Alwyn Poole has kindly allowed me to post the following commentary. An innovative thinker on education issues, Alwyn was the founder of two successful partnership or “charter” schools (officially known as designated special character schools) in Auckland and co-founded Innovation Education Consultants.
The Value of a Life
It is astonishing how quickly key foundations of education and society can become twisted or subverted. A genuine proponent of education advocates important foundations: question everything, critique everything, suggest and evaluate counter scenarios (and other “experts”), ask who gains and who loses from a particular action, attack the argument and not the person. Children, youth and indeed all citizens need to apply these principles to current events and what appears to be deep moral confusion.
Everyone dies. It is maybe the least digestible fact of life, but the rate of death in every generation is 100 percent. I complained about this to my mother once and she placated me by saying that it wouldn’t happen to me. I was eight years old and at that stage accepted my immortality. In New Zealand in 2018, 33,225 human beings died. That is a little over 91 people per day. Apart from media coverage of road deaths and murders these deaths, by and large, pass unnoticed except for those close enough to attend the funerals.
In 2020 we have suddenly decided, as a society caught up in a global emergency, that these lives are more important than ever before. We have decided this to the extent that we have severely damaged significant sections of the economy, drastically restricted human rights, and allowed a very small sector of government to create edicts without due process or challenge.
New Zealand is a tiny country. If we were an American state we would rank approximately 24th by population, making all comparisons of Jacinda Ardern’s job to that of Donald Trump fatuous at best. Her role is closer to that of governor of a small state. We are highly disconnected geographically and uniquely placed to make our own decisions. We are resource-rich and relatively well educated. We should be looking at the big health picture and not being dragged into an international bunfight to prove that we can deprive citizens of their rights better than any other for very little relative gain.
As of yesterday, 19 New Zealanders had died from Covid-19. It could be argued that without state intervention it could have been more. You could argue the same if you chose not to have speed limit enforcement or mental health services. If 2020 is reasonably typical we will see around 670 people die from suicide (2.5 men for each woman, and disproportionately Maori). We will see approximately 70 homicide deaths. If this year is typical around 200,000 of us will get influenza (even with the ’flu vaccine being widely available) and between 400 and 500 will die either “with” or “because of” this virus.
Around 30 percent of our premature deaths will involve cancer and many of those will be associated with lack of early detection, alcohol and an unwillingness to seek help. At the other end of life we have thousands of babies born each year with foetal alcohol syndrome; suffering that we could surely ameliorate with the right spending and education for pregnant women.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory, says “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”. In New Zealand, we have suddenly decided that every life is of incredible value and yet we ignore this declaration. Justice Minister Andrew Little looked uncommonly gleeful when changing the abortion law and telling Kiwis that they did not deserve a say through a referendum. There were 13,282 unborn children who lost their lives in 2018 in our life-valuing nation. It is also more than ironic that in this year’s elections, when we are desperate to save every life, we will be voting on euthanasia.
Turning to suicide, a very credible US study has concluded that the correlation between unemployment and suicide is that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment there is a 21 per 100,000 increase in suicides. In New Zealand, brilliant mental well-being campaigners like Mike King and Paul Whatuira have struggled to get even a sideways (excuse the pun) glance from government to support their wonderful work. If we truly value life as we now seem to have chosen to do, these two men and others like them should never have to ask again. We are all touched by suicide (my birth dad’s choice of exit was a shotgun to the head); it is time to do ALL that we can.
John Donne was brilliantly right: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
I miss my parents and many others. We are right to take a strong stand to value life and be against premature death. What we should now ask of our leaders is that they be consistent and place equal value on the risks, both physical and mental, for all people. One of the important roles of teachers in a crisis situation is to hear students’ questions and concerns with an open mind and allow them to work their way through things. Suppressing this process can only lead to conformity for the sake of it and a deep sense of helplessness.