It’s common in New Zealand to hear claims that we are “anti-intellectual” as a country. You don’t have to go far for evidence of these comments. In Wikipedia’s entry on “Culture of New Zealand”, of all the cultural attributes that might be chosen to describe the country, Wikipedia picks out “anti-intellectualism” as worthy of an extended paragraph. The paragraph talks of a “prevailing mood of anti-intellectualism” and says that “New Zealanders do not have a particularly high regard for intellectual activity”. Perhaps Wikipedia is not the most authoritative source on these issues. But you’ll find similar statements in more reputable places. For example, the leading book on public intellectuals in New Zealand, Laurence Simmons’ Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand – a thoughtful account of the past and present situation of intellectuals in the country – makes this claim at length. The renowned thinker Bruce Jesson has spoken eloquently of New Zealand’s “flight from thought”. And the “anti-intellectual” claim is regularly dropped in newspaper articles reacting to public controversies.
I’m not so sure these claims are right. I want to suggest that, while we should be careful in making sweeping statements about Aotearoa New Zealand as a nation, there are some good arguments supporting the view that we are not anti-intellectual – that is, that we are not hostile towards ideas, or theory, or scholarly work. In fact, I think there is some evidence that we are the opposite – a nation of ideas, willing to embrace opinion and thought about deeper issues. And I think we do a disservice to ourselves when we deny this. After clarifying what I am saying and what I am not saying, I want to end by thinking through some of the implications of rejecting the “anti-intellectual” label. Affirming our willingness to explore ideas may free up our ability to deal with big questions that face us, like the current constitutional review. It also changes the way we see ourselves as a nation.
Any grand claims about who “we” are as a nation, such as the final sentence in the section above, should be treated with a degree of skepticism. New Zealand is a diverse place, and it is getting even more diverse – and so it is difficult to speak of shared values or national characteristics. The question of what we are like, or the values we hold dear, is also an empirical question, which can only be answered through surveys, and we do not have all the data that would help us to give a firm answer on our views on intellectualism (though there are some sources that are worth looking at for clues – including the surveys done for the 1986 Royal Commission on Social Policy, and the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey done by Auckland psychologist Chris Sibley). As well, it’s important to question who the “we” is, when answers are given about what “we” are like. Too often it’s easy for writers to project their own views about what we should be like as a nation onto what we are (and so you’ll hear, for instance, from a lot of liberal writers that New Zealanders are egalitarian). And sometimes those of a more critical or radical bent will perhaps overstate negative characteristics in order to highlight the gap between our views (for instance, on race) and where we ought to be. The upshot of all is that we should take care in saying, definitively, that New Zealanders are anti-intellectual – or even in arguing the opposite. And we need to recognize our own perspective and positioning in coming to conclusions about this. I acknowledge my own slanted perspective as a relatively privileged Pakeha male, whose opinion has been mostly formed within a narrow university environment.
Even with these words of caution, though, I think we are right to think harder and more carefully about whether New Zealand is anti-intellectual as is often said. To start out, I think we need to question whether this outlook is unique to Aotearoa. It’s often said that New Zealanders are anti-intellectual, as if this is a characteristic unique to our country. The implication is that we are particularly anti-intellectual. It’s implicit in the Wikipedia entry. And it’s implicit in other comments made about us as a country. But I think we should challenge this assumption. It’s often said elsewhere, by academics especially, that particular cultures are sadly anti-intellectual. In the United Kingdom, where I’ve been living since September last year, the claim is often made. So to put this issue in context, we should recognize that the “anti-intellectual” label is attached to many cultures across the world. We may not be unique in having this point of view.
I would go further, though. Putting aside for one moment whether it’s a uniquely New Zealand “problem”, I would say that anti-intellectualism may not even be a New Zealand problem at all. I’d point to three interlocking bits of evidence for this. First, we have produced a number of brilliant intellectuals and academics – a number disproportionate to our size. In the field of political philosophy, Jeremy Waldron – who holds the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory at Oxford University – is a New Zealander. In the international law area, leading thinker Benedict Kingsbury holds a distinguished position at New York University. The list of New Zealand academics, across other disciplines as well, who have been looked upon as leading lights in their fields in recent times, could go on: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (in postcolonial studies), James Belich (in history), J.G. Pocock (in the history of ideas), Annette Baier (in philosophy), Robert Wade (in political economy) and others. It could be said that a number of these figures are overseas, and that this says something about New Zealand: it doesn’t support academics, so they feel a pressure to move elsewhere. But this is a bit simplistic. These individuals have moved elsewhere for a variety of reasons: to be closer to intellectual giants in their fields, or for personal reasons, for instance. And we haven’t even considered historical figures here, like Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford.
Secondly, we have a history in policy and politics of being committed to experimenting with innovative ideas. The policies of the Liberal Government in the 1890s (through setting up old-age pensions, giving women the vote, and introducing workplace arbitration schemes) led to New Zealand being dubbed a “social laboratory”. The government of Michael Joseph Savage stole the march on the British Labour government of Clement Attlee in setting up carefully thought-through systems of public service provision. And in the early 1970s, we developed an accident compensation scheme in ACC that is still regarded internationally, in many circles, as an ingenious approach to avoiding litigation for accidents. This experimentation and inspiration from ideas may not have always had positive results – as with the ideologically driven Rogernomics reforms of the 1980s – but the continual history of experimentation says something about our commitment to ideas. Some might quibble, again, with this account and say that a lot of these changes were effected in an ad hoc manner. Michael Bassett famously has written a history of New Zealand politics entitled Socialism Without Doctrines (borrowing the title from Albert Metin, a French visitor to the Antipodes in the nineteenth century). But to say that there were no ideas, no doctrines, behind these policy changes seems to me to be unfair to the architects of schemes like ACC. A lot of these policies were complex and creative, which required significant intellectual thought. At any rate, avoiding doctrine isn’t quite the same as avoiding ideas.
Thirdly and lastly, when people talk of anti-intellectualism, they often ignore the major contribution of Maori thinkers, many of whom have offered a public commitment to the need to think through ideas underpinning our nation. Moana Jackson has recently provided one example, in his insistence on the need for “constitutional transformation” in the discussion of constitutional change. But there are numerous other Maori thinkers in recent times who have brought a very erudite and thoughtful approach to questions of culture and society: amongst them are Mason Durie, Ranginui Walker, the already-mentioned Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Joe Williams. The emphasis in Maori culture on discussion, learning, and ideas is reflected in a number of whakatauki, such as the oft-invoked “Ko te kai a te rangatira, he korero” (“Talk is the food of chiefs”), or the even more directly relevant “Whaia te matauranga hei orange mo koutou” (“Seek after learning for the sake of your well-being”).
All of this suggests that we are a country more committed to ideas than most would assume. There is a surprising possible explanation for why we have persisted with viewing ourselves as anti-intellectual for so long. We often call ourselves “pragmatic” and say that New Zealanders are not too caught up with grand theory. But the notion of “pragmatism” in policy is also a common trope in the United Kingdom. Thinkers often say that the United Kingdom has a history of disavowing big ideas, and working more incrementally. Take, for example, the work of legal scholar Patrick Atiyah, who suggests that the English common law system has encouraged a case-by-case approach to issues in society at large (there’s a taste of his views here). So – and here I accept I’m putting forward a slightly controversial view – could it be that we’ve inherited the view of ourselves as “anti-intellectual” from the UK? Is it possible that we parrot the idea of “anti-intellectualism” in our society because the UK is (or has been, in the past) anti-intellectual, and because we have somewhat quickly adopted this label in our own society?
Let me at this point clarify what I am saying, and consider a possible objection to all of this. I am saying that we are not as anti-intellectual as we think we are. It may be, however, that when we call ourselves “anti-intellectual”, we are actually grasping after another description of ourselves – perhaps we really mean that we are conservative, in shooting down ideas. I am not going as far as rejecting the view that we are conservative as a nation. Or perhaps when we say all this we are gesturing at “tall poppies syndrome”. That said, “tall poppies syndrome” also has a number of equivalents in other countries – and I have always been of the view that “tall poppies syndrome” is nothing more than an approach that values humility, and that encourages successful people to acknowledge the role that others have played in their success. So I think we should challenge this myth about ourselves, as well.
One possible challenge to all of this is that the claim that we are not anti-intellectual is itself an elite perspective. Sure, we’ve got a few political philosophers and scientists, famous in their own worlds. But are we really favourable to ideas on the ground in New Zealand? Don’t talkback radio and the comments pages on popular websites (like Stuff and Kiwiblog) suggest that we can be crude, reductive, and very hostile to ideas? There may be a grain of truth in some of this. I certainly think there’s a strain of nastiness in comments pages on websites. But I think this strain of nastiness is a problem that arises out of the Internet, not New Zealand as a country: it arises because with online comments, you don’t have to look people in the face, and be sensitive to their reactions and feelings. It’s not quite the same as anti-intellectualism. I’ve listened to my fair share of talkback radio. I grew up, like many young New Zealanders, addicted to Radio Sport and listening to sports talkback – and have, over time, moved to listen to more political talkback. My impression (and this is just a rough impression) is that talkback shows that we have ideas in New Zealand, that we all have opinions, and that we are willing to speak up to express them. I am not comfortable with all aspects of talkback. But I don’t think it’s a knock-down argument against the claims I’ve made above.
So what, you might say (if you’ve made it this far)? I actually think that recognizing that we are a country that isn’t anti-intellectual – and that we are a nation of ideas – is a really liberating fact. It frees us up to see our own traditions and histories in a new light. It also frees us up to face up to big challenges we face in the present, such as the constitutional review, issues around climate change and incarceration, and the Treaty of Waitangi. A number of people use our anti-intellectualism as an excuse not to raise big ideas. But maybe they’re wrong in being so fearful.
As well, and perhaps most importantly, it frees us up to see ourselves in the mirror in a new way. Perhaps we’ve been selling ourselves short this whole time – underestimating who we are, and who we can be, in claiming that we are anti-intellectual. Perhaps we’ve been doing ourselves a disservice. Understanding Aotearoa New Zealand as a nation of ideas might give us a bit more pride in who we are, and what we’ve done. And if that means more New Zealanders choosing to stay in New Zealand when thinking of going overseas, or just feeling more optimistic about our future, isn’t that a good thing?