Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Some Departing Thoughts upon Leaving Paradise

John Gardner

I have just spent with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, about ten days in a vacation paradise, New Zealand. And I offer below some departing observations, most of which in some way are relevant to my work as a higher education leader:
1. Winter and summer are reversed in New Zealand from our seasonal cycle in the US. So universities begin their annual year in February, which is essentially near the end of the New Zealand summer.
2. Universities here refer to entering first-year students as “freshers”. This describes particularly the period before classes begin and during which these new students experience orientation.
3. Orientation if provided by the “Students Unions” which are powerful, well funded associations representing students. They own property and provide many activities for new students including parties and other functions that provide alcoholic beverages for these students (the drinking age is lower than in the US). And from my reading of press descriptions of “freshers’ week”, binge drinking is very prevalent.
4. Out in the countryside, there are many signs to me that I am not in the US, other than the topography.
5. For one thing, in ten days in this country, I did not see one mobile home (trailer).
6. And there are so few churches in rural areas that when you come into a town there will be a road sign directing you to “Churches”.
7. I saw no evidences of extreme poverty, people living in hovels like I can easily see in my own country. There just aren’t the vast differences in wealth.
8. Whenever I asked a New Zealander what he/she “did” in life, instead of telling me one’s occupation (as an American would), I was told what this person did outdoors for recreation. No wonder, as individuals and collectively through their government, they zealously protect their natural environment.
9. Whenever I was in a restaurant in which there might be other Americans and where I could unavoidably catch the drift of their conversations, those conversations inevitably had some connection to money—how they earned it, spent it, what things cost, etc.
10. I asked my wife is she thought there was any correlation between the relative absence of churches and mobile homes, and the lack of disparities between the haves and the have nots. Her response: “That’s a very complex question”.

Whenever I taught the first-year seminar and would explain the outcomes of college and how college educated people are influenced in terms of how they think, I had in mind students, hopefully, having the opportunity to travel abroad, and to make their own observations and being able to generate their own hypotheses to explain the differences (and similarities) they might observe. This is one thing our work is all about. Too bad more of our elected leaders haven’t had such experiences. If they had, would they be whacking the social safety net as they are?

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