While Luxon is pilloried for his religious views, Hipkins is busy inserting Māori spirituality into science.
It is one of the ironies of this election campaign that Chris Luxon is being painted as a religious zealot who will allegedly force Christian beliefs on the nation even as Chris Hipkins is actually introducing mātauranga Māori into education — and most controversially into science.
Last week, Chicago University’s Jerry Coyne, one of the world’s pre-eminent evolutionary biologists, described mātauranga Māori as a mix of “religion, ethics, morality, tradition and superstition” with some “empirical, trial-and-error based knowledge that can be taken as part of science”.
“It is not a ‘way of knowing’,” the professor said, “but a ‘Māori way of living’.”
Over the past two years, Coyne has regularly dissected proposals to insert mātauranga Māori into New Zealand’s science curriculum, and outlined what he sees as the damaging consequences for students and for the international reputation of the nation’s universities as science teaching “circles the drain”.
He entered the debate after a letter on mātauranga Māori and NCEA science titled "In Defence of Science”, written by seven Auckland University professors, was published in the Listener in July 2021. Two years later, Coyne says he still gets a stream of emails from New Zealand academics and teachers who feel they can’t speak out publicly about mātauranga Māori for fear of losing their jobs.
In discussing the topic in depth, Coyne is doing the job New Zealand mainstream media refuses to do.
Meanwhile, the temptation to paint Luxon as a religious zealot seems to be irresistible to some journalists — and, of course, to Labour MPs as the party’s election campaign cranks up.
Luxon’s Christian beliefs have been used as a stick to beat him with from the day he became leader of the National Party in November 2021. The media has returned repeatedly to his views on abortion (despite his promises to not tamper with the current laws) as well as twisting National’s policy on prescriptions to claim he intends to prevent women from accessing free contraception. Cabinet Minister Megan Woods even implied in a social media post that National’s policy reflected the reproductive dystopia portrayed in The Handmaid's Tale.
Yet Hipkins’ push to incorporate Māori spiritual concepts into science — which breaches the separation between secular education and religion — goes almost entirely unremarked.
Last week, an aspect of the debate flared into life after Dr Michael Johnston, a senior researcher at the New Zealand Initiative, drew the public’s attention to a leaked draft document for teaching science, technology and the arts as part of a comprehensive Curriculum Refresh that Chris Hipkins instigated in September 2019 as Minister of Education.
The refresh — which includes giving effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and embedding mātauranga Māori throughout the entire curriculum and across all learning areas — is being rolled out in stages. Social sciences was released in November 2022 and the compulsory history curriculum has been taught since the beginning of 2023. English is now also available to be used in schools, as is mathematics and statistics.
Science, technology and arts are “in development” and will be available for use next year, while health and physical education are in development for release in 2025, along with learning languages.
Dr Johnston pointed out that, in the draft consultation document for science, “Central concepts in physics are absent. There is no mention of gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, mass or motion. Chemistry is likewise missing in action. There is nothing about atomic structure, the periodic table of the elements, compounds or molecular bonding.”
Science teachers subsequently expressed their disquiet in the media over these baffling omissions, but it was left to Act leader David Seymour to draw attention to the elephant lurking in the room — the embedding of mātauranga Māori everywhere.
As he put it: “Act has seen a leaked copy of the ‘refreshed’ NZ curriculum for science, technology and the arts. Throughout the document, the words ‘chemistry’, ‘physics’, ‘biology’, ‘atom’ and ‘molecule’ get zero mentions. ‘Force’ gets one mention. ‘Mātauranga Māori’ receives over 50 mentions. Who decided science should give way to spirituality?”
The answer to that question is, of course, the Right Honourable Christopher John Hipkins, currently serving as the 41st Prime Minister of New Zealand, and who was the Minister of Education for five years after Labour came to power in 2017.
In February, Auckland University’s Professor Elizabeth Rata, whose particular expertise is in the sociology of education, sent an open letter to Hipkins — co-signed by three senior academics: Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger, Dr Raymond Richards and Dr David Lillis — and copying in the current Minister of Education, Jan Tinetti.
The academics expressed their concerns about a document discussing the curriculum refresh released last September — including “the insertion into the curriculum of traditional knowledge, or mātauranga Māori, as equivalent to science”.
The letter made it clear that while mātauranga Māori has its place in a school curriculum, it is not science: “Traditional knowledge has its own value and purpose and belongs in curriculum subjects such as social studies, geography, and literature. But it is not science and does not belong in the science curriculum.”
Professor Rata and her co-signers were under no illusion about who was ultimately responsible for deciding science should give way to spirituality. They concluded their letter with: “Prime Minister Hipkins, the Curriculum Refresh and the NCEA Reforms were developed on your watch as Minister of Education. It is, therefore, incumbent on you to repeal them before irrevocable damage is done to our country. As Prime Minister, you are certainly in a position to do so.”
In the letter, Professor Rata drew attention to the concept of “mauri” (life force; vital essence) being included in the syllabus as relevant to biology and chemistry. “Vitalism, the idea of an innate ‘life force’ present in all things, has surfaced in many cultural knowledge systems, including European, but has been soundly refuted and is not part of modern science.”
The subversion of science education in New Zealand by supernatural and animistic elements has also been noted by renowned British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Writing in The Spectator in March during his Antipodean speaking tour, he derided the “ludicrous policy, spawned by Chris Hipkins’ Ministry of Education before he became Prime Minister. Science classes are to be taught that Māori ‘ways of knowing’ (mātauranga Māori) have equal standing with ‘Western’ science...
“Mātauranga Māori includes valuable tips on edible fungi, star navigation and species conservation (pity the moas were all eaten). Unfortunately it is deeply invested in vitalism. New Zealand children will be taught the true wonder of DNA, while being simultaneously confused by the doctrine that all life throbs with a vital force conferred by the Earth Mother and the Sky Father. Origin myths are haunting and poetic, but they belong elsewhere in the curriculum.”
The assumption that including mātauranga Māori as a prominent feature of science education will make it more “inclusive” doesn’t tally with the lack of interest in traditional beliefs and spirituality among Māori themselves.
As Professor Rata has noted: “The majority of Māori do not fit with the official idealised picture of Māori spirituality. According to the 2018 census, 53.5 per cent of those identifying with Māori ethnicity had no religious affiliation. The number identifying with traditional Māori religious, beliefs and philosophies is small and declining, from about 12 per cent in 2006 to 7 per cent in 2018 (NZ Statistics, 2018). As more Māori enter the professional class it is likely that this trend will continue.
“Given that over 50 per cent of Māori already have no religious affiliation, it is doubtful that there is a constituency for a spiritual-based education.”
As many suspect, the push to insert Māori spirituality into education has not come from a grass-roots swell but from a top-down mandate. Our political and academic elites have decided this will be good for the public, whether the public wants it or not.
Among that academic elite is Hipkins’ mother. Of course, you’d never guess from the persona the Prime Minister has cultivated in the media as a down-to-earth, working-class “boy from the Hutt” that he grew up in a home dedicated to radical educational ideology of the kind promoted by the Ardern-Hipkins government.
Rosemary Hipkins, who began her career as a science and biology teacher, is now “Chief Researcher/Kaihautū Rangahau” at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, which she joined in 2001. It is a statutory body that operates under the NZCER Act 1972 and, while not formally attached to any government department, university or other educational organisation, is contracted by the Ministry of Education to develop policy.
Rose Hipkins is heavily involved in research for the redesign of NCEA. As the NZCER website puts it: “Currently Rose is working on several projects supporting the review of the NCEA”… and is exploring “the implications of decolonisation”.
Her most recent book, Teaching for Complex Systems Thinking (2021), includes “an explicit discussion of parallels between complexity science and indigenous knowledge systems (specifically mātauranga Māori in the New Zealand context)”.
A 2022 paper, Enduring Competencies for Designing Science Learning Pathways, for which she was lead author, states that young people will need to be educated in “at least two different knowledge lenses” — mātauranga Māori and science — in order to “understand their place and identity in the natural world” and “to live as ethically and responsibly as possible”.
It is clear that the acorn hasn’t fallen far from the tree in the Hipkins family. You might even say that when it comes to promoting mātauranga Māori in science and “decolonising” the curriculum, Chippie is a chip off the old block.
His mother’s contribution to the radical overhaul of education has been rewarded by the Labour government. In 2019, Rose Hipkins was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to science education.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland's North Shore. This article was first published at The Platform