The scholar’s conscience, Rachael Bell

J C Beaglehole: Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience
Doug Munro
Steele Roberts, $25.00,
ISBN 9781877577802

In 1946, Victoria University College historian J C Beaglehole wrote of New Zealand’s nascent national identity and the historian’s contribution to the development of national life. An empirically grounded and honest treatment of the past, he believed, could give depth and understanding to emerging nationhood. It could shape, as he eloquently phrased it, “the outlines of our hope”. Almost a decade later, Beaglehole had both expanded and refined his argument. Speaking now of the intellectual more generally, with his critical faculties and “scholar’s conscience”, he used his public lecture, “The New Zealand Scholar” to articulate the role of man thinking as the interface between higher learning and “tradition”, that subconscious, collective sense of time and place that forms the fabric of a nation. Let the fabric be moulded, he argued, “rewoven with quite exciting new strands” towards a richer and more “civilised” community. Let the scholar take up “into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future”, let him speak “with his own mind”.

It is these aspects of Beaglehole’s own life – his scholar’s conscience, his hopes for the future and insistence on speaking his own mind – that form the focus of this book. Fittingly, perhaps, Munro’s current work is taken from a chapter of a larger publication, intended for the international market and “priced beyond the tolerance” of most New Zealanders. Revised and reworked as a “small book for a parochial audience”, it reflects nicely the form of scholarship envisaged by Beaglehole and, in the tradition of the 1940 centennial publications, the historical and school publications branches and other projects Beaglehole was involved in, its intention is to bring sound academic research within the reach of the average New Zealand reader.

Furthermore, and again channelling Beaglehole’s vision of the “scholar” in its broadest sense, it is not so much his historical output that Munro is interested in but rather those points at which his scholarly conscience was manifest in its “sense of obligation to wider society”: points of contestation and controversy in which Beaglehole found himself in opposition to the establishment in the pursuit of a value, principle or standard of practice. Thus the middle chapters of the book cover events, such as the founding of the National Orchestra, the fates of the Centennial Historical Atlas and Arts Advisory Council, the founding of the Council for Civil Liberties, the Historic Places Trust and the battle for Old St Paul’s in Wellington as illustrations of a “public intellectual” in action.

Condensed into so small a volume, less than 80 pages of text, the impression is of both a remarkable energy and sense of public duty. Oftentimes “disaffected and at odds with his social environment”, Beaglehole was an academic who was prepared to run the gauntlet of political and institutional disapprobation to a degree that would be difficult to imagine today. Munro’s clear prose and accessible style belies the skill required to capture so broad a career and range of interests within a brief and succinct argument. “We all”, as Munro notes of Beaglehole himself, should “aspire to write like that”.

In terms of historical scholarship, Beaglehole is best known for his series of colossal volumes on the life and journals of Captain James Cook. There is a certain irony, as historian Jock Phillips has noted, that the enormity of these undertakings likely lifted them above the scope of the general reader and minimised their impact on the New Zealand tradition he so advocated.  In this tidy and readable little book, however, Munro has illuminated for us the extent to which the other side of Beaglehole’s scholarly vision – his sense of civic duty and the application of his formidable talents to moral and public causes – has left us, culturally, all the richer.


Rachael Bell teaches in the History Programme at Massey University.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category