Challenged and challenging, Margaret Tennant

Politics in the Playground
Helen May
Bridget Williams Books with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, $39.95,
ISBN 1877242187

“Unfortunate Folk”: Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992
ed Barbara Brookes and Jane Thomson
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 187727609X

New Zealand Social Work: Contexts and Practice
ed Marie Connolly
Oxford University Press, $65.00,
ISBN 0195584317

Although in many ways very different, these books have in common an assumption that a knowledge of history is important for understanding the present. The most historically-focussed, Brookes’s and Thomson’s collection of essays on mental health treatment, “Unfortunate Folk”, begins with a reference to a mental health controversy current at the time the book was being completed. History is seen as allowing us “to review the decisions we have made with regard to the care of those who are ill”. New Zealand Social Work, the textbook edited by Connolly, explores the context of social work in New Zealand, “tracing its history and the knowledge base that has shaped its development”. Most of the 27 contributors at least nod in the direction of historical reference points, some more strongly and some more successfully than others. May’s Politics in the Playground is the only monograph among the three books reviewed here. The past successes of early childhood activists in increasing government investment in the field feature prominently, the “lesson” being that early childhood has always been the site for experiment (and, significantly, the author was herself involved in a major government review of early childhood education at the time of the book’s publication).


Not all would agree that history and the perspectives it has to offer are important to contemporary policy-making or practice issues. A feature of many institutions and organisations during the late 20th century was the rejection of institutional memory and past experience in the interests of an ethos of change. (How long will it be, I wonder, before a new cohort of postgraduate history students writes about the 1980s and 1990s as a distinctive, perhaps rather strange, period captured by ideologies of change and renewal – in much the same way that my own generation wrote somewhat disapprovingly of late 19th century moral campaigns, of an early to mid-20th century “cult of domesticity”, of 1950s conformity?) But at various times in the social policy arena, those on the political right and the political left have found it convenient to seek lessons from the past, sometimes applauding a golden age of one kind or another. The Business Roundtable-sponsored work of David Green (From Welfare State to Civil Society, 1996) was pretty soon found to be less than robust in its depiction of a New Zealand past where family responsibility, mutual associations and community and voluntary welfare flourished (before the voluntary sector, too, was corrupted by expectation of state support).

Those on the Left more usually positioned their golden age in the 1930s and 1940s with the advent of the First Labour Government’s version of the welfare state, usually neglecting the continued moralism and means-testing built into Social Security, and the generational transfers which meant that some sections of the community benefited more generously from its outreach than others. But “lessons” have equally taken the forms of admonition about the complexity and intractability of problems. This approach presents cycles of response as a counter to the arrogance of those who would judge their predecessors as wrong-headed or even malevolent, and warns about the transience of ideologies. Whenever history is cited, its purpose and quality need considering. How adequate is the historical lens, how long its compass, how finely focused the detail it provides? Why do we need to know about the past?


The books reviewed here present no past golden ages, though there are “lessons” aplenty. The progressive orientation of some writers suggests expectation of a better future – even if the pathway to enlightenment has not been uncomplicated. Politics in the Playground charts an expansionist period for early childhood education, noting changing patterns and discourses. As a sequel to May’s 1997 Discovery of Early Childhood, the book’s historical span is relatively short: it moves from the 1940s (when 3.4% of three- and four-year-old children attended kindergartens and a number of playcentres) to the 1990s, when 95% of children of this age attended a wide range of programmes, from kohanga reo to centres with a Christian or parenting support focus. As May observes, “By the 1950s those children not attending preschool came to be regarded as unfortunate, by the 1960s as disadvantaged, by the 1970s-1980s as disenfranchised, and by the end of the century as ‘at risk’.”  The three chronological sections of the book examine rationales behind these shifts, each promoting the need for greater and greater state investment in early childhood. New perceptions of childhood, welfare and education combined in a pattern of innovation and increasing control as the price of this investment.

May’s research sweep is broad: interviews, archives of government departments and private organisations, numerous reports and an impressive body of secondary material inform her text. Chapters covering the “rights and liberation” discourses of the late 1960s to the early 1980s have a particular immediacy, reflecting, perhaps, May’s own involvement in the area as consumer of services for her children, as activist and policy-maker. The debate over biculturalism and the emergence of kohanga reo stands as a case study of broader relevance than the story of early childhood. The discourse of quality, which May identifies in her last section, is one in which she has been prominent, though she is clearly uneasy with some of the economic rationales that framed the discourse in the 1990s. Presenting the early childhood sector as a site of ongoing activism and challenge to wider social structures, she suggests that “History’s lesson is that the sector can debate new ideas and formulate consensus positions”. It is, she suggests, time for a new debate, but one in which “we need to be active in constructing the discourse”. The “we” here is a little problematic, and presumably refers to early childhood educators and advocates rather than “politicians, employers, parents and schools” – for all (as May points out) have had different agendas over time.

Discourses figure prominently in Politics in the Playground. I happened to read at the same time Lynley Hood’s disturbing A City Possessed about the Christchurch Civic Creche case. This makes a one-line appearance in May’s book in connection with international cases which sparked a raft of policies to increase the surveillance of children in the name of care and protection. A discourse largely missing from Politics in the Playground is the discourse of danger and, perhaps, the fears, insecurities and heightened expectations of those who now, in large numbers, are surrendering the care of their children to others for a substantial part of the time. Whether or not one accepts Hood’s major premise, there are undoubtedly other “lessons” to be learned on this particular historical front.


Discourses of danger are to the fore in “Unfortunate Folk”. Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992. This edited collection is based on History Honours research exercises at the University of Otago over a twenty-year period. With the Hocken Library, the Otago Medical School and a number of past and present psychiatric institutions at hand, and History Department expertise in the history of medicine, Otago students have been well placed to cut their research teeth on topics in the history of mental health. Here, a number of fascinating but variable postgraduate research exercises have been skilfully edited down to chapter size by Jane Thomson and given focus by Barbara Brookes in an excellent introduction.

This is work which might otherwise not have been readily available to general readers. It covers Otago mental health institutions from 1863 to the early 1990s, and the development of psychiatry in New Zealand, as well as the social context of mental illness. Policy discussion is supplemented by the case records of individuals who would otherwise have had no public voice. A fascinating sequence of photographs captures patient images, along with the institutional surroundings. This, one of the most powerful aspects of the collection, has become harder for historians to replicate. The destruction of records and modern concerns about privacy may thwart future efforts to foreground such “foreigners” in the world of reason.

In relation to periodic and sometimes sensationalised concerns about “dangers” posed by the mentally ill, Jane Adams’ chapter on “Criminal Lunacy” is instructive. In part, Adams analyses two highly publicised cases where the issue of “madness” or “badness” was central to courtroom dramas of the first order, and the definitional problems have strong resonances with cases from more recent times. But Adams concludes that the threat posed to the community by so-called criminal lunatics was minimal, and that most incarcerated on these grounds had merely been convicted of vagrancy or drunkenness. In the early 20th century, mentally retarded or “feeble-minded” children were equally likely to be seen as a threat to society, and eugenicist policy-makers put considerable energy into devising their segregation. Otekaieke Special School for Boys is the focus of one chapter, and medical and governmental responses to mental defects another. Here and elsewhere in “Unfortunate Folk”, changing definitions of mental abnormality and mental illness are dissected, along with the waxing and waning of public concerns.

The past in these essays is an imperfect one, but it is not one of unrelieved horror and discredited treatments. The role of mental health institutions in the community is a feature of many chapters, and case materials chart the process of incarceration, the often intolerable pressures on families with a mentally ill member, and the role of the psychiatric facility as a retreat. For some, the asylum of the past was just that, and institutional care was preferable to the greater ills of the outside world. As Brookes notes, “these histories … remind us that women and men have worked to create therapeutic communities even when their efforts were stymied by insufficient resources” – and a lack of resources is one of the more constant themes within this particular area of social policy. The collection above all reminds us of the intractability of some social issues and the rapidity with which one decade’s miraculous treatment or obvious solution becomes another’s barbaric abuse.


New Zealand Social Work is also a collective effort, intended as a text for students of social work. Its format contains blocks with “critical questions” and guides to further reading, as well as a comprehensive bibliography. Sections of the book cover social work practice and current issues, fields of practice and professional issues in social work. The  contributors include some of our most experienced social work educators and practitioners, and the book’s coherence and accessibility is a tribute to the editor, Marie Connolly.

A historical consciousness is a feature of the book, and was presumably part of the writers’ brief. It stresses a “bidirectional view”: social work is seen as a “profession of change, evolving in response to a climate of social, cultural and political mutability”. Readers are invited to “pause before repeating past mistakes” and to “learn from experience”, while gaining an understanding of the development of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand over time. The historical dimension in New Zealand Social Work is satisfying to a historian such as myself, but its presence is also telling. Like nursing, social work is using
its history as part of a process of professional validation and identity formation. A profession, which, in a casework context, collects life histories and family stories as a basis to understanding clients’ difficulties, may be particularly receptive to a shift of the historical lens from individual to professional group.

Nonetheless, the calibre of that history in the book is uneven. The most impressive and substantial historical chapters are by Mary Nash, one on the origins and traditions of social work in this country, and another on the education of social workers. The lens in both cases goes back to the 1950s, with a brief nod in the direction of early welfare traditions. Other chapters use history more as an introductory overture to their “real” focus, some going back as far as the classical and medieval West, but neglecting the translation of European traditions into a local setting. Though the distinctiveness of New Zealand patterns can get lost in the long-term survey, a number of chapters in the text invoke the explanatory power of “colonialism” to inform understandings of contemporary practice. Nonetheless, in a textbook which is not primarily intended as a historical resource, many contributors do give a good broad sense of changing patterns and orthodoxies, of lingering tensions which are firmly grounded in the past, and of contested ground in a challenged and challenging profession.

In each of these books the past is ultimately a liberating rather than a constraining force. Despite the apparent intractability of problems in some areas (most obviously, mental health), the picture is also one of variety and possibility. The past is not some dead hand against which contemporary practitioners and policy-makers need struggle, but part of the total social and economic context against which informed decisions must be made.


Margaret Tennant lectures in History and Social Policy at Massey University in Palmerston North, and is currently working on a survey history of voluntary welfare in New Zealand.


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