By Peter Schwerdtfeger, John Raine and David Lillis
Education in Serious Decline
Make no mistake - New Zealand’s education system is currently in steep decline (Armstrong, 2023), and the country cannot afford another generation of young people getting a second-rate education. In this article we discuss the causes and remedies for this damaging long-term slide.
The transition of twenty years ago to the NCEA schools qualification system, with its lack of rigour in the delivery of core knowledge and skills, most markedly in mathematics and the sciences, heralded a decline in education standards in New Zealand.
In 2000, New Zealand was one of the top performers in the world. Our results were above the average of the world’s most developed countries and we placed third in mathematics and fourth for reading in a group of 41 countries. When the latest PISA results were published in 2018, the decline had progressed so much that in science and reading New Zealand was only marginally above the OECD average. In mathematics we are now below average. Of the larger group of 78 participating countries, New Zealand ranked low, at 27th (Hartwich, 2022).
Reading is similarly in trouble. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that the reading skills of New Zealand students continue to decline. In 2021, New Zealand recorded its lowest score since the inception of PIRLS in 2001 (e.g. Scoop, 2023).
Further, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a survey of 15-year-old students conducted every three years, shows even more worrying declines. New Zealand's performance in mathematics reflects one of the largest drops within participating countries (OECD, 2018). New Zealand's mean performance has been declining steadily in reading (2000-18), mathematics (2003-18) and science (2006-18) from earlier high levels of performance. In reading, more rapid declines were observed amongst the country’s lowest-achieving students. In mathematics and science, performance declined to a similar extent at the top and the bottom of the performance distribution, as well as on average.
The decline has now been exacerbated by moves to centre the school curriculum on the Treaty of Waitangi, and universities declaring themselves Te Tiriti-led and prioritising the inclusion of matauranga Māori in degree courses. Left-wing ideologies, combined with post-modern ideas and a dangerous mix of Critical Social Justice theory and Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) policies, now appear to be more important to decision-makers than teaching basic skills and knowledge (P. Raine, 2023), and will exacerbate the observed steady deterioration. A more holistic approach in teaching and research is now favoured or even mandated, and merit-based assessment used internationally for many decades has been called into question on the basis that it inherently disadvantages minorities and indigenous people (Abbot et al., 2023).
We share major concerns with many others about the current refresh of the New Zealand Curriculum (Lillis, 2023; J. Raine, 2023). We fear that a poor curriculum will result in even poorer outcomes and wealthy families discarding NCEA and guaranteeing a better education for their children by sending them to independent schools that are not driven by ideologies.
Post-Modernism and Social Justice
Unfortunately, post-modernism is on a steep rise internationally (Sokal and Bricmont, 1999). Post-modernism favours subjectivism and relativism (the belief that truth and knowledge exist in relation to the self and society, and are not absolute) over objectivism and realism, and is critical of, or even denies, the many great scientific advances of the Enlightenment movement (Age of Reason!), which began in 17th century Europe. In a post-modern world any theory may be embraced without necessarily having sound evidence as a basis.
Post-modernism thrives on current DEI policies and gender activism. It even places subjective labels on science, claims new disciplines such as feminist science and traditional or indigenous astronomy, and labels science as sexist and racist. It implies that the outcomes of scientific exploration and scientific ideas very much depend on the identity of the observer, without clear distinction between fact and fiction. It puts holistic notions before everything else, condemning the very ideas of reductionism which are so important for understanding the natural world.
The philosopher, Mario Bunge, sounded a clear warning, already nearly thirty years ago (Bunge, 1996):
Over the past three decades or so very many universities have been infiltrated, though not yet seized, by the enemies of learning, rigor, and empirical evidence: those who proclaim that there is no objective truth, whence ‘anything goes,’ those who pass off political opinion as science and engage in bogus scholarship.
How can we explain the wonders of quantum physics to our students without involving reductionism for the concept of elementary particles, atoms or molecules? There are situations where the observer markedly influences the outcome of a measurement, such as in the famous Heisenberg microscope experiment in quantum theory, taught to every physics graduate student in New Zealand, but this interaction between the macroscopic (observer) and microscopic world is well described by the laws of quantum theory and in no way depends on sex or race. Unfortunately, publishing houses such as Nature, Science, the American Physical or Chemical Society, now welcome non-evidence-based claims of questionable quality on the basis of their current DEI policies. Recent examples include an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research (APS) on “Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study” by Robertson and Hairston (2022), or in Chemical Education (ACS) on “Decolonizing the Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum”, by Dessent et al. (2021).
Post-modern ideas are alien to modern evidence-based science such as chemistry, physics or mathematics (Dawkins, 1998), and to the laws that cover the analytic work of engineers. To put it bluntly: Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 is set in stone and does not depend on either sex or race or on the identity of the scientist exploring it. Nor do the Laws of Thermodynamics. Nature is described to an astonishingly high degree of accuracy through the fundamental laws of quantum physics. As Richard Dawkins put it:
Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what tradition they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence¬-based, not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses.
Today, using microscopic theory, we have a basic understanding of how a snowflake takes shape and grows, without appeal to holistic or race-based ideas; of the causes of earthquakes and tsunamis; the risk of landslides, and how the elements in the Periodic Table were formed in stars and neutron star mergers. The search for a more complete picture and understanding of nature welcomes all ethnicities. Our students should not be deprived of this most fascinating activity of contemporary science.
Examples of Post-Modernism
The many anti-science statements coming from the post-modern corner are best illustrated by a few examples:
-Māori May Have Reached Antarctica 1,000 Years Before Europeans (Wehi et al, 2022). This statement made it into the headlines, such as the New Zealand Herald, the Guardian and even the New York Times. It was debunked shortly after (Anderson et al. 2022).
-From the beginning of creation, to the children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and descending to our ancestors, all aspects of creation have whakapapa ... This allows us to consider whakapapa for each of the elements on the periodic table (NZASE resource). While this is nice storytelling that favours creationism, it does not belong in a science class. The abundance of the elements in our universe and on our planet Earth is well understood from basic nuclear physics.
-Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world. Without mauri, mana cannot flow into a person or object (Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). This leads to the claim that Everything has a Mauri. A life force. When we are ill, our life force has been compromised (Māori Healers) and The Mauri is the power that allows these living things to exist within their domain. It is also known as a spark of life, the active component that gives life. A critical discussion on the Mauri concept proposed by the government’s NCEA panel for chemistry teaching in our schools has been provided recently by Professor Paul Kilmartin of The University of Auckland (Kilmartin, 2021). Among other issues, Professor Kilmartin has objected to the inclusion of Mauri (a life force) in our Chemistry curriculum, because it conflicts directly with science.
-A recent article in the Guardian (Graham-McLay, 2023) on celebrating Matiriki, stated that Māori books only survived because old people hid them from the colonists, who it is implied wished to suppress or destroy them. No evidence for this claim was given and, in any case, like all other Polynesian languages (except for the Easter Island), Māori had no written form or books until the introduction of writing by missionaries (Harlow, 2007).
-And - at a very basic level, in March 2023 a New Zealand child came home from school and told their parents that they had learned two important facts in science that day, namely that water has a spirit and memory - another introduction of animist confusion into what should have been a science lesson.
All modern tools that we use daily to live our lives in comfort have emerged in some way from basic science and technology. How can we combat global warming with a mix of science and non-evidence-based and animist beliefs? How can we solve the big problems in science without a basic understanding of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology? How can we learn from history if ideology dictates that unpleasant aspects of some of our histories are omitted or corrupted? How can we teach logical thinking to our students when we present mythological notions as truth?
Fighting for Education and Science
Unfortunately, the acceptance of postmodern ideas by our media, who are amplifying a global post-modern movement, will result in our schools and universities becoming an anti-science breeding ground for the next generation should we fail to teach them critical and logical thinking.
Moreover, the denial of New Zealand as a democratic multicultural society, in favour of race-based bi-culturalism and Treatyism, diverts us from the actions that are needed if we are to address poverty, health disparities and a steadily declining education system. Unfortunately, many schoolteachers and university lecturers are too afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled racist by a cancel-culture mob or of losing their jobs.
So, what needs to be done to secure a bright future for our education system?
-The march of post-modern relativist views through our educational institutions creates a huge risk of their losing their international reputation and relevance, losing their international students, and of New Zealand becoming an inward-looking country. Schools and universities must not foster damaging ideologies and should move back from the politicisation that has occurred.
-International scholars, such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne, have given wise advice. If New Zealand ignores them, then our education system is at risk of being seen as an international laughing stock. We do not need to indigenise or decolonise our education system for all to succeed, and Māori will continue to succeed in our universities, as they have done in the past, without ideological intervention from universities themselves or the State.
-New Zealand must again become a society where freedom of thought and speech are strongly upheld and not supressed by our politicians, university leaders, or the media, rejecting ill-conceived ideologies such as equality of traditional knowledge and world science.
-Universities should again become the critic and conscience of our society, where all perspectives can be discussed and debated openly, and where academics are protected from being ”cancelled” if they present views that do not align with the mainstream narrative.
-Science teaching should be based on testable hypotheses (Popper’s Principle of Falsification) and established truth, but not on a muddle of observations of the natural world, myth and legend. Established mathematics and science must be taught rigorously, without descent into vague relativism, where subjective views are presented as facts. The histories of all New Zealand’s many ethnicities should be taught without revision or sanitation.
-Governments must play an important role in providing strong leadership, without encouraging the indoctrination of our society with damaging ideologies that do not stand up to critical scrutiny or analysis.
-Matauranga Māori, as the Māori knowledge system, needs to be treasured but not protected from criticism, nor taken as an alternative to modern world science.
-The Treaty of Waitangi should be seen as an historic document but, silent as it is on education, not interpreted to enable the infusion of a postmodern version of matauranga Māori widely across taught curricula to the disadvantage of education in the basics for our young people.
New Zealand is a great democratic country with a population of many backgrounds. Neither racism nor inverse racism from the political left or right have any place in our society. We can do far better.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers, and not of the universities with which they are or were formerly affiliated. We welcome any feedback and apologize in advance if we have offended some of our post-modernist colleagues.
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 aspects of science.
John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles across three New Zealand Universities. His responsibilities have included research, research commercialisation and internationalisation.
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.
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