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ELIZABETH RATA: In Defence of the Liberal University and against Indigenisation

Indigenising New Zealand's universities is well underway, presumably with the agreement of University Councils and despite the absence of public discussion. Indigenising, under the broader umbrella of decolonisation, involves incorporating the post-1975 principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, inserting the traditional beliefs and practices of matauranga Māori into all areas of university life, and including Māori nomenclature and observances in university operations. It is my hope that the Coalition Government's freedom of speech requirement for tax-funded tertiary institutions will embolden academics who, like myself are opposed to the indigenisation agenda, to speak publicly. I also call on University Councils to either justify or remove their support for this seemingly unstoppable ideology and its determined commissars.


My opposition is justified by my long-term study of New Zealand education. The question of why New Zealand’s universities, among the best in the world throughout the 20th century, have embraced indigenisation is certainly worthy of such study. I identify two main agendas in the mix with both applying equally to the decline of the school system. One is the equity claim. Peter Fraser's 1940s' equality of opportunity commitment was summarily discarded in 1977 by Education Secretary-General, William Renwick. In a speech to the New Zealand Royal Society (an organisation that has also indigenised with dire reputational consequences), Renwick spoke of a transition to equity and social justice. Equity would replace merit and effort in order for all New Zealanders to achieve the same outcome. This did of course require the achievement bar to be substantially lowered. For readers wanting to understand the decline of our once first-class education system, the shift to equity education initiated by Renwick is a good place to start.


The second agenda is tribalism. What I refer to as the invented Principles Treaty to distinguish it from the 1840 Articles Treaty, linked the equity agenda to the 1980s' tribalisation movement. In this alliance the moralists of the new professional class were both tribalists and marxist-inspired socialists. Their students are today's indigenisers and social justice warriors.

Tribalism and socialism are communitarian ideologies. Both celebrate the collective and disparage the individual. The revolutionary idea of the universal individual developed in Enlightenment political philosophy, then refined in the liberal ideals of modern democratic politics is re-imagined in the distorted image of a hollowed out creature estranged from tradition and culture. A common caricature from the 1970s portrays the British colonial descendant as spiritually impoverished and trapped in a desolate culture. Those who bought into this caricature welcomed seduction into the romanticised tribe – and the revisionist history required to support the dream.


But in the caricature of the selfless collective opposed to the selfish individual we lose sight of one of humanity's most profound advances. The transfer of authority from the kin group to the individual is what has enabled the modern world. Freedom of thought and speech enables us not only to decide how we will belong and contribute to society but provides the means to challenge its authority. This includes challenging the tyranny of culture, a challenge seen most vividly in the emancipation of women from culturally prescribed oppression.


It is unsurprising that the decolonisation attack on the liberal individual is being relentlessly pursued in our universities. These are the institutions whose purpose is to develop science – that universal knowledge which comes from and belongs to all humanity. Modern science admits no authority but that of justifiable and refutable reason. This makes science a problem for indigenisers. Science cannot exist without reason. Reason cannot exist without the individual and the individual cannot reason without the authority to challenge ideas.


Science requires individuals to develop and justify naturalistic explanations for physical and social phenomena. Its concepts refer to theorised structures and properties, its methods are those of hypothesis, testing and refutation, its procedures those of criticism and judgement.


It is the individuals who practise this very method that are under threat from the decolonisers, with profound consequences. The suppression of individual thought in our universities spills over into society, threatening free speech everywhere. Ideas cannot be spoken without first being thought. It is in the universities that thought is, or should be, developed and tested in argument and evidence. Thus, what happens in the university affects us all. Society's ability and willingness to use reason is, or should be, nurtured in that institution.


The socialist-tribalist alliance has had a nearly half century successful run, made possible in part by the control of language. Those like myself who support liberalism and oppose decolonisation and indigenisation have been, and have allowed ourselves to be silenced by accusations of racism. It is time to throw off all traces of pusillanimity and seize the opportunity offered by the new government's commitment to free speech. To be worthy of liberalism's high ideals, such communication must be grounded not in self-righteous passion but in the argumentative logic of reason. The vigorous debate needed must be public. But it is not enough to have people willing to speak. We also require a media willing to inform.



Professor Elizabeth Rata is a sociologist of education in the School of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland. This piece was first published at The Platform.


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