Massey's humanities tradition

W.H. Oliver - foundation professor of history

W H Oliver W.H. (Bill) Oliver, the foundation Professor of History at Massey University, was one of New Zealand’s premier intellectuals. His work, produced over more than half a century, invites us to reflect on who we are as a people. This thread runs through his books which include: The Story of New Zealand (1960), The Oxford History of New Zealand (1981), The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Vol. 1 (1990) and his memoir Looking for the Phoenix (2002). Each publication posed the question afresh and brought a new audience into the conversation.  

The significance of this contribution was confirmed in 2008 when he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.

Taken as a whole Bill Oliver’s work provides what could be termed a manifesto for the Humanities. Bill has never been a great lover of manifestos, so he may prefer to describe it as an approach or even a sensibility. As benchmarks and guiding principles, these are some of the invaluable qualities which run through Bill’s work:

  1. Local stories are important and valid subjects in themselves – for Bill the view from Feilding - his birth place - was as important as the view from Wellington or London.
  2. The New Zealand story is best understood in context – his work seamlessly traversed the fluid borderlands between the provincial, the national, the regional and the global.
  3. Academics can, and should, be engaged with and make a contribution to their society – among other things Bill contributed significantly to the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy and the emerging research environment surrounding the Waitangi Tribunal.
  4. Culture and the life of the mind matter – Bill was a poet and an innovative cultural historian, a thinker, a writer and intellectual in its broadest and most positive sense.
  5. Humanities research should be inclusive of all experiences - The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, for example, explicitly reframed the New Zealand story along these lines.
  6. Humanities scholarship should be open to a range of approaches and produced in a variety of forms – Bill himself mastered many forms including poetry, essays and reviews, biographies, collaborative reference works and monographs.
  7. We should all aspire to the highest standards of scholarship - Bill’s expectations of himself, his colleagues and his students were always pitched at the highest level.

These notions continue to provide a call to arms for humanities researchers at Massey University and we are delighted that Bill agreed to allow us to name the academy after him.

The Massey tradition, built in tandem with John Dunmore, the Foundation Professor of French, an equally formidable writer and intellectual leader, has been built on by Massey scholars over a number of generations. The creation of the W.H. Oliver Humanities Research Academy is a reaffirmation of the role, responsibility and opportunity for the humanities at Massey University.

Associate Professor Kerry Taylor
Academy Director

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