Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Elizabeth Rata: Science or ideology? The NZ university at the crossroads

No matter how intense or heated the discussion may be, NZ universities need to address the difference between ideology and science.

New Zealand’s universities are at a defining crossroads. Do we remain a universitas, a community of scholars developing knowledge according to the universal principles and methods of science or do we continue down the path of a racialised ideology?

The science-ideology battle is nothing new to universities. Dialectical materialism was the ruling ideology in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Christianity was the ideology in the pre-Darwinian centuries of English universities. In post-1980s’ New Zealand it is the racial ideology of two political categories of people defined by their ancestry.

Unfounded accusations of racism or other silencing strategies muzzle discussion about what is happening in our universities and schools. There are many layers needing discussion – the difference between science and culture, between cultural safety and intellectual risk-taking, between universalism and parochialism. However intense and heated the discussion may be it must take place. Too much is at stake to pretend that all is well.

A useful contribution is to consider the role of the 2020 Education and Training Act in the shift from science to ideology. The basic contradiction between universal science and the parochialism of the treaty ideology is found in that legislation.

It has several clauses supporting science. They include the academic freedom clause which gives academic staff and students, freedom “within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. Another clause recognises that the university’s “principal aim is to develop intellectual independence”. These aims are to be achieved by “people who are active in advancing knowledge, who meet international standards of research and teaching, who are a repository of knowledge and expertise and who accept a role as critic and conscience of society”.

The main Treaty principles clause requires the university’s council “to acknowledge the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi”. ‘Acknowledge’ can be weak or strong. Since the term first appeared in the 1990 Education Act it has morphed into the strongest interpretation as obligation and commitment. It is now very difficult for academics to question the ideological intensity which has swept through the university as ‘obligation’ is embedded. Prayers in the secular university go unchallenged. Treaty requirements in teaching courses are fulfilled. Funding applications without mātauranga Māori adherence are declined. Language is self-monitored for ideological lapses.

The legislation also holds a clue to the seemingly widespread support from academics for the Treaty ideology. Section 281 encourages the greatest possible student participation by under-represented groups. The assumption is made that adherence to treaty principles will provide this encouragement. That is unlikely. The educational underachievement of a section of the Māori population happens well before students reach tertiary education.

University students from all racial and cultural groups tend to come from knowledge-rich schools which provide a solid foundation for university study. These are often the children of the professional class who have benefited from such knowledge in their own lives and insist that schools provide it for their children.

It is access to the abstract quality of academic knowledge and language, its very remoteness from everyday experience, and its formality – science in other words – that is necessary for success. Tragically this knowledge is miscast as ‘euro-centric’. The aim of the decolonisation and re-indigenisation of New Zealand education is to replace this knowledge with the cultural knowledge of experience.

But science is not euro-centric or western. It is universal. This is recognised in the International Science Council’s definition of science as “rationally explicable, tested against reality, logic, and the scrutiny of peers this is a special form of knowledge”. It includes the arts, humanities and social sciences as human endeavours which may, along with the physical and natural sciences, use such a formalised approach. The very children who need this knowledge the most, now receive less.

The science-ideology discussion matters for many reasons – the university’s future, the country’s reputation for science and education, and the quality of education in primary and secondary schools. But at its heart it is about democracy. Science can only thrive when democracy thrives.

Professor Elizabeth Rata is the Director of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. This article first published HERE


Anna Mouse said...

Thank you Elizabeth. It is sad when common sense is thrown out the window by ideology that discourages thought, analysis and criticism.

New Zealand is on the brink of Academic, Educational and Societal collapse caused by the dislocation of academic thinking encouraged by central governance through the withholding of taxpayer funding and tinkering with curriculum to suit the ideological narrative.

It is outrageous that this is taking place and it is people like yourself that have placed the line in the sand. Let us hope that enough New Zealanders listen to that common sense.

MPHW said...

Totally agree with Professor Rata's comments. A really important issue to address is how to close the socio-economic gaps between Maori and other New Zealanders. Rata takes us part of the way with her focus on the schooling sector. Another issue is the transitions from secondary to tertiary education where a lot more guidance is needed on the relationships between NCEA choices and tertiary pathways to employment with good post-study outcomes.

Jigsaw said...

As usual MPHW makes it sound as though all of the efforts to 'close the socio-economic gaps between Maori and other New Zealanders' is going to have to come from non-Maori and especially from the state.
Like many another teacher (long retired) I tried as hard as was possible to inspire and encourage all students in my care to achieve to see what was possible in their lives and to see what possibilities lay right in front of them. So often this was thwarted by a lack of parental encouragement and as often by a lack of parental knowledge that their children could tap into-knowledge that was all around them.
I recall a student who left school to go for a seasonal job. His comment to me was "I bet I'll get more money than you do"! When I asked him how much he was to earn I recall he said $4 an hour. Could he really have been so ignorant? Did his parents never discuss pay/wage levels with him?
So often the lack of the knowledge of how to improve your level in life is one that the left think should be proved by the State.