I’ve often written about how New Zealand’s government and school authorities are determined to teach the indigenous way of knowing,”Mātauranga Māori (“MM”), which I’ve often discussed, as coequal to modern science in science classes. While many (like me) maintain that MM should be taught in sociology or anthropology classes as an important part of national culture, I vehemently object to it being taught as coequal to modern science.
That’s because MM, though some of the entire system contains “practical knowledge” taken from observation and trial and error, also contains many things that aren’t science-y at all: ideology, morality, religion, legend and superstition. Teaching the two systems as coequal would not only confuse students about what science is, but also confer coequality where it isn’t warranted. Even if you just teach the parts of MM that encompass practical knowledge, it’s important to show how this differs from the systematic methods and tools used by modern science to find truth. The efforts of the NZ government and schools will, in the end, doom science in New Zealand. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is my worry
(I’ll add that MM advocates, when they claim empirical knowledge, often do so unscientifically. Their remedies are often untested, and, regarding history they have claimed, falsely, that the Polynesians, ancestors of the Māori were the discoverers of Antarctica in the 7th century AD. [see also here]. This is untrue, and based on both legend and a mistranslation; Antarctica was first seen by the Russians in 1820.)
Because equating MM with other “ways of knowing” like modern science is a way of valorizing the indigenous people, and because there’s no government more “progressive” (in the pejorative sense) than New Zealand’s, efforts by me and others to stop the impending dilution of science with MM are almost surely doomed. It’s even worse, for criticizing what the government is doing is seen as anti-Māori racism. It’s not: it’s just distinguishing between a real way of knowing and a dubious “way of knowing”. As preacher Mike Aus said after he publicly renounced his faith at an FFRF meeting,
“There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.”
Thus, critics of teaching indigenous ways of knowing in science class critics are forced to shut up, for raising one’s voice not only leads to pile-ons and petitions, but has actually cost teachers their jobs. Today I’m posting a letter written by a critical teacher who dares not give their name for fear of being fired, but who’s sufficiently courageous to let their views be known, including a letter they wrote about the MM/science controversy to various government ministers (all anonymously, of course, as this person wants to keep their job!). The teacher was disturbed at a government lesson plan to equate modern science with Māori empirical knowledge, and I also show a bit of that lesson plane.
So. . . .
A friend of mine in New Zealand got a letter from a secondary school teacher who went to a meeting in they were given proposed government curriculum for integrating modern science (which they call “Western science”, abbreviated “WS”) with the indigenous “way of knowing”. The curriculum, which you can have by emailing me, is for “year 9” students, who are 13 years old.
The curriculum tries (but fails) to take the superstition out of MM, so that the part of MM that’s supposedly co-taught with “western science” is actually “Mātauranga Pūtaiao” (“MP”)—practical knowledge related to the natural world. The plan, an outline of the future curriculum from which I’ve taken excerpts, demands that we must consider MP equivalent to Western science (though they’re also claimed to be different in ways that aren’t explained). As you’ll see, though, they haven’t managed to keep the numinous bits out of MP, and they don’t attempt to show what’s unique about MP as opposed to WS.
Everything below is reproduced with the permission of the principals, and, as I said, I will be glad to send you the whole curriculum plan—an 11-page pdf—if you want to see it.
Here’s what the teacher wrote to my friend, who then forwarded the teacher’s letter to me with permission to see it and reproduce it here.
I have attached a curriculum unit plan to this email that was distributed last week to school teachers in my region during a teacher-only day dedicated to the curriculum re-alignment. It illustrates how a typical school is attempting to integrate mātauranga Māori in the science curriculum. Rather distressingly, it is quite political in how it presents the relationship of science to mātauranga Māori.
I have also included a letter I have written to government ministers that illustrates the potential for confusion to occur when local schools are left to interpret the implications of such integration without authoritative guidance from the Ministry of Education. I have written this anonymously, both for the benefit of the school from which the document originates as well as for the sake of my own career as a teacher. Within the teaching profession, there is considerable confusion over what mātauranga Māori is and how it relates to science.
Finally, here’s the letter the teacher wrote to government ministers (bolding is the teacher’s). It’s quite eloquent and clear.
I am a science teacher writing from a regional city on the South Island. This past week, my colleagues and I attended a government-funded day of professional development, the purpose of which was to discuss the re-alignment of the new NCEA science curriculum with other teachers from the region. Among the topics discussed were mātauranga Māori and its integration into the science curriculum. As part of this discussion, the host school that was facilitating the meeting distributed resources outlining how they were teaching (or intended to teach) mātauranga Māori and science. I have included a copy of the unit plan that was distributed during the meeting to illustrate the concerns I will outline below. Of particular interest is how the realignment of the curriculum could enable epistemic relativism to be introduced into what should be a world-leading system of publicly-funded education. The highly decentralized nature of the NZ education system, coupled with the vague wording of the proposed curriculum by the Ministry of Education, introduces the possibility that local schools will ultimately be left to devise science programs based on faulty premises and questionable interpretations of the relationship of mātauranga Māori to science. I have attached the unit plan presented by the host school of this meeting as evidence of this potential.
First among my concerns is the presentation of science in this school’s unit plan as a “western” knowledge system. This is peculiar (to say the least), given that science is a global endeavor drawing on a toolkit with contributors from many cultures and ages. To call science a “western” knowledge system is to ignore the contributions of many cultures from places such as India, the middle-east, China, and the Maori themselves. For example, Arabic and Indian scholars made fundamental contributions to the development of mathematics, which is the decision-making language of science. Labeling science as “western” makes as much sense as dividing mathematics into categories of “Arabic,” “Chinese,” or “Roman.” It may be true that over the past century many contributions to science have originated from a few countries in the so-called “west;” but that point has more to do with economic forces and the vagaries of historical chance, rather than cultural “ownership” over a methodology. Moreover, the Māori themselves used aspects of science (observation, pattern-seeking) as part of their exploration of Aotearoa [JAC: the Māori word for New Zealand]. Why can’t we simply celebrate the varied contributions of humanity to science and our knowledge of the natural world, rather than create an ideological division that does not exist in the first place?
The unit plan also makes the claim that both “knowledge systems” have equal authority. Again, this statement is based on a faulty premise and false dichotomy. To teach children that science is a “western” knowledge system is to undermine the idea of what science is. Ultimately, science is a collection of methodological tools and approaches that allow us to reliably distinguish and relate cause, effect, and chance. Put simply, science has predictive power in how humans relate to the natural world. In everyday life, no one practicing science (or using its products) cares about cultural attribution or the so-called “knowledge system” it arose from. If an idea or technique works in practice and has predictive power, it is accepted as part of our understanding of the natural world. To take an example from history: Polynesian, European, or Chinese sailors from centuries ago would no doubt have told us that there are two types of navigation: the sort that gets you where you are going and the sort that gets you dead. No one cared where your technique came from: if it worked, it was adopted. Categorically, scientific knowledge is either descriptive of our objective reality or it is not.
I would also draw your attention to the first lesson in the attached unit plan, whose focus is the subject of Maori gods and “their powers.” Now, I assume that this is a lesson on how people in the past have explained natural phenomena by appealing to supernatural explanations. As mātauranga Māori is a living knowledge system and is intended to be taught within the science curriculum, it no doubt has replaced such concepts with ideas based on naturalistic explanations. However, I cannot confirm this because the Ministry of Education has not provided teachers with an authoritative reference on how these two systems are similar or different. The document presented by our meeting facilitator claims that no one system has “authority.” If that is the case, science teachers need a clearly articulated vision of how these differences are to be taught in the classroom.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. I am sending you this letter and the attached example from a local school’s curriculum to illustrate the potential for confusion that has arisen from the inclusion of mātauranga Maori in the science curriculum. Is the Ministry of Education intending to publish and distribute a detailed and authoritative guide on how schools should integrate mātauranga Maori in relation to science? As illustrated by the material presented at the meeting I recently attended, there is considerable potential for disagreement without ministry guidance.I would ask that you raise this issue with the Minister of Education as a matter of urgency given the proposed timeline for the implementation of the new curriculum. Both teachers and students deserve clarity and a set of authoritative guidelines on how mātauranga Maori and science are to be taught together. Without such guidelines, teachers will be left to interpret how these systems relate and how to teach them as a single subject (as illustrated by the example unit plan I have attached to this letter).
It is unfortunate that I must write to you anonymously. In the present climate, my intent could be misconstrued or mischaracterized if I were to put my name to this letter. Furthermore, my career as a teacher could suffer if I were to air these concerns publicly.
A concerned teacher
Below are a few screenshots from the 11-page proposed document.
Here’s how the lesson starts: a “warm up activity” that teaches the 13 years old about “the Maori Gods and their powers”. Are they going to mention that there’s no evidence for the existence of these gods? If not, then they shouldn’t be mentioned, for this is not science but religion. But of course they won’t do that. Thus the confusion between MM and science starts at the outset of the course. Do they warm up the students by teaching about the “Western gods and their powers.” Of course not! Science is a godless activity, so get this stuff out of the curriculum!
Part of the level 3 assessment on page 10 says: “Understands that Māori have always been scientists, and that MP and WS are different.” Are Māori unique in this regard, i.e., did they alone among indigenous peoples came up with science, or does this apply to all indigenous people? The former is rather racist, while the second dilutes science to only that derived from observing the natural environment.
Note as well that they explain differences and similarities between science and the empirical bits of MM, but don’t say what those similarities and differences are. Further, they don’t explain “the importance of multiple perspectives.” Any perspective that is empirically correct is part of science. And just as not all “westerners” aren’t scientists, so not all Māori are scientists. This is gobbledygook in the cause of inclusion.
Week 5 includes the story of Maui and Aoraki, although it looks like the Youtube video link no longer works. The tale of Maui and Aoraki is in fact the creation myth of the Māori , describing how two of the several gods created the North and South Islands. Why is this in the curriculum? Is the curriculum also going to describe the Western Biblical creation myth as outlined in Genesis, complete with God, Adam, Eve, and a talking serpent?
“Whakapapa” is a numinous concept that relates to the connection of all things, both earthly and spiritual. That, too, doesn’t belong in a “science” curriculum, but in an anthropology class.
Below we see again the flat assertion—one that the teacher emphasizes above—that WS and MP, though not exactly the same (they don’t say how), are of equal “authority and status”. Can you imagine half of a 9th-form science class devoted to all of modern science, and the other half devoted to MP, which includes things like Polynesian navigation (not a Māori development) and when, exactly, the Maori pick their berries and catch their eels? Yes, the latter bits are “empirical knowledge” deriving from trial and error, but to give these things authority equal to all of modern physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics is a fool’s errand. But such is the government of New Zealand, heavily “progressive” and pressured by the Māori and their sympathizers to give local ways of knowing a status equal to what “Western” science has given us in the last four centuries. This includes the claim that untested remedies involving herbs and spiritual chanting are just as good as modern medicine (see here, here, and here). (I hate using the words “Western” science, as the term is meant to denigrate modern science by implying it’s a “colonialist” enterprise.)
Have a look. If you want the entire curriculum (and some of it is okay), email me.
I feel sorry for nearly everyone involved in this sad tale: the New Zealand government, in thrall to the indigenous people to the extent that it will destroy science education; the Māori themselves, who will be given not only a false view of science but an education that will hold them back; the teachers, forced to teach ludicrous propositions and must keep their mouths shut about it; and all the people of New Zealand, who will be shorted on science education. In the end, that will hold science back in one of the countries I love the most. And that is ineffably sad.