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Educating New Zealand


The education system of New Zealand as it stands to-day is incomprehensible unless one bears ever in mind that it originated and developed in a British colony in the nineteenth century. England during this period was building up a national school system which provided an obvious model for Britons overseas; but although the English and the New Zealand systems still show strong resemblances they are now in some ways very different. Neither the resemblances nor the differences can be fully understood apart from the fundamental fact that New Zealand was a colony.

The psychology of colonisation has yet to be written, but anyone who has lived in a colony knows that life, instead of being, as one might expect, simpler than in the homeland, is in some respects more complex. There are, within any colony, certain internal strains that an old and culturally self-sufficient land is spared, strains that exist both in its group life and in the minds of its individual citizens. page 2Nowhere do these strains and consequent lines of cleavage show more clearly than in the education system. Ultimately the stresses come from a division of loyalties that reveals itself not only in the first generation but also, with somewhat weakened force, in their children and their children's children. The homeland continues to exercise an attraction that, in certain spheres, may far outweigh the effects of the new and different physical and social environment. The colonist does not instantaneously develop a new philosophy of education by crossing the Equator. He may, indeed, become thereby more than ever wedded to the old, for nostalgia is one of the dominant influences in his life, and, culturally and educationally, he is less interested in adapting himself to his new environment than in surrounding himself with the institutions and ideas that formed the background of existence in the homeland. Especially is he concerned to give his children an education that shall link them to the life he has known. Cultural continuity is to the colonist of even greater importance than practical adaptation.

This is the key to the understanding of colonial life. Without it one would judge the colonist to be even more inept than the rest of humanity in evolving social institutions organically related to the kind of life that is being led. Seen sympathetically, the colonist's desire to hedge himself around with a barrier of familiar social institutions is quite under-page 3standable, even when those institutions are ludicrously ill-adapted to their purpose in the new land. Thousands of miles from home, with the very heavens unfamiliar and the earth around an unexplored wilderness, the early colonists in New Zealand must have felt that their daily physical life provided them with enough adventure without their experimenting with new forms of social institution.* They were, after all, not professional adventurers like the early whalers and sealers, but law-abiding family men anxious to find in the new world the chances denied them in the old. If they could not surround themselves immediately with the flowers and trees and quiet hills of England, they could at least transplant the forms of social life with which they were familiar, and which they needed to assuage the homesickness that almost every colonist carries with him to the end. Just because they sought new worlds they did not necessarily seek a new way of life.

There is a simpler explanation than this of the conservatism of the colonist in the creating of his schools and other forms of social structure. It may be due in large part to sheer lack of imagination and to that inborn dislike of change that is found in all forms of human society. Yet one who knows colonial life page 4even in the second and third generations cannot but feel that there is more to it than this, that the mere passive dislike of change is not enough to explain the passionate intensity with which the colonist holds on to some of the forms and rituals of the old world, almost as if he were using them as a shield against the unknown. Whatever be the explanation, it cannot be gainsaid that the colonist has to face in a highly intensified form the problem that vexes all communities, the balancing of the traditional or historical principle against what one might loosely term the geographical principle of adaptation to changed, and changing, conditions of life.

These two principles find very different balances in different departments of colonial life. In the more immediately practical business of providing food, clothing, and shelter a fair degree of adaptation to local circumstances is necessary if life is to continue at all. The social and economic activities that are most closely tied up with the production of primary necessities will also depend in large part upon the geographical principle, but the form of social institutions, such as the education system, that are more remote from day-to-day necessities, may be determined almost entirely by the historical principle without involving any immediate breakdown of the social structure as a whole. The colonist-farmer who follows in the new land exactly the agricultural methods of the old will discover his mistake within a page 5season or two and will either take steps to adapt his methods to changed conditions or go bankrupt. As a farmer he must either adapt or die. So to a lesser degree must all the artisans, the builders of houses and roads, the makers of food and clothing. The cycle of activity is short, and failure shows quickly. With education it is very different: there is a time-lag of at least a generation, and even at the end of that time failure is not easily recognised, for the generation that must recognise it is itself the failure. So the education system can be one of the last parts of colonial life to adapt itself to the new land.

There is, of course, nothing new in this process of differential adaptation, which can be seen in any society. Its special significance in a colony follows from the fact that the change of physical environment is sudden instead of gradual, whilst the force of tradition may in some respects be strengthened by physical separation from the original model. The very desire to copy the homeland may cause the pioneer to lose effective touch with it, for he tends to ignore, even clamantly deny, the changes that have taken place since his departure. The homeland he copies may be the homeland of twenty years before, or even an idealised or never-existent land seen through the mist of the softening years. The workings of the geographical principle, especially through the growing efficiency of methods of communication, prevent this tendency from exercising its full effect, but twentieth-century page 6New Zealand still appreciably feels the pull of nineteenth-century England. Nowhere is this pull felt more strongly than in the education system.

Such is the thesis of this book: that the historical principle of maintaining cultural continuity played a greater part in forming the education system of New Zealand than did the geographical principle of adaptation to a new environment. It would be idle to press the matter further without examining the social and educational systems of the homeland from which the colonists came.

* FitzGerald, the Superintendent of Canterbury, could be quoted as an exception. Speaking on education at the first session of the Provincial Council, he said: 'It is your fortunate lot, Gentlemen, to enter upon this question unencumbered by such a conflict [as exists in the old country] between the ideas of the past and the necessities of the future. Whatever you recognise as theoretically right, it is in your power to carry into action.'