music and classical languages and all sorts of things”. I’m not sure this Social Survey thing is sophisticated enough to tell us who had what sort of education and how they are or are not using it. How many regret having had the education? Did they ask that question?

    Some of your propositions could be true but would need a much longer treatment. For example to say there are “findings in the happiness research that would support a theory that over-education is a problem in itself” and then only give the example of “flow” isn’t too convincing. (I don’t know if I’ve ever found “flow” at worK – swimming, yes, often, practicing the piano too … but not at work, even though I’ve mostly liked the jobs I’ve had. Am I missing out ?? who is getting on-the-job flow ?)

  • 4
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 28th, 2007 01:27

    I’d say there is definitely something in this Andrew, it is intuitive as well. I don’t think it would be down to just vocational educated people either, classically educated people have even less opportunity to test their abilities. To be able to pursue their classical interests, many would need to pursue life in academia or in education in general. Are teachers and academics a particularly satisfied and happy bunch anyway?

    Education is like health services, subsidise it heavily and you will increase demand.

  • 5
    March 28th, 2007 03:10

    Russell I agree (as does Andrew) that there are people who went to university to simply broaden their horizons, and did not expect to have a job in fine arts etc. However won’t you agree that the great majority of these people would come from the middle class and it would be morally wrong to force the poorer taxpayers to pay for their education?

    I think some of us (including sometimes myself) have real difficulty coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing FREE in this world. Somebody has to pay for it. If someone through his/her university studies has acquired a lucrative career, they can at least pay it back as tax. But if someone is NOT using their qualification, presumably he is also not paying any more tax than someone who did not go to university. Isn’t this just widening the gap between rich and poor?

  • 6
    Sinclair Davidson
    March 28th, 2007 08:06

    I don’t know that these results answer Russell’s question. They do show that inappropriate education has adverse consequences, where ‘over-educated’ is a sub-set of that. The differences between the appropriate and inappropriate education groups are (probably) sufficiently large to generalise. But there are other things going on here too. For example, we employ people with degrees to do work that may only have required high school a decade ago. It seems these people are appropriately educated for the job they’re doing. That tells us about the high school system.

    The broader issue is one Russell (I think) is getting at. Education should be a ‘civilising influence’ on society, and I think that aspect of education has been lost. Now, I understand that many consumers of education may not want to read Shakespeare and Austin and Dickens etc. so we’re at an impasse. I take the somewhat radical view that spending time in the current post-modern gulag does not constitute an ‘education’.

    A point that many commentators have yet to expand on is the Rudd education revolution. People seem to be somewhat embarrassed in this area. Everyone assumes that any further education is a GOOD THING. But, first we should realise that most people HATED school and don;t want to go back. Second, as Andrew indicates (but does quite hammer home) there are diminishing returns to additional education and educational investment. Now there are increasing returns to being educated (the ability to read and write and reason), but once educated the returns to additonal education must be low. So it is not clear to me that a huge additional investment in education will have a huge impact on the ecoomy, other than being a welath transfer to educators.

    So, long story short: philosophically I agree with Andrew but have sympathy for Russell’s argument. I suspect Andrew’s empirics support his point, but the proxy is sufficiently ambiguous to allow wiggle room for people not inclinded to believe him. We should concentrate our efforts on improving quality (not just checkboxes but quality as evidenced by rigorous examination) of the existing education system before we consider spending more money on it, or expanding it.

  • 7
    Tom N.
    March 28th, 2007 10:09


    As I said in a Letter To The Ed many years ago, criticising simplistic ‘Clever Country’ policies:

    when all are taxi drivers have PhDs, and all are scientists are Nobel laureates, we’ll learn that being too smart by half isn’t nearly as rewarding as being a realistic country.

    Incidentally, as well as the “Clever Country”, it’s well known that we also has a “Smart State”, but did you know that there is also an “Intelligent Island”?! At least, there used to be a Commonwealth program with that title, which was basically a sop to Haradine and involved some IT investment south of Bass Strait, as I recall.

  • 8
    backroom girl
    March 28th, 2007 11:47

    Sinclair, the point you make about most people who would supposedly benefit from more education (or training, for that matter) not having any desire to undertake it is an important one for people who think that the problems of low-paid, insecure work would all be solved by simply training people for ‘better’ jobs. (I suspect that this may be where the ALP is heading and is a solution long-favoured by the Greens and Democrats, I think.)
    If being better-qualified means having some formal qualification, then many of the people on welfare and in the lower echelons of the labour market are never going to be better-qualified. And if they don’t want to do further education or training, what would be the point of trying to force them to? I don’t think anyone has yet worked out how to make people learn if they don’t want to.

  • 9
    March 28th, 2007 11:51

    Well the Marist Brothers had, but that’s illegal now.

  • 10
    Rajat Sood
    March 28th, 2007 12:21

    I think the research is very interesting and I agree that it is intuitive. But I’ve lost track of the policy position under debate here. It seems to have come from a comment by conrad in the previous post that was commented on by Russell and then responded to, in part, by this post by Andrew.
    I don’t think anyone wants to stop people from doing courses that interest them. Isn’t the question whether people should be subsidised by taxpayers to do certain courses even where there is no apparent public benefit from people doing those courses? Andrew’s current post seems to suggest that there is even a case to be made for deterring people from doing whimsical courses, if you believe in the whole Clive Hamilton paternalism approach to government. Could someone please set me straight here on what we’re actually debating?

  • 11
    March 28th, 2007 12:58

    Whether non-vocational education should be subsidised?

  • 12
    Andrew Norton
    March 28th, 2007 13:05

    Rajat – I think the public policy issue here only surrounds subsidy levels, but as you note there is a further issue that it seems for some people extra education may have unforeseen negative consequences that may not have been factored into their original decision, but which should have been. Arguably, however, that will be true of many other decisions as well (eg divorce after marriage) and it may be very difficult to determine before the event which group a person will fall into.

    We should not oppose risk taking simply because things sometimes go wrong; on the other hand the uncritical approach often taken to extra education (eg Russell) and the blunting of price signals that might otherwise encourage more careful consideration could be pushing up educational risk-taking.

  • 13
    March 28th, 2007 13:36

    Not only extinction by climate change – we now have to worry about “pushing up educational risk-taking”!

    I first felt I should object to “the uncritical approach often taken to extra education (eg Russell)” but what the hell, I’d like to open up the tap for education and arts funding and just let it run for awhile and see where we got to.
    If you lived in Perth you would have to put up with the ceaseless discussion about how ‘dull’ it is here. We just imported Charles Landry to tell us how to become more exciting, Jeff Kennett chimed in, urging us to think big, more proposals for uglifying the city forehsore with restaurants and hotels have just been released …. people were even persuaded we should try daylight saving as a route to more excitement. Something is obviously missing ….
    The truth is Perth is a cultural desert and most of the populace philistines. How do you change this? I think more and better education, a better ABC/SBS, better museums and gallaries, better architecture, more ‘culture’ in schools. Perth is in the middle of its biggest, crassest boom, there’s a huge amount of money slushing around in conspicuous consumption – why not pour some of it into education and the arts?

  • 14
    Rajat Sood
    March 28th, 2007 14:35

    Russell, I think WA’s problem may be a varient of the “Dutch Disease” – viz natural endowments crowding out cultural pursuits. If you can earn $120k pa driving a truck through a mine, why go to uni or see a play? Back in 2002 when I first visited Perth, my then (Melbourne) flatmate (from Lismore)told me to go to the OBH (Ocean Beach Hotel?) where I could have a beer watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean. I was thinking the Espy – a beautiful old building with bay windows, sticky carpet and indie bands playing. Instead, I found a tasteless concrete monstrosity with no atmosphere and TVs above the bar. But Sydney is living proof that if you offer a dynamic and prosperous economy, people eventually value culture and can then use their money to buy a superior culture. Think Los Angeles and the Getty museums. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 50 years, Perth had some of the finest artistic institutions in the country without any subsidisation at all.

  • 15
    March 28th, 2007 15:50

    “a superior culture. Think Los Angeles and the Getty museums.” Los Angeles ? Superior culture ?

  • 16
    March 28th, 2007 16:19

    “The truth is Perth is a cultural desert and most of the populace philistines. How do you change this? I think more and better education, a better ABC/SBS, better museums and gallaries, better architecture, more ‘culture’ in schools. Perth is in the middle of its biggest, crassest boom, there’s a huge amount of money slushing around in conspicuous consumption – why not pour some of it into education and the arts?”

    Russell’s logic: Why there is no culture? Because most of the populace is philistines and would have none of it. Solution? Educate these people (ABC, SBS arts etc). We (that is (all-majority)=intellectual elite) know better what they need. Who pays? Of course these very philistines pay for their education (through raised taxes). And if they do not want to be educated? Fine, we are not totalitarian, you know, but still please give the money.

    Russell, have you been to the Getty museums?

  • 17
    Rajat Sood
    March 28th, 2007 16:19

    I should have said a superior high culture, for those that want it. You’re never going to convert Perth into Vienna, but LA has excellent museums, galleries and classical music concerts for the cognoscenti. Certainly far better than anything available in Australia. It’s just that the ordinary person on the street there couldn’t care less about them.

  • 18
    March 28th, 2007 17:12

    “It’s just that the ordinary person on the street there couldn’t care less about them.” Is it genetic ?

    I haven’t been to Europe for 30 years but my impression was that the average person in Germany, The Netherlands etc had a much more advanced appreciation of our cultural heritage than we back in Oz. I think the average Javanese also has a richer cultural life than the average Australian.

    How do we get Australians in touch with the finer aspects of their cultural heritage ?

    Boris is right – I think I “know better what they need”, and if I could I would surround them with it, using their taxes to do so.

  • 19
    March 28th, 2007 17:40

    Boris – I haven’t been to the Getty Museum – I’m apprehensive that if exposed to the perfection of the Greek statues I will only be made more aware of what I should be but aren’t – and therefore be even unhappier than I am (see Andrew’s argument above)

  • 20
    March 28th, 2007 17:58

    Nonsense Russell. You’re sufficiently well educated to know that ideals rarely match reality, in which case your education wouldn’t be responsible for your unhappiness. Rather, your elitist perceptions that classical Greek statues represent perfection would have run away with you, in which case you should look to Western cultural values and perhaps personal beer consumption patterns (assuming it’s your waistline that’s wanting).

  • 21
    March 28th, 2007 18:36

    Russell, my impression is the Getty centre has more of art treasures than all of the Australia combined (I may be wrong though, it depends on the criteria). Maybe that’s not unexpected given that Greater LA has population similar in numbers to and probably bigger in wealth than that of Australia (and California is 2.5 times bigger). However more interesting is the fact that it’s all private money.

    Culture cannot be imposed by governments. Culture has to grow and it takes many decades, usually centuries.

  • 22
    March 28th, 2007 18:37

    And BTW Getty museum is free of charge, including underground parking.

  • 23
    March 28th, 2007 18:48

    “Culture has to grow and it takes many decades, usually centuries” – but Boris they didn’t have TV, and radio, and mass mobility. If we shovel the public money in we might be able to turbocharge the growth of our ‘cultural industries’ ….

  • 24
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 28th, 2007 19:54

    The problem as I see it Russell is that you have a desire to consume classical arts, be it museums, orchestras or the theatre, but do not have the resources to fund these yourself. So, you see two solutions to your unmet demand, first being government subsidy of the arts, second being stimulating demand for the arts through publicly funded education. Both of these solutions seek to solve your unmet demand by forcing others to compensate you for your consumption choices. Is it moral for you to want to force people to do this?

    Much of the arts we associate with the Enlightenment in Europe were paid for by aristocratic classes, royalty and the Church from taxation on the people. Standing in awe of the Sistine Chapel or the Champs-Élysées or Michelangelo’s David is to stand on the backs of the peasants who paid taxes to the ruling classes of Europe who paid the artists and artisans, who weren’t even able to enjoy the institutions their labour funded.

    Now, I don’t argue that enjoying these artworks from the past is immoral, but I will argue that funding the arts on the back of taxes of current workers is immoral.

  • 25
    March 28th, 2007 20:40

    Brendan – I wouldn’t tax any peasants to fund my arts and education extravaganza. I don’t buy the whole taxation is theft thing at all.

    You want to individualise/privatise my aspirations, but I’m thinking as a member of a community, about what I want my community to be like. I’ve had a privileged background and I want others to have the same opportunities – this wouldn’t make them all poets or sculptors, but hopefully it will contribute to making a richer, deeper, more civilised and fulfilling community life.

    It takes a community to build a Sydney Opera House – asked beforehand if they wanted to pay for it I reckon most people might have said No. But inspired leadership (well we can hope) used taxes to build it. And there it is – an inspiration to those who just go past. Can you imagine Sydney without it?

    I think it would be immoral to have a great cultural tradition but leave people in ignorance of that heritage. It has to be practiced.

  • 26
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 28th, 2007 21:04

    Irrelevent to whether you consider tax is theft or not, you believe you know better than others and want to make decisions for them. That is a very paternalistic attitude to have, and I am against paternalism in any form for adults.

    As far as the Sydney Opera House is concerned, it was funded largely through a lottery, not taxation. I actually agree with this sort of funding for large semi-public institutions, since buying a lottery ticket is a voluntary transaction and appeals to both people’s magnanimous and selfish sides.

  • 27
    March 28th, 2007 21:09

    “I don’t buy the whole taxation is theft thing at all.”

    I happen to agree with you on this. It is not theft it is democracy (or, more, precisely, a republican form of government) in action.

    “I think I “know better what they need”, and if I could I would surround them with it, using their taxes to do so.”

    But isn’t thsi not only anti-personal choice, but also undemocratic?

  • 28
    March 28th, 2007 21:28

    I agree with Brendan and Boris — Russell your idea of culture seems to be stereotyped classic European culture. If you can stick it in a gallery, thats, good, but if you can’t well its just philistines spraying grafitti on a wall.

    This is the same misunderstanding the government had when I worked in HK, they wondered just this — how they could turn the place into a cultural centre, and they thought of all sorts of wacky schemes to do it (and I mean really wacky — you can do this when you have US 150 billion in the bank). What they failed to realize is the reason people like HK has nothing to do with a piece of art stuck up on the wall (which there is — actually the best museum in that region is in Macao). People like the place (including other Chinese) because of the way the people are, the food, the way things work, the humour, the fact you can do anything and no-one cares, and so on. Its basically a pinnacal of Chinese thought and culture and thats what great about the place, and no amount of hanging stuff in a museum is going to change that one way or another. If they removed the two main museums tommorow, it wouldn’t make much difference.
    The same is true of other places. Do I like Melbourne because it has a good museum? No not really. Do I like Sydney more because it has a great opera house ? No I don’t, since I don’t like angry people obsessed with money. Do I like Paris because of the museums — yes, but if it was only museums, it wouldn’t be half the place it is. Do I like LA because of the museums ? No — but I like the museums. etc.

  • 29
    March 28th, 2007 21:43

    “you believe you know better than others and want to make decisions for them” … funny what goes through your mind when your reading these comments – this one reminded me of Uriah Heap (the Dickens character, not the band: “I’m a very ‘umble man”), earlier I was reminded of poor old Jude Fawley in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – not getting into university certainly made him unhappy. Andrew draws on social surveys and I draw on 19th century novels.

    Brendan, if people have never experienced something how can they know the good of it? If it was the taste of fresh lychees they hadn’t experienced, I wouldn’t tax people to give them that pleasure – it’s trivial and a matter of personal taste. What I want people to have is something that I think is vital and that everyone is entitled to. As Boris says, it’s a democracy so what I want and you want should all be considered. I expect nearly everybody thinks they know better than others in some area or another – you call it paternalism, I called it leadership.

  • 30
    March 28th, 2007 21:46

    That’s good Conrad – HK as a pinnacle of Chinese thought and culture – made me laugh out loud. (I love HK too – but more for the energy). Conrad on one of these threads I mentioned Javanese culture – I’m not just thinking of European museums.

  • 31
    March 28th, 2007 21:53

    There is one thing many people across the political spectrum agree about (not me): that Perth is a boring place. They however disagree on the causes and the solution. Yobbo’s view is a bit different from Russell’s.

  • 32
    March 28th, 2007 21:59

    Russell, I think Conrad meant European CONCEPT of culture.

    “I love HK too – but more for the energy”

    Russell, I think you understand culture too narrowly. I remember reading decades ago in a Russian newspaper or maganzine that culure is not about how many books you’ve read, but how you open the revolving door of a public bulding. The energy you have mentioned is all a function of the Chinese culture.

  • 33
    March 28th, 2007 22:07

    Something I didn’t get from Sputnik – how do you open a revolving door, Boris ?

    HK is about the rudest place I’ve ever been to, but I do like its energy.

  • 34
    March 28th, 2007 22:24

    Something I didn’t get from Sputnik – how do you open a revolving door, Boris ?

    Point taken. I meant… I don’t know the word. The one that can open both ways.

  • 35
    March 28th, 2007 22:37

    Swinging door ?

  • 36
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 28th, 2007 23:10

    Russell, leadership is convincing people they should pay for cultural activities themselves, not lobbying a politician who likes to attend the odd aria or collect French antique clocks and convincing them to pay for your choices with other people’s money.
    How was anyone exposed to rock ‘n roll, or jazz for that matter? How about drag racing? Surfing? You have your own idea of what a cultural experience is, but many people openly pay to go and see a review show in Las Vegas, and that needs no government subsidy to be popular.
    The sad fact is that in Australia we always look to our government to provide us with entertainment and culture. The state ponies up the cash to pay for huge stadiums for us to watch the gladiators of AFL and NRL battle it out and pays to maintain massive galleries full of paintings by foreigners. My argument is simply that the people who use these facilities should pay for them. We are not some modern day Roman Republic where the masses need to be distracted from their otherwise brutal lives and state corruption.
    Democracy is not about entertainment, and no matter how you dress up the opera or an art gallery, that is what it is, entertainment, on the same level of priority as football and rugby.

  • 37
    March 29th, 2007 00:05

    Brendan I like the forms of popular entertainment you mention, but though the (best of the) arts are entertaining they have something else as well – a more refined aesthetic, a deeper consideration of ‘the meaning of life’, a rich history, a more developed technique or craft … and so on.

    We don’t just live as individuals, but also as part of communities. We make our own meanings but we also need the past and a community to do so. “Culture” isn’t just something an individual can decide to buy, or not.

  • 38
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 29th, 2007 01:24

    I don’t disagree with you that there is a difference in what consumers get from the different forms of recreation and entertainment, but you are making a qualitative decision that puts your choices ahead of other peoples.

    If you think the arts is important for society you should donate to arts trusts and encourage others to do so. Looking to the state for the funds you believe are required makes the arts institutes you love beholden to politicians and bureaucrats. When the machiavellian world of politics gets involved in any activity, it taints it with its grimy legacy.

    Culture is a commodity and the reason why rich societies generally produce wider and more diverse cultural activities because more people have the resources to pursue their own values.

  • 39
    March 29th, 2007 02:26

    Here I agree with Russell that serious art is not mere entertainment, in some cases not entertainment at all. In not so recent past some people were risking their lives to preserve the work of (banned) art – they won’t have done so for the sake of entertainment.

    I am not sure however that this necessarily has direct policy implications. If it does then these may need to be far more subtle than Russell suggests. Here I would agree with Brendan’s first paragraph. Largely.

  • 40
    March 29th, 2007 02:27

    “Swinging door ?”


  • 41
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 29th, 2007 03:12

    Serious art may not be “mere” entertainment, but it is still an individual’s choice to pursue an artistic career. Serious art that isn’t entertainment (or at least isn’t valued by more than the artist) doesn’t survive to become classic because there is no market for it. Mozart, Shakespeare and Michelangelo all had patrons and customers who valued their art, even if some of their work was not recognised as classic until long after their death.

  • 42
    March 29th, 2007 06:50

    Russell, the reason HK seems rude are _cultural_ differences and the fact that people have poor English. Once you are used to these differences, I think you’ll find its a far more polite place than, say, Sydney (but probably not Melbourne). Its like when you first go to Brisbane — it doesn’t seem polite if you are from a polite city, but deep down it is, its just that the people are more ocker.
    Also, I’m not sure why you don’t think it is a pinnacle of Chinese culture and thought — you need to unlimit your mental conception of culture. The fact that they might not happen to have the best Chinese opera company means very little. Most Chinese consider it the defacto capital of Southern China, and it basically drives the culture of that region either via things that are historically Chinese (the food, liberal thought, the Chinese way of organizing things, how to run cities, cinema, etc.), or via the integration/assimilation of culture from other places (usually from Asia). Thats also true of both political thinking (how can Chinese sities modernize?) and educational levels — which are also higher than anywhere else in CHina — the top HK universities are the best in China, and certainly some of the best in Asia (probably better in many high technology areas than any in Australia).

  • 43
    March 29th, 2007 10:56

    Conrad, what did people in Beijing think of Southern Chinese manners? (Answer: not much). We could go seriously off-topic here ….

    Brendan, I was going to accuse you of trying to commodify culture but now you’ve gone and proudly stated it.
    This bit about “puts your choices ahead of other peoples” …. Brendan what happens when you go out your front door? You are immersed in the results of other people’s decisions. If you work in the CBD you will be surrounded by less than 3rd rate buildings (commissioned by aesthetic imbeciles) which demean you as a human being – they shut down your creativity. Other factors in your environment will have been determined by publicly made decisions. We can hardly avoid making decisions that affect others. Some areas of life we like to keep for private decisions, but if we think something is of vital importance to the life of the community we should be trying to make things better. People who think climate change is of crucial importance will try to shift me out of my car and into public transport (it won’t happen, but they have the right to try).

    I think people/communities need deeper sources of meaning than can be found in popular culture. I notice that the Canadian Parliament has its own Parliamentary Poet Laureate : “a position that seeks to enhance Canadians’ appreciation of the value of poetry in our society.” What a good idea – people have been known to fall back on poetry when in some distress. What would most Australians find if they searched their minds for words of comfort and meaning – the words of a Harvey Norman ad, lyrics of a Kylie song ?

  • 44
    March 29th, 2007 15:12

    Russell, I actually find Perth CBD quite pleasant, and its architecture quite nice and refreshing. I often compare it to Tel Aviv, a city roughly the same size and age. While Tel Aviv is ifinitely culturally superior, and has unique art deco houses, for the most part Perth’s architecture is much more ellegant.

    As for decisions that affect other people – good point.

  • 45
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 29th, 2007 16:51

    Russell, I understand your point, but you still are not acknowledging the fact that we revere Shakespeare over playwrights like Spenser or Sidney (who were arguable more popular during their lifetimes) is because the quality of Shakespeare’s work was commercially viable long after the man was dead. It is the same with buildings, older, historical buildings that please the eye gain in market value and survive, ugly buildings get replaced.
    Scholarly works may not have strictly “popular” cultural market value, but they still have a market value in the sense that someone who values them are prepared to preserve them without financial gain. You’ll find no criticism from me of individuals and charities that voluntarily develop cultural institutions and preserve cultural artifacts, they are excercising free will. The fact that they would like me to enjoy/value what they enjoy/value is neither here no there.
    On the other hand, you advocate experts telling us what is culturally valuable and forcing us to subsidise it. For every great public building there are many more monstrosities that people live to curse, but they were forced to pay for both through taxation.
    As for poet laureates, Australia needed no government backing to revere the works of Patterson and Lawson, and neither did Nick Cave need a grant to become a moving songwriter. Using the state to promote national culture is a form of propaganda, and I have no more support for it philosophically than I do for the Australian Institute of Sport or for subsidised stadia that dot our cities. If you think Australian culture can’t get any better than the songs sung by Kylie Minogue, you sir have a good dose of cultural cringe.

  • 46
    March 29th, 2007 17:22

    “you still are not acknowledging the fact that we revere Shakespeare over playwrights like Spenser or Sidney (who were arguable more popular during their lifetimes) is because the quality of Shakespeare’s work was commercially viable long after the man was dead”

    No, don’t acknowkedge it, because that’s not why we revere Shakespeare.

    “you advocate experts telling us what is culturally valuable ”

    Who would you take advice from if not an expert?

    “For every great public building there are many more monstrosities that people live to curse”

    An argument for demanding better buildings.

    “the works of Patterson and Lawson”

    Gawd – they were some time ago Brendan. How many Australians could name one living Australian poet? Whereas if you have poets in public positions you become aware of them – many you won’t like, but some you will. A couple of years ago Billy Collins was poet laureate in the U.S. Here’s a Billy Collins poem:


    You know the parlor trick.
    wrap your arms around your own body
    and from the back it looks like
    someone is embracing you
    her hands grasping your shirt
    her fingernails teasing your neck
    from the front it is another story
    you never looked so alone
    your crossed elbows and screwy grin
    you could be waiting for a tailor
    to fit you with a straight jacket
    one that would hold you really tight.

  • 47
    March 29th, 2007 17:28

    Here’s another good Billy Collins poem:

    Introduction To Poetry

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

  • 48
    Brendan Halfweeg
    March 29th, 2007 17:48

    And who the hell is Bill Collins, how many Americans could name their poet laureate?

    If people didn’t want to watch Shakespeare he would be as well known as his fellow playwrights of the same era, who were arguably more popular than him when they were all competing for the same audience. Fortunately for us, people born before us had good taste, and kept the Bard’s works alive. It may be of scholarly interest to discover a lost Shakespearean play, but it is lost because both the artist and his patrons did not find it as important and valuable as his other works.

    So playwrights and poets have gone out of fashion, but film directors and songwriters are in fashion. Are you saying that Banjo Patterson tells Australian life at the end of the 19th century more well than a songwriter and performer like Paul Kelly in recent times? Is the work of Peter Weir less culturally valuable than David Williamson? You are making value decisions based on your personal preferences and wanting to impose those decisions on others.

    Good art does not need to be subsidised. Your belief that people won’t recognise high art is condescending and paternalistic. You clearly have no faith in the very art you value to convey its own meaning, but rather would rely on experts to dictate to the general public their importance.

    The value of experts is not to give them dominion over our cultural lives, but to listen to them, look at the art in question, and make up our own minds.

  • 49
    Andrew Leigh » Blog Archive » The Overeducated Australian?
    March 30th, 2007 07:35

    [...] Norton has been running some interesting posts on over-education. I don’t doubt that some people acquire more education than they need [...]

  • 50
    March 30th, 2007 16:49

    I don’t know why Russell thinks that more public spending is going to make the people of Perth more cultured or even more educated in a useful way. You might like to check out what the public school system is doing to prepare children for learning and culture.

    There is one way in which too much education is bad for you. That is when you lob into some of the disciplines like sociology, parts of literature (semiology) and subjects that have been radicalised or subjected to deconstructionism. The result of that kind of educational experience is to convert the docile and ambitious into mouthpieces for nonsense and to convince the others that the life of the mind is just a great wank.

  • 51
    March 30th, 2007 21:18

    Rafe – your second paragraph doesn’t make much sense – you are saying that non-education is bad for you. Well I think we all agree.

    I wasn’t recommending more spending so that people could be “educated in a useful way” (did you mean that to sound condescending?) More familiar with the best of their culture, yes. Doesn’t it seem likely that if there are more opportunities to experience the best, some otherwise ignorant people will respond. At least it’s true in my case – writers, dancers, music, artists that I wouldn’t have been aware of but for the fact that they had subsidised exposure. Plus subdising the practitioners (by giving them jobs in universities for example) keeps the crafts and traditions alive and moving with the times. I don’t want just a museum culture.

    Brendan mentioned earlier that the aristocrats of Europe enjoyed their cultured lives at the expense of peasants who paid for it. Those aristocrats were cultured, weren’t they … surrounded by paintings, books, music, gardens, palaces – I just want to democratise the experience a little.

    Rafe, you’re over 50 ? Then here’s a Billy Collins poem you might appreciate:


    The name of the author is the first to go
    followed obediently by the title, the plot,
    the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
    which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
    never even heard of,

    as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
    decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
    to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

    Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
    and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
    and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

    something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
    the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

    Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
    it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
    not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

    It has floated away down a dark mythological river
    whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
    well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
    who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

    No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
    to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
    No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
    out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

    Billy Collins

    and just to show that I’m not living entirely in the 19th century I will do a Jason Soon and offer you a link to Billy reading the poem on youtube:

  • 52
    March 30th, 2007 22:37

    And your point is….?

  • 53
    Club Troppo » Missing Link
    April 2nd, 2007 23:10

    [...] doesn’t necessarily provide financial benefits, either. Andrew Norton gets the ball rolling here, Andrew Leigh responds here, while Andrew Norton has a further excellent contribution here. The [...]

  • 54
    February 12th, 2008 12:46

    People they were dissatisfied with their jobs, they want to change their life….

    That kind of “dissatisfied” is a force to change the world before and after.

    That kind of “dissatisfied” is created by “education”, called “persuit”.