Wellington primary school teacher John McDougall remembers his former student Max Harris very well.
“When Max was six he would come to school with a copy of the Dominion Post and read it cover to cover before school started. He was incredibly interested in just about everything and might still be the paper’s youngest ever reader.”
But it wasn’t all hard news for the budding academic. There was also his love of sport which included an encyclopaedic knowledge of cricket scores.
“Max loved statistics. He knew individual cricket scores from all the tests, batting averages, bowling statistics and he would team up with his friend Ralph Hall and the two of them together were just phenomenal.”
With an international upbringing that included four years living in China until he was six followed by time spent in Indonesia when he was 12, where he learned to speak passable Bahasa, before returning to Wellington College in 2004 for his last two years of high school, Max says the experience was something of a culture shock.
However, he quickly adapted to life back in NZ and was named a premier scholar in his final year finishing in the top 12 students nationally. It was a taste of things to come.
Completing his BA/LLB with honours in 2011 and awarded a Rhodes scholarship in the same year, Max is currently undertaking a doctorate in constitutional law at Oxford.
In between he clerked for Chief Justice Sian Elias at the Supreme Court, spent time working for Helen Clark at the United Nations, had a short stint at the American Civil Liberties Union and spent time in South Australia as a speechwriting intern for the state government. But securing a place as an Examination Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, one of only up to three such fellows elected each year based on a torturous twelve hour written exam, might well be his most prestigious award to date.
“While I enjoy Oxford I have mixed feelings about some of the traditions. I’m not a big fan of rituals such as having to wear gowns and a suit and tie to dinner. It can be a very conservative institution at times.”
But despite his success he says staying grounded has always been important to him.
“I’ve always admired people who are humble and watching how they carry themselves has been really important for me. I’ve also come to realise there’s only so much we can do on our own; individual effort and personal qualities only go so far. It’s how we relate to other people, how we join together to tackle issues we care about, how we treat other people and how we address structures in society that is important.”
Many of these themes are contained in his recently released book The New Zealand Project, a book he says is a call to action; particularly for young people.
“I hope it is read in the spirit in which it is written: an attempt to amplify others’ voices, and an invitation to debate. If what I’ve written leads people to produce different New Zealand projects, then – far from being disappointed – I’ll be pleased: we’ll have more debate about the future of the country. I think we need more of that.”