Suddenly I am inundated with emails from disaffected Kiwis who take issue with the New Zealand government’s and academia’s new push to teach mātauranga Māori , or Māori “ways of knowing” as coequal with real science in high-school and university science classes. Many of these people are worried that the country is being swept with an ideology that “all things Māori are good” (tell that to the moas!), and that such an attitude is going to affect not just science, but many parts of life. It’s one thing to recognize and make reparations to a people who were genuinely oppressed for so long, but that doesn’t mean that that that group should be valorized in every way, nor that their “ways of knowing”, which include creation myths and false legends, can be taken as coequal to science and taught in the science classroom.
I’ll divide this post into three bits.
A. Is mātauranga Māori really going to be implemented in this way, or simply taught as what it is: an agglomeration of practical advice (some of which can be considered “science construed broadly” if it’s verified), legends, myths, and statements now know to be outright false?
Documents suggest that yes, the coequality is indeed the plan.
You can find the general present-day NCEA curriculum here (NCEA is the National Certificate for Educational Achievement, which sets the standards for New Zealand secondary schools). I haven’t gone through all the standards for various areas, but I’ve looked at chemistry, biology, and “physical and earth sciences”.
This page, “What’s changing?“, details how the curriculum will be tweaked, setting out a list of changes that will be made (this plan was apparently approved in 2020, two years after a public consultation that apparently few were aware of). I quote:
The NCEA Change Programme is a work programme led by the Ministry of Education to deliver the package of seven changes aimed at strengthening NCEA:
2.) Equal status for mātauranga Māori in NCEA – develop new ways to recognise mātauranga Māori, build teacher capability, and improve resourcing and support for Māori learners and te ao Māori pathways.
And if you click on the link “Equal status. . .”, you see this (my bolding):
It is vital that there is parity for mātauranga Māori in NCEA, and it has equal value as other bodies of knowledge.
What we’ve heard:
Māori respondents have told us that NCEA doesn’t do enough to open te ao Māori pathways through the qualification and disadvantages too many ākonga from experiencing success as Māori.
Integrate te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori into the new ‘graduate profile’ for NCEA, and into the design of achievement standards.
Ensure equal support for ākonga Māori in all settings, and equal status for mātauranga Māori.
Develop more subjects to make sure that te ao Māori pathways are acknowledged and supported equally in NCEA (e.g. Māori Performing Arts).
Ensuring that, where possible and appropriate, te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori are built into achievement standards for use across English and Māori-medium settings. That might mean:
- Having Māori-centred contexts for exemplars and assessment resources (e.g. local iwi history).
- Designing more inclusive standards and assessment resources that allow for diverse cultural perspectives on what’s important (e.g. considering community or hapū impact, not just individual user needs.
Build teacher capability around culturally inclusive NCEA and assessment and aromatawai practice that is inclusive of ākonga Māori.”
So yes, the parity between mātauranga Māori and real science is going to take place, and will be used in assessing student achievement.
As to what this might mean in particular, have a look at the goals in each of many academic areas as well as proposals for change and “Big Ideas”.
One of my correspondents singled out this goal (I quote):
” Explore how mauri is an essential part of the natural and human-constructed world and how it is essential to maintain or restore mauri.” – Mauri, insofar as I understand it at all, being a nebulous concept usually translated as “life force”.
The other alterations of physics, meant to fit into Māori “ways of knowing”, are obscure and worrying.
And on the chemistry and biology page, under “What is chemistry and biology about?” and “Big ideas and significant learning”, you will find not a single mention of evolution, the most important and most unifying area of biology. Why else would evolution be excluded unless to placate the Māori view, which is one of creationism? This omission is stupid and offensive.
B. What is the New Zealand Royal Society up to? As you may know if you’ve followed this, seven professors from Auckland University signed an innocuous (to rational folk) letter protesting the trend to make mātauranga Māori taught coequally with science in science classes, a move equivalent to teaching Biblical creationism in evolution class. You can see the letter, published in the weekly magazine “The Listener” here or here. Two of the signers, Garth Cooper and Robert Nola, are FRSNZs, meaning “Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand”, a high distinction (Michael Coarbilis, another FRSNZ and signer, died on November 13).
The Royal Society, miffed by the claim that science should be defended as science, and not infused with myth and “other ways of knowing”, put up an objection to the letter and began an investigation of the two surviving FRSNZs. Their statement, which makes the Royal Society look like a joke, is still up:
Note the insistence, by a body presumably dedicated to promoting truth, that “The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener.”
This would be funny if it weren’t a ridiculous implication that truth is what any group maintains is truth. Further, the RSNZ is insisting that mātauranga Māori is a “valid truth.” They really should take this statement down, for it’s an embarrassment.
Meanwhile, the RSNZ’s investigation of Cooper and Nola continues, itself an embarrassment. Read the letter the two signed and see if you think they should be shamed and punished for it by the very Society that lauded them as eminent scholars.
Richard Dawkins also wrote to the then head of the RSNZ objecting to their statement above; you can see Richard’s letter here and his letter to the New Zealand public here. This letter, as well as the ones I and other readers and Kiwis wrote, have had no effect. If I know the signers, Cooper and Nola will not truckle to the clowns who issued the RSNZ statement above. For its own reputation, the RSNZ should drop the investigation immediately.
C. What is the University of Auckland up to? There may be good news here. But let’s review history first. Earlier this summer, Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater issued a statement explicitly criticizing The Listener letter and its seven signers, making their identities easy to find. Two of her statements from Freshwater’s official announcement of July 26:
A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni.
Note the “hurt and dismay claim”, which at the very outset puts her statement in a context of emotionality rather than reason. And there was more:
While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.
The University has deep respect for mātauranga Māori as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system. We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.
This view is at the heart of our new strategy and vision, Taumata Teitei, and the Waipapa Toitū framework, and is part of our wider commitment to Te Tiriti and te ao principles.
Now it’s not even clear if the University of Auckland even has an official view about science vs. mātauranga Māori, yet note that Freshwater characterizes the latter as “a distinctive and valuable knowledge system”, maintaining that “mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete.” That is an arrant falsehood. For one thing, mātauranga Māori is creationist, which puts it squarely at odds with evolution. I won’t go on; you can find for yourself many other ways the two areas are “at odds” with each other.
The Vice-Chancellor should have said nothing about this issue, but chose to denigrate the letter and its signers. She got plenty of flak from the public and press for that announcement.
Since then, I guess she’s had second thoughts, as she’s just issued a new statement. Click on the screenshot to read it:
Here’s part of her statement, which in effect pretends that she never denigrated The Listener letter and its signers. Now she calls for calm and reasoned debate:
The debate that initially started as about the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science in the secondary school curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand has intensified and extended over recent weeks, with a number of overseas commentators adding their opinions.
Unfortunately, the debate has descended into personal attacks, entrenched positions and deliberate misrepresentations of other people’s views, including my own. This important and topical debate deserves better than that.
I am calling for a return to a more respectful, open-minded, fact-based exchange of views on the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science, and I am committing the University to action on this.
In the first quarter of 2022 we will be holding a symposium in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully. I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.
I recognise it is a challenging and confronting debate, but one I believe a robust democratic society like ours is well placed to have.
In this commitment to action, I acknowledge the University of Auckland’s particular responsibilities in this debate as a custodian of academic freedom and free speech. Seven of our academics wrote the letter in good faith to The Listener in July 2021 that sparked the debate in the first place, and many of our academic experts have contributed to the discussion since then.
While the open-minded exchange of facts about “the relationship between mātauranga Māori and science” has potential to be a good debate, I am not optimistic. For one thing, the “indigenous way of knowing” can be slipperly, varying widely depending on who’s interpreting it. It would be lovely if they got Richard Dawkins to defend science along with some of the signers of the letter. And, as one of my Kiwi colleagues said, “I think this is good news, but productive discussion is unlikely unless [Freshwater] discourages the ongoing use of terms such as racism and cultural harm to describe those who challenge the notion of equivalence.”
Note that Freshwater criticizes the “personal attacks and misrepresentations” of views, including her own views. She was probably blindsided and stung by the response to her “politically correct” statement, not realizing that, to rational and science-minded folks, comparing mythology to science is like kicking a wasp’s nest. I am guessing that she’s ascribing the attacks and misstatements to the “science” side alone; if she didn’t mean that, she should have said that there was bad behavior on both sides. For example, here are two prominent academics who agree with Freshwater but who were not very polite. Joanna Kidman is a well known sociologist of Māori descent who is a full professor at Victoria University at Wellington, NZ. Note that “OWG” stands for “Old White Guy”. As a commenter below notes, this is ageist, racist, sexist, and probably ableist.
Richard Dawkins, OWG in excelsis, argues, with numerous factual errors about indigenous knowledge, that @royalsocietynz shouldn't follow up on complaints made about its fellows 😂 In other, related, news, OWG barks at moon. https://t.co/GSIRBddXRq
— Prof. Joanna Kidman (@JoannaKidman) December 8, 2021
Siouxie Wiles wasn’t very polite, either, characterizing her critics as “dinosaurs”. Wells is a British microbiologist and science communicator who is now a professor at Auckland and was named the 2021 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
I am listening to a talk by @WellingtonUni economist Peter Fraser & it is just the antidote I needed to all the emails I’m getting from the dinosaurs outraged by the fact that I have publicly supported my incredible Māori colleagues and their scholarship and world view.
— Dr Siouxsie Wiles (@SiouxsieW) December 7, 2021