In praise of academic creativity

Scholar and anthropologist Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura, around 1910  (click for image credit)

Scholar and anthropologist Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura, around 1910 (click for image credit)

Today we launch four stories about creativity in academic disciplines in this country – Anthropology and archaeologyMāori studies – ngā tari MāoriLinguistics and Philosophy. The idea that academic work is ‘creative’ may at first sight surprise those who associate the university with boring lectures and examinations – indeed one of my esteemed colleagues suggested that ‘academic creativity’ is a contradiction in terms, like ‘military intelligence’. Creativity, you might say, surely belongs to the arts – such as dance and poetry and painting. Funding agency Creative New Zealand does not support academic work.

These stories firmly undermine such prejudices – the idea of the ‘open society‘ developed by the great philosopher Karl Popper, who taught at the University of Canterbury from 1937 to 1945, or Lisa Matisoo-Smith’s ingenious use of the DNA of rat and chicken bones to trace Polynesian migration across the Pacific are but two examples of the creativity to be found in these stories.

Of the four disciplines represented, philosophy is the oldest, its origins lying with the ancient Greeks. It is a highly international pursuit, but our story shows a remarkable level of contribution by New Zealanders or people based here. They included Arthur Prior and Max Cresswell, internationally recognised logicians, and Jeremy Waldron, a philosopher of law, who is represented by a fascinating conversation in which he traces his life from Invercargill to New York. The philosophers are a brilliant, sometimes eccentric and often colourful breed – Otago University lecturer Dennis Grey caused a bit of a shock to post-Second World War Dunedinites by wearing lipstick to his classes.

Logician Max Cresswell, with train (click for image credit)

Logician Max Cresswell, with train (click for image credit)

Anthropology first began to claim existence as a discipline about the time that Europeans reached New Zealand, but the early practitioners were not academics. As our story shows, early anthropology here came about from Europeans’ desire to understand, and attempt to control, Māori. This included explorers such as James Cook and governors such as George Grey, who was quite explicit that he studied Māori language and culture in order to govern them. Later there were surveyors, interpreters and Native Land Court judges. At the end of the 19th century the Polynesian Society was founded, partly impelled by the desire to record what was widely believed to be a ‘dying race’.

Along with European enthusiasts, the Polynesian Society also attracted some very significant Māori scholars – Āpirana Ngata, Māui Pōmare and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) – and it is fascinating to look at this story alongside Ranginui Walker’s one on Māori studies– ngā tari Māori. As the 20th century unfolded Māori studies began to emerge as a separate discipline out of anthropology. As early as 1926 Ngata had tried to get Māori language accepted as a BA subject. This did not happen until 1951, when Bruce Biggs was allowed to teach it at the University of Auckland, and it was not until 1978, at Victoria University of Wellington, that Māori studies first became a separate department. Meanwhile, anthropology and archaeology developed their own professionalism and began to explore the archaeology of non-Māori topics such as Chinese gold-mining communities and West Coast coal mines.

Linguist and Māori studies scholar Bruce Biggs undertaking field work in Papua New Guinea, 1959 (click for image credit)

Linguist and Māori studies scholar Bruce Biggs undertaking field work in Papua New Guinea, 1959 (click for image credit)

Linguistics was another late 20th century off-shoot, with its origins in both English and anthropology. Bruce Biggs again played a founding role in the recognition of linguistics. The first separate department was at Victoria in 1988, and once more there was an expansion into exciting new areas of study, many with a New Zealand focus, including the history of New Zealand English and of the New Zealand accent, and sociolinguistics, which explored, for example, speech in work places and how speech is affected by gender. For a young subject, linguistics in New Zealand has been extraordinarily impressive in its researches, and the country has given the world some outstanding lexicographers and sociolinguists. I particularly point you to the eloquent interview with the New Zealand-born and Israel-based scholar Bernard Spolsky, who makes the case for New Zealand becoming a multilingual society.

These four entries are packed with fascinating stories of inventive individuals and intellectual pioneers who have helped to reshape our view of the world. I dare you to possibly claim that they are not highly creative people.

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by June Fairhead || September 1st, 2014

    Dear Jock,

    I came across your article after someone pointed me to it.
    Indeed I entirely agree with you about your thoughts on creativity.
    All the people mentioned in your article are highly creative and inventive people and the photo is glorious.
    But,they are not Artists.

    Maybe Creative New Zealand should change its name, considering it is really the Arts Council. That is why it funds art projects not sociological anthropological or historical programmes. Like so many others in the art world I believe that academia is strangling true artistic endeavour. In fact it has all but destroyed it in this part of the world. There is a big difference between creativity and imagination vision talent. They also say that since Art has become so academic it has killed off true visual language. In my own experience watching supremely talented artists struggling to write a thesis, reach a conclusion at the same time as producing their final Degree show is a travesty. Art is not about reaching conclusions, design is, but not art. Sadly it usually means the students best work is not in there final show. Students go to Art College to learn to paint, draw, sculpt, not learn to write. At Art College we study Art History, theory and philosophy as well as how to make art in many different disciplines. Vincent Van Gogh, Manet, Josef Albers,Jackson Pollock did not have to do this. They concentrated on their discipline.

    At University you study Art History, Philosophy anthropology or any other subject without having to produce major pieces of Art.! Students are now encouraged to do a masters and then a Phd (because the colleges want the fees we all know this to be true). You can even do a masters in surfing these days in England how creative is that!??!! All artists acknowledge the link between science, philosophy and art but most artists are right brained and the people who work with research and writing are well ..left brained,plenty of scientific data to back this up! Also most academics are paid extremely well compared to artists, musicians, dancers, fiction writers poets or those in the dramatic arts. That is why Arts Councils are set up, to help keep our expression of the human condition alive. Without this visual language life would be linear,catagorized, justified,everyone pigeon-holed and brought to a conclusion.

    If academics want to be acknowledged as creative,(which they are but in a different way) why don’t they set up their own council. However most academics get plenty of funding from Universities,Government bodies,multinational companies,not to mention drug companies,and are extremely well paid. Artists survive on a ‘wing and a prayer’
    Academics are attached to Universities thats why your academics. So please with no disrespect academics please leave the arts alone or go and do an art course, if you want to be funded by the Arts Council.

    Great article really enjoyed it very creative!! J 🙂

  2. Comment made by In praise of Academic Creativity in the Social Sciences | eSocSci || March 1st, 2016

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