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Peter Schwerdtfeger, David Lillis, and John Raine: Decolonisation and Indigenisation are Dividing our Country

Decolonisation and the Undermining of Sound Education

Cultural reshaping has been underway in New Zealand for some years, including casting education within a postmodern and decolonisation framework, detrimental to student learning. Here, we examine decolonisation, the need for open and constructive academic debate, and the imperative to protect democracy in New Zealand.

Why This Decolonisation Movement?

Few colonies remain in this world. Most former colonies are now well-functioning democracies, and it is therefore more appropriate to refer to them as “territories”. The world is already largely decolonised, so why are we seeing worldwide decolonisation and related activism and indigenisation?

Why is this movement especially rampant in education and why has the decolonisation/indigenisation (DI) movement spiralled out of control in New Zealand, demanding major re-configuration of our society? And what will be the consequences if this movement successfully challenges both “western” knowledge and democracy?

Surely, colonisation embodied an ugly face, serving the expansion of empires. Indigenous people were indeed suppressed and, in many cases, lost their identity and cultural values.

However, colonisation brought positives, as indigenous people gained access to advanced knowledge, education, technology and improved health and wellbeing. In New Zealand, colonisation ended inter-tribal wars. Life expectancies for Māori increased sharply [1], though remain behind non-Māori averages by seven years, perhaps due to socio-economic factors, but also lifestyle choices and genetics. However, the health and wellbeing of Pacific people are even worse than those of Māori across most measures.

A paper by Associate Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, on The Case for Colonialism published in Third World Quarterly (Taylor & Francis) stated:

“The case for Western colonialism is about rethinking the past as well as improving the future. It involves reaffirming the primacy of human lives, universal values, and shared responsibilities - the civilising mission without scare quotes - that led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples during most episodes of Western colonialism.“ [2]

This article engendered international condemnation, with a petition demanding its retraction [3]. The article was withdrawn by Francis & Taylor but republished by the National Association of Scholars [4]. Indeed, Krylov and Tanzman report that science journals and publishers have opened a new era involving censorship of articles perceived as harmful to particular populations [5]. They assert that censorship distorts our understanding of the world, undermines our ability to solve challenging problems and leads to distrust in science. Gilley may not have recognised sufficiently the atrocities of colonialism, but one expects robust debate and comments in the very same journal. However, the extreme international condemnation of Gilley’s article demonstrates how far the decolonisation movement has advanced, especially here in New Zealand [6]. An interview by Neil Oliver on GB News is highly recommended [7].

We must retain our Hard-won Democracy

Today we live in a democratic society of which we can be proud. So, why do we have this strong DI movement here in New Zealand? The divisive He Puapua report was perhaps supposed to correct wrongdoings of the past but many of its policies run contrary to democratic values. Democracy is under challenge, but for what purpose? Bringing down statues of “colonisers”, cancelling the names of James Cook and Ernest Rutherford, calls for ceasing the performance of Shakespeare, pushing Indigenous knowledge into the core sciences, accepting one minority language only for ceremonial aspects of meetings, are disrespectful of the valuable contributions of the many cultures that have settled here.

A significant influence on the decolonisation movement comes from the 1963 book The Wretched Earth by Frantz Fanon 8], and in particular in New Zealand from Distinguished Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith and her book: Decolonising Methodologies, Research and Indigenous Peoples [9]. Smith argues that Western paradigms of research are inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism, and that Kaupapa Māori research methods should be implemented within our education system. Because of the impact of her book, recently she was awarded the Rutherford Medal by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

British academic, Doug Stokes, in “Against Decolonisation” [10] states (pp. 83-84):

“Activists impose decolonisation as part of a counter-power move to push back against what they claim is knowledge power plays of historically tainted thinkers and institutions. ……….it becomes politically acceptable to impose your agenda in the name of social justice and a form of restorative activism. Decolonisation is thus an explicitly political power play.”

The late Professor Peter Munz, of Victoria University, wrote [11] that Smith uncritically follows the postmodernists Edward Said and Michel Foucault, who argue that the pursuit of knowledge about one culture by people of another culture constitutes colonisation and imperialism. Further, Kaupapa Māori education and the Māori world view have been criticised by Professor Elizabeth Rata of the University of Auckland [12]. Professor Rata states:

“ … rather than an organic response to Western knowledge, kaupapa Maori is the academic discourse of a neotraditionalist ideology that is best understood as a localised response to fundamental changes in late capitalism. This is the ‘ideological traditionalism’ that Habermas refers to as ‘self-conscious traditionalism’.”

Other Ways of Knowing?

Science is universal [13] and is there for everybody. Science has developed over millennia and many cultures have contributed. It is always open to question, new discovery and debate. Chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics do not need decolonisation. Instead, we need great ideas to further advance science and to address, for example, climate change, pandemics, and public health. We need more science education in our schools, not less. And, it makes no sense to condemn scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, as colonisers. Teaching and understanding basic science are neither imperialistic nor indoctrination of the people who first arrived in this country.

Abbot et al. [14] express deep concern about the proliferation of identity-¬based ideology that seeks to replace core liberal principles with postmodernism and Critical Social Justice. Any challenge to the DI movement is labelled racist, even at universities. Unfortunately, university leaders are exacerbating this deep social divide, and some of our academic colleagues are buying into this ideology. What we need instead is to work together, remove social barriers and provide opportunity for everyone to access first-class education. Traditional Knowledge and discourse on DI belong in social science and history classes, but not within the sciences.

Apart from degrading education and science, decolonisation brings other dangers. For example, we see demands for traditional medicine to exist outside health legislation. In other countries decolonisation in pharmacology involves teaching folk remedies and the contributions of non¬-Europeans [14]. Decolonisation has contributed to infatuation with traditional medicine and numerous therapeutic accidents involving herbal products that have not been validated according to “colonial” standards [15].

Systemic Problems in Higher Education

Today, we see degrading of the constitutions of our universities and threats to staff who attempt to protect the quality of teaching, the right of free speech and the independence of the universities from political and social action. Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott have expressed the problems in The Canceling of the American Mind [16], as follows:

“Over the past several decades, higher education began encouraging the dismissal of arguments based on a speaker's identity, past transgressions, and other factors unrelated to the argument at hand.” (pp. 8)

The University of Chicago’s Kalven Report of 1967 is a statement on the University’s role in political and social action [17], and remains relevant for universities across all nations. It defines the mission of the university as the pursuit of knowledge, its domain of inquiry including all aspects and values of society. The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual member of faculty or student - but not the university as an institution. The university is the home of critics but is not itself the critic, and its neutrality arises from free inquiry and diversity of views. It cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without inhibiting the freedom of dissent on which it thrives.

Unfortunately, in New Zealand we have lost a degree of freedom of speech and our universities have lost independence from political and social action. It is critical for the future of our country, and indeed our civilisation, that we fight to regain these ideals without delay.


The opinions expressed here are those of the writers, and not of the universities with which they are or were formerly affiliated.


Peter Schwerdtfeger is a distinguished professor in theoretical chemistry and physics and Head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study at Massey University. His research is concerned with fundamental and philosophical aspects of science.

David Lillis is a retired researcher who holds degrees in physics and mathematics, worked as a statistician in education, in research evaluation for the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, and for several years as an academic manager and lecturer.

John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles in three New Zealand Universities. His responsibilities have included research, research commercialisation and internationalisation.


[1] The Hui, Life expectancy for Māori has improved since 1840, National's Dr Shane Reti claims.

[2] Professor Bruce Gilley joins Neil Oliver on GB News to debate the "Case for Colonialism".

[5] Anna Krylov and Jay Tanzman, Spotlight on scientific censorship: A virtual collection

[6] RNZ News, Draft history curriculum misses 600 years of Aotearoa New Zealand's past.

[7] Professor Bruce Gilley joins Neil Oliver on GB News to debate the "Case for Colonialism".

[8] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York (1961).

[9] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd., 2013.

[10] Doug Stokes, Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West Paperback – 15 Sept. 2023.

[11] Peter Munz, Open and closed research. New Zealand Review of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, Issue 41, Otago University Press (1999).

[12] Elizabeth Rata, Kaupapa Māori Education in New Zealand. In: Demaine, J. (eds) Citizenship and Political Education Today. Palgrave Macmillan, London (2004).

[12] Richard Dawkins, Why I’m sticking up for science. The Spectator, UK, March 4 (2023).

[14] D. Abbot, A. Bikfalvi, A.L. Bleske¬ Rechek, W. Bodmer, P. Boghossian C.M. Carvalho, J. Ciccolini, J.A. Coyne, J. Gauss, P.M.W. Gill, S. Jitomirskaya, L. Jussim, A.I. Krylov, G.C. Loury, L. Maroja, J.H. McWhorter, S. Moosavi, P. Nayna Schwerdtle, J. Pearl, M.A. Quintanilla¬ Tornel, H.F. Schaefer, P.R. Schreiner, P. Schwerdtfeger, D. Shechtman, M. Shifman, J. Tanzman, B.L. Trout, A. Warshel, and J.D. West. In Defense of Merit in Science. Journal of Controversial Ideas 2023, 3(1), 1; 10.35995/jci03010001

[15] M. K. Parvez and V. Rishi, Herb¬Drug Interactions and Hepatotoxicity. Curr. Drug Metab. 20: 275–82 (2019).

[16] Greg Lukianoff & Rikki Schlott “The canceling of the American Mind. 2023.

[17] Kalven Committee: Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action

4,905 views71 comments


New government, they know what the problem is. The new education minister is on the job and should know the required solution. The minister has the power to rectify the problem. No discussion, just fix it!


Dec 27, 2023

It is impossible to decolonise NEW ZEALAND. Our colonial days are long gone.

You cannot decolonise an independent self-governing country.

Let that sink in!


Like entitled teenagers Maori elitist excuse privilege, with no appreciation from whence it came.


Aaron Shanahan
Aaron Shanahan
Dec 27, 2023

I'm sick to the bloody back teeth of so called university educated cretins, backed up by the whinge brigade that even after 200 years of trying still cant figure out the fact that this is a multicultural society now and is one country to all that work, came here to better themselves ,,regardless of their makeup. These greedy barstads make me fucking puke. they are the fucking stick in the muds that will never accept that we are one people. To be completely frank, that's their problem, not ours. They happily vilify the fact that that this country was colonized, call it evil, but happily take and flout the benefits it has given them to shoot their gobs off.


Dec 30, 2023
Replying to

Agreed - yet another example of the hypocrisy that abounds these days. Never mind, once we've all got over laughing (or not) at some of the New Years Honours choices made by our last govt, we can look forward to a fresh start very soon.


Linda Tuhiwai Smith exhibits the same 'eyes wide shut'/fixed focus, blinkered vision of those fundamentalist 'believers' who decry scientific proof, who insist the earth was 'created in 7 days, that the earth was/is flat, that the Dawinism is the work of the devil and the evolution of species is impossible, that 'sin is original' so a newly born child inherits the sins of its forebears, that the past was perfect and evil entities have stolen their birthright, etc, etc.

The five general tactics of such denial are conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic.

Here is the latest version of the FLICC taxonomy (with all the icons freely available and…

Timothy Bridges
Timothy Bridges
Dec 30, 2023
Replying to

I don't think its correct to defame fundamental believers in the way that you have. They don't all "decry scientific proof" as you suggest. Perhaps you should go and educate yourself. Many Christians very much believe in the scientific method and there are many Christian scientists out there. I am not one of them but I know enough to understand that you shouldn't typecast and write an entire religious group off so easily

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