As a kid I would pore over my uncle Dick Scott’s illustrated history of New Zealand, Inheritors of a Dream. I still have it on my bookshelf.
At Central Hawke’s Bay College in the 1960s I was taught history by Brian Davies, one of the few teachers I remember with any affection.
Davies – who, sadly, was found dead a few months ago after being reported missing in Tauranga, aged 85 – would often go off-script and discuss current events. He would talk about the split between the two great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, and the ideological contest between capitalist democracy and totalitarian communism.
But even Davies couldn’t make the history curriculum interesting. I know we were taught 19th century New Zealand history because I vaguely remember stuff about Sir George Grey, but none of it stuck.
Later, at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, I was taught history by Spiro Zavos. I enjoyed Spiro’s classes too, but the enjoyment had little to do with history. He had the advantage of being almost the same generation as his pupils and was easily diverted into discussions about things that were happening in the world of now.
Alas, Spiro left at the end of that year and would later switch to journalism. The Englishman who replaced him was as dry and dusty as the textbooks we were required to read.
Mr Chips he wasn’t. I retain no memory whatsoever of what we were taught in my upper sixth year, as we called it then, except that the Tudors were involved. It was paralysingly boring and I couldn’t see the relevance of it.
I still can’t, and can only conclude that the curriculum was a hangover from the days of empire. It probably reflected a view that New Zealand was too young, too small and too insignificant to have a real history of its own, and that the only one worth telling was the one we inherited from Britain.
But there’s no earthly reason why history should be dull, and still less reason why we shouldn’t celebrate our own – which is why we should applaud, at least in principle, the government’s decision to make the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory. It should have happened decades ago.
We have a rich and colourful heritage, both pre- and post-European settlement, that has been sorely neglected. In this respect we are quite unlike the Australians and Americans, who cherish their histories – the bad bits as well as the good.
A couple of years ago I found my way to the site of the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu (the beak of the bird) in south Taranaki, where the Prussian adventurer Gustavus Von Tempsky and 20 colonial troops were killed in 1868 by Hauhau warriors under the command of the formidable chief Titokowaru. Right there you have two compelling characters to rival America’s Sitting Bull and George Custer.
I wouldn’t have bothered seeking out the battle site, except that I had a personal reason for going there: my great-grandfather, a member of the Taranaki Volunteers, was wounded in the fighting and narrowly escaped with his life. But here’s the interesting thing: you could drive right past the battle site and not know it’s there.
The same is true of many other significant sites from the New Zealand Wars. How many people know eight soldiers died at Boulcott’s Farm, in what is now the heart of Lower Hutt? Or that a British force of more than 250 laid siege to a Te Ati Awa pa at Battle Hill, near Pauatahunui?
In Australia or America, sites like Te Ngutu o te Manu – Rangiriri, Orakau and Gate Pa too – would be tourist attractions, like the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat or Little Bighorn in Montana.
So yes, it’s way past time to reclaim and honour our history, and secondary schools are a good place to start.
But there’s an important caveat to all this. There is no neutral view of history and no consensus about how it should be explained and interpreted. It follows that the teaching of history is ripe with potential for revisionism and ideological spin.
The proposed emphasis on colonisation, for instance, makes me uneasy – not because the subject should be ignored, but because colonisation has been seized as a convenient bumper-sticker explanation for everything bad that has happened to Maori.
A balanced reading of our history suggests it's a lot more complicated than that, but I've got an uneasy feeling that the curriculum will come loaded with a very large dollop of white shame and guilt.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. This article was first published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz.