A critique of the new history lessons
In the 1980s the Customs Department engaged my services. They were faced with new public service legislation which devolved many powers to them as an agency including some things they had never had to do before. These included a requirement to be aware of the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi and to have a staff sensitive to it in all their activities. After several false starts they asked me to see if I could come up with a solution. This was, in the event, a half-day small group seminar based on five segments which began with pre-European Māori culture and centred on the Treaty, bringing us up to the present day. It was really a crash course in New Zealand history. It set out the reasons why many Māori were very aggrieved at the position in which they found themselves. My seminar was predicated on the assumption that at the end of it Customs staff might not agree with the policy but at least they would be better informed. More than 600 Customs officers attended the courses; I truly believe that they mostly appreciated it.
So far so good, but as usual the devil is in those details.
Why is a history curriculum specific to New Zealand important? Because history is the basis of our identity and our culture. Belonging to a culture means knowing certain things in certain ways that no-one else does. If, as the poet Alan Curnow remarked many decades ago we are to “stand upright here” we need to be conscious of the things that make us unique and where they came from, otherwise we will have no idea of where we are going and the new history syllabus should be designed and directed to that end for us.
But as I read through the detail of the new syllabus I was increasingly reminded of the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee, and in this case a very peculiar camel because it only appears to have one leg. In that regard, as someone who has recently had a leg amputated I can tell you that standing upright on one leg is not very easy, and going forward is impossible; you need a minimum of two.
I don’t disagree at all with what the Committee have come up with which is largely about Māori indigenous culture, where it came from and how it has responded to incomers over the last two centuries...But it mostly leaves out the other part of the equation
Most people are not aware that we have had a form of history in the school curriculum in the past. Its meta-narrative was based on the proposition that New Zealand was a small component in the heroic story of the British Empire which was a unique creation of the British genius and a superior cultural gift to the world. Don’t laugh – many otherwise intelligent people firmly believed that. When I went to school in the 1950s every classroom was adorned with a world map showing The Empire coloured red, and we all read a text called Our Nation’s Story which explained the British tradition we had inherited and how proud we should be of that.
But as the Empire went away never to return it became less and less relevant, and more embarrassing, so it stopped being taught except in bits and pieces here and there by those for whom it was a career and who could keep a straight face while doing it. This explains for example why, if you studied history here until quite recently, you learned all about the Tudors and the origins of the English parliamentary tradition. That can be interesting and is important to those (such as myself for instance who was majoring in Political Science) but it isn’t much use for the generality of history students. It was well past time to look at something more relevant.
I don’t disagree at all with what the Committee have come up with which is largely about Māori indigenous culture, where it came from and how it has responded to incomers over the last two centuries, and vice versa. That takes us to the core of our historical experience which is in part the narrative of the relationship between Māori and those incomers and which has generated quite a lot of the uniqueness of our culture. The proposed explication of the nature of the Māori part of that is a sturdy and well-constructed leg which is long overdue for creation as a basis for our study of our history.
But it mostly leaves out the other part of the equation which is the nature of the incomers and what they brought with them (both positive and negative).
There is one dimension of our history which is taboo and that is the subject of class
It makes a token genuflection to some of the minor components of that other leg – the Irish, the Chinese, and the Indian and Pacific communities are specifically noted – and this is as it should be. But they leave out the major component which is European and mainly British immigration as a thing in itself. This is predicated on a serious error which is that those Europeans who came were a single people with a single set of objectives which is usually encompassed in the blanket expression “colonisation".
In fact there were two quite separate motivations driving the incomers in the 19th century. Some came because they saw it as a business opportunity and in pursuit of land on which to base it. But by far the majority came to make a better life which they could not attain at home in Britain. As the historian Jamie Belich has pithily remarked: “No-one ever came to New Zealand to be worse off.”
These two objectives can sometimes be reconciled but by no means always and the story of New Zealand is also the story of the conflict between these two groups. What bothers me is when I read through the detail of the curriculum published so far I can find no reference to this conflict and its key role in what it means to be a New Zealander. An example of this failure is the complete absence of any reference to the trade union movement in the layout of the curriculum. Whether you are in favour of unions in the workplace, or think their ringleaders should be shot, unions played a very important role in the creation of New Zealand’s social democracy, and continue to do so, and should be included.
Actually I think I know why there is this failure. There is one dimension of our history which is taboo and that is the subject of class. It is considered non-U to mention it and so it is not included as a driving force behind who and what we are. But you don’t have to be a Marxist (which I’m not, for the record) to see it as a key and continuing driving force in many of our preoccupations in every aspect of our social, political and economic affairs. The relationship between Māori and Pākehā is a part of this and the way in which these things fit together also takes us to root of our identity. History is, above all, a debate about meaning and if you leave out some important component then the debate will be flawed and less complete than it might be.
Until we come to terms with that class dimension in our teaching of our history then I fear for the future success of what is potentially a vital change to our core curriculum at all levels. But if we continue to stand on just one leg we should not be surprised if we fall flat on our face.