I forced myself to watch the Bryan Bruce documentary about New Zealand education on TV3 last night. Past experience told me not to expect an even-handed assessment of the issues, but the optimist in me hoped that Bruce might offer some insights into where our education system has gone wrong. Faint chance.If there’s a word that describes Bruce’s broadcasting style, it’s tendentious – in other words, calculated to promote a particular cause.
Viewers might have learned something worthwhile had he approached his subject with an open mind, but no. He clearly started out with a fixed goal in mind. Bruce doesn’t like choice, doesn’t like competition and doesn’t like individualism. He despises Treasury and the disruptive neo-liberal reforms it has championed since the 1980s.And he might have some valid points. Trouble is, he destroys his credibility by the way he cherry-picks information and opinions that support his own. He flies around the world (at our expense, incidentally – the doco was funded by New Zealand On Air) interviewing academics whose views he approves of, and then presents those views as if they’re incontrovertible.
In this respect he reminds me a bit of the American documentary maker Michael Moore, who’s similarly selective in the way he marshals and edits his evidence. The difference is that Moore’s sardonic wit, in contrast to Bruce’s earnest lecturing, is at least entertaining.It doesn’t seem to matter to Bruce, or perhaps hasn’t even occurred to him, that his approach sometimes produces glaring contradictions. Hence he admiringly cites the Chinese education system for producing results that put Chinese pupils at the top of the OECD achievement rankings while New Zealand kids are falling behind. Then, later in the programme, he condemns test-based regimes and “authoritarian” systems. But hang on; the Chinese education system is both highly test-focused (as Bruce acknowledges) and about as authoritarian as it gets. He can’t have it both ways.
I noticed too that while he professes to deplore authoritarianism and “social control”, he included footage of pupils at Manurewa Intermediate – a school he obviously admires – chanting in compliant unison before a messiah-like principal. It reminded me of a Destiny Church service.Perhaps Bruce is so obsessively focused on proving New Zealand kids are the victims of a heartless neoliberal experiment that he’s prepared to disregard such inconsistencies in the hope that viewers won’t spot them.
Even setting aside the polemics, the documentary was seriously flawed as a piece of filmmaking; a string of unconnected ideas with little attempt to join up the dots. I’d mark it as a “fail”.I find his style irritating and tiresome too. The meaningful downward glances, the hand gestures and the solemn lecture-theatre tone (Bruce is a former teacher, and it shows) are clearly intended to convey a sense of moral authority, but it’s a style that hovers on the edge of priggishness.
I’m perfectly prepared to believe there are a lot of things wrong with New Zealand education, and that some may indeed be the result of what Bruce calls neoliberalism. I’d quite like to see a robust, critical examination of the system by someone prepared to approach the subject without predetermined conclusions. But Bruce is not that person, and his much-hyped documentary was really just an opinion column with moving pictures and sound.