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).

A day for celebration

I reckon today should have been a public holiday, to mark 250 years –  quarter of a millennium –  since these remote islands had opened to the world.  That is something to celebrate.

Maori had, of course, been here for perhaps 500 years prior to the arrival of Lt James Cook and Endeavour.   But it seems that they’d then become cut off from the rest of the world, with little or no evidence of any ongoing contact with anything or anyone beyond these shores.  Material living standards were low.   Abel Tasman had come by a bit of the coast 137 years earlier, but after the killing of several of his crew, he didn’t land and soon went away again initiating no ongoing contact (although his discoveries did give rise to the name “New Zealand” – in Dutch – shortly thereafter).

But after Cook, and the other European explorers around these shores at much the same time, the path to openness was pretty much set.   Cook mapped the island, and he himself led two more voyages that included New Zealand as a stopover.  His ships were engaged in trade, albeit to a limited extent (resupplying his own vessels).  And after Cook’s later voyages it was less than 20 years –  shortly after the first British settlement in New South Wales (another coast Cook mapped)  – before the first sealing party and the first whalers arrived.   Another decade on and those trades were getting into full swing.

Cook himself seems to have been an almost entirely admirable figure –  one of the greats.  Last night I finished reading J C Beaglehole’s great (1973) The Life of Captain James Cook, and came away both better informed and with a high regard for Cook.  That doesn’t mean he was perfect.  Human beings aren’t.  But perfection is a pretty useless standard against which to assess any of us, past or present.

But if Cook was admirable, on so many counts, and if the mandate to which he worked was both humane and judicious, yet it is also true that Cook was hardly himself a decisive figure in New Zealand history.  If he hadn’t been sent to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, with a mandate to explore onwards, some other European –  de Surville’s party – would have been the first to land here at about the same time.  And if that had happened, it still probably wouldn’t have changed the 19th century destiny of New Zealand (as British acquisition and colony of settlement) – that was about much bigger forces than one person.  But nonetheless Cook’s landing is, and should be, a powerful symbol – and should be celebrated as such –  of the process  –  essentially a technological one –  whereby these islands were opened to the world.

Was that in itself wholly a “good thing”?  Perhaps there are downsides, slight as they may be, and costs to almost any human endeavour and advance.  But lets suppose a thought experiment –  and it can only be that, so utterly detached from reality as it is – in which, somehow, New Zealand had remained totally cut from off from the world for another 250 years: no trade, no technology, no ideas, no nothing to or from the rest of the planet.   Then it seems reasonable to assume Maori life today would be much as it was then – extremely poor in material terms, low life expectancy, no metals.  Quite possibly, given Malthusian limits absent newer technologies, the population would be less than the number of people who identify as Maori today, whether here or abroad.  And one could throw in cannibalism and slavery to the mix.

The difference from that sort of society is what opening to the world meant. It is about as stark a difference as they come.  That there are gains from trade –  broadly defined – is one of the most securely established maxims of our world (probably even the North Koreans would trade more if they could).  The opening of New Zealand was always going to happen –  given developments in technology elsewhere in the world –  but it was a good thing that it did happen, especially perhaps coming just at time –  the Industrial Revolution –  when the possibilities would start to be so great.  (And if we argue, in part, from revealed preference, we see few or no New Zealanders –  Maori ancestry or not –  choosing to revert to a pre-1769 style/substance of life.)

Now, opening to world is not at all the same thing as becoming a colony of settlement, and especially not one in which at one point Maori had been reduced to only about 5 per cent of the total population.  All manner of islands in the Pacific, being opened to the world at much the same time, sometimes by Cook himself, which were never extensively settled by outsiders.  On the other hand, all the temperate climate lands of the Antarctic Rim –  Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and (more ambigiuously) South Africa were.  It is what happens when there are hugely asymmetric technological advances –  indigenous people were numerous enough nor sufficiently technologically advanced (the two not being entirely unrelated) to resist the influx, even if they had consistently wished to do so.  In New Zealand’s case, at least, it is far from clear they (taken collectively) did, even at the time.

In material terms at least, it looks like a good trade.  All sorts of places were in the Pacific were opened to the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but here are some representative numbers for real GDP per capita, in PPP terms, for some of these countries/territories.


Notice any patterns?   The people in the countries towards the left of the chart have gained somewhat from an opening to the world, but the really prosperous parts of the region are –  to put it bluntly –  those where the institutions and cultures of highly-productive economies were imported pretty comprehensively (in the forms of peoples, not just laws) and came to dominate and shape how those countries/territories operate and produce.    Cultures matter.   The differences aren’t as stark for, say, life expectancies –  a benefit from opening that all these societies have had –  but those of, say, Samoa and Vanuatu are still perhaps 10 years less than those of New Zealand and Australia.   And we could go through the things that people here –  or in Australia or Hawaii –  have which typical people in the Pacific territories that weren’t heavily settled simply don’t.   And don’t give me climate or remoteness stories –  many of these places are a bit less remote than New Zealand, and Singapore (and even Malaysia now) prosper in equatorial climes.

Now, of course, these New Zealand numbers are aggregates averaged across the entire population.  And we know that those self-identifying as Maori tend, on average, to do less well than, say, the European population.  But no one supposes that New Zealand Maori do less well materially than the typical person in Samoa, Tonga or Vanuatu.  There are substantial economic/material benefits to the physical presence of a large European population in New Zealand, and it is most unlikely that average Maori GDP per capita would be anything like it actually is had large scale European settlement been avoided.

Curiously, where one might now mount an argument is that the descendants of the European settlers haven’t gained from the trade.  For a long time, New Zealand (and Australia) were among the very richest countries in the world.  But these days, New Zealand in particular in poorer than the UK.  I think it is quite conceivable that –  much as I like New Zealand, sitting here looking out on Cook Strait –  people like me might have been better off had New Zealand never been opened to the world.  But I can’t hold that against my ancestors, or Captain Cook and his peers –  since countries largely make their own prosperity and I’ve been running a decade now a story about how the New Zealand establishment –  itself dominated by European New Zealanders –  has been systematically, though no doubt unintentionally –  corroding the economic fortunes and prospects of all New Zealanders.   But there is a long way to go before New Zealand would be anywhere near as poor as, say,  Samoa.

Of course, important as material things are, as significant as gains in life expectancy probably should be thought of as, they aren’t the only thing that matters to people.   I’ve written here previously about how I could understand a degree of Maori ambivalance about large scale immigration, even allowing for the fact that (almost?) every self-identified Maori today is descended from both non-Maori and Maori ancestors.   Perhaps in some that really would outweigh the huge economic gains, but I rather doubt it –  isn’t the evidence of Samoa that a really large proportion of the population would come to New Zealand (where they are outnumbered, in a different culture, by both Maori and other non-Maori) if they could?  And since I’m a Christian I’ll count it an unalloyed “good thing” that the gospel came to New Zealand.   That didn’t depend on immigration –  see those numerous Pacific islands where the church is often stronger than it is in New Zealand –  but it was a real, and voluntary choice.    Not many Maori worship tree gods –  they leave that to the Irish/Cook Islands Reserve Bank Governor –  and for those declaring a religion, Christianity is the religion of choice.

There are no perfect human societies or human systems or human beings.  But that shouldn’t stop us celebrating our past, our heritage, our culture –  the things that, by opening to the world, made this country, for all its faults and failings and relative economic decline in recent decades, one of the more prosperous and safe countries on earth.

But our politicians seem embarrassed by our heritage, our origins.  The Prime Minister eschews events in Gisborne today, fleeing back to Auckland and burbling –  very on-message –  about “commemorations”, but never celebration.  The Opposition leader is, as far as I could see, invisible and unheard.  As for our major newspapers, the Dominion-Post didn’t have even a mention of Cook in the paper today (there was a not-wholly-bad article yesterday) and in the Herald you have to get to page 12, and even then the article seem embarrassed by our heritage, rather than embracing and celebrating it.  Weirdly, there was more coverage a few months ago of the 50th anniversary of the moon landings –  by another country –  than now of the opening to the world that made modern New Zealand possible.

As for me, somewhere around the house I still have the set of commemorative stamps I bought in 1969, when the powers that be weren’t so embarrassed by their heritage, and found on the bookshelves yesterday the Herald’s 1969 60 page publication “With Captain Cook in New Zealand”, which I guess my parents must have bought me then.  Glancing through it seems both informative and fair, unashamed.