Story: Intellectuals

New Zealand has sometimes been criticised for being anti-intellectual and lacking intellectuals. However, the country has been home to a broad range of cultural commentators and intellectuals, both inside and outside academia.

Story by Chris Hilliard
Main image: Poster for 1948 Group show

Story summary

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Colonial era

In colonial times in New Zealand, few people had the time or money to focus on culture and ideas. Libraries, galleries and museums were set up in larger towns, but they seldom created new knowledge. University colleges were established in major cities in the later 19th century, but their staff often lacked time for scholarship, writing and public debate.

Some individuals, such as the doctor Alfred Newman, the settler and novelist Samuel Butler, the poet and feminist Jessie Mackay and politicians George Grey and Alfred Domett, spoke out publicly about their ideas.

Societies and journals

Scholars and other interested people came together in learned societies such as the New Zealand Institute (founded in 1867), which focused on scientific research and took an interest in Māori topics. The Polynesian Society researched Māori and Polynesian history.

Creative writing and comment appeared in publications such as the Triad (from 1893) and the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine (1899), and sometimes in the mainstream press. Māori leaders like Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) spoke publicly about issues, but were taken most seriously by Māori.

From 1934 to 1940 Tomorrow magazine focused on politics and current affairs, as well as art and literature. It was the centre of a left-wing intellectual group in Christchurch, and there were similar groups in Auckland and Wellington. Set up in 1947, Landfall magazine focused on literature and included social criticism.

Left-wing publications included Bruce Jesson’s The Republican from 1974 and the feminist magazine Broadsheet (1972).

University intellectuals

As higher education expanded after the Second World War, many more New Zealanders were employed by universities to write, think and debate. New subjects such as sociology and political science were introduced to universities.

Many journal contributors were university lecturers, including Māori commentator Ranginui Walker, law professor Jane Kelsey and physicist Paul Callaghan. Left-wing writers such as Chris Trotter and Nicky Hager often had backgrounds in student politics.

Literature and history

Literary writers and critics also reflected on New Zealand society and identity. They included poets Allen Curnow and James K. Baxter. Historians such as J. C. Beaglehole, Keith Sinclair and W. H. Oliver explained New Zealand history and interpreted current issues.

How to cite this page:

Chris Hilliard, 'Intellectuals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Chris Hilliard, published 22 October 2014