Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

The Historian as Prophet


He made it clear that, if he had to choose, he would prefer that New Zealand should be a happy land rather than a splendid one. He was in some ways unsympathetic to economic growth, which he thought likely to produce a depressed industrial proletariat, and frankly preferred to see the country inhabited by a million people ‘happy, prosperous and satisfied’ than twice as many living in dreary poverty. If that were the choice, most of us would agree with him. But was it the choice? Or was he not nursing small ambitions? André Siegfried condemned a dog-in-the-manger attitude he found here, and wrote that the Government ‘should realize that a young country which, in spite of its youth, is already trying to preserve itself rather than to expand, is by that act condemning itself’. There is something drearily domestic in Reeves’s vision of New Zealand utopia. In praising his country in London, he said: ‘though it is not a great nation, it has in it the element of a stable and comfortable and civilised nation’. It sounds a bit like the women’s weeklies’ ideal marriage!

His countrymen made Reeves’s choice. We have since been devoted to the pursuit of popular happiness, which now takes the form of simple materialism, the accumulation of property, and a somewhat hearty hedonism. In making that choice, we have accepted what was the most widely held ideal of the ordinary pioneers, who came out here in pursuit of profit, property, and a higher standard of living, which often gave people a greater sense of importance. A man who secured an agency for boot polish wrote in the early eighteen forties: ‘The labouring class is as well off here as the nobs at home … A person has a little chance to do something in this part of the world, and that is more than you can do at home.’ To ‘do something’ meant, you see, to abandon labouring for boot polish and a white collar.

I don’t decry pleasure and property and comfort, but they are not the only ends of life. The simple materialism which has superseded Christianity as our active philosophy is not enough. I think that the concern for human welfare, once our glory, has gone soft, and become, only too often, a matter of comfort and not much more.

New Zealand made Reeves’s choice. He would have chosen happiness rather than splendour if he had to choose. But his life shows that he was not certain he did have to choose. As a politician he worked for happiness. But as a writer he worked for a quite different end: the creation of a national literature and a national self-awareness. My hopes for the future would dwell constantly on this; or what his successors left out. The splendour. The superstructure of ideas, literature, art, knowledge, truth. Without what M. J. Savage called ‘social justice’, the idea and the art are vanity. Without the idea and the art, ‘social justice’ becomes middle-class comfort and conformity.

I would dream of a civilization based on equality, in the respects in which equality is valid: in educational, social, and economic opportunity; in legal and political rights. But I would also emphasize quality, which we have neglected. Wakefield was right in supposing that the intellectual and artistic flower of a civilization is, in the last resort, the creation and possession of an élite. New Zealanders don’t like that. They are pleased to concede that there is a physical élite, but they ignore the existence of superior intellectual athletes. Whether we like it or not, however, there is an intellectual élite in almost every society. Part of it is included in the intelligentsia which consists, the dictionary tells us, of those people who aspire to independent thinking, and, indeed, do much of our thinking for us. (Camus says: ‘An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.’) Cricketing aristocrats and footballing public may think an intelligentsia is an ugly thing, but, like a head, it is necessary. The intellectual élite of which I speak is, however, much broader, and includes many scientists, technicians, executives, artists, scholars, writers, and some politicians.

The only future for New Zealand which would to me seem worth while would be to develop a new, but inevitably, partly European civilization. Albert Camus wrote that ‘the destiny of culture is to produce a civilization’, a remark which I would adopt, though he gives ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ different meanings from my own. I use the word ‘culture’ in its sense of everything that pertains to refinement of manners and to artistic and intellectual excellence, as well as to social complexity – which we already have. To me, all that is embraced in the word ‘civilization’ is the supreme end of life, the finest product of the human being, and perhaps a phenomenon unique in a universe of otherwise unthinking matter (unless a table is ‘a random collection of primitive experiences’, and molecules have mental fields, as we were recently told in a ‘Point of View’ broadcast by the natural heir to Professor Bickerton).

I refer to the nature of the universe simply to make plain that I am not speaking of mere national ambition. But I must include some thought of cultural nationalism because cultures develop in richness through national and regional diversity. In the distant future a world-culture may replace national cultures, but at the moment the nearest approach to it lies in our common heritage of knowledge, art, and literature, freely available to the world through modern media of communications.

Civilization is profoundly serious. It has nothing to do with a trite piece of architectural wood-carving placed outside the Ellen Melville Memorial Hall; nor with ignorant cartoonists who mistake such a trivial carving for modern art. It has nothing to do with the antics of retired and battered footballers yelling at a piece of sculpture. (In connexion with this recent controversy, I might remind you of what happened to the Philistines: a thousand of them were slain with the jawbone of an ass. Regrettably, it is not usually the Philistines who are slain in the battle for a New Zealand civilization; nor are the strong and boisterous, who hold the jawbones, usually on the right side.)

A civilization is, as I say, profoundly serious. A civilization is man’s speech in the face of final things: his answer to death. It is one thing that gives to life a meaning that death cannot take away. Civilization is man’s discourse with eternity. Here, he says, is my absolute. It is a carved Maori face, grimacing at life. It is the Maori god Tu, the man-god, Man’s idea of himself. Civilization is a man standing in the wind.

Those of you who cannot give civilizations the important place in the universal scheme that I do, may feel that I am exemplifying the truth of a remark quoted by James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. He speaks of the necessity, for an American, to find a ‘motive for living under American culture or die’. You might think that I am rationalizing my lot, to be a New Zealander.

We must now descend from flying over the sublime but distant peak to the first faltering steps up the slope. They are being taken principally in the universities. The future I have heralded must be made, as it were, on the premises. In the womb of our egalitarian society the future is growing from cells of inequality.

Why do I say this, when universities have existed here for nearly a century? Because I believe that a quantitative is becoming a qualitative change. Until fairly recently, though universities did their job well, they were tiny. They must have attracted a negligible proportion of the country’s talent, for even secondary schooling was not universal until during the Second World War. Very many changes in New Zealand, of a kind which make me believe that a New Zealand civilization is not impossible, have derived their force from the universities in recent years. In 1946 there was no literary journal in New Zealand worth mention. The establishment of Landfall was a private enterprise. But the great improvement of our literary criticism, in its pages, has been brought about mainly by university staff and critics. A good deal of our prose fiction and verse has also been written in the universities. The great increase in the number of historians (there are now far more in Auckland than there were in the country before the war) has meant that most of the scholarly work on New Zealand history has been published since the Second World War. Staff publications of all sorts have multiplied as original research has increased. The staff, though not necessarily improving in average native ability, has, since the early thirties, become better trained, more professional.

The most important change, however, has been in student numbers. The proportion of the population attending our universities and other institutions of advanced education is now about the fifth highest in the world:

U.S.A. 1.9%
U.S.S.R. 1.1%
Canada 1.1%
Australia 0.9%
New Zealand 0.8%
France 0.5%
Great Britain 0.2%*

This growth has occurred in response to the demands of educational equality. But one of the consequences, which I think will change our society immensely, will be to produce a large intellectual élite. In this respect our universities are unique institutions in our society. No other institutions, not the church nor the law, have in the past much encouraged learning. There has never been a strongly established upper class which might (at some cost to everyone else) have encouraged the arts and learning. There has never been a numerous section of the population devoted to thought – nor, indeed, with leisure to think. The universities thus form a new element in our society, immensely more important than in the old centres of civilization.

Some teachers think we face a crisis of numbers versus quality, but I believe they are utterly wrong. Our hope of quality lies in the numbers, and the talent that numbers include. Not nearly enough people go to university – only some 3 or 5 per cent of each age group from sixteen to twenty-five are attending university. In the United States a half of one per cent of each age group graduate as Ph.Ds.! Only about one person in 150 in New Zealand is attending university. These figures seem to me very much below what we should aim at. Moreover, government expenditure on the universities (£4.6 million in the year ending in March 1963), though it is rising, is nowhere nearly high enough for the universities to fill their role adequately. It is less than the stabilization subsidy on wheat and flour; the same as the subsidy on milk. We simply can’t afford, for instance, to establish a great library with our present funds.

It is essential, if New Zealand is to succeed in the economic and political competition of the future, for its small population to be highly trained, highly skilled. We need a very high average education, to assure flexible adaptation in the future, for only the young and the educated are educable. The universities will help to produce that educated citizenry. But one of the most important questions is – what are we going to do with the élite, those well above the high average, that the universities will inevitably produce? What are we going to ask of them? – and offer them? At present we do and offer next to nothing. The public at large does not accept that there is an intellectual élite, nor that there is a role for one. We export brains and import brawn.

My future historian would regard this as an extraordinary feature of our society. If some relevant document survives, he would learn that those graduates who receive the loudest acclamation at capping ceremonies are those who have scholarships to go abroad. He might infer that an interesting experiment in selective breeding had been in progress: that the aim

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