Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

The Historian as Prophet


The University of Auckland Winter Lecture series of 1963 took the theme of The Future of New Zealand. The seven lectures in the series were subsequently published as The Future of New Zealand, edited by Muriel F. Lloyd Prichard and published by Whitcombe & Tombs.

The book includes lectures by Allen Curnow and Bill Sutch on New Zealand literature and the future of manufacturing respectively, but it is perhaps the last entry in the book, Keith Sinclair's The Historian as Prophet: Equality, Inequality and Civilization that has weathered best.

Sir Keith's essay is copyright to the University of Auckland and is used with the permission of Raewyn Dalziel. It was retyped from the original book by Fiona Rae. Its publication here is made possible by the kind sponsorship of Karajoz Coffee Company.

The Historian as Prophet: Equality, Inequality and Civilization

You must wonder what on earth an historian is doing in a series of lectures on the future. And so did I when I was asked to give this talk. An historian is a man who examines evidence, usually documents, according to certain techniques, and seeks answers to certain types of problems. He is generally concerned with what happened, and how and why it happened. The most conspicuous thing about the future is that it apparently hasn’t happened. There is plenty of evidence available for the study of the future, indeed an embarrassing abundance of evidence. But until I know what events I am studying, I don’t know which evidence is relevant. I am in the position of the detective in the first chapter of a whodunit. He is confident that a murder will be committed, but he doesn’t know who will be the victim. Consequently everything is a clue to the solution of the crime: everything and nothing.

Can we extrapolate present trends into the future? This is the question that these lectures beg. The answer is – not very far. Even a trend of which we have the best evidence, for instance, population movements, may prove in twenty years to have been a phase and not a ‘trend’ at all. One thing an historian can confidently say, from studying the past, is that the future is almost always different from what people predict, though rarely, perhaps, completely different. Some of our expectations will be realized. But which ones? It may be that what I think important – our balance of payments problems, for instance – may vanish, while what I think a crisis invented by ageing, frustrated newspaper editors – juvenile delinquency – will soon wreck our democracy and produce a decrepit police state, a dictatorship of senility.

Most of what I might say about the future is either widely agreed – the need for more diversified economy, the need for closer relations with Asia – or else, like most prophecy, it is wishful thinking.

When I weighted these considerations; looked at the situation of the historian miscast as prophet; one thought I had was to pretend to be a future historian. I decided not to peer into the future at all, but to imagine myself a very rational historian a century or two hence, in a rational society, and to imagine what he would think of our society today. This seemed a justifiable approach, for criticism of the present naturally implies notions of how to improve in the future. But it struck me that most of the things an unborn historian would think remarkable about New Zealand in 1963 are not peculiar to us. For instance, it seems to me highly probable that this historian will think we exaggerate the difference between communism and capitalist democracy, as they are practised, and devote too little thought to their common problems, such as how the growing state machine may be controlled by the population. Or again, the future rational man would be appalled by the way in which, in capitalist societies at least, truth, honour, and our language – the most precious tools of civilization – are degraded every day by advertising. He would be struck, for instance, by the fact that it is legal to advertise cigarettes, a well known poison, and to aim this appeal to young people (though I am glad to learn that this practice is forbidden by the N.Z.B.C.). He would be amazed by our local follies. Some hospitals, for instance, derive their staff fund from sales in the hospital canteens, which sell cigarettes. The annual staff parties are thus financed by selling poison to patients.

But this approach seemed to lend itself increasingly to a rather ‘superior’ satire, and to be evading the challenge which was plainly inherent in my task. So I am going to talk about our future in a more serious way, despite the occupational hazards, though I am going to keep my unborn historian by me as a useful prop. I am going to talk about the future, not as a prophet or an historian, but as myself, a New Zealander who is partly an historian and a university teacher.

In a recent press report, the director of the Dominion Physical Laboratory, Mr W. H. Ward, is alleged to have said that ‘the safest plan for New Zealand would be to decide what the country is going to be in the future and then settle down to plan how to get there’.

We can’t, of course, decide what the future will be. Nor can we produce the future, as though we are carrying out a laboratory experiment, confident of the results. The most we can do is to decide what we would like New Zealand to be in the future, taking into account fairly plain limiting circumstances, such as that it is unlikely to become a great power, that it is inhabited by two races, that it is in the Pacific, and so on. We may then work towards the achievement of our ideal, not so much according to plan, a blueprint, but by daily making choices and decisions that appear to head in the right direction.

Ideals, visions of the future, are important facts, which exert immense influence on social development, without ever perfectly controlling it. A passionate vision of white mastery and black slavery has moulded South Africa: a pleasant dream of taking tea at Lyons Corner House – or Buckingham Palace – has shaped society in Remuera and St Heliers. It is of visions that I will talks today; our fathers’ visions, and my own. I do not apologise for looking backwards as well as forwards. A. J. P. Taylor rightly says: ‘Men see the past when they peer into the future.’ And the future will be influenced by our past. We have to remember that there is an obvious sense in which the past is more real than the present. The past is immutable. The present is a moment, a point. Men commonly liken time to a stream. I would remind you of the Greek saying that you can’t put foot in the same stream twice. Someone said you can’t put foot in the same stream once. That is what the present is like. Here and gone. As soon as we touch it, it is past. The Greeks sometimes thought that the future was the past. Their word opiso, which means either ‘behind’ or ‘in the future’, contains the idea of time coming up behind men, who are stationary, passing them, and becoming the ‘past’ laid before their eyes. Or, putting it another way, the past is seen and known, and therefore before us; the future is unseen; it is what lies behind us.

The kind of questions I would ask are: can we conceive for our country a future more important or meaningful than success at exporting lambs or butter? Can we avoid the fate – or reputation – of Switzerland which (according to Graham Greene) is famous for the invention of the cuckoo clock? What can our people do that would be important? What could the word ‘greatness’ ever mean here? They are, you will agree, unusual, and to many people, plainly absurd questions.

It was not always so. Many of the founders of our state had such questions in mind frequently. Grey, Wakefield, Henry Williams, William Pember Reeves – they all hoped they were starting something important, though when they spoke of greatness they often spoke cant. Sir George Grey’s mind dwelt so continually on the idea that New Zealand would produce a great nation, that he could not debate a Bill to alter the conditions of entry into the law profession without invoking the support of our unborn millions. (For twelve years, from 1880 to 1892, he tried to exclude Latin from the law examinations – apparently equating greatness with ignorance of the classics. ‘I say’, he said, ‘our greatness will arise from studying laws made by ourselves, and not by clinging to musty records …’) I am aware, you see, of the dangers I run between the sublime and the ridiculous; but to keep to my subject I must use the big words, and risk being naïve.

Two grand natal ideas lay at the foundation of our state, both parental gifts. One was the desire, which led the British Government to annex these islands, to achieve better racial relations here than had hitherto existed in the non-European world that Europe was busily invading. This ideal, of racial harmony, has exerted immense and benevolent influence. Perhaps before any other people we widened the concept of democracy to include non-Europeans. The Maoris received manhood suffrage in 1867. Though the ideal is, as yet, imperfectly achieved, it is achieved sufficiently to form our chief distinction. I do not mean that it is now done ‘near enough’.

The other natal idea was Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s. The grand objective of his system of colonization was that a high civilization should be established in colonies. He could not conceive of a new civilization developing there; indeed, if the colonists became what he called ‘a new people’, he thought they would be barbarous. So he hoped, by means of several mechanisms of land sales and immigration, to preserve in colonies the leisured, wealthy élite which he thought embodied civilization in Great Britain.

The means which he chose to that end were impracticable, but we must doubt whether any could, in the short run, have been effective. Is not the very idea of a ‘civilized colony’ a paradox? Had it been done, it would not, in my view, have been well done. There would have been, at best, an effete simulacrum of English middle-class culture. But the first generation of colonists, while holding to Wakefield’s ideal of being British, took little heed of the fact that what he wanted was British civilization. His ideal was decisively rejected by the next generation who, led by the Liberals in the eighteen nineties, chose, instead, an ideal described by William Pember Reeves in two questions: 'Is it possible to have a civilization which is no mere lacquer on the surface of society? Can a community be civilized throughout, and trained to consist of educated, vigorous men and women; efficient workers, yet not lacking in the essentials of refinement?'

In choosing the ideal of educational equality, the New Zealanders made a break with an essential feature of British society which, right up to the present day, through private schools, the ’11 plus’, Oxford and Cambridge, educates a quite small élite. The New Zealanders also chose, of course, at the same time, the twin ideal of what we now call social welfare. Now many modern societies, communist and capitalist, have made those choices, but in those days they were remarkable.

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