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Talk-ED: Hanging washing out in public

Stuart Middleton
27 June 2011

I have long been interested in School Journals and from time to time idly scroll through what is available on TradeMe with the result that I have some interesting publications.

A School Journal from 1908 gives a glimpse of the times and it would be hard to mount an argument that relevance and a reflection of students’ lives was essential if learning was to occur based on the evidence of the content. But then again schooling hadn’t assumed the critical role of responsibility for the development of the person at that point in time. It was much more focussed on knowing things.

In the 1930’s the Journals had quite a lot of very patriotic material and indeed there is one I have that is a tribute to the dead King. Long live the King!

The Janet and John Series, which was the staple diet of my “reading programme” when I was little is remarkable for the stilted and contrived stories, the lack of awareness as to gender stereotypes, and much more. But we learned to read with them so perhaps that didn’t matter.

But the latest addition to this little collection is exciting. Who would have thought that a School Bulletin could be the subject of national controversy? But in 1964 that was exactly the case. A bulletin, well technically the series was styled as A Bulletin for Schools and served as supplementary reading material, was published, distributed to schools, and then withdrawn under orders from the Minister of Education and all copies destroyed.

Washday at the Pa, was a reflection of life in a rural setting of a Maori family that lived in a house, “near Taihape”, that was rudimentary in its services, unpretentious in its quality and something of a shock to the urban sensitivities of many. The family went about the daily life in such a setting with the kids doing what kids do, Mum coping with the demands of a household and Dad out on the farm looking after the sheep. It was a real house, a real family and the photographs were very real indeed.

In itself the simplicity of the story and the photographs that were a feature of it has a charm. Both were the work of Ans Westra, then a young writer and photographer who was well-known through her work in the publication Te Ao Hou, the publication of the then Maori Affairs Department. She was also the author (and photographer) of an earlier bulletin about village life in Tonga, Viliami of the Friendly Islands.

But the newspapers sensed controversy and this led to the Maori Women’s Welfare League discussing the publication at its conference and collectively objecting to it. One participant was reported at the time to have felt that “the living conditions shown are not typical of Maori life, even in remote areas. There are very few Maori people living in such conditions anywhere in New Zealand.”

Within a week the Minister of Education ordered that all 38,000 copies of the bulletin be withdrawn and destroyed. Well obviously they weren’t all destroyed because I now have a copy of the bulletin. That wasn’t the end of the story. The Caxton Press, the well regarded publishing house in Christchurch, later produced a version of the bulletin for the wider public and this seems to have been motivated by both the public’s right to have access to this controversial publication and an assessment of the inherent quality of it. The author made one or two minor changes which in themselves are interesting – the brand of the soap being used in one picture is no longer obscured and the rather mischievous young lad is now allowed to be seen puffing on a “cigarette” that he had made out of a lolly paper. These images were presumably too corrupting for classroom use.

Perhaps of more interest is one further change. In the original publication there is a photograph of the almost completed new house that the family was going to shift to under the government’s re-housing scheme. The politics of the decision to first include and then exclude this picture in the two versions of the publication we can only wonder about.

The allegation that the bulletin was “not typical” is interesting. Was it because that portrayal of the family showed living conditions that were worse than “typical” or better? The discussions never made that clear. And should reading material put before students be “typical” – the Janet and John Series of readers were certainly not that. Nor were some of the later Ready to Read Series (such as the one in which Mummy and the two children, one boy and one girl, wave goodbye to Daddy as he takes off in the Viscount!).

What seems to have been central to the withdrawal was the role of the Maori Women’s Welfare League and one can only wonder whether there was any process in those days for consultation about material being produced for schools? After the event discussion doesn’t work as well as consultation prior.

So, all in all, it is a good little story, this publication and withdrawal and destruction of a good little story. It is interesting to speculate as to how such a controversy would have played out nowadays or even if there would be a controversy.

Published inEducation

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