Yes, but….

Yesterday – no doubt with Waitangi Day in view –  the history teachers’ association was out with a call (even a petition) for the compulsory teaching of New Zealand history in schools.   You might suppose this was a job creation scheme for history teachers, but I’m happy to grant that that won’t be the only motivation behind the association’s call.

You might suppose that history teachers –  in particular –  might be interested in the entire story of our country, ancient and modern.  And yet, oddly, the “Petition Reason” seems only interested in one brief period.

Too few New Zealanders have a sound understanding of what brought the Crown and Māori together in the 1840 Treaty, or of how the relationship played out over the following decades. We believe it is a basic right of all to learn this at school

As it happens, in principle I strongly favour the teaching of New Zealand history in our schools.  I find it utterly astonishing how little  of the story of our country –  and what little there is (ANZAC Day, Waitangi Day) typically wrenched from context –  and of our people and cultures is taught in our schools.  As I recall, I got through the whole of school with no New Zealand history, other than one School Certificate history unit on the New Zealand and US welfare system.   From what three children wending their way through the school system tell me, it doesn’t seem much different now, unless one chooses to do history in years 11-13 (a pretty small minority), but where apparently it is now only permitted to study history with “implications for New Zealand”.  No man an island and all that, so I’m happy to argue all human history (and certainly western history) has implications for who we are today, but I don’t think that is quite what the history teachers or the Ministry of Education have in mind.  I don’t know much about how it is done in other countries, but I’m struck by my daughter’s English penfriends who tell about studying specific history courses at around ages 10 to 12.  There is so much about New Zealand, New Zealanders, and our interaction with the rest of western history, that could –  and ideally should –  be taught.

Of course, the whole philosophy of many of our “educators” is opposed to learning facts, let alone placing them in a coherent narrative.  How vividly I recall the activist principal of our local primary school telling a group of parents of new entrants that the school tried not to teach facts, as nothing specific they taught now would be any use fifteen or twenty years hence.  Any serious teaching of history –  not isolated tiny NCEA standards –  would fly in the face of that sort of mentality.

I’d almost go as far as the history teachers in calling it a “basic right” for children to be educated in where our country today has come from.  We don’t invent ourselves anew with each new generation, but as individuals and societies we are formed –  and informed –  by what came before us.  That is so even when many want to turn their backs on much of their origins.  Origins they still are.  And choices made yesterday affect institutions (broadly defined) today.

And what counts as history doesn’t simply begin at Paihia in 1840 (or even the few years just prior to that).   So, in principle, I would strongly favour teaching (say) 1000 years of history, introduced from new entrants and expanded as the capacity of the children to make sense of the material grows.    Look back to the first human settlement of New Zealand, and to (say, and inevitably arbitrarily) the Norman Conquest and subsequent British (and European) history.  Tell the stories, establish a sense of the flow, cover (inevitably a bit lightly for most) the politics, the religion, the key figures, the way in which governments developed.   For New Zealand, I’d tell the more recent story partly in a cross-country comparative sense –  New Zealand vs (say) Australia, Ireland, Canada, Newfoundland, or even Fiji and South Africa.  As it is, smart historically-oriented children probably know more about British Prime Ministers and US Presidents than they do about those who’ve directly led and shaped our own country.        One can, of course, mount an argument that those big countries were “more important”, and I wouldn’t really disagree, but New Zealand history is our history.  Depriving our kids of serious exposure to New Zealand history is akin to depriving them of any knowledge of their great-grandparents.

My son’s year 12 history teacher told the class yesterday that he didn’t support the history teachers’ association call, because kids typically weren’t interested in New Zealand history and there was no point teaching stuff kids weren’t interested in.  Frankly, that seems like an abdication of responsibility –  most kids aren’t that interested in maths and yet we give them no choice about learning it.  And it is also something of a vote of no-confidence in teachers: sure, most kids probably won’t be that interested in New Zealand history at 15 if they’ve never learned any previously (I wasn’t then), but if you start early and introduce key figures, key stories, in age-appropriate ways I’m reluctant to believe that kids will have no interest.  But even if they still claimed no interest, they need to know where we’ve come from.  After all, in a very few years each of them will be eligible voters.

What I found most interesting in the articles yesterday was where the pushback from teaching history was coming from.

But the associate minister of education and minister of Crown Māori relations, Kelvin Davis, was quick to quash any impression the government might make the topic compulsory.

Davis was formerly a teacher, so one might have thought he’d favour making New Zealand history, including New Zealand’s place in the world, an integral part of what schools teach.   It is the sort of subject that probably matters even more for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who aren’t as likely to go digging themselves, or to be introduced to some structured narrative of New Zealand from home.

But supportive as I am in principle of a much more central role for history –  New Zealand history –  in what is taught in schools, what leaves me rather more ambivalent (“yes, but….”)  is the sort of people who would be teaching our history, and/or designing any curriculum.      Few of them seem to see New Zealand history as something to celebrate (I’m going to be fascinated to see how our Prime Minister treats the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first visit), and there is a strong theme of shame –  the “black armband” approach to history –  combined with some agenda for how these people think society should be organised now or what role (say) the Treaty of Waitangi should play.  There is little sense of handing down the traditions and insights that made us who we are –  the sense that any society stands on the shoulders of those who went before –  and little interest in the past for its own sake (understanding, for example, why people believed and acted as they did), only as subject for judgement or grist to the mill in current political contests.   And I guess that is why the government resists the idea of making the teaching of history compulsory: they sense that many parents probably really aren’t keen on ill-educated indoctrination.

Give parents effective choice over schools –  proper and full funding for independent schools –  and I’d be a lot keener on translating support in principle for some serious structured teaching of New Zealand history (ups and down, successes and failures, and so on) into something worth implementing, in ways that might usefully amount to more than (often unwitting –  most teachers know no better) indoctrination.

There was a quote from G K Chesterton in an article I was reading yesterday (in the Australian periodical Quadrant)

The trouble with too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they never have passed through the parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace. Obviously it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself.  the flopping infant of four actually has more experience and has weathered the world longer than the dogma to which he is made to submit.  Many a school boasts of having the latest ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience.

Dated as the wording may be, the ideas seem apt nonetheless.

And there is an interesting new article in Foreign Affairs by Harvard historian Jill Lepore on “Why a Nation Needs a National Story”.   I’m ambivalent about, or even unsympathetic to, where she gets to –  she wouldn’t quite put it like this, but it amounts to history as indoctrination/shaping –   but I was quite taken with this line

“Writing national history creates plenty of problems. But not writing national history creates more problems, and those problems are worse.”

We owe it to our kids to form them in where we (they) have come from.   Only when given a decent base of knowledge can they intelligently challenge interpretations and reach useful views as to what from history should be taken forward and what left behind.  Whether agents of the state, imbibing radical agendas often upending that heritage, can be trusted to do that job is quite another question altogether.