Saturday, May 8, 2021

Roger Childs: Having a Balanced History Curriculum

Most countries make learning about their past compulsory, so there was general approval when the prime minister announced in 2019 that our Year 1 to 10 students would study New Zealand history as a required part of the curriculum from 2022. The challenge for the developers would be in the detail – what would children from ages 5 to 14 actually learn about their country’s story, and what skills and understandings would they develop?

The coverage of our history over 10 years of schooling needs to be comprehensive, accurate and balanced. In looking at our past we New Zealanders have plenty to be proud of, but there have been darker times which students also need to know about.

Learners should study the Musket Wars as well as participation in United Nations peace-keeping missions; the extermination of the moa as well as establishing national parks; damaging the environment as well as building infrastructure; the Chinese poll tax as well as the Social Security Act; sweated labour as well as equal pay legislation.

Missing the boat

In the draft Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum the developers have missed the boat. They have produced a document that obviously reflects their own thinking about how to interpret our past, but it is generally expressed in language which is too complex and academic, and has an overemphasis on Maori history.

The prescription should outline the coverage, skills, understandings and important ideas in terms that children and parents can clearly understand.

What would students make of the third big idea: The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power? Perhaps a good topic for a Ph D thesis, but not for school pupils aged 5 to 15.

Key understandings in the study of history

Fundamental to the effective study of history is being able to answer these questions:
  • What is the difference between fact and opinion?
  • What are the sources of history?
  • Why is evidence so important?
  • History is a search for truth but how do you know what is true?
Students also need to learn that the record of the past can change as new sources and evidence come to light. One of the most delightful history definitions comes from Oxford Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: History shifts as you look at it. It twists and coils into unexpected shapes: suddenly, rapidly, continuously like a snake darting between stones.

Another vital understanding learners need to appreciate is that there are different viewpoints about our history.

For some the New Zealand Wars were about a fight for sovereignty and land; for others they were a series of rebellions against the government.

Examining some of the more contentious issues in our country’s story could be part of the prescription in Years 9 and 10. For example:
  • Did the chiefs who signed the Tiriti o Waitangi cede sovereignty to the British Crown?
  • To what extent did Christianity change Maori values?
  • Was colonisation destructive or beneficial for Maori?
  • Did the Gallipoli campaign build a sense of New Zealand identity?
  • Should New Zealand have taken part in the Vietnam War?
In the draft, there is an emphasis on the stories that are told about our past. Oral history can accurately reflect the past, but it can be unreliable. Learners need to be taught how to distinguish between the two.

An over-emphasis on things Maori

Much of the Draft for Consultation is heavily weighted towards Maori history, development and language. The three “national contexts” are all expressed in Te Reo with no translation. In the Rohe and local contexts section the first statement asks: What stories do local iwi and hapu tell about their history in this rohe?

In the identifying and critiquing sources and perspectives section students are required to pay deliberate attention to matauranga, Maori sources and approaches. Then throughout the knowledge sections and questions to guide inquiry, Maori examples predominate.

Obviously the history, legacy and culture of Maori and their Polynesian forbears are important, but this is just one significant strand in the rich tapestry of our heritage.

Who are the customers?

It is vital that the formulators of the final curriculum remind themselves of who the customers are. They are New Zealand kids with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Maori students make up approximately 20% of school children with both Maori and non-Maori forebears. The other 80% have origins ranging from Britain, Ireland, Europe, South Africa and the United States to India, China, The Middle East, Samoa and Tonga.

Fundamentally they are all Kiwi kids who share a love of family, friends, food, enjoyment, the outdoors, sport, national teams, culture, modern technology and entertainment.

New Zealand’s past is the story of the country they live in, regardless of where they come from.

The history they learn should be a comprehensive study of the nation’s mix of migrations and settlement; interactions and conflicts; triumphs and tragedies; problems and progress; leaders and movements; unity and diversity. They need to learn the full New Zealand story and develop appropriate history skills along the way.

Roger Childs is a retired teacher who taught History, Social Studies and Geography for 40 years.


DeeM said...

This is what happens when you entrust history to one particular group of academics and activists that have a particular agenda.
History has probably always been written by those who won or were in charge, certainly going back hundreds of years or more, and so is skewed to reflect a preferred outcome.
NZ is a very young country so our history is, hopefully, well documented and less prone to ambiguity. That makes what this government is trying to do even more reprehensible.
In my view, forcing a sanitised culture and warped history onto a modern society is doomed to failure. If for no other reason than most kids find history really boring so it won't be something they retain. Maybe that's our greatest hope...the government has picked the wrong subject!

Kevin Trewhella said...

Roger this is a good appraisal of the proposed history curriculum. History is more an art than a science. Good history generates more questions than it does answers, and this is what makes it exciting. To use it to promote dogma, and to silence opposing views, denudes history of its value and opens the door to abuse. History is replete with tyrannical causes which have done precisely this.

For anyone interested historian Margaret MacMillians book 'The Uses and Abuses of History" is well worth a read.

Anonymous said...

Are they going to be taught how the Maori tribes used to raid other tribes to obtain slaves and when they found how much demand there was for the shrunken heads they would take prisoners, tattoo their faces, kill and be-head them and sell the head to the Europeans. (How many heads have had to be returned which have no connection to the tribe as they were produced exclusively for export?)

Kevin Trewhella said...

I would like to add to my earlier comment. I have studied history, theology and psychology at master's level, and one thing has stood out to me above all others. Individuals, and cultures for that matter, are ULTIMATELY more similar than they are different. Although the differences can matter, any individual or culture claiming the moral high ground will not be there for long. I have been struck often by the barbarity of man, but this is universal to all cultures, although not always in the same way or degree. People tend to exploit each other commensurate with their ability to do so. There is no barbarity in Maori history which is not evident in some degree or form in European history at some point, just read about the crusades (where cannibalism became widely practised - often out of perceived necessity) or the holocaust (perhaps humanity's lowest point and from which Europe has never recovered) or communism (where Marxist regimes were responsible for the murder of over one hundred million of their own citizens). The key, it seems to me, is to understand the true anthropology of man. All cultures are capable of terrible things, and all cultures have high points. Our reflections on history should be grounded in an awareness of this fact. To a very considerable degree democracy, free markets, and the Judeo Christian emphasis on the individual over the collective, have given breathing space for human rights to become entrenched in common law, and for a rapid advance in living standards. This is worth arguing for, but any denigration of one culture over another denies the truths of history. Good history is both systematic and multi-perspectival, and properly cognizant of the depths to which man can stoop. The reformation, and then the enlightenment, gave birth to an idea, and it is this idea that is under attack, the rest is a distraction.