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Why kaupapa Maori can’t help

24 September 2004

Why kaupapa Maori can’t help

Kaupapa Maori education is denying Maori children the chance to achieve because it perpetuates unchanging traditional ways of thinking over critical thought, says Dr Elizabeth Rata in a paper presented to the ‘Politics of Early Childhood Education’ Symposium held in Auckland this week.

There is no evidence after two decades that kaupapa Maori actually works, she says. Instead it disadvantages Maori children who, already held back by poverty, are further penalised by a way of thinking that looks to the past and rejects the modernist values that are the culture of New Zealand society.

Dr Rata is a principal lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland and was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University, Washington DC in 2003. She is widely internationally published for her writings on the rise of anti-democratic elites.

Kaupapa Maori is, she says, part of ‘cultural fundamentalism’ that has resulted in society and politics being organised along race lines in New Zealand.

It has led to separate institutions for Maori, like kaupapa Maori, which are tribally organised and therefore anti-democratic, and which run counter to New Zealand’s modern-day mixed-race and shared cultural reality.

“In education cultural fundamentalism is taken to mean that Maori children will behave in certain ways, regardless of the real family culture of the child. The Maori child is believed to benefit from certain types of learning, particularly learning in groups. This idea of a pedagogy (teaching style) suited to Maori children has become commonplace in education, despite its racist premise,” says Dr Rata.

Cultural fundamentalist educators assume that a child’s self-esteem and performance will improve if the child’s ‘fundamental identity’ is recognised and developed, she says.

“On the contrary, the tribal or kaupapa Maori way of thinking damages the social literacy – the intelligence – of the child.

“It emphasises subjective forms of thinking or indigenous knowledge, expressed, for example, as ‘I know because I was there’, ‘I know because I feel’, ‘I know because I believe’. This tribal knowledge denigrates objective forms of knowledge, or logos, as simply another type of cultural knowledge, belonging to ‘Western’ culture, rather than to universal modern science.

“Subjective ways of thinking on its own limits and restricts the child to one way of understanding and explaining the world. Both subjective and objective forms are necessary."

Socio-economic forces only worsen the problem, she says.

“The rejection of the objective or abstract way of thinking as ‘Western’ combined with restricted knowledge codes of working-class homes means that those working-class, kinship-based children do not develop modern scientific rationality to the same extent as children socialised into the literacy practices of modernist culture.”

Dr Rata’s paper points to a degree of cultural fundamentalism already existing in the Government’s two main policy documents on early childhood education, Te Whariki and Quality in Action, with statements such as ‘Maori pedagogy incorporates philosophical and spiritual beliefs, preferred learning styles, conditions conducive to learning, methods of transmitting knowledge, and appropriate people to pass on this knowledge.’

The continuing determination to solve the educational underachievement of Maori children with kaupapa Maori education will only make matters worse, she says.

“Blaming schools for their ‘Western’ or pakeha middle-class culture overlooks the fact that the literacy culture of the educationally successful, rather than being a middle-class possession, is essential to a democratic culture. It is the most important feature of modern culture and should belong to everyone.

“Children excluded from this essential feature are blocked from full inclusion into New Zealand society.”

Dr Rata’s full paper “Under-achievement in Maori Education: Why kaupapa Maori can’t help” will be posted at


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