In 1952 my parents sold the family home for one thousand NZ pounds or around $2000. Today that home is worth at least $500,000 so obviously they were diddled, were had, gazumped and swindled!
A Massey University lecturer in Communication (no less), “discovered” that William Massey had at some stage at least a century ago, made what this person considered, ( using presentist standards), to be “racist” comments .He demanded that the university change it’s name and expunge this dreadful person from it’s history and achievements.
Such is the effect of presentism, which judges past event using today’s standards and values.
Perhaps the most profound and concerning use (or abuse) of presentism in New Zealand today relates to issues associated with the treaty of Waitangi which was signed off in 1840. Modern historians, jurists, politicians, academics and bureaucrats have discovered and are aggressively pursuing a complete relitigation of the treaty on the basis that by today’s standards, the implementation of it’s provisions were faulty.
In the 1860s, one of the legal penalties for rebellion against the Crown was forfeiture of land-assuming that those in rebellion actually “owned” the land which was to be forfeited, rather than merely occupying it by conquest and subjugation of others. This penalty was not confined to New Zealand, but was widely applied throughout the (then) British Empire. Today, such forfeitures are viewed in hindsight using today’s standards, as wrong and are therefore claimed to be justifiably open to reversal. Presentists use the term “confiscation” rather than forfeiture, to give such arguments more weight.
Modern-day academics are enthusiastic proponents of presentism, using this technique to essentially re-write or sanitise New Zealand history.
In a seminal essay on the subject, the late Professor Bill Oliver, a Waitangi Tribunal member, outlined why the use of presentism is wrong and essentially dishonest (See “Histories Power and Loss”). Oliver points out the fallacy of viewing past event from the perspective of what happened but should not have (today’s view), or what did not happen but should have? Clearly, these questions cannot be answered except via speculation - which of course, academic historians embrace with great enthusiasm.
In years gone by, history was taught as embracing factual events and the context in which such events occurred. Students of history were invited to consider the contexts in which such events occurred and consider such contexts for their relevance and impact of that time.
Taking a considered view of history, one might consider a range of primary questions:
What actually happened?
When did it occur”
Where did it occur?
Who were involved?
In what circumstances did this/these event occur?
What were the outcomes or results?
Written records of the time were usually accepted (perhaps mistakenly) as true, whereas today, oral histories are accorded equal weighting in law - even though such histories could well be incorrect or untrue.
But academic historians today apply a whole range of secondary questions, often injecting their personal biases to support their presentist arguments:
Why else did these events occur?
(Depends upon whose viewpoint you choose to utilise)
What should have occurred but did not?
What should not have occurred but did?
Whose version of the same event(s) should be given more weight?
Clearly, the secondary questions automatically demand speculation and interpretation of these past events - which is of course quite acceptable, as long as such speculation and interpretation is based on valid and reliable contextual research. Even then, the end result is simply an opinion in the absence of evidence of causal relationships.
Unfortunately, this “research” is often absent, supplanted by the author’s personal “take” on the events under discussion. Take for example the modernist concept of the “principles” inherent in the treaty of Waitangi. In his instructions to Captain Hobson on treating with the native New Zealanders, Lord Normanby stipulated three basic principles upon which Hobson was to engage in negotiations - justice, fairness and good faith. Only three. Yet modern-day historians, academics, jurists and politicians have distorted the whole concept of treaty principles resulting in a veritable explosion of concepts. There are at least 13 perhaps more, lists of so-called “principles” of the treaty which various individuals, organisations or government agencies claim to have discovered lurking in the treaty words, after some 150 years of lying dormant and not being discovered. These lists range frrom 2 to 26 “principles”, no two lists being the same, or in most cases even similar. Yet today, great importance is assigned to these discoveries because much social, political and financial advantage can now be claimed in their commission or omission.
But let us return to the use or misuse of presentism in regard to New Zealand history.
Current commentators demand that New Zealand history be a compulsory subject in New Zealand’s educational curriculum. Those of us in our later years might well express surprise that in the state education system, New Zealand history is apparently absent. In church schools in particular, New Zealand history was not absent. And in school journals of the 1950s and 60s, the arrival of our first migrants from obscure Pacific “homelands” was well covered - otherwise, why would we remember such matters?
I would enthusiastically support the teaching of New Zealand’s history in our schools. Why on earth would we not? The problem of course is whose version of history would be taught? Would New Zealand history be focused on the factual events as outlined in the primary questions outlined above, or would the New Zealand curriculum be sanitised with a post-modern, Marxist and presentist interpretation which many of our academic historians would be only too happy to promote? After all, their academic careers are inevitably based on how different or outrageous their writings are. Whose history would form the basis of such studies? For, according to post modernists, there is no “true” version of history and anyone’s version of history is as equally valid as anyone else’s.
There is no doubt that presentism would find very fertile ground in any modern offering of our history-with resultant effects of educating our young people to accept a particular politically acceptable and “correct” version.
Some input into such effects might be gained by considering the “bible” of the treaty of Waitangi attributed to Claudia Orange. Orange’s treatise is regarded today as the official and only politically acceptable version of treaty matters. Yet one seldom hears of a particularly incisive review of Orange’s thesis by Professor Gordon Parsonson of the History Department of Otago University (ODT 1988) which was particularly critical of serious omissions and inconsistencies in Orange’s treatise. Somehow, these shortcomings are conveniently ignored in favour of Orange’s version, largely her own presentist interpretation of events of 150 years ago. She dismisses T L Buick’s history(1933) as merely a collection of documents with no attempt to analyse or interpret this material.
And so, we are confronted today with presentist and revisionist histories which, unless critically challenged, stand to become the new state orthodoxy.
One hopes that students of New Zealand history in future years will call into question why only one version of our history is offered in our schools when the historical evidence of the time may well suggest entirely different interpretations of such events. My advice is to stick with the facts and be sceptical of modern interpretations designed to suit political, cultural and social agendas.
Henry Armstrong is retired, follows politics, and writes.