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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

An American Looks at New Zealand

An American Looks at New Zealand

This essay was first published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, December 1960, as a review of David P. Ausubel's The Fern and the Tiki (Angus & Robertson 1960).

page 85


Any intelligent and well-meaning criticism of New Zealand attitudes and behaviour is to be welcomed, and Dr Ausubel took on a formidable job when he thought to storm the fortress of our complacent uneasiness—how formidable is apparent in the unfair newspaper reviews his book has already received.

Dr Ausubel begins by noting a number of contradictions in the behaviour of New Zealand pakehas, for example the casualness of adult relations in contrast to the strictness in rearing children, the history of bold experimentation in social legislation in contrast to the timid conformism of opinion on social questions. By observation, by interviews formal and informal, and by the use of personality tests (they are not described but presumably they were designed for this special purpose) he set out to investigate these paradoxes. It is not possible to give an adequate summary of his findings, but it is particularly desirable that a small island population of predominantly homogeneous ancestry, living in the South Pacific in the twentieth century, should consider them. Even if one has reservations about Dr Ausubel's social philosophy, that the 'real battle of life' is 'vocational achievement and personal self-fulfilment' (p. 51), the criticisms cannot be ignored.

The national self-image, as Dr. Ausubel sees it, is of a people reserved and modest, easy-going and friendly, practical and adaptable, forthright but courteous. But in fact and in contrast he found us reserved and introverted, hostile to strangers, touchy in our interpersonal relations, contentious on committees, intemperate in the correspondence column, maudlin In Memoriam, prickly under criticism, assertively egalitarian page 86 in principle but in practice both deferential and secretly resentful towards authority. We are hostile to the intellect; we are lackadaisical in our attitudes towards work, having neither ambition, efficiency, enterprise nor foresight; we reserve our best energy for sport and for home jobs. Our smugness about our place in the world, about our educational system, our standards of public health and our standard of living are not in fact justified, and, further, it covers a sense of insecurity and a sense of international insignificance of which we prefer not to be reminded and which we conspire to ignore.

Now all of this is true, but much of it has been said before. I find it hard to believe that Dr Ausubel, whose coverage of New Zealand habits was so wide, should have been unaware of an essay by R. M. Chapman and another by myself,1 both of which describe and criticise the behaviour and assumptions of the New Zealand pakeha. He might have found too, that, less explicitly, some of his criticisms have been anticipated in New Zealand verse and fiction for the past 30 years. If he had consulted this literature he might have been able to use the introspective insights of the native social critic to reinforce the insights special to a trained psychologist from a different and more complex society. He might have been able to detect blind spots in the assumptions of the native critics and advanced the criticism a stage further. He might also have found clues to the discrepancies in national behaviour that could have saved him from some of the more unfortunate errors into which he is led by his assumption that he is first in the field.

It is of course a criticism of pakeha New Zealanders that they could not respond to Dr Ausubel's comments and questions without a mixture of defensiveness and aggressiveness, often anti-American; but it is unfortunate that their response should generate in a trained psychologist the occasional tone of rancour that spoils Dr Ausubel's criticisms. It has led him too into unnecessary self-justification and advocacy of the superiority of American behaviour and into a tendency to repeat himself: for example there are four occasions on which he mentions, not without resentment, that many New Zealanders think of most American schools as blackboard jungles.

In many places his interpretations are hasty and wrong, and it is here that he has laid himself open to the unfair strategies of journalist-reviewers who have simply lifted sentences from their context with little more comment than an exclamation mark. For example it is not generally true that pakeha New Zealanders think that American culture and public taste are inferior; it is not unexceptionally true that they are always careful to list their degrees and qualifications (p. 10)—as, to score a cheap point, Dr Ausubel himself does on his title-page; or that a student at a New Zealand university has to be over-polite in disagreeing with his professor if he wants to obtain his degree (p. 20); or that he has to 'knock timidly on his professor's door' and 'wait quietly, cap in hand' and 'act the part of humility and deference once admitted' (p. 113). Few New Zealand students page 87 wear caps and if they did, where else could they carry them but in their hands? Do American students keep theirs on? If Dr Ausubel is figuratively describing a mental, rather than a physical, attitude, then I can only say it is not my experience with students. It seems that Dr Ausubel's partisan spirit has disabled him from distinguishing between servility and good manners. One might reasonably suspect from his remarks on this point that there is a difference between an American university student's attitude to his teacher and that of a New Zealand student, but Dr Ausubel has not defined that difference. It would have helped his case if he had.

Again, Dr Ausubel shows confusion on the question of the state and status of New Zealand universities, a confusion which is all the more surprising when one recalls that he was in New Zealand at the time of considerable public debate on the question. It is true, as he says, that university teachers devote more time to teaching than to research, but it is not true that this reflects their 'inclination' and 'conception of university role' (p. 65). The fact is directly due to understaffing, and university teachers are very much aware that they should be free to give more time to research.

There are examples of reporting so inaccurate as to be misleading. Commenting on press reports of guest speeches to meetings of professional societies, he says: 'Suggestions and hypotheses are misreported as assertions and conclusions; and "possibly" and "sometimes" are changed to "definitely" and "always".' If in the second clause Dr Ausubel had added the phrase 'by implication', I would have agreed wholeheartedly; but the suggestion is that the press reports of such meetings are not only misleading but cynically doctored; and Dr Ausubel has, not by implication but by assertion, been guilty of the very fault of which he accuses the press. In his discussion of secondary school discipline he treats 'strap' and 'cane' as equivalent. His definition of a bodgie on p. 131 is arbitrary and so is his classification of 'four main types of rebellious teen-agers' on pp. 133-4. He is infected himself with some of the Mazengarb Committee hysteria when he says that Hamilton, Whanganui and Whakatane are 'currently plagued by bodgieism and larrikinism' (p. 131). There may or may not be an increase in juvenile crime in these towns: from a social scientist one expects language both dispassionate and precise.

Dr Ausubel traces many of our peculiarities to the authoritarian discipline of the secondary schools, which, he says, strikes pupils as arbitrary, tyrannical and unrelated to the standards of conduct they know they can expect to live by when they leave school, and so fails completely to develop self-discipline, creating an unwholesome adolescent hostility towards adults and the public attitudes they profess but do not observe. He lays so much stress on it that he imputes to it these consequences: 'unsigned letters to the press; discourtesy towards those authority figures who currently lack specific power to punish such behaviour; participation in immoderate and personally abusive public debate; extreme contentiousness page 88 and unnecessary bickering about trivia in various public and quasi-public bodies; lack of graciousness in personal and professional relationships; resentful and punitive attitudes towards youth; antagonistic attitudes towards foreigners; competitive automobile driving; brash and swaggering drinking habits and a fondness for rowdy, drunken parties; and anti-intellectualism and indiscriminate egalitarianism' (p. 114). The list is so extensive that he feels it necessary to correct himself in a footnote explaining that these traits of behaviour (which I in no way question) may be caused by a number of factors.

The single explanation to which his partisan spirit has led him will not suffice, even to explain the current increase in adolescent hostility to adult institutions and traditions. In every case of delinquency some enquiry into the individual's relations with his parents, attitudes to learning, scholastic and sporting achievements and social status among his peers is more than a little relevant to establishing a cause. Further Dr Ausubel shows no understanding of the fact that the strict school discipline has to be seen in a historical context of a sudden increase (since 1945, when the school leaving age was raised to 15) in secondary school populations, so that, as Phoebe Meikle has recently said, the secondary schools have had only a short experience in dealing with pupils of all ranges of ability, and of a concurrent desperate shortage of teachers, with a consequence of oversize classes.2

By implication at least, Dr Ausubel claims that his case rests on his 'particular background and training, as a psychologist especially concerned with problems of education, the development of personality, and social relationships' (p. vii). One would reasonably infer a claim to objectivity based on the research methods appropriate to a sociological investigation. But, as they are presented, Dr Ausubel's judgements are subjective and impressionistic. This is not to assert that they are not supported with instances or that he has not observed extensively and, where his own predilections are not involved, objectively. It means that it is impossible to offer such comprehensive interpretations as Dr Ausubel does without a bold reliance on intuition. I do not object to this, provided that the work is openly presented as such, and provided that the observer recognises than an outsider's intuitions are less reliable than those of the native critic, that his special advantage is not intuition but non-involvement, and that intuition is most unreliable to an observer who spends only a year in the field and covers so wide a field in that year.

One illustration will serve. On p. 75, in a context of a defence of the conduct of American servicemen in New Zealand during the war, Dr Ausubel writes:

'. . . I have seen groups of New Zealand sportsmen, not bodgies, assembled in a certain North Island town for a sports meeting, behave very loutishly in public, i.e. push people off the footpaths, torment page 89 Chinese merchants, ridicule old Maori women, shout obscene remarks at strangers, and make advances to and fondle women passers-by in the street. Yet most spectators were thoroughly amused and thought this was quite normal behaviour for the occasion.'

I want to subject this statement to some scrutiny. As one who has commented before on the willingness with which pakeha New Zealanders violate the morality they profess, I can accept that every attitude represented by the behaviour Dr Ausubel describes is true. Yet I find it hard to envisage the scene without providing details whose absence (to my mind) seriously affects the reliability of the description. My first reaction was to want to know what town? what sport? what particular sports meeting? Did the 'sportsmen' physically shove people off the footpath or did they just stand there so that they had to walk on the road? How did they 'torment' the Chinese merchants, physically, verbally or by facial or vocal mockery?—and for how long? Was each merchant tormented by one sportsman or more than one, and if so, how many? On further reflection I found what I think might be the clue: that it was not the players themselves who indulged in this behaviour, but their supporters, perhaps a whole train-load of them from another town, come to barrack at an inter-provincial rugby match, holding a Saturday-morning demonstration behind their mascot; in carnival spirit (and probably away from home) their saturnalia took the form of aggressive and mock-serious persecution of strangers and people of minority cultures—which they themselves (and local spectators conniving) would see as no more than good-humoured baiting. If my reconstruction is right, it is an alarming symptom of our psychic health (more alarming than the recent Hastings affair) that a semi-institutionalised holiday from our professed moral code should release so much contempt for human decency and dignity; and we need to be told so. But I am not sure that I haven't filled out the picture too much. And my questions have still not been answered. Few New Zealand readers will have given Dr Ausubel's statement the scrutiny I have given it, in order to extract the valuable criticism that underlies it. If Dr Ausubel had been here longer he wouldn't have confused sportsmen with supporters. If he had provided important details and removed the criticism from its partisan context, he might have had the effect he so clearly desires—to shock pakeha New Zealanders out of their complacency into critical self-scrutiny. It is a recurring fault of this book that its author spoils his own case.

I began by thinking that these objections were minor; that it was more important to consider Dr Ausubel's main criticisms and to count his misjudgements as marginal, but now I think that they are consequent on his method. He has been too quick off the press. A year was long enough to observe the paradoxes in the behaviour of the pakeha New Zealander and to describe his real image as distinct from his self-image; but the time page 90 that passed between field-work and publication was not long enough for Dr Ausubel to do more than organise his material and process it into a number of general findings partly based on improvised intuition. What is missing is the more profound mental effort that would have followed up his intuitions and tested them against further data from the field. Dr Ausubel needed to stay longer in New Zealand if his criticisms were to have that kind of percipience and aptness that is incontrovertible. If, after testing his guesses against further evidence, he had explored them further, or revised them, or both, he might have found deeper explanations than he provides. As he leaves us, the paradoxes—which are undeniable—are not satisfactorily explained. In the last analysis the most valuable part of this section of the book is the list of discrepancies, and its value for the sociologist is that it points general directions where some careful and objective research might be done. In fact, it is arguable that future visiting research psychologists and sociologists will find more formidable material in New Zealand pakehas than in the compatriots whom they more frequently come to study.


By far the best section of the book is the two chapters on race relations. Here Dr Ausubel has been more fortunate in his informants, both Maoris with their traditional courtesy, and pakehas, since there are few subjects on which a New Zealand pakeha is so willing to pronounce, often without knowledge, as what he probably calls 'the Maori problem'. Dr. Ausubel conducted extended and informal interviews with 'hundreds of Maoris and pakehas in all walks of life and in a large variety of North Island districts' (p. 152). He does not claim that his findings are representative (pp. 152, 171) or that he can determine the proportions of some of the expressed pakeha attitudes to the Maori. Nevertheless, he has presented a wide (and probably complete) range of such attitudes, and most New Zealand readers will have met some of them in their own experience. I can confirm, from experience canvassing several hundred houses and flats in Parnell with the recent petition against the exclusion of Maoris from selection for the South African tour of a national rugby team, that most of these attitudes are current, and that a common pakeha attitude is one of confused patronising goodwill that is fundamentally hostile to attempts by Maoris to order their own affairs. Besides this, Dr Ausubel presents, what is unusual in discussions of race relations in New Zealand, a range of Maori attitudes to the pakeha and Maori reactions to pakeha prejudice. For a brief popular survey of current pakeha attitudes to the Maori and current Maori attitudes to the pakeha, these 67 pages are both valuable and unique. Dr Ausubel admits that the racial situation is, in relation to that of page 91 some other countries, reasonably good (pp. 155-6, 211); he complains, however, that the situation is not nearly so good as most pakehas like to believe, and that the worst feature is 'the national self-delusion which blocks recognition of the existence of a problem' (p. 156). He was surprised at the frequency of frankly anti-Maori sentiments; he soon could define the outline of a common pakeha stereotype of the Maori as lazy, shiftless, unreliable, improvident, happy-go-lucky, with such occasional concomitants as living off social security and family benefits, being sexually promiscuous and frequently drunk. Behind patronising attitudes he found a deep-seated belief in Maori inferiority, a belief partly reflected in the ignorance of and indifference to the history and traditions of local Maoris, and more seriously reflected in unwillingness to understand current problems the Maori people are facing. Many pakehas are willing to accept Maoris as equals only if they conform to European values and standards, while other pakehas may deride them for attempting to act otherwise than they are expected to. Many pakehas, too, are unable to distinguish between the enforced segregation of a minority and segregation that is desired by them: thus, some pakehas, in the name of an abstract equality will advocate the abolition of the four Maori seats and the Maori schools at the same time as they are complacent about the exclusion of Maoris from the more desirable suburbs. For most pakehas integration means assimilation and they dislike any perpetuation of distinctively Maori values and traditions since it offends their desire for complete conformity. Dr Ausubel is right to point out that a nation that boasts of being a modern welfare state should be ashamed of the standards of health and sanitation that exist in some rural Maori communities. Besides this critical survey of the attitudes of a majority to a minority, Dr Ausubel recognises the existence of a number of pakehas who live and work unselfishly among Maoris, speaking their language, knowing their culture and traditions, and working with them for their advancement. Turning to the attitudes of the Maori, Dr Ausubel finds a range of attitudes, from shyness and suspicion through a relatively benign hostility and some surviving bitterness over confiscations to sullenness in reaction to pakeha prejudice. He also discusses the attitudes of Maoris to themselves, attitudes formed in the context of pakeha prejudice: feelings of inferiority and self-contempt, as well as an increasing attitude of pride in being Maori.

Since Dr Ausubel does not generalise too freely, and recognises that Maori attitudes vary from district to district, it is difficult to fault this section of the book. Nevertheless, there are a number of minor criticisms I should like to make. There is a difference in degree between the two expressions Dr Ausubel cites on p. 161: 'Maori physical training' and 'The only good Maori is a dead Maori'. The second I cannot claim to have heard, not in those words anyway; the attitude, as I will show later, I have met, though I suspect it is very infrequent. The first implies a pakeha sense of superiority, but it is (in my experience) said as often in good page 92 nature as in contempt. An Auckland Maori student (himself a lecturer, and one who, for various reasons, I cannot suspect of telling me what he thinks I would like to be told) has told me he has had no experience of what Dr Ausubel on p. 179 calls ' "the silent treatment" from pakeha students, and being responded to as if they were simple-minded or incapable of understanding English'. Again, while Dr Ausubel is right to say on p. 159: 'If skin colour had no significance in this country, half-castes would be regarded as half-caste Europeans just as frequently as they are regarded as half-caste Maoris', it nevertheless makes some difference that most half- and quarter-castes prefer to regard themselves as Maoris and associate with Maoris (and, according to Dr Ausubel on p. 182, marry Maoris), and that even eighth-castes frequently boast of their Maori ancestry. If there were any serious social penalty, they would not do so. It would have helped Dr Ausubel's case if he had realised that the extra post-primary and university bursaries he mentions on p. 190 are not 'special privileges' but come from Maori money administered by the Maori Purposes Trust Board. I feel too that Dr Ausubel himself has accepted too readily some of the components of the pakeha stereotype of the Maori on p. 186, especially 'greater incidence of alcoholism, delinquency and premarital sex relations, non- payment of rates; failure to develop their land adequately', which he accepts as 'factually true in part' and extenuates rather too easily in terms of 'acculturational difficulties'. Even to state these half-truths in these terms is to falsify the situations that have led to their currency among pakehas, and to explain them away so loosely is to ignore the real and complex social and economic factors that have produced them: uneconomic land holdings, for example, cannot be fairly attributed, with however much forgiveness, to Maori 'failure'. I would be interested too in the source of the figures on which Dr Ausubel bases his assertion (p. 182, note) that the incidence of Maori-pakeha marriages has been decreasing over the past generation.

This part of the book should be read and considered by every New Zealander who believes or professes to believe that racial equality is one of the fundamental premisses of the New Zealand social code. Dr Ausubel makes a prediction that 'as long as New Zealanders persist in deluding themselves that all is well in the sphere of race relations, the only realistic prospect for the future is the emergence of a brown proletariat segregated in the urban slums and living in a state of chronic tension with their white neighbours'. The prediction may strike us as far-fetched but, since we have been warned, we have only ourselves to blame if it should turn out to be true. A similar forecast of the future of race relations in New Zealand, in the light of extrapolations of Maori population trends, has been hinted at in Dr Borrie's statement that in a situation of increasing occupational and residential contiguity between Maori and pakeha, 'the maintenance of cultural and social segregation has explosive possibilities'.3 The warning has generally been treated lightly in the Round Table discussions at the page 93 Regional Conferences of Young Maori Leaders in the Auckland Province in 1960, where the common opinion has been that the prejudice from which racial tension might develop can be removed by education leading to mutual understanding.4 It is possible that this view is naive and over-optimistic. It is, in any case, true that a determined effort of patience and understanding, especially on the pakeha side, is needed for the rest of the century, if Dr Ausubel's prediction is to be forfended.

I should like to add a caution of my own. During my canvassing, I ran into an anti-Maori attitude more extreme than I should have thought possible. The speaker was a youth of about 20 who had been in Borstal for some crime against property. He said he would like to see Maoris exterminated, 'just like Hitler tried to do with the Jews'. He added that his hatred was very deep and that it was based on his association with Maori youths in Borstal and that it was commonly shared by other pakeha inmates. It seemed that what he objected to was Maori cliquishness: that his attitude was a reaction to an attitude which was itself probably a reaction to earlier pakeha prejudice. It is possible of course that the antipathy between the two groups reflects a difference in the psychological tensions or pressures that motivated their crimes. Nevertheless, since the racial ratio in Borstal is probably different from that outside, and nearer to what may hold in the cities in the future, I think some research into the aetiology of racial tension in Borstal would be very valuable.

Dr Ausubel's book then contains both a criticism of New Zealand pakeha attitudes, which needs sifting of his own prejudices and hasty conclusions, and a survey of race relations that is valuable and unique. In his Preface he promises another volume on 'Maori national character' and 'the historical forces and current social factors shaping its development, particularly among youth'. It is to be hoped that it is more carefully thought than his section on the pakeha national character, and more in the spirit of his section on race relations. One can be sure that it will at least be more friendly in its approach than his section on pakehas, but it could be harmful and misleading if it is as hasty and reckless.


1.   Chapman, R.M., 'Fiction and the Social Pattern', Landfall, March 1953, reprinted in Curnow, Wystan (ed.), Essays on New Zealand Literature, Heine-mann Educational Books (N.Z.) Ltd, Auckland 1973; and Pearson, Bill, 'Fretful Sleepers', Landfall, September 1952, reprinted in this volume.

2.  Meikle, Phoebe, 'New Zealand Since the War: School and Nation', Landfall, September 1960.

3.  Borrie, W.D., 'The Maori Population: A Microcosm of a New World' in Freeman, J.D., and Geddes, W.R. (eds.), Anthropology in the South Seas, New Plymouth 1959, p. 261.

4.  E.g. Report of the Waikato-Maniapoto Young Maori Leaders' Conference, 20-22 May 1960, Auckland Council of Adult Education, p. 16.

1 Chapman, R.M., 'Fiction and the Social Pattern', Landfall, March 1953, reprinted in Curnow, Wystan (ed.), Essays on New Zealand Literature, Heine-mann Educational Books (N.Z.) Ltd, Auckland 1973; and Pearson, Bill, 'Fretful Sleepers', Landfall, September 1952, reprinted in this volume.

2 Meikle, Phoebe, 'New Zealand Since the War: School and Nation', Landfall, September 1960.

3 Borrie, W.D., 'The Maori Population: A Microcosm of a New World' in Freeman, J.D., and Geddes, W.R. (eds.), Anthropology in the South Seas, New Plymouth 1959, p. 261.

4 E.g. Report of the Waikato-Maniapoto Young Maori Leaders' Conference, 20-22 May 1960, Auckland Council of Adult Education, p. 16.