Monday, April 25, 2022

Elizabeth Rata: The Decolonisation of Education in New Zealand

Revolutionary moves to decolonise mainstream education are outlined in two Ministry of Education documents. 

‘Te Hurihanganui  A Blueprint for Transformative Systems Shift’ confidently asserts that ‘through decolonisation of the education system Māori potential will be realised’ while the Curriculum Refresh also prescribes a hearty dose of the same medicine.  

Decolonisation, according to Te Hurihanganui ‘means recognising white privilege, understanding racism, inequity faced by Māori and disrupting that status quo to strengthen equity’. There will be opportunities for an expansion of the decolonisation cadre as ‘Māori exercise authority and agency over their mātauranga, tikanga and taonga’. 

The Curriculum Refresh, meanwhile, proposes that ‘knowledge derived from Te Ao Māori will sit at the heart of each learning area, along with other knowledge-systems that reflect the cultural uniqueness of Aotearoa New Zealand.’

Decolonisation is a key strategy of He Puapua’s ethno-nationalism agenda. Political categories based on racial classification are to be inserted into New Zealand’s institutions. In education this means that the universal, secular system set up by the 1877 Education Act will be replaced with a radically different system based on two racial categories – Māori and non-Māori, despite the fact that such categories deny the reality of both New Zealand’s multi-ethnic population and Māori  multi-ethnicity. According to 2018 census over 45 percent of those identifying as Māori also identified with two ethnic groups with approximately 7 percent identifying with three ethnic groups. Some Māori families have a parent who does not identify as Māori.

While decolonisation is underway in all the nation’s institutions, education is the key ideological institution. The Curriculum Refresh’s ‘other knowledge-systems’ approach re-defines academic knowledge as just another knowledge-system, rather than what it actually is – the universal knowledge developed across the disciplines and altered for teaching at school.

Destroying confidence in the science – culture distinction, a distinction which is one of the defining features of the modern world, will be decolonisation’s most significant and most dangerous victory. According to the International Science Council science is ‘the systematic organization of knowledge that can be rationally explained and reliably applied. It is inclusive of the natural (including physical, mathematical and life) science and social (including behavioural and economic) science domains . . .  as well as the humanities, medical, health, computer and engineering sciences.

In contrast, culture is the values, beliefs and practices of everyday life – the means by which children are socialised into the family and community. For a Māori child, this may well involve immersion in marae life or it may not.  But the experiences of everyday life should not be confused with the ideology of cultural indoctrination, what I call culturalism or traditionalism and others call decolonisation. It is this ideology which is permeating the government, universities and research institutes, the Royal Society Te Apārangi, and mainstream media. Here we are presented with an idealised Māori culture of what should be, not what it actually is. 

It is as much a moral, quasi-religious project as a political one, its religiosity responsible for the intensity, and perhaps success, of its march through New Zealand’s institutions. Indeed, the spiritual is a central theme in decolonisation. The belief is promoted that Māori are a uniquely spiritual people with a mauri or life force providing the link to their ancestors – the  genetic claim for racial categorisation. Political rights for the kin-group are justified in this claim.

However the evidence does not support an idealised picture of Māori spirituality. According to the 2018 census 53.5 percent of those identifying with Māori ethnicity had no religious affiliation. The number identifying with Māori religious, beliefs and philosophies is small and declining, from about 12 percent in 2006 to 7 percent in 2018. As more Māori enter the professional class it is likely that this trend will continue.

Given that over 50 percent of Māori already have no religious affiliation, it is doubtful that there is a constituency for a spiritual-based education. This is where decolonisation plays its part with Te Hurihanganui and the refreshed curriculum promoting the ideological version of culture. Those hesitant Māori who are suspicious of the ideology will be outed as ‘colonised’, in obvious need of decolonisation.Those who are now racially positioned on the other side, officially the non-Māori, will require decolonisation to ensure support for the new moral and political order. Numerous consultants are already on hand to provide this profitable reprogramming service. Intransigent dissenters, who determinedly refuse the correct thinking will be ostracised as fossilised racists and bigots. 

The tragedy is that this decolonising racialised ideology will destroy the foundations of New Zealand’s modern prosperous society. The principles of universalism and secularism are

its pillars in education as elsewhere. Academic knowledge is different from cultural knowledge because it is universal and secular. We could certainly live without this knowledge our ancestors did,  but would we want to?

Academic knowledge is difficult to acquire, not easily derived from experience, and involving abstractions. The formidable task of acquiring even a small amount of humanity’s intellectual canon is made even more complex and remote because abstractions are only available to us as symbols – verbal, alphabetical, numerical, musical, digital, chemical, mathematical – creating two layers of difficulty. While it is unsurprising that the much easier education using practices derived from action rather than abstraction is more attractive, to take this path, as teachers are required to do, is a mistake.

We humans are made intelligent through long-term systematic engagement with such complex knowledge. Yet decolonisers reject the fundamental difference between science and culture claiming instead that all knowledge is culturally produced, informed by a group’s beliefs and experiences, and geared to its interests. Indigenous knowledge and ‘western’ knowledge are simply cultural systems with academic education re-defined as the oppressive imposition of the latter on the former.

What is deeply concerning is the extent to which this ideology is believed by those in education and uncritically repeated in mainstream media. A secondary school principal is quoted describing the ‘dangers of prescribing a powerful knowledge curriculum’. Such an ‘Eurocentric’ approach is ‘a colonial tool of putting old western knowledge ahead of indigenous communities’ rather than an emancipatory knowledge that liberates Westernised, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Islamic, African and indigenous groups.  Elsewhere another teacher goes further, calling educational success ‘white success’ and in opposition to succeeding ‘as Māori’ – which, to follow this logic, would mean not learning English or reading. There can be only one solution in this scenario – replace the oppressor’s knowledge through the comprehensive decolonisation programme now revolutionising New Zealand education.

Decolonisation is not only destructive but simplistic. Although cultural knowledge is not science, the science-culture distinction doesn’t exclude traditional knowledge from the secular curriculum. It does however put limits on how it is included. Students can be taught in social studies, history, and Māori Studies about the traditional knowledge that Te Hurihanganui describes as the “rich and legitimate knowledge located within a Māori worldview’. But this is not induction into belief and ideological systems. The home and community groups are for induction into cultural beliefs and practices.

What about the proto-science (pre-science) in all traditional knowledge such as traditional navigation, medicinal remedies, and food preservation? This knowledge, acquired through observation and trial and error, as well as through supernatural explanation, along with the ways it may have helped to advance scientific or technological knowledge, is better placed in history of science lessons rather than in the science curriculum.

Science provides naturalistic explanations for physical and social phenomena. Its concepts refer to the theorised structures and properties of the physical world, its methods are those of hypothesis, testing and refutation, its procedures those of criticism and judgement.  The inclusion of cultural knowledge into the science curriculum will subvert the fundamental distinction, one acknowledged by mātauranga Māori scholars, between naturalistic science and supernaturalistic culture.

Ironically, decolonisation ideology is justified using the universal human rights argument for equity. But the equity case misrepresents the problem. As with all groups, it is not ethnic affiliation but class-related cultural practices that are the main predictors of educational outcomes. Māori children from professional families are not failing. Rather it is those, Māori and non-Māori alike, living in families experiencing hardship and not engaging in cognitive practices of abstract thinking and literacy development, who are most likely to fail at school. This is not inevitable. Education can make a difference to a child’s life chances but it requires all schools, Māori medium immersion and mainstream alike, to provide quality academic knowledge taught by expert teachers.

Te Hurihanganui’s claim that ‘the Blueprint is based on evidence of what works for Māori in education’ gives no indication that the evidence is seriously compromised. Are Māori students in full immersion Māori education (MME) more successful than those in mainstream schools? At first glance this claim does appear substantiated. In 2020, 83.7 percent of Māori students in MME attained NCEA Level 2 compared to 71.8 percent in English medium education. However the numbers of students in each school type reveal a different picture. According to 2021 figures, 8,056 (4.3 percent) of Māori students attended Māori immersion schools where 51 percent or more of the instruction is in the Māori language. Another 29,499 Māori students (15.7 percent) are in mixed medium education with varying degrees of Māori language immersion or instruction. A full 80 percent (150,318 Māori students) attend English language or mainstream schools.

Given the sizeable difference between the numbers of Māori students in mainstream schools and those in full and mixed immersion education combined, any comparison should be considered unreliable, even meaningless. In addition, a nuanced comparison would need to compare the NCEA Level 2 subjects taken by Māori students.  The extent of abstraction in a subject creates varying degrees of difficulty, something found, for example, in the difference between physics and communication studies.

Do parents of Māori children want a decolonised cultural-based education system? Here too, the evidence suggests otherwise. Under 5 percent of Māori students attend full immersion education where over 50 percent of instruction is in the Māori language. Even the flagship kohanga reo is in long-term decline from a peak of 767 kohanga in 1996 to 434 in 2021.

The 1990 Education Act established kura kaupapa Māori recognising its founders’ aims – to increase Māori achievement, to contribute to the revival of the Māori language, and to produce bilingual and bicultural citizens for New Zealand.

However the citizenship aim, one based on the democratic principle of the universal human being, cannot be met by a decolonising agenda. The universal and secular principles of the 1877 Education Act were intended to create a collective consciousness – the People of New Zealand as the Act’s title states – for a racially and culturally diverse population.

The exemptions in the 1877 Act reveal a fledgling liberal culture, a mix of idealism and pragmatism now recognisable as a distinctively New Zealand character. Parents who objected to Protestant history lesssons could remove their children from class. Māori opposed to government provision were exempted from compulsion. Private and church schools were permitted and a pragmatic accommodation for the country’s climate and geography, and for the regular outbreaks of disease, can be seen in flexible attendance regulations.

Unlike authoritarian regimes, liberalism can tolerate some dissent. What it cannot tolerate is the removal of its very foundations – those principles of universalism and secularism that anchor democratic institutions into modern pluralist society. The separation of public and private, of society and community, makes room for both science and local culture. (The recent commonplace practice of using ‘community’ for ‘society’ is one of a number of indications that the separation is being undermined.) Valuing culture and devaluing science in a merger of the two fatally undermines the universalism and secularism that creates and maintains a cohesive society out of many ethnicities and cultures.

Decolonisation will indeed divide society into two groups – but not that of coloniser and colonised locked into the permanent oppressor-victim opposition used to justify ethno-nationalism. Instead one group will comprise those who receive an education in academic subjects. These young people will proceed to tertiary study with a sound understanding of science, mathematics, and the humanities. Their intelligence will be developed in the long-term and demanding engagement with this complex knowledge. It is to be hoped, though this cannot be assumed, that they will have the critical disposition required for democratic citizenship, one that is subversive of local culture and disdainful of ideology.

The second group comprises those who remain restricted to the type of knowledge acquired from experience and justified in ideologies of local culture. Distrustful of academic knowledge as colonising and oppressive, ethnically-based cultural beliefs and practices will provide the community needed for social and psychological security. In this restricted world they are insiders. And as there are insiders, there must be outsiders – in traditionalist ideologies these are the colonists who are seen to have taken everything and given nothing. And yet the tragedy is that it is the cultural insiders who are to be the excluded ones – excluded from all the benefits that a modern education provides.

A revolution is coming. The government’s transformational policies for education make this clear. It will only be stopped by a re-commitment to academic knowledge for all New Zealand children, rich and poor alike, within a universal and secular education system. Colonisation is not the problem and decolonisation is not the solution.

Author’s Note: Elizabeth Rata is a professor of education at the University of Auckland and a founding member (in 1987) of Te Komiti o Nga Kura Kaupapa Māori o Tamaki Mākaurau. This article was first published in The Democracy Project, 23 April 2022.


DeeM said...

Bat-shit crazy!!!!
After reading this article you start wondering if you're living in the early days of Pol Pot's Cambodia. That ended very badly.

What's really scary is how easy it is to get supposedly intelligent people, in influential positions to enact and promote this agenda, believing in this total crap.
Humans really are easily led as long as you stroke their egos, which then over-rides all logical thought.

Lesson - never mistake "intelligence" for common sense. The two can be entirely unrelated and obviously are in our present government, schools, tertiary institutions and judiciary, as well as most of our corporates.

Anonymous said...

perhaps the best cure for this nonsense is to remove state control on education, go back to school vouchers and let parents vote with their feet (or aspirations). this will allow both systems to 'thrive' and 'evolve' till they achieve what outcomes parents want for their kids.

Tyl said...

Truly amazing. Funny if it was not so tragic. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to pull the plug and enter into eternal samadhi. There are many religions from all over the world, most of them more interesting than ancestor worship. Are they all going to get into this witches brew together or will rugby, racing and beer prevail now that education is to be no longer 'free and also secular'?

Mudbayripper said...

The overriding drive to all this madness is contained in the application to our political, scientific and educational systems the ideologies of Marxism and postmodernism. No other explanation is required. These Loons are out to destroy a way of life that has taken centuries to realize.

Anonymous said...

An important issue. But the article is to long.But we are looking at the end of life as we know it in NZ.

Ken Millward said...

Absolute nut bar stuff. A head long gallop back to the dark ages. Burnings at the stake for the new heretics (the Colonists) and the witches (Scientists).
All of course to be overseen by the benign and kindly hereditary Iwi leaders

David Lillis said...

Professor Rata's article is right on the mark. We must heed what she is saying here because the education of young New Zealanders, and especially Maori New Zealanders, will undergo damage if we do not stand up to the current government ideology.

My own background includes five years as a secondary teacher in the 1980s (in schools with significant Maori and Pacific enrolments, by the way), several years as a statistician and researcher in education, and six years
as Senior Academic Manager at a tertiary, degree-granting institution.

I admit to considerable worry about what is happening in education, and in other domains, in this country.

David Lillis

Lesley Stephenson said...

Are there any other like minded people in Academia or does Elizabeth drink her coffee alone?

Don said...

I am reminded of a line from a poem learned for a class recitation in Standard Three some 80 Years ago:

" Mumbo-Jumbo will voo-doo You!"

Anonymous said...

Thankyou ER for a most informative, if depressing article.

This is New Zealand rushing headlong into the abyss: A potent mixture of illiteracy and racism awaits us in the future. Given a generation this place will become the Bosnia of the South Pacific if this nonsense isn't stopped.

I recommend parents with young children bail out of the state education system, either forking out for private school home schooling if they are able....or packing for Australia.

Andrew Osborn

Robert Arthur said...

In conversations with various persons it astonishes me how completely out of touch most are with the extent and pending reach of the pro maori separatist movement. Despite modern communications, the public was better informed 30 to 110 years ago when all received the then reasonably searching and balanced newspapers of the time. RNZ, along with the public service, much of judiciary, teaching profession and Teaching Council, nursing profession and more appear to have been captured by the pro maori separatist movement. It is incredible that the pakeha in the Labour cabinet apparently string along with maori moves. One can only assume that they are as fearful of the racist slur and cancellation as are all in the wider community, except for a very few very independent and brave persons.
Newspapers purport to be balanced but are privately owned and free to align as they choose. Clearly they currently see a pro maori view as being best for business and it is certainly a requirement for PIJFunding. This bias and the lack of skills and motivation of reporters to dig for information for wide presentation ensures the now few readers are denied an objective view. No effort seems to be made to trawl through public submissions on Bills, a rich and obvious source of balance.
Rata's very rational views never or rarely make it to msm. If Kim Hill could momentarily shake off the present bias of RNZ, would make for a great interview.
I rather hoped the decolonisation mantra might die with its prime instigator, Moana Jackson. But now too established. With the basic tenet the rejection of all colonist derived behaviour conventions and laws I consider the now embedded decolonisation attitude to be a major contributor to school truancy, maori crime, non compliance with vaccination, gangs, drugs, destructive tenancies, driving offences, non prudent diet etc etc.
An incredible amount of effort has been spent on the school history curriculum. A "powerful knowledge curriculum" and textbook could have easily been compiled from the several modern sympathetic to maori histories (Bassett, King, Belich). Would have been far less challenging for teachers freeing their time for mere reading and arithmetic which is so deficient . Presumably to not encourage development of widespread awkward public attitude, access to the public submissions is not available. Teachers of science are to be similarly faced with a complex task when few can grasp the fact based present. Even more than now, objective teachers will shun the profession, leaving it to the woolly minded brain washed propagandists. The Third World, make way for Aotearoa.

Anonymous said...

It looks very much to me that this project is designed to maintain the Maori status quo. In that by the so called decolonisation of the education system in NZ the Maori elite successfully keep their people in the place they want them to remain. Ignorant, unquestioning of the leadership and therefore not equiped to challenge the old tribal systems and therefore dependant on the Maori leadership to ensure ever increasing reliance on the state. That way they (Maori leadership) can continue to claim the colonisers have disadvantaged the Maori and must continue to pay for damage done.

This is a deliberate attempt to extend the Maori grievance industry and obtain more money for the Maori elite which will never be used to provide opportunities to every day Maori. The Tribal systems and practices ensure those Maori not among the ranks of the elite feel duty bound to support the elite leadership in this fraudulent exercise. Promotion of education as a means for Maori to throw off the shackles and really go after the opportunity to achieve real independence is what the elite fear however as they see that challenging what they see as their historical right rule, as education will remove the Maori dependance on both the state and the tribal leadership. This is threat to the tribal authority is the truth of the decolonisation brigades reason for being.

This nonsense should be stopped for sake of all Kiwis and nothing should be spared in the fight to do so. Just as Russia can not be allowed to annihilate Ukraine this lunacy can not be allowed to destabilise New Zealand and we should all fight with the same determination and strength as the Ukrainians are doing in their own country.

Robert Arthur said...

I struggle with the analysis, Anonymous. By downplaying non maori racial groups and brainwashing all children that maori in ability, industry, motivation, innovation, achievement, curiosity, ambition etc have always been and are fully the equal and more of any others, the chances of support of any maori striving to be rulers is increased. By persistent haka and the demonstrations in the grounds of parliament, maori have established that if they ever consider violence necessary to advance their undemocratic cause, they will not be lacking, irrespective of the rationality or otherwise of the issue.