Against decolonisation: Slagging science will not produce more Māori scientists
Despite the brilliant achievements of some Māori scientists, established and upcoming, Māori on average underachieve in science as in other educational fields. Much of this underachievement is the result of many well-understood factors behind poor performance in populations, Māori and other, in New Zealand and around the world: low income; inadequate housing; food insecurity; family violence; low parental education. The emphasis on reasons other than known disparities and known causes like these, which should be addressed urgently, promises to compound the real problems.
The push to decolonise casts science as Western, and racist, and therefore antagonistic to Māori. Dubbing science as Western insults the many non-Westerners who contribute to science, and denies the role Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian, and Arabic civilizations played in early science. Racism was indeed widespread in Europe in the colonial era, and science sometimes reflected that, but science depends on continual self-challenge and self-correction. Science itself has made the strongest case against the very idea of distinct “races” of humans, showing that we all recently evolved in Africa and that diversity is greater within than between populations.
Some decolonisers claim, against the historical evidence, that reading, mathematics, and accuracy are “not a Māori thing” (for a critique, see here). The demonization of science and the deprecation of learning as Western and alien reduce the chances of young Māori students. The distinguished African-American linguist John McWhorter has recently argued that casting precision and learning as uncool or “white” has similarly limited the achievement of generations of Black students.
Ideas of decolonisation spread in New Zealand late in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, leading thinkers of colour are questioning that goal. The Nigerian scholar Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Professor of African Political Thought and Chair of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, has presented in his Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto (2014) what he calls “a no-holds-barred, full-throated defence of ‘modernity’ and why it offers Africa the most promising path for getting out of the ‘misery corner’ of the globe.” In 2021 his Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously earned praise from many leading scholars and champions of African and Asian advancement. The Ghanaian Ato Sekyi-Otu comments that “Táíwò shows that ‘decolonisation’ has become an idea promoting indiscriminate hostility to forms of thought and practice wrongly tarred with malign colonial auspices. The ironic result is a rhetoric that gives short shrift to African agency. It’s time to drop the erroneous conflations and recognise our right to inventive appropriation of the human commons.” The distinguished Indian scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes about Táíwò’s book that: “To sloganise for cultural and ideological decolonisation is to deny history and agency to Africa.”
This resembles the points made by scholars of Māori descent when they stress Māori eagerness to read and write in the nineteenth century, or Māori incorporation of European knowledge into mātauranga Māori, or Māori leadership in the Suppression of Tohunga Act of 1909, or the crucial role of high Māori educational achievement in the present (see the work of Melissa Derby (Ngāti Ranginui), Charles Royal (Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tamaterā and Ngā Puhi), Mere Roberts (Ngati Apakura, Ngati Hikairo), Michael Stevens, Atholl Anderson, and Te Maire Tau (all Ngāi Tahu)).
If New Zealand students and New Zealand scientists are made to pledge allegiance to the contradictory falsehoods that mātauranga Māori is equivalent to science, on the one hand, but that science is Western and racist, on the other hand, and if bullies continue to secure disproportionate research funding for ideologues who make these claims, our students and scientists, including Māori, will suffer. Our science and education will become a laughingstock, and less able to attract the international cooperation and funding and the international student participation that offer the nation its best hopes of a future enriched by research and innovation. Parents who can afford private schooling or housing in zones where schools choose other qualifications than NCEA will opt out of mainstream schooling and widen the divide between Māori and non- Māori achievement.
Mātauranga Māori reflects the skills of observation and experiment and the creative imagination of explanatory storytelling found in any traditional knowledge. It deserves to be preserved and researched and to be drawn on where local ecological knowledge can enrich science. But teaching it as science will harm science and both Māori and non-Māori students and divert from the real problems of educational underachievement pervasive in New Zealand.