Down the memory hole

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
17 March, 2023

You may recall New Zealand’s sixteen former Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) being merged to form the mega-Polytech, Te Pūkenga.

But if you do, it is a false memory.

Repeat the following until you believe it:

Te Pūkenga has always been the only Polytech in Aotearoa.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, events inconvenient to the totalitarian government are thrown down a ‘memory hole’ in the Ministry of Truth. Once committed to the memory hole, it is if the offending event had never occurred.

Te Pūkenga Chief Executive Peter Winder has built a memory hole of his own. In a new ‘style guide’, his staff are told that they should not refer to the merger. “We always refer to ourselves as Te Pūkenga”, they are admonished.

In fact, though, referring to employees of Te Pūkenga as ‘staff’ may get me into trouble with Winder’s thought police. As the new style guide makes clear, Te Pūkenga does not have staff. It has ‘work friends’.

Work friends who teach courses at Te Pūkenga are not teachers, but ‘learning facilitators’. People enrolled in those courses are not students, but ‘ākonga’, which means ‘students’.

It is very important to use the right words. And the right words at Te Pūkenga, are those dictated by the style guide.

The importance of using the right words actually has little to do with what those words mean. In fact, the right words and the wrong ones often mean exactly the same thing.

Orwell understood that controlling what people say is the best way to control what they think. In part that is because human thought is largely expressed in words. It is also because compelling people to use particular words establishes an attitude of supine obedience.

Winder assures us that there have been no complaints about the style guide. Citizens of Soviet Russia didn’t complain to Stalin about queuing to buy bread, either.

The recent spate of linguistic cleansing at Te Pūkenga follows another incident of censorship at the institution. Last week, Te Pūkenga staff – sorry, work friends – were told not to publicly express political views, because they are public servants.

Some wrong-thinking academics from other institutions have claimed that this pronouncement violates academic freedom. Clearly, these troublemakers are not keeping up with the programme.

At Te Pūkenga, academic freedom is just another old-fashioned idea that’s been thrown down the memory hole.

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