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Educating New Zealand

6 — Conclusion

page 181


New Zealand can claim to have built up during her first hundred years one of the most democratic school systems in the world? If she has not obliterated what have been called 'the vulgar irrelevances of class inequality and economic pressure', she has certainly got rid of the worst of them. Except in the minds of a very small minority, public education has long ceased to be regarded as an inferior substitute for the real thing; and nobody finds himself handicapped in adult life because he has attended a school maintained out of public funds. Parental income is still one of the main factors determining the amount of schooling a child receives, and a democracy cannot rest satisfied so long as some children leave school for good at thirteen or fourteen and so long as the professions requiring prolonged full-time training at the university are largely recruited from a restricted social group that has no monopoly of talent. Nevertheless, the policy of easy access to post-primary and higher education combined page 182with the comparative evenness of the distribution of the national income results in a fairly close approximation to real equality of educational opportunity. The Dominion has also made a very resolute attempt to even up educational opportunities as between town and country: the consolidation of schools, transport services, boarding bursaries, and the correspondence school are only parts of an elaborate organisation designed to achieve this end. Few countries, if any, have done more to place rural and urban children on the same footing? To this it should be added that our education system has known comparatively little of the grosser forms of inefficiency.' One result of all this is that the general level of knowledge in New Zealand is unusually high; another that we have largely broken down the barriers of speech that traditionally separated the educated minority from the uneducated mass.

If these are our greatest virtues, our greatest vice has been the tendency to mechanise and externalise the educational process, to sacrifice the imponderables of spirit and personality to lesser things. Our history bristles with examples at every stage from the primary school to the university. The root of the trouble has been that the demand for an open road for talents has not been linked in the public mind with any clear and compelling idea of the civilising function of education. As a people, we have been sufficiently democratic to make schooling pretty freely available, page break
Haymaking at an Agricultural High School

Haymaking at an Agricultural High School

Bus Transport For School Children

Bus Transport For School Children

page 183but insufficiently enlightened to insist on, and pay for, a 'complete and generous education'. Individualism, pioneer concern with tangible results, and the colonial habit of regarding culture as something to be merely 'preserved' have all driven the one way. The consequence is that education in New Zealand has, on the whole, probably been thinner in quality, and less adventurous in spirit, than in the homeland. Writing in 1930, J. B. Condliffe concluded that a 'lack of experiment, of freshness, of variety of approach and of creative thought' in education had resulted in a stereotyped uniformity of citizenship and a dearth of initiative and leadership, and turned New Zealand into 'the paths of satisfied mediocrity and provincialism'. Condliffe almost certainly over-estimates the influence of formal schooling, which is only one of the many experiences that shape the mind and temper of a nation; otherwise it is impossible to dissent very much from his judgment.

Against this background, the developments of the past five years take on the appearance of a renaissance. Educational problems are being tackled with a new confidence in our power to work out our own salvation, and the lack of stimulation from which education in New Zealand has suffered so much has never been less evident. Not since the days of Hogben has there been a comparable effort to change the orientation of the schools; and at no previous time has there been such a crop of new ventures. The movement page 184has to contend on the one hand with the formal traditions that are still deep-seated in the public and professional mind and on the other with sentimentalised perversions of its real aims. What direction it will ultimately take, whether it will slacken or gather pace, whether its effects will be fundamental or superficial, what forces will help or hinder it—these are questions for the educational historian of the future.