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Post date: Monday, 2 August 2021

In defence of the future

Here's an opinion piece by one of our Senior Researchers Dr Mohamed Alansari entitled ‘In defence of the future’. The piece is motivated by but not a response to ‘In defence of science’ and opines about the importance of the nation reflecting on free speech and thought leadership in relation to schooling.

A letter signed by seven University of Auckland Professors/Professors Emeritus, published in the New Zealand Listener on July 23rd has gained strong attention from educators, scientists, politicians, and the public.

Although this opinion piece was motivated by the logic underpinning the ‘In defence of science’ letter, it is by no means a response to it. Many responses have already been published by fellow academics, researchers, and thinkers in Aotearoa New Zealand who have questioned the motives, rationale, and validity of conclusions made within that letter. Instead, this opinion piece is an attempt to use that letter as an example of why it is important that we as a nation should reflect on free speech and thought leadership, in relation to schooling.

I must admit I lost a few nights’ sleep after reading that letter. Not because it made me re-think my position on Mātauranga Māori as foundational to flourishing ākonga. But because I caught myself thinking ‘ahh here we go, another group of professors missing the mark on what’s important’. 

The question ‘Is Mātauranga Māori science?’ took me back to my first-year of undergraduate studies at the University of Auckland in 2007. I enrolled in a course that focused on the classical ‘nature vs nurture’ debate in its first or second lecture. The large lecture theatre (which is now demolished and replaced with a basketball court) was full. The lecturer, who in hindsight was not a good facilitator or moderator of student discussions, introduced the following provocative question: Is being gay a choice?

In less than 20 minutes, the lecture theatre turned into a circus: students shouting at each other, dismissing other perspectives, some walking out, and some swearing, uncovering a range of homophobic attitudes that manifested in statements like “it’s just a phase, they’ll grow out of it”, “homosexuality isn’t natural, they’re a genetic mistake”, and “it must have been childhood trauma that turned them that way”. The lecturer’s solution to this: he shut down the conversation, and moved to a new topic as if nothing happened.

I remember turning to the corner of the lecture theatre, as a few students started comforting others who burst into tears at how cruel their peers had been, and how unwanted they had made them feel. Rainbow (LGBTQIA+) students were outnumbered and unsupported in that space. What those students took away from that lecture was loud and clear: a part of who they are was unwelcome, irrelevant to their wellbeing, and fundamentally flawed. I would argue that they felt that by the time the lecturer finished posing the question. Needless to say, I didn’t see any of them in second year courses in the same major.

Albeit unintended by the lecturer, posing such a divisive question revealed responses that were rooted in binary absolutes: straight versus gay, male versus female, rich versus poor, objective versus subjective, good versus bad. In a similar vein, this current letter creates a new binary absolute, science versus Mātauranga Māori, positioning the two knowledge systems as polar opposites: never in harmony, always in clash. Is this the kind of message we want to reinforce in schools?

Using privileged positions and invoking ‘free speech’ rights to ask divisive questions such as ‘Is being gay a choice?’ has similarities with asking ‘Is Mātauranga Māori a science?’: they both have the potential to invalidate an important part of people’s identity, upbringing, and personal beliefs about being and knowing. If my research into how people learn and what predicts educational success has taught me anything, it would be that people flourish when they see themselves, their identity, and ways of being and knowing positively reflected in everyday life, both in and out of educational settings.

Perhaps it is time to stop and think about what drives the decision to pull out the ‘freedom of expression’ card every now and then, and to what purposes. In a world grappling with increased   anxiety, ‘free speech’ is no longer as important or insightful as ‘helpful speech’. Also, in a world full of problem-identifiers, we are in desperate need for problem-solvers and solution-drivers who know how to ask the right questions that would move us forward as a nation.

I look forward to thought-leaders challenging a status quo that continues to put us up against one another, who reflect on the difference between asking ‘Is Mātauranga Māori science?’ and ‘How can Mātauranga Māori benefit the teaching and learning of science in schools?’. The former is divisive and deficit-oriented. The latter is unifying and future-oriented.

In defence of a brighter future for the generations to come, let us ask the right questions.

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