The communist revolutions in Russia, China, and Cambodia had tens of thousands of educators - intellectuals - killed.
Stalin’s and Mao’s eliminations were countless. Between 1975 and 1979 it is estimated that Pol Pot’s Marxist regime in Cambodia almost eliminated all its educated citizens and amongst the 200,000 murdered only 87 of the country’s 1000 academics avoided state sanctioned death.
The mistrust that totalitarian regimes have for academics is easy to understand as coercive politics bring pain to most of their citizens while waiting for present suffering to bring about a promised utopia. Those most likely to examine and question unpalatable changes are a nation’s intelligentsia, therefore they must remain silent, or if they refuse, be got rid of.
If it is the case that, according to the Boulogne Accord of 1988, “The university……… produces, examines, appraises, and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the need of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power,” in short, a place of reasoned discussion and free debate, then NZs universities have inverted these noble aims by mimicking the government’s socially engineered agenda in suffocating any dissenting opinion. Who knew!
Massey University’s banning of Don Brash in 2018 raised eyebrows. A single protester persuaded the Vice Chancellor that Brash’s likely discussion on Māori wards and seats on Councils might offend someone. When I was at university, I found a lot that I didn’t understand, some that I did not agree with and a little that I completely disliked, but I never felt entitled to be protected from any of it. I’m guessing that the Posie Parker visit organisers knew that they hadn’t a hope of getting any kind of university venue for her gig– hell, she wasn’t even allowed to speak in the open air. But even if she and Brash had been Flat Earthers or Holocaust Deniers I would have been interested in listening to their arguments, scorn or revile them though I might. More relevantly, if I were a Vice Chancellor, I would consider it vital that students - and staff - engage with controversy to hone their critical faculties and debating skills. Researchers glumly point out that there is currently no way of quantifying how many debates no longer occur at universities because staff and students fear to be labelled as supporters of, for example, hate speech, that they are racist or transphobic. I wonder when it was that Councils began appointing Vice Chancellors to carry out the mixed roles of social workers, kindy teachers and punitive parents.
University management censure staff who question race-based policies around staffing, funding and courses and as the result of the recent financial holes that the universities find themselves in many academics have been told that Māori and Pasifika courses and staff will not be subject to cuts that need to be made. The elevation of pass rates for students of minorities continues to be reported at all NZ’s tertiary institutions. As an illustration, a senior academic was told by his Head of School that if he again raised the subject of academic standards, she would make it a disciplinary matter. This is, of course, code for ‘you are now at the top of my redundancy list’. You have to hope that this conversation did not take place in one of our medical schools!
To question the equivalence of matauranga Māori with ‘western’ science following exposure of the new draft science curriculum now is to invite lazy slurs of racism and to put promotion and even jobs at risk. Why is it that our universities are comfortable with the pejorative label of ‘western’ and ‘colonial’ to be attached to science, a knowledge system that began to emerge before the first millennia in China, the Arab world and in the Inca civilisation? Science, concerning itself with systematic experimentation and the operation of fundamental laws has been contributed to from many civilisations, not just the ‘west’. If matauranga Māori is the equivalent of global scientific research, experimentation and pedagogy, why are they afraid of a debate. Or is logic also an unpleasant colonial construct?
A recent commentator in the NZ Herald described their child’s summary of a junior science class:
Pupil: Today we learned about the properties of water.
Parents: How interesting. Tell us.
Pupil: Water has a spirit and a memory.
I suppose we must assume that this represents the equivalence of traditional Māori ‘ways of knowing’ with science and that this school has been out of the gates even before the new science curriculum has moved beyond a draft. As an educator I have had many decades of awareness and exposure to te reo, tikanga, kaupapa and support wholeheartedly their teaching and cultural importance. Amidst all the shouting it’s been forgotten that all societies have a history of observing and explaining natural phenomena to assist, for example, agriculture and navigation, and they too had gods and spirits to explain matters unknowable at that time. Just the same, observing that spring’s increased sunlight will bring on crop growth is not the equivalent of defining and explaining the chemistry of photosynthesis. Is it not perverse to put the richness and spiritualty of Māori cultural belief and experience up against the analytical rigour of global science? Can’t we honour them as separate bodies of knowledge?
The refusal of university communities to allow rational discussion of these matters has gone a step further and resulted in a hysterical response to those academics and other educators who would wish to continue open inquiry as opposed to ‘dominant public opinions’, as the so-called Listener Seven have discovered. I salute them and their international research reputations from which their institutions gain such mana, and inevitably remember Martin Niemoller’s 1946 confessional which condemns the silence of mid-century German intellectuals.
‘First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak out for me.’
How has it come about, I wonder, that universities once the seeding ground for wide and intelligent discourse and debate can now be arenas of coercion and repression? Do you ask yourself whether the refusal to allow discussion of controversy suggests those in charge themselves lack valid and persuasive arguments? Did you think that the re-education purges in Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mao’s China could never happen in Godzone?
Penn Raine is an educator and writer who lives in NZ and France.