Story: Intellectuals

Page 4. University intellectuals

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Although these periodicals were independent of the academy, many Landfall and Comment writers were university lecturers. Commentators such as Conrad Bollinger, who wrote on alcohol and New Zealand culture; Ranginui Walker, who provided an independent Māori voice; Jane Kelsey, who critiqued new-right economics; Lloyd Geering, a challenging writer on morality and faith; and Paul Callaghan, a prominent physicist with ideas about future growth prospects, all spoke from positions as tenured academics. Many contributors to the radical press, such as Chris Trotter and Nicky Hager, had backgrounds in student politics.

The expansion of higher education in the decades after 1945 wrought dramatic changes in New Zealand intellectual life. The most straightforward effect was that more people were employed to write and think and debate. It became more feasible to conceive of, and pursue, a career as a writer and thinker, and there was more freedom to contribute to debate in fields broader than an academic speciality. Academic jobs offered scholars a security and time to reflect that a freelancer living from commission to commission did not enjoy.

Late developer

New Zealand (like Australia) was very slow to introduce sociology into the university curriculum. This may partly follow the influence of the British universities, which also resisted the subject. Sociology had long been an important part of public and academic discussion in the United States, Germany and France.


Public discussion in the second half of the 20th century was also shaped by newer forms of knowledge encouraged by universities. With the establishment of university departments of sociology in the 1960s, the structures of Pākehā society were subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. Comparable aspects of Māori society had long been regarded as appropriate subjects for anthropological research.

Political science and economics

As political science became established in universities in the late 1940s, voting and other kinds of political behaviour became the subject of sophisticated empirical study. The discipline’s findings and approach were then brokered to a general audience through radio and television coverage of election campaigns. In the 1960s Austin Mitchell, a Yorkshireman who taught political science at Canterbury University, enjoyed a level of celebrity as a television commentator that few New Zealand intellectuals have matched.

The lay audience for informed comment on politics and economics meant that journalists were complemented by figures who combined aspects of the role of the academic specialist with the functions of the columnist. The economist and Listener columnist Brian Easton has been a notable example.

How to cite this page:

Chris Hilliard, 'Intellectuals - University intellectuals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Chris Hilliard, published 22 Oct 2014