Postmodernists and, by extension, most identity politics theorists draw on social constructivist epistemology. Social constructivists argue that all human knowledge is ‘socially constructed’ from extant cultural raw materials, and we cannot know anything outside our shared cultural frames of reference. This means that they reject any notion of truth or objectivity that exists ‘out there’, as all meaning is ‘internal’ to human perception. Doug Stokes in Against Decolonisation, page 86.
Opinions on Education
Our election is now very close and I hope that this is my last opinion piece for quite some time – even better if it is my very last. I have written many opinion pieces over the last two years, only because of a genuine fear for the future of both education and science in New Zealand. I thought that I had said more than enough. However, a view was expressed recently in our media that deserves a reply. I refer to an article by Joel Maxwell, published in Stuff on 19 September 2023 (Maxwell, 2023), where he addresses the relative underperformance of Māori in education.
Joel makes several points in relation to long-term issues for Māori in education and I reply here because Stuff and other New Zealand media have refused to publish our opinions, so that scientific and research-based views receive little or no traction.
Joel tells us that whatever is happening to education in New Zealand today, the system has discriminated against Māori kids for a long time. We agree with this statement up to a point. Further, we agree that bias and racism were deplorable in many colonial societies, but also that indigenous societies were not always gentle with each other or with the environment. Indeed, colonialism brought negatives as well as benefits. However, things have changed in recent decades. Here I quote from Joel’s opinion piece and respond accordingly.
Assessing the Evidence
The data is so clear that I’m starting to think we’ve always had an overarching literacy and numeracy problem. We can’t read and count the evidence before us, and we never could.
Various education researchers, including myself, and other experts believe that we were performing strongly until the onset of a decline that began about twenty years ago (e.g. Long and Te, 2019). As a matter of free speech, everyone is entitled to voice an opinion on any subject. Joel is a journalist who deserves to be heard and who writes interesting material, but the opinions of experts in any domain are those that we should consider most in policy-making.
Māori learning is delayed by systemic racism at one end of life’s conveyor belt while at the other, it spits us out first to the grave (by seven years on average!)
Almost certainly, we have residual pockets of racist attitudes here in New Zealand, just as we have prejudice and self-interest from diverse ethnic and cultural groups. However, where is the evidence that either systemic racism or the current curriculum disadvantages Māori to any significant extent in education? Māori underperformance in our schools may not emerge from either racism or the curriculum, but instead may result mostly from unfavourable socioeconomics. If systemic racism or the curriculum disadvantages Māori, then does it not also disadvantage Pacific students and others? Why only Māori?
The truth is that, not only Māori have poorer outcomes in education, but also Pacific people and, reviewing the official statistics on health and wellbeing in New Zealand, we see that Pacific people are even more disadvantaged than Māori on most indices of childhood and adult illness and also on socioeconomic measures (Lillis, 2023a).
Three years ago the Ministry of Health published Ola Manuia: Pacific Health and Wellbeing Action Plan 2020 - 2025 (Ministry of Health, 2020). This plan recognises that health inequities of Pacific people are complex and interact with socioeconomic status. It highlights the factors that affect the health of Pacific people, including education, housing, income, employment and culture. Possibly we could add lifestyle choices and genetics. Almost certainly, the same is true of Māori health and wellbeing.
For example, compared with children from other ethnic groups, Pacific children experience higher incidence of medical conditions, including asthma, dental problems and ear and skin infections. Such conditions are associated with social determinants of health, including poverty and overcrowding. Pacific people, both children and adults, experience greater incidence of long-term conditions, including diabetes, gout, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, cancer and asthma (Health Quality & Safety Commission, 2021).
In 2018 Pacific people ranked worst of all ethnicities within every category of deprivation in material standard of living (Statistics New Zealand, 2019).
But Pacific people will not receive a dedicated health ministry and nor will anyone else who is non-Māori.
Trying to Understand Underperformance in Education
As a former statistician for education in our public service, indeed I performed various analyses (e.g. multiple regression models) that identified socioeconomics as the strongest predictor of education performance in New Zealand. In those analyses I included school decile, a quantitative measure of the extent to which a school's students live in low socioeconomic or poorer communities – a measure now replaced by the Equity Index (Ministry of Education, 2023). Low decile families tend to have parents with more limited educational qualifications and years of schooling, low levels of family income, more crowded homes and are more likely to arrive at school with health and learning deficits (Post Primary Teachers Association, 2022).
In addition, I analysed equivalent anonymized data from the United Kingdom, passed to me by Professor Daniel Muijs, then of Southampton University.
Always, socioeconomics emerges as a significant predictor of performance and, indeed, underperformance, while ethnicity becomes largely non-significant. That was also the finding of Marie et al. (2008), specifically in relation to Māori.
The Post Primary Teachers Association (2022) essentially confirms this finding, noting that students of low decile schools (from low socioeconomic catchments) perform much less well than those of high decile schools (from high socioeconomic catchments).
Teachers’ Concerns in relation to our Refreshed National Curricula
In this context, that any Pākehā teachers might actually complain about how put-upon they are by a woke teaching system is outrageous. My suggestion to them is to stop moaning and get teaching.
We have not yet come across Pākehā teachers complaining about how put-upon they are by a woke teaching system. Instead, we do hear concerns about a refreshed curriculum that is weighted very heavily towards one minority world view (traditional knowledge) and language, potentially at the expense of class time on literacy and numeracy, and that fails to recognise the multicultural nature of New Zealand society in which 25% of the total population is non-Māori/non-European.
Here I quote Professor Brian Boyd of the University of Auckland:
If New Zealand students and New Zealand scientists are made to pledge allegiance to the contradictory falsehoods that mātauranga Māori is equivalent to science, on the one hand, but that science is Western and racist, on the other hand, and if bullies continue to secure disproportionate research funding for ideologues who make these claims, our students and scientists, including Māori, will suffer. Boyd (2023)
Joel’s reference to a woke teaching system may refer to a recent trend towards decolonisation; in this case the decolonisation of education. Perhaps he refers to a local form of relativism and associated notions that all human knowledge is relative, fallible, context-dependent and bounded by reality. In any case, much recent advice on New Zealand’s science curriculum is framed in terms of knowledge systems, misrepresenting science in several respects; in particular, that science is just another “way of knowing” when, unlike many other “knowledge systems”, science is always open to challenge. Unfortunately, once spiritualism and alternative knowledge systems are promoted in education, we have arrived at a dangerous place.
The decolonisation movement's invocation of history is both simplistic and overly Eurocentric. It erases the complex (and often brutal) history of non-European peoples, civilizations and states. It reproduces a simplistic binary of European evil versus non-European good, when the record is not only far more mixed, but the British were active anti-slavers following abolition across Africa in the wider global South. Intra-African slavery, most often through war and conquest, was the norm, and long predated the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Doug Stokes in Against Decolonisation, page 103.
Our Children need First-rate Education
Regardless of Joel’s intent in referring to a woke teaching system, we have duty of care to deliver a first-rate education, not only to Māori children, but to all future school children (to be counted in the millions, over decades) who will experience our refreshed curriculum. We also have duty of care to our 2,500 schools and 150,000 certificated and registered teachers who will have to devote time and resources to deliver the refreshed curriculum.
Here I quote Doug Stokes again:
. . . the advocacy for ‘indigenous knowledge’ or the castigation of white, Eurocentric curricula explicitly invokes judgemental relativism where all ideas are said to exist on an equal plane, regardless of their integrity. This elevation of perceptions and emotions also undergirds the emphasis on microaggressions, where one's feelings take priority over facts. Doug Stokes in Against Decolonisation, page 84.
We believe that some class time devoted to Te Reo, matauranga Māori and Māori culture and history will give all New Zealanders a greater appreciation of Māori culture, their history and their very significant contributions to the New Zealand of today. It stands to reason that we should also introduce students to Pacific cultures, Asian cultures, African cultures and the cultures of Islamic immigrants from the Middle East.
Why does only one minority world view receive such overpowering attention in our refreshed curriculum and for what reason is it so pervasive across every learning area?
Specifically, mātauranga Māori is the body of cultural knowledge of Māori living in the islands of New Zealand. It includes observations about the world, and these observations are often interpreted in terms of myth. Other populations in New Zealand also have their traditional knowledge, derived from the knowledge systems of their societies of origin. Similarly, their traditional knowledge embodies non-scientific dimensions, and often includes false ideas, but no one expects these ideas to be taught as truth.
Much traditional knowledge, including Mātauranga Māori, embodies empirical knowledge that it is reasonable to include in science teaching, where relevant. However, there is a real danger that the curriculum refresh has become a way of smuggling particular socio-cultural values into our schools. Even worse is if we are forced to resist an anti-Enlightenment, anti-reason, anti-science, anti-liberal democracy cultural movement that actively disdains objective fact. If so, then this situation will prove very unfair on our children.
Preserve Te Reo and Mātauranga Māori
We believe that both Te Reo and Mātauranga Māori deserve to be treasured and preserved. However, imposing large proportions of class time to Te Reo and Mātauranga Māori on all students, especially if presented as science, must be opposed, given other demands on children's lives and given a noticeable decline in New Zealand’s recent academic rankings relative to those of other nations (Long and Te, 2019). Our children must acquire, not only qualifications, but the skills and knowledge that are obligatory if they are to compete in tomorrow’s New Zealand and international marketplaces.
And why must we admit only one kind of traditional knowledge for our curriculum? What about Pacific knowledge and values, Somali myths and religious beliefs held by immigrants from the Ukraine or Eritrea?
Do Inequalities result from Bias and Racism?
The assertion of systemic bias or racism as a cause of disparity, and thereby providing justification for major policy and legislative change, is evident in domains other than education; for example, in public health and employment in the sciences and academia generally. However, the extent of systemic bias within these domains is difficult to determine objectively and could only be evaluated through research rather than anecdote. Certainly, it seems that allegations of racism and bias in university appointments and promotions are not based on fact (Lillis, 2023b).
Possibly, in many jurisdictions systemic bias acts in favour of minorities, rather than against them (for example, Stewart-Williams and Halsey, 2021), but indeed we must be vigilant in identifying bias and countermanding it wherever it occurs.
Though bias in the past has led to inequities today, not every disparity reflects racial bias in the present (Lillis and Schwerdtfeger, 2021).
Nor should disparate outcomes provide a sole justification for significant change that clearly is intended to benefit one group disproportionately, when other demographic groups are also disadvantaged.
Focus on the True Causes of Inequality
Joel tells us:
I’m not convinced that overall our kids are failing, so much as we’re simply failing to keep up with them.
Joel has a view here and he might be partly correct in that we may indeed fail to keep up with our children. Of course, as a matter of free speech he is welcome to articulate that view in the public domain, but many experts in education believe that the decline is real.
In the end, lay opinion that is unaware of evidence and that goes unchallenged may detract from our efforts to address the real causes of inequality. I am not suggesting that Joel is unaware of the research evidence and indeed we should consider both his views and the views of other Māori or other minorities who experience things that are unknown to the rest of us. However, the true agents of disparity, principally socioeconomic in nature, may lie largely outside the jurisdictions of education, health and science, and we have duty of care to address those causes.
Finally, conferring special privilege to one ethnic or cultural group will not repair inequality; nor will consuming scarce resources to address structural racism and bias if these factors are small, or in practice no longer present, and if the core structural and systemic problems lie elsewhere.
Boyd, Brian. (2023). Against decolonisation: Slagging science will not produce more Māori scientists
Lillis, D. A. and Schwerdtfeger, P. (2021). The Mātauranga Māori-Science Debate
Lillis, D. A. (2023a). Our Prioritised Health System and Pacific People
Lillis, D. A. (2023b). Allegations of Racism in New Zealand Universities
Long, Jessica and Te, Mandy (2019). New Zealand top-end in OECD's latest PISA report but drop in achievements 'worrying'
Marie, D., Fergusson, D. M. and Boden, J. M. (2008). Educational Achievement in Maori: The Roles of Cultural Identity and Social Disadvantage. Australian Journal of Education. 52: 2, 183-196. Article first published online: August 1, 2008; Issue published August 1, 2008.
Maxwell, Joel. (2023). We've been illiterate for generations when it comes to educational racism
Ministry of Education (2023). The Equity Index
Ministry of Health (2020). Ola Manuia: Pacific Health and Wellbeing Action Plan 2020–2025
Post Primary Teachers Association (2022). NZ Schools: The decile system NZPPTA background paper.
Stewart-Williams, S. and Halsey, L. G. (2021). Men, women and STEM: Why the differences and what should be done? European Journal of Personality, 2021, Vol. 35(1) 3–39.
Statistics New Zealand (2019). Wellbeing statistics: 2018. URL: https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/wellbeing-statistics-2018
Stokes, Doug. (2023). Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West. Polity. ISBN-13978-1509554232.
Dr David Lillis trained in physics and mathematics at Victoria University and Curtin University in Perth, working as a teacher, researcher, statistician and lecturer for most of his career. He has published many articles and scientific papers, as well as a book on graphing and statistics.