Jonathan Scott: Back in the saddle - and alleviating ignorance

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Hekia Parata. Photo / APN
Hekia Parata. Photo / APN

Pay no attention to the saddle. I have only been on a horse three times, and during the first, on a date when I was 18, the addle- headed mule wandered over to a stream to drink and I sailed down its neck to do the same (Final score: desperate teenager 0, horse 1). As anyone in their fifties will know my title refers to a kick-ass rock song by Aerosmith that formed part of the soundtrack of my youth. Those were the pre-Lord of the Rings days of Steve Tyler, before Liv. And the Lip, Steve having already out-Jaggered Mick, had yet to be perfected by the gorgeous elf.

I left the country to continue my education and practise my profession as a historian. That lasted 25 years. I have been back for three and a half and it has not been easy - broken marriage, Auckland house prices - but there is not a day that I don't kiss the ground of my home country and feel privileged both to have been away and then had the opportunity to return. New Zealand is not perfect - that is my theme - but it is stunning. When Americans asked where are you from and I told them (particularly after Lord of the Rings) they said then what the hell are you doing here? I came back because there was not a day away when I hadn't missed this place.

In a column in December 26's Herald ('Parata's meteoric rise', p. A53), Bryan Gould - to whom I mean no disrespect - described Lesley Longstone as "a halfway competent UK public official with little chance of reaching the top in Britain (as witness the willingness to come to New Zealand)".

I would settle for being a halfway decent human being, father and husband and am not sure if I will ever be able to say that. But to return to New Zealand, I accepted a demotion from an endowed professorship (the highest rank there) at the 50th best university in the world for an ordinary one at one ranked lower, for the reasons I have given. I have the greatest respect for my current students and colleagues.

This year, I wrote two letters to the Herald, which were published. Decades ago a colleague in Britain warned me that writing letters to the local newspaper was at worst a sign of madness and at best evidence of being a "sad bastard".

I was in fact "sad", but to write a letter, it also helps me to be cross. The first was in response to Minister Gerry Brownlee's remarkable assault on Finland, unprecedented in peacetime.

The other was evoked by a lobbyist to the Government telling a professional academic with the temerity to discuss New Zealand's environmental degradation to retire to his comfy tenure in the lounge.

In the first case, I explained that Finland had social investment in education, parental support and gender equality of opportunity that made New Zealand look like Mount Doom. In the second I pointed out that academic tenure does not exist here and lounges are in short supply. The lobbyist appeared to be more than adequately upholstered. In New Zealand the ignorance-alleviation industry desperately needs a shot in the arm.

A senior colleague who moved from Auckland back to his (and my) home city of Wellington recently made a funny joke. The only problem about returning to Wellington, he reported, was that you find the city and the country run by all the members of your BA (Hons) classes who got seconds. It is probably only funny if you got a first, and then became an academic. But as a result we deferred our earning years and some of us remain fervent believers in education.

Which brings me back to Finland. They live in a sub-arctic marginal zone, and suffer from alcoholism and depression, but their social policies put us in late antiquity. Why does New Zealand have the governments it elects and the policies they pursue? It is not, presumably, because New Zealanders are dumber than Finns. So it must be: education, education, education.

Jonathan Scott is professor of history at Auckland University.

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