Teaching New Zealand history

A couple of year ago I wrote a post here about the idea of teaching more New Zealand history in state schools. In principle I was, and am, strongly supportive of doing so, and have always been conscious that almost all the New Zealand history I learned has been acquired since leaving school. But I was uneasy about what was likely to be taught, which left me in practical terms ambivalent.

Incidentally, in that post I included a quote – from a newspaper article that day – in which the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (and then Associate Minister of Education) denied there was any intention to make such teaching compulsory. But from next year it will be, at least for kids from 5 to Year 10.

A few months ago the government put out a consultative document with a draft curriculum for the teaching of New Zealand history to these children (bear in mind that the median age of the students will be 10). Submissions close today.

I wasn’t going to make a submission – what is the point, the government and the bureaucrats have ideological agendas they are unlikely to be deflected from – but after reading someone else’s submission the other day, which I was sympathetic to but disagreed with quite a bit of, I decided to make a short submission, if nothing else for the record.

My full submission is here.

I outlined several concerns that mean I think the proposed curriculum is highly unsatisfactory. Here is the body of my text

First, and although the focus is on young children (from age 5 to those at the end of year 10 just turning 15) there is no sense in the curriculum of any continuous narrative.    Providing such a basic outline of our history should be a basic in any history curriculum of this sort, which (sadly) represents almost all the formal history study most students will ever do.  No one, taught solely using this curriculum, will emerge with a rough sense of, for example, (a) the migration of Maori to these islands, (b) their settlement, their impact on the land, and their society, religion, economics, (c) the interface with more advanced technologies that connected these islands with the rest of the world, (d) the evangelisation of New Zealand and the key role of the Church Missionary Society, (e) key figures in early modern New Zealand history, (f) the economic development –  including large-scale immigration – that by the early 20th century had New Zealand as one of the highest income countries on earth, (g) the gradual process that led to New Zealand political independence. (h) the high rates of Maori-European intermarriage, and (i) key political figures (good and ill) of the 20th century.  Names and dates may be out of fashion – and they can be over-emphasised in the inevitable limited teaching time available – but they help provide a structure for beginning to organise thinking about historical events and times.  

Second, there is no sense of the wider world of which the New Zealand story (particularly since 1642/1769 or whichever date one focuses on) has been a part.    A significant element of pre-European New Zealand was its remarkable isolation – Maori having settled here some centuries earlier there was no evidence of ongoing contact with other societies in the Pacific (themselves typically small and isolated) and with no international trade at all.  It was an astonishing degree of isolation.    The European age of exploration and discovery opened these islands to the world, and the world to these islands – and had begun to do well before 1840.  Whether or not large-scale European settlement ever became a feature of New Zealand, that opening was inevitable and would always have been transformational.  And yet there is no hint of it.    Similarly, there is no sense of the similarities (and differences, for good and ill) of experiences in Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, Southern Africa, the United States and (beyond the English-speaking world) in southern Latin America or North Africa.  None of this can be taught in depth to young kids in a limited time, but it badly distorts the New Zealand story not to refer to them at all.   The people of these islands were isolated for several hundred years, but modern New Zealand is not – and for a least a century in the emergence of modern New Zealand what went on it was in parallel with, often interacting with, experiences in these other places.

Third, there is a strong sense running through the document that a primary purpose of studying history is to judge the past (and those in it) rather than to understand it.   Particularly when such young children are the focus, and when the curriculum is designed for use in schools across the country (attended by people of all manner of races, religions, political and ideological views), that focus is misplaced.    Understanding needs to precede attempts at judgement/evaluation, but there is no sign – in this document, or elsewhere in the curriculum – of children being equipped with the tools that, as they move into mature adulthood, will allow them to make thoughtful judgements or (indeed, and often) simply to take the past as it was, and understand how it may influence the country we inhabit today.    There is little or no sense, for example, that one reasonably be ambivalent about some aspects of the past or that some people might, quite reasonably, evaluate the same facts differently.

Fourth, not only does the document seem to operate in a mode more focused on evaluation and judgement than on understanding, it seems to champion a particular set of judgements, and a particular frame for looking at the history of these islands (evident, as just a small example, in its repeated use of the term “Aotearoa New Zealand”, a name with neither historical nor legal standing, even if championed at present by certain parts of the New Zealand public sector).     This includes what themes the authors choose to ignore – religion, for example, is not mentioned at all, whether in a Maori context or that of later arrivals, even though religions always (at least) encapsulate key aspects of any culture’s understanding of itself, and of its taboos).   Economic history hardly gets a mention, even though the exposure to trade, technology, and the economic institutions of leading economies helped dramatically lift average material living standards here, for all groups of inhabitants.   Instead, what is presented in one specific story heavily focused on one particular (arguably ahistorical) interpretation and significance of the Treaty of Waitangi.  These are contested political issues, on which reasonable people differ, and yet the curriculum document has about it something very much of a single truth.   In truth there a few things about which there is a high measure of agreement today – perhaps the ending of slavery and cannibalism here, under the influence of the gospel and (quite separately) colonial government – and thus a curriculum of this sort will be seen by many (including many parents) as little more than attempts to use the platform of compulsory public schooling as politicised indoctrination.   That is both inappropriate, unwise, and unnecessary.   And probably not helped by the very limited education in New Zealand education that most teachers have had, increasing the likelihood that what will be conveyed to children will be something more akin to a heavily politicised, nuance-free, (but in the case of most individuals well-meaning) “indoctrination”.

If a New Zealand history curriculum is to be anything more than an effort of indoctrination by a group who temporarily hold the commanding heights in the system, this draft should simply be scrapped and the whole process begun again with a clean sheet of paper.   Think, for example, about teaching the history of the last 1000 years, and the two primary strands (Maori, and Anglo/European) that have come together to form the modern New Zealand that we – today’s citizens – inherit, including confronting the fact (awkward for some) that modern New Zealand is primarily a Western-influenced society and people.   Teach about both Maori and European society, strengths, warts, and all, including recognising the ideas and events that made – for example – Britain and north-western Europe (and then its offshoots) not only the wealthiest but the most stable democratic societies.  Teach about the challenges, conflicts and opportunities created as those two societies have interacted over the last 250 years.  Highlights the key individuals, the events, the similarities and differences with other settler societies (including the huge exodus of New Zealanders, of all ethnicities, to Australia – more economically successful – in the last 50 years).  Teach about secularisation and social change, about the similarities and differences between New Zealand and other advanced countries.  But, for the most part, teach facts, teach narrative, teach verifiable stuff, and leave the evaluation for parents, religions, political parties, and for the young people themselves as they emerge into adulthood and – for those interested – more advanced study.

Any such course is inevitably going to emphasise some things rather than others – only by selection and systemisation can things be reduced to manageable scale – and some evaluation is probably unavoidable too. But the government’s document is a heavy-handed unrepresentative piece that has the feel of being dreamed up by some black-armband Social Studies teachers who have studied little history and have little interest in history for its own sake – for understanding our past, rather than (as appears in this document) primarily to judge it.

On a related theme – including how differently people see the same events (different people, different times, different whatever) – in a secondhand bookshop recently I picked up a copy of the Official Souvenir Programme of the 1950 Canterbury Centennial Celebrations. I bought it mostly because all my family were then in Christchurch, and almost all my New Zealand ancestors had lived mostly in Canterbury. But what really caught my eye were the messages at the front of the document from the Governor-General (Freyberg) and the Prime Minister (Sid Holland). Here is Freyberg’s


And here is Holland’s


It is a very different view of (modern) New Zealand and its history than that of today’s Cabinet or the Ministry of Education’s curriculum writers, and yet I sense not a view that the curriculum writers would even recognise or regard as acceptable.

(I read the Holland contribution with particular poignancy, remembering the long journey, on a ship wracked with scarlet fever, that Holland’s father and my great-grandfather – young sons of a poor Yorkshire farm labourer – had made to Christchurch back in the early 1860s).