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Never Mind the bullocks

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.1, 16 January 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

At last, the year of the horned, cloven-footed ruminant, the Ox no less. We are told that those who belong to the Year of the Ox are patient, speak little, are excellent organisers and inspire confidence in others. Who would have thought that one animal could have been responsible for so many leaders in education!

Any new year is a time of wondering what will prevail this year – delight or despair? Well early indications are a little confusing.

First there is the death of Pakaarriki Harrison late in December.

There is delight in the thought that one person can bring together knowledge and skill as a tohunga whakairo to such a high level in ways that leave communities all that much richer. The story of the master carver who completed a series of great carved wharenui is well documented in the recent biography by Dr Ranginui Walker (Tohunga Whakairo: Paki Harrison) which was a delightful read just before Christmas. Harrison leaves us houses such as Nga Kete Wananga (Manukau Institute of Technology), Whaiora (Otara), Te Otawhao (Te Awamutu College), Tanenuiarangi (University of Auckland) and others such as those at Manurewa, St Stephens School, Kennedy Bay, Edgewater College. The houses are a place in which communities find expression of their histories, their beliefs and their people. They are also places where talent flourishes – whaikorero, kapahaka and art.

Paki Harrison was a teacher and like so many teachers was also greatly talented in other areas. These houses are the artefacts of this great New Zealander. The Walker biography tells the tale of a man who was humble, who learned his craft over a lifetime and whose legacy is in New Zealand terms very significant.

So where was the despair? The pakeha media, over-stuffed on the holiday diet of the trivial and the trite that typifies summer newspapers and TV, ignored all this. One of New Zealand’s real taonga is now gone but lives on in such a forceful way in many educational institutions and communities. But who knows? The communities know, te Ao Maori knows, but mainstream media simply shared their silent ignorance of such matters. While our major newspapers continue their obsession with Jesse Ryder, Sione Lauaki and Paris Hilton, communities mourn the loss of this great New Zealander.

But it was a different story with the anniversary of last January’s death of another great New Zealander – Sir Edmund Hillary. This occasion received appropriate attention and there was some gentle coverage that allowed us to recall the special days a year ago when the country came together in a way so seldom seen. It was a delight to be able to recall that time in calmness. A single artefact, the Hillary ice-axe, seemed to symbolise everything that this great New Zealander achieved.

So where was the despair? A weekend paper thought it clever – they surely never thought it appropriate – to ask the full page question Who is the next Hillary? And they had a parade of minor “celebrities” as part of a tasteless and rather stupid “competition” asking members of the public to nominate the “next Hillary.”

Does it not occur to the newspaper that one doesn’t elect a Hillary? That finding a Hillary isn’t something like those summer competitions of the past such as the Mt Maunganui Beauty Pageant or Miss Whangamata? Thankfully stronger and more sustainable values have driven those oglefests to one side. But now we have the competition to nominate the next Hillary!

People like Hillary emerge as a result of their deeds over a period of time. They frequently build their fame on a solid block of humility and even some obscurity. They achieve greatness rather than have it conferred on them by newspapers and weekly magazines. It is simply an insult to parade a collection of people and ask the question. We will know when someone with the mana and achievement of a Hillary comes along.

I wonder if in both the above instances there is an issue with our attitude towards death. I received a card a few days before Christmas that read: “Our thoughts are with you at this time of loss and even though X is no longer with you we hope that you will have the memories and thoughts of his long life to help you through this time.”  This card, handwritten and no doubt sincerely meant, was referring to the death of my cat, a 17 year old fellow who simply ran out of steam. Dr A.Vet, BVSci. seemingly follows up on the death of an animal with these responses. This anthropomorphic response was not only unnecessary, it is also more than a little demeaning to the memory of our fellow humans who have passed on. It is the thin edge of a wedge that allows the careless and cavalier responses mentioned above.

George Orwell wrote about the degradation of thinking that resulted from the frivolous use of language and he argued strongly that sloppy use of language encouraged sloppy thinking. Clear and precise thinking was, in his view, at the heart of communities that were strong intellectually.

So the current overuse of “loved ones” to refer to the living rather than the dead, encourages confused thinking. This also robs us of a useful cliché for referring to the dead in those times of stress when those who are loved “pass away”. Such clichés are the lifejackets we need to survive the rough seas of sadness. To not treat dead people with great respect (ignoring the death of great New Zealanders is at best disrespectful while running trivial competitions is at worst offensive) is a serious comment on the values we hold as a community.

So it is the Year of the Ox.  They tend, however, to be eccentric, and bigoted, and they anger easily.

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