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).

27 thoughts on “Teaching New Zealand history

  1. Sadly, we are living in days when everything has become politicised, resulting in the State funded indoctrination of our children and grandchildren. This is behaviour is inherently divisive, but the activists within the Ministry of Truth are blind to the outcomes.

    Liked by 5 people

    • The first thing that needs to be taught is that the Treaty of Waitangi is a 2 party colonial agreement between the British Crown and Maori. The only Crown in NZ is in England and really not in NZ and all past grievances should be taken up with England rather than make New Zealand taxpayer pay for Treaty settlements.


  2. Thank you Michael for making a factual and appropriate submission. I know many New Zealanders are frankly mortified by what is being proposed it’s utter nonsense. No society can address important issues without a comprehensive and accurate understanding of its past.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Excellent Michael – can I just please note one error that you have made-at the end of the fourth point you have I think, written ‘education the second time when you mean history – if I read it correctly.
    I think that you really hit the nail on the head when you state ‘ Third, there is a strong sense running through the document that a primary purpose of history is to judge the past (and those in it) rather than to understand it.
    I think that is what the whole draft curriculum seems to be aimed at-in other words it has a sense of preparing (brainwashing I think) a whole generation and generations to come in order to make more appealing He Puapua and all its ramifications.
    Thanks you for doing this-I just hope more people have done so but I hold little hope that any changes whatever will me made as a result.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I had high hopes of an inclusive presentation of our history that presented Maori and European histories in age appropriate stories without judgement or bias. Knowing our history and feeling into it with understanding of great importance. Where we have come from and why we are who we are is a human essential to personal wellbeing. All people and cultures make mistakes but it is only by gaining insight to what shaped the attitudes of ‘the other’ in their time that we can move forward in harmony and be proud of our history. I am appalled by judgmental bias of this curriculum. I find the lack of European content disgraceful beginning with missionaries. The get no credit for the major role they played in shaping good relationships between Maori and Pakeha that enabled us to have a treaty based on good intent and not as a result of war.


  4. It is disgusting and it will be a matter of outing the “public service” because this is all about toxic Critical Theory.
    If we discuss pretending we are on the same page we get nowhere. Recently the PM dogged a bullet when asked about Judith Collins claims about teaching “white privilege”


  5. Great submission Michael, I just fumed darkly about….d—-d socialists/Animal Farm/1984,…etc., and did nothing more. Not sure where your submission will be filed, but good on you anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

    The curriculum is another building block in the He Puapua vision of racial separatism which this government is implementing. They will not change it.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. This is the third submission on the draft curriculum I’ve read since I sent in my brief and hurried criticisms a week ago. What is amazing and quite depressing is not so much the similarity of some of the objections to the draft, but rather that each submission has revealed to me new defects in the proposed curriculum.

    It is impossible to believe that this draft was written by competent historians, or even by teachers aware of the need to structure content, use age-appropriate material and avoid repetition – even 25 years ago while teaching English, I encountered F3 students clearly fatigued by repetition of the Treaty and life in Maori villages; rather, it has apparently been written by ideologues who think 1984’s warning about controlling the present to control the past to control the future is good advice.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Like you davelenny, I have been amazed at some of the alarming things I have discovered in the draft curriculum since I first read it through and then I have read in the submissions that I have seen. As a teacher of some 37 years -albeit a retired one for many years now, I am stunned that anyone could even think that something like this is fit for purpose or has any intergrity at all..
      I watched the video of Anne Milne above and cringe at the attitudes that have led to our education system now rating so poorly on the international stage. A system that seems determined to lower standards and call that progress.
      As a beginning teacher in the 1960’s we were encouraged to treat each and every one of our students as individuals who had talents that could be developed and the deserved the very best we could provide in order to make a living and to be good and honest contributing members of our society. As an exchange teacher in Ontario, Canada in the early 1990’s I found a system that was in many ways inferior to ours but that was making changes that I sensed we were also going to make. We did- and to our detriment these changes are being driven continually to further divide and ‘dumb down’ our students and call it progress.
      I do not have even a sliver of confidence that this defective curriculum with be discarded.

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Two comments. If the draft had none of the points you mentioned, what is left? A few lines of text?
    Secondly, no mention at all in either of those speeches of interactions with people who were already here. A shame.


    • Minsk- Very few Maori people in the region- Two reasons : – 1. A very swampy area quite unsuitable as a place to live- possibly a reasonable place to hunt but not as a place to live. It was called Otautahi (my father born in Christchurch in 1903 and was given that name -along with others.)
      2. In the early 1830’s Te Rauparaha from Kapiti had come south and attacked first the pa at Kaikoura, then Kaiapoi just north of Christchurch and finally the pa in Akaroa harbour at Onawe. So Maori who escaped one was often killed at the next place and so on.
      The total Maori population in the South Island by 1870 was estimated to be around 3000 -mostly in the south of the South Island for the reasons just outlined.


  9. I wanted to make a submission but gave up.

    I sent the links to my U3A history group and the consensus was it was badly written.

    The use of Te Reo words aggravates me – of course I don’t mind the words I know such as ‘Kai’. For example in the one page draft summary the word “ākonga” is used three times but only twice it is followed by ‘(all learners)’. Inconsistent. If ākonga in this context means ‘all learners’ why not use ‘all learners’? The equivalent draft for Te Reo Maori doesn’t use English words. I was impressed by Alex Bellos’s book on translation which makes clear everything that can be thought can be translated. Should this mixture of languages irritate me? Shouldn’t I accept I am in a country where Te Reo is a national language and shouldn’t I accept whatever Te Reo words anyone chooses to use? Well normally I don’t mind – in fact I’m happy my 3 year old grand daughter can recite her numbers in Te Reo and ten years ago I deliberately took my 2 year old grandson to Auckland libraries wonderous Rhymetime sessions at Northcote library where every second week the poems and songs would all be in Te Reo Maori. The problem is this document is supposed to encourage public discussion so it should be clear to everyone whether they have a superb ear for language such as my wife or a very poor ear such as myself. These government consultation documents should be clear to everyone whether they are recent arrivals from China or India (Asians outnumber Maori where I live). Their use of a smattering of Te Reo is the equivalent of the learned books of my youth using French and the Victorians learned use of Latin and Greek – building a obstacle to keep out the ordinary person. Condescending. It also reduces public submissions that disagree with the new orthodoxy.

    History is a wonderful subject. It is the opposite of Maths where abstraction rules; 2 + 2 = 4 whether it is apples or oranges but in History it is what you chose to include that matters; as the documents say critical thinking. Critical thinking is essential in a democratic society; it helps us chose our Prime Minister and it helps us plan our holidays. For a historian the decision to take apples or oranges on board may have been critical at the time of Captain Cook. It is a wonderful subject unlike maths because there is no simple correct answer (but there are plenty of wrong answers) so a discussion entitled ‘Napoleon: good or bad’ is still an open debate. School pupils have too many subjects that leave them feeling failures. History is a easy subject to learn because it is full of stories – a child has to learn 7 times 8 equals 56 by prolonged repetition but a well told story sticks instantly. Also history is a great subject for teaching how to write clearly – our best historians all write beautifully.
    The proposed curriculum emphasizes critical thinking far to early; it is the equivalent of saying maths starts with calculus which is true but you have to learn simple arithmetic first and then the logical thinking involved in algebra before you can start actual maths. So most school pupils never reach maths and most will never reach historical critical thinking. Best to stick to facts and chronology.

    “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde. There are important matters that are never taught at school and for the good reason that they are divisive or complex: death, sex, religion and probably now we can add multi-culturalism. I remember reading a study of English school kids on exchange in Germany; they were about 15 and had good knowledge of German – they returned with their anti-German prejudices greatly reduced and their appreciation of German culture/lifestyle improved. This was repeated for younger children (about 13) with less knowledge of German and they returned with their prejudices about Germany reinforced (humourless, beer bellies, etc). This is my fear – introduce past Maori – Pakeha conflicts into a vacuum of historical knowledge and the result will be divisive; in the playground later maybe violent.

    BTW – aptitude in history is a better predictor of a good accountant than aptitude in maths. History requires collecting relevant knowledge and judgement – ideal training for accountants and politicians.


  10. Unfortunately it seems very unlikely that the MoE / the Government will change course on this one. Labour has kicked off the use of NZ’s history as a political football and from now on history will change with each change of majority in parliament. Oh well – I spent some time filling out the MoE’s questionnaire for my own conscience anyway.


  11. […] 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.  – Michael Reddell […]


  12. The fact they need to put the curriculum out to consultation, to ask “what histories topics will be taught” tells you everything you need to know. A sane, civilised education system would develop teachers who, by having had themselves a robust pedagogical education, could confidently choose and teach New Zealand history topics themselves. I haven’t had time to read through the proposed curriculum – the introductory comments leave me nauseous already – but presumably the role of the teacher in this is as catechist…

    Teaching history ought to be about teaching critical analysis with a particular emphasis on historical documents and resources (i.e. the skills on how to research and evaluate them). This is something best left to the last 1/2 years of high school, which is when I actually sat Bursary history with an NZ history focus – not true that it is never taught (it’s just taught later as an elective subject). Trying to teach younger children academic history is a waste of time – you will only end up teaching names and dates, plus if you’re unlucky (and NZ seems to be) moral judgment on what occurred. Historical topics for younger children are best broached through other disciplines – english (e.g. literature set in earlier times), science and music.


    • I’m probably more optimistic about the possibilities for teaching younger kids some history in a simple but structured way (as happens in at least some other countries – I recall my daughter a couple of years ago had 11-12 yr old English penfriends who made more envious with their descriptions of the history they were studying in their British schools).


  13. In her address to the high school students, Bell said the land wars affect every single New Zealander.

    “It affects our health care, it affects our schools, it affects how much money we have. It affects who goes to prison and who doesn’t go to prison.”


    This is the thinking in the bureaucracy (as far as I can see)

    Fiona Kidman (O’Malley’s wife) says “a moments discomfort doesn’t hurt you but structural racism does kill” She says “these were very, very violent histories”.

    Labour was very keen on the idea of “teaching our history” but was waiting for a bit of a groundswell

    The groundswell arrived with Leah Bell
    I was proud of my Pākehā ancestors. Notwithstanding the anguish I felt as a four-year-old learning the implications of the word ‘confiscation’ — painting my mother’s Foreshore and Seabed protest signs. My overwhelming desire to be Māori at four years old, to not be responsible, felt remedied by understanding the activism of my ancestors. Monday changed a few things.

    Click to access NZJPH.02-Leah-Bell-NZJPH7.pdf

    O’Malley seemed to suggest in an interview that the invasion of the Waikato disrupted a flourishing Maori economy that had it been left may have resulted in “a very different country”. Someone described this thinking as “ethno-communism”

    Then there is a rejection of the idea that truth exists – I suspect that is why no one in the Christchurch Press questioned Maori claims that Victoria Square was a Maori market when all artifacts found there were culturally European.


  14. The proposed school History curriculum is part of a socialist agenda driven by university academics. This train started many years ago when we started hearing Maori activists talk about “de-colonization courses”.
    They picked that up from training in Cuba, something they openly talked about.
    Now days they are joined by white middle class activists who have risen to professorship positions where they now have more influence.
    The sad outcome for all the finger pointing of historical wrongs is that the social and economic improvement of Maori is unlikely to be one of the results. One of the untalked about reasons young Maori fail at school is not institutional racism, but an unsatisfactory home life that does not encourage academic achievement. The reason we know that for sure is the almost universal success of immigrant refugees from South East Asia coming to NZ achieved in the 1980’s and 1990’s. They arrived often without knowing much or any English and just the clothes on their back. What their families had was a will to work hard, study hard to be successful in the new country. Motivation and work ethic.
    When I was at school, I had Maori friends but I noticed it wasn’t cool in their thinking to be a “swat”. Usually they fooled around at the back of the class, and left school for a then easy to get factory job when they turned 15. Valuing Education and wanting your children succeed beyond what you had achieved, is one of the keys to getting out of the poverty trap, as is a work ethic. But also having a caring and supportive home life.
    Being told constantly that the “system” is against you and it’s impossible to succeed because of institutional racism is an insult to the intelligence and potential of young Maori and is demotivating. They don’t need blame excuses, they motivation and inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Outstanding. It is a soft form of critical race theory. The term, voices, privilege and then on RNZ the use of social justice, Cosmic justice per Sowell and equity are the giveaways. Woke thought, as in the attack on Sheet Music at Oxford; G F Handel and Shakespeare, deploys a seriously flawed mode (Neo Marxist) of historiography where according to Richard Lowenthal ‘the past is folded into the present. Thomas Sowell puts it as the fallacy of inter-temporality by the use of intertemporal abstractions. Over abstraction is a perpetual fault of the woke and left university intelligentsia [sic] because it collectivises human beings and experience and obliterates nuance, diversity etc. But to the “anointed visionaries” who like the big explanation and no data, this is a religious quest. It has nothing to do with intellectual honesty. I am told by historians who have to teach NZ history that the present OUP History of NZ is virtually unreadable by undergraduates. Several USA counties and some states have serious issues with the implementation of critical race theory. Our filtered MSM news does not present the counter views.


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