Monday, October 12, 2009

Better Britain - Cultural Cringe in New Zealand Schooling in the 1930s

As a British settler colony, New Zealand and New Zealanders sought to build a new, better Britain but were inextricably bound to "Mother England" as her farm and by blood ties. But this social conditioning, accentuated in the teaching of young New Zealanders in their schools was a process of denial: denial of their new land, denial of the Maori who they now shared this land with; and denial of their evolving roles as South Pacific Islanders. The result was a form of social schizophrenia and a cultural cringe. Novelist Robin Hyde summed up the situation nicely in 1938. 

From Robin Hyde's The Godwits Fly, chapter three, Bird of My Native Land:

"Sometimes in class Mr Bellew talked about the godwits, who fly every year from the top part of the North Island to Siberia, thousands of miles without a stop. They fly north, they fly north.… They lined a dell one night with secret olive wings, and next morning were gone. Mr Bellew said, with melancholy satisfaction, ‘And the eye of white man has never looked upon their flight.’

Something there had been, something delicate, wild and far away. But it was shut out behind the doors of yesterday, lost beyond the hills, and sticking a dead twig of it into a hole in the playground, or a rotten poem in the school journal, only made it sickly and unreal. You didn't really have to think about it—Maoris, godwits, bird-of-mynative-land. Attending to it at all was a duty call to a sick-bed. History began slap-bang in England. ‘At the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, William of Normandy defeated King Harold.’ A picture showed King Harold very angry and frightened because William had tricked him into taking an oath on the bones of the Saints. You were sorry for him and didn't want him to be beaten, but of course he was; especially you wished the arrow had hit him anywhere but in the eye. Normans in England said ‘Bœuf’ and ‘Mouton’ at first and the old Saxon tongue struggled and died out, till nobody understood it, any more than people here understood Maori.… You had to know that much, or you failed in your examination.

You were English and not English. It took time to realize that England was far away. And you were brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow—even the Christmas cards were always robins in the snow. One day, with a little shock of anger, you realized that there were no robins and no snow, and you felt cheated; nothing else was quite as pretty. The tall sorrel heads of the dock-plants were raggedy under your hands, and the bush of daisies with brown centres stuck out from under the bedroom window, its roots somehow twisted into the asphalt of Calver Street."

Full text available at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.

Frighteningly, this "being English, yet not being English" message persisted in the New Zealand school system well into the late 1960s, if not beyond, given this blogger's experience as a school pupil in that era. Thankfully, some progress has been made in the last couple of decades in developing a stronger emphasis on New Zealand's own culture, politics, history, and science in its educational institutions.

But the jury must still be out for some years to come on the success or otherwise of this process, especially in an era where a narrow policy objective of commercialism is used to drive the educational system at all levels. One god may simply have replaced another.


Jayne said...

Here in Oz it seems that they've replaced "Mother England" with "Big Brother America" although there are some attempts to put forward our own culture.

kuaka said...

Well, you know, Jayne, some unkind people refer to Australia as the 51st state - but perhaps not after the Hey Hey It's Saturday episode last week.

But NZ seems to be running a race, poor second but only because puffed, to ape American cultural consumerism.