I’ve been describing the big kerfuffle in New Zealand (well, it’s not a huge kerfuffle as the Kiwi public seems to know little about it) involving whether mātauranga Māori, (henceforth MM), which loosely translates to “Māori ways of knowing,”. should be taught as science alongside modern science in both secondary-school; and college science classes. In the past two weeks, I’ve been reading up on these ways of “knowing”, trying to understand them and to figure out how they can (or should) be fit into a science curriculum. The more I read, the more puzzled I get about what exactly is going to be taught, but that’s no surprise since advocates of incorporating MM into science class are not specific about how and what will be taught. That’s important! There are FIVE questions I’ve had, and I’ll give some quotes below about the issues. At the end I’ll advance some tentative conclusions.
I’ve put references to the quotes as numbers, which you can consult at the bottom of this post.
WHAT IS MM? The definition of MM varies widely depending on what sources you read, but it can be regarded as a combination of theology, philosophy, mythology, morality, and a set of practical tools for how to get things done, both in the practical realm and in the human-relations realm. In quotes below, highlights (except the title are mine:
Mātauranga Māori Principle
This principle refers to the central value and recognition the University accords to Māori knowledges and ways of knowing. It refers also to the responsibility and honour we have as a knowledge institution to develop, nourish, protect, and help revitalise mātauranga, and to learn respectfully from Māori knowledge experts from the University as well as from communities outside the University.
For the purpose of this project, mātauranga Māori is defined as “the unique Māori way of viewing themselves and the world, which encompasses (among other things) Māori traditional knowledge and culture” (WAI262 p6).
Mātauranga Māori encompasses ancient knowledge of the human, natural and spirit worlds as well as modern and creative knowledge of these realms. It is knowledge developed collectively by Māori in the past, present and future. It refers not simply to knowledge but to ways of knowing.
Mātauranga Māori is a taonga, and as such requires protection. While iwi Māori are the primary kaitiaki of their knowledge, the University has an obligation to protect mātauranga Māori, and to provide a safe environment in which mātauranga can flourish. WAI 262 Waitangi Tribunal Report provides detail on the Crown’s kaitiakitanga obligations with regard to mātauranga. (Source 1.)
Note that MM incorporates “ancient knowledge of the spirit world?” Is that really knowledge? If so, why is it better and truer than the other “ways of knowing” of indigenous people throughout the world?
Mātauranga Māori is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of Te Taiao (the natural world), following a systematic methodology based on evidence, incorporating culture, values and world view. Pūrākau (traditional Māori narratives) and maramataka (the Māori calendar) comprise codified knowledge and include a suite of techniques empirical in nature for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, and updating and integrating previous knowledge. They can be both accurate and precise, as they incorporate critically verified knowledge, continually tested and updated through time. After their arrival in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu many centuries ago, Māori developed various forms of codifying knowledge – many based upon oral delivery – each with its own categories, style, complex patterns and characteristics. Whakapapa is the central principle that orders the universe, demonstrates an interconnectivity between everything, and is a cognitive genealogical framework connecting creation of the universe to everything that exists within it via descent from ancestors. (Source 2)
Mātauranga Māori is about a Māori way of being and engaging in the world – in its simplest form, it uses kawa (cultural practices) and tikanga (cultural principles) to critique, examine, analyse and understand the world.
It is based on ancient values of the spiritual realm of Te Ao Mārama (the cosmic family of the natural world) and it is constantly evolving as Māori continue to make sense of their human existence within the world.
Eminent Māori scholar Dr Charles Royal describes Mātauranga Māori in this way: ‘he whakaatu, he whakamārama hoki i ngā ahuatanga o te Ao. Mā reira e mōhio ai te tangata ki te Ao, e mātau ai hoki ia ki ētahi whainga, ki ētahi tikanga. He mea ako, he mea whangai’ (2008, p.37).
In short, Royal thinks about Mātauranga Māori as something that helps explain and enlighten us about different aspects of the world around us, and in that process, a person gets to know about and understand some of the different purposes and meanings, some of the different ways of learning about his/her world that can be transferred from one person to another. (Source 3)
More spirituality being dragged in.
IS MM SCIENCE?
I’ve read much more than the five references below, and it seems that MM is a gemisch of legend, mythology, oral tradition, morality, philosophy, theology, and practical knowledge. The latter, like learning how to navigate using the stars or how to catch eels, or how to judge which parts of the landscape will flood, are what I call “science construed broadly”. This knowledge (“practical knowledge”) is based on trial and error and a form of hypothesis testing—and can lead to empirical predictions. But the rest of MM, including its creationism, its reliance on gods, its spiritual and moral aspects, and its philosophy, are not science, but fall into other realms. If MM is to be folded together and taught as coequal to Western science, only the bits that are “science construed broadly” should be taught.
Hikuroa (reference 2) points out the differences between MM and science, and he appears to be an advocate for teaching MM:
Clearly there are significant similarities between mātauranga Māori and science. Specifically, pūrākau and maramataka comprise knowledge generated consistent with the scientific method. The critical difference is that mātauranga Māori includes values and is explained according to a Māori world view. Some other relevant differences are outlined in Table 1.
Mātauranga Māori is, first and foremost,mātauranga Māori, valid in its own right. Both mātauranga Māori and science are bodies of knowledge methodically created, contextualised within a world view. As demonstrated herein, some mātauranga Māori has been generated according to the scientific method, and can therefore be considered as science. While there are many similarities between mātauranga Māori and science, it is important that the tools of one are not used to analyse and understand the foundations of another (Hikuroa et al. 2011). Thus, mātauranga Māori is mātauranga Māori, scientific in part, and in the context of this special issue, extends the history of scientific endeavour back to when Māori arrived in Aotearoa and Te Wai Pounamu, many centuries ago.
Note the inclusion of values in MM, as well as the “everything that is interconnected” trope, a fuzzy concept at best. We also see spiritual in MM versus “physical stuff” in “science”. Tellingly, “intuition” as a method of knowing applies in MM, but not really in science: intuition isn’t a method, but sometimes a way of thinking of testable hypotheses. The explicit inclusion of creationism in MM but not in science (a creationism whose story varies from Maori tribe to tribe) makes an important part of MM totally inviable as something to be taught in science class.
Here’s an explanation by the Māori for the creation of humans, all of us descending from a primal couple:
In the New Zealand story, Tane took his daughter Hinetitama to wife in order that the human species might be continued. They had a daughter who was named Hinerauwharangi. She married Te Kawekairangi, but there is no explanation of how he had appeared on the scene so opportunely. Perhaps there was some adjacent Land of Nod after all. Be that as it may, the Matorohanga version gives human descent as continuing through this last pairing. A genealogical tree gives 28 generations from Hinerauwharangi to Ngatoroirangi, the priest of the Arawa canoe. Percy Smith has made the count from Tane and Hineahuone to approximately the year 1900 as 52 generations. Applying the time measure of 25 years to a generation and adding 50 years to bring it up to the present date, the genealogy reveals that the first human being was created about 1350 years ago, or in the year 600 A.D. The fact that the time is rather short does not render the genealogy less valuable to the person who can memorize and recite it.
This is far younger than Biblical young-earth creationism—it’s the creation of humans 1.3 millennia ago!
Some advocates of MM say that the mythological/spiritual part of MM can also be interpreted literally to comport with science, for example, the single set of primal parents in the creation myth has led some to say that this buttresses evolution and genetics, because it shows that all of us are related.
The way people refute the idea that MM is “just myths” (it isn’t all myths, but includes myths), is also demonstrated by Hikuroa:
Pūrākau are a traditional form of Māori narrative, containing philosophical thought, epistemological constructs, cultural codes and world views (Lee 2009). Pūrākau are an integral part of mātauranga Māori and were deliberate constructs employed to encapsulate and condense into easily understood forms, Māori views of the world, of ultimate reality and the relationship between the atua (deities), the universe and humans (Marsden 2003). In traditional Māori society, pūrākau were fundamental to understanding the world. This is contrary to the widespread belief in the science and wider community that the numerous collections of pūrākau (e.g. Reed 2011) are just myths, ancient legends, incredible stories and folklore. Pūrākau explained as myths invalidate Māori ontological and epistemological constructs of the world, and pūrākau understood as just ‘stories’ is an inadequate explanation of the importance of pūrākau in teaching, learning and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge (Lee 2008).
This reminds me of “scientific creationism” in the U.S., in which legend is said to presage later scientific findings. A frequent example used to defend MM is the legend of a giant water-dwelling lizard in New Zealand valley who flicked its tail back and forth, said to explain the floods in that valley that kept the Māori from building their sacred areas there. Like Augustine and Aquinas, who had both a literal and metaphorical interpretation of Scripture, this appears to apply to MM as well: if MM advocates can squeeze legends into the Procrustean bed of science, it supposedly demonstrates that MM is science.
One more bit from reference 3:
Mātauranga Māori provides insight into different perspectives about knowledge and knowing. The Māori epistemological penchant for trying to understand the connections and relationships between all things human and non-human first, ‘what is its whakapapa?’ provides a contrast to the western paradigm that tries to seek knowledge and understanding by a close and deep examination of something or someone in isolation first, ‘what does it/he/she do? What is it for?’
An initial question is, ‘who or what is this thing I am seeing in this world and how do I relate to it?’ Western knowledge’s initial question is, ‘what is the role that this person or thing has?’ In summary, the emphasis on the human element and the impact on the human element differentiates a Mātauranga Māori approach from a Western Pākehā approach. (Source 3)
One could be excused from conflating this kind of MM with modern New Age philosophies in the West.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH TEACHING MODERN SCIENCE? Advocates of MM characterize Western science as white supremacist and colonial, and find it deficient in the spiritual and moral aspects of MM. There are other issues as well—things about modern science said to be a problem. This is from reference 4:
Simplified versions of science taught in schools are collectively known as ‘school science’ in which the big three (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) still reign as specialised subjects in the last two years of the school curriculum. These simplified versions plus the quasi-religious devotion to an outdated ‘lockstep’ version of scientific method add up to a simplistic model of science taught in school that bears very little likeness to the diverse milieus of contemporary working science and scientists (Aikenhead, 2000). The conservatism and resistance to change of school science curricula has been documented for many years (Blades, 1997). It is reasonable to argue that school science must of necessity be simplified by comparison with the real world of working science. But textbook presentations of science also tend to the triumphalist, promoting the successes of science but omitting to mention its failures and disgraces (Ninnes & Burnett, 2001). Distorted textbook versions of science must be considered ideological, although the relevant intentions and effects form complex chains of power, difficult to discern.
Secondary science teachers may believe that teaching science through the scientific method aligns with tertiary science education, making a strong rationale for them to reject the proposed changes. But this belief is flawed on two grounds: first, since contemporary philosophy of science accepts that there is no one ‘scientific method’ (Okasha, 2016); and second, because tertiary science educators are also under pressure to introduce Māori knowledge into their curricula, and may well expect their secondary school colleagues to share this responsibility. The next section considers how science teachers could respond to the challenge represented by these changes in relation to each of the three Māori concepts in the titles shown above.
If school kids are taught that there is a single “scientific method”, as implied above, then that’s wrong. As I note in Faith Versus Fact, the practice of science itself is a toolkit with many tools, includng observation, consensus, predictions, hypothesis-testing, experiments, falsification, and so on. Not all of these tools need be used in any scientific endeavor. As Feyerabend said, “Anything goes”—so long as “anything” involves some of the tools of science. But teaching science is far more than just teaching the methods scientists use: it also involves imparting a body of knowledge to students, and, at higher levels, answering the question, “How did we come to know that?” What is evolution? How do we know it’s true? What happens when chemical bonds are formed? Why do we find marine fossils at high altitudes? And so on and so on. . . . Does MM provide ways to answer those questions that differ from the ways of modern science?
As for the conclusion that science is white supremacist and colonial, I reject it. Yes, science was used in some cases to colonize (invention of weapons and so on), just as architecture and chemistry helped the Nazis build gas chamber to gas Jews. But all that means is that some scientists used their knowledge in damaging ways. It does not mean that science itself is colonialist. The “whiteness” of science reflects that modern science was developed largely by white people–and mostly male. But whether something is true doesn’t depend on the race or gender of who finds it and, thankfully, scientists are becoming much more diverse. Are Asian scientists practicing white supremacy?
SHOULD MM BE TAUGHT IN SCIENCE CLASSES? My answer is, “by and large, no“, because much of MM is not based on science and the methods of MM are not the methods of science. It would simply confuse students to learn two incompatible ways of knowing, for that results in incompatible “facts” (e.g., creationism and evolution) presented as coequal.
This does not mean that the “science construed broadly” of MM—the practical knowledge that helped the Māori thrive and survive, shouldn’t be incorporated into science class. It’s good to do this not just to help Māori connect with modern science, but to show Kiwis that part of the indigenous people with whom they rub elbows were skillful in empirical endeavors using a form of science. But MM should surely NOT be taught as coequal to modern science in schools, and MM should occupy only a small part of science classes. MM, by and large should be reserved for courses on culture, anthropology, and sociology.
Elizabeth Rata (reference 5) has shown some of the deleterious effects that occur when MM replaces science (Rata, a Professor of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland, was one of the signers of the original letter in The Listener):
Curriculum design in New Zealand’s bicultural context tends to favour sociocultural knowledge at the expense of academic knowledge. Here are two illustrative examples. The first is from a study of Māori teachers’ classroom practices (Lynch, 2017). The teachers had benefitted from an academic education themselves and intended this for their own children. However, in line with bicultural policy, they teach a sociocultural curriculum to their Māori students. The social studies teacher has replaced history and geography with kapa haka (traditional Māori dancing and chanting) to ‘provide students with an opportunity to learn… through a Māori lens’ (p. 56). Another teacher rejected the idea of educational success, calling it ‘white success’ and in opposition to succeeding ‘as Māori’ (p. 60). The second example is from the media (Collins, 2020). According to a school principal, the ‘dangers of prescribing a powerful knowledge curriculum’ are because it ‘is about whose knowledge’. A ‘Eurocentric’ approach is ‘a colonial tool of putting old western knowledge ahead of indigenous communities’.
WHY THE BIG PUSH, THEN, TO TEACH MM AS COEQUAL WITH MODERN SCIENCE? Everybody knows the answer to this, but dare not say so because it’s the Elephant in the Room. The Māori are being catered to because they were (truly) an oppressed group, and, as reparations, their culture is being valorized—including arguing that MM is science. Further, it’s said that teaching MM will enable young Māori to connect better with science and thus become scientists who will join other working scientists in New Zealand. And yes, Māori are owed a form of reparations and certainly equal treatment morally and legally. But this should not include teaching non-science as science and pretending that the non-science is science. It failed with Biblical “scientific creationism”, and it will fail with MM, except for the parts of MM that are scientific.
Nevertheless, MM will be taught in schools and colleges as a form of science. You don’t have to read much about government and academic initiatives to know that this movement is unstoppable. New Zealand, in this respect, is the wokest of all Western nations, for it’s the only such country willing to corrupt science in the service of equity. I pity the country, I pity its science teachers, and, above all, I pity the children who are bound for a confusing education in science, depriving them of all the wonder and glory of real science. I love New Zealand and its people, but they are being divided along racial lines the same way that we are in America.
Further parallels with the U.S. are palpable. The push for teaching MM is part of the extreme Leftist attack on modern science, propelled by a combination of postmodernism and a desire to dismantle the meritocracy. For science is perhaps the most meritocratic of academic disciplines, since everybody can check on whether you’ve had a good idea that produces truth.
REFERENCES (links are given to all publicly available documents).
1.) “Pūtoi Ako”, internal document of the Curriculum Transformation Programme of Auckland University
2.) Hikuroa, D. 2017. Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand. Jour. Roy. Soc. New Zealand. 47:5-10.
3.) Kia Eke Panuku organization. Undated. Mātauranga Māori. Online at https://kep.org.nz/assets/resources/site/Voices7-16.Matauranga-Maori.pdf
4.) Tuari Stewart, G. and A,. Tedoldi. 2021. Bringing Māori concepts into school science: NCEA. Access: Contemporary Issues in Education. 41:77-81.
5.) Rata, E. M. 2021. Curriculum design in a bicultural context. Research Intelligence. 148:22-23.