We can all recall a horror story from our time at school. But Māori are likely to have a longer list of seriously sad experiences. For example, my koro, who, like so many others, was whacked for speaking te reo (his first language) in the classroom. Or one of my mates whose teacher told him to stick to sport because “Māori aren’t academic”. Or, if you’re my age, and you’re still scarred by the memory of tedious lessons on Tudor England which took precedence over anything to do with the New Zealand Wars or early Māori history.
That was especially weird for us sitting in a classroom in Rotorua, on land gifted by Ngāti Whakaue, and reciting the details of the House of Tudor instead of learning how Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhourangi and Ngāti Whakaue competed for control of the Te Arawa region. Their battles, their intrigues and their love stories are just as compelling as the story of Henry VIII, the Tudor king even though he had an interesting habit of divorcing or executing his wives.
You might think this situation was a one-off, something particular to my school, because what kind of education system would concentrate the history of an island country half a world away and ignore the history of its own country? By contrast, Australian schools teach their early colonial period as part of the Year 10 curriculum while most US schools teach the history of America’s westward march – and the wars that came with it – as a matter of course.
We’re an outlier, at least among the countries we like to compare ourselves to, because our schools can design the content of their own curricula. That means Wellington College might teach the life of Wiremu Tamihana or Te Rauparaha but, right across the road at Wellington East Girls’ College, they might study the life of Thomas Cromwell instead. As worthy as he is of dedicated study, Cromwell didn’t shape this country like Tamihana or Te Rauparaha did.
The principle is simple. History must be grounded in place. Sure, English history is, in some ways, New Zealand history, yet it’s no substitute for the history that took place on this soil. The problem, at least as seen by the Ministry of Education and by our Education Minister, Hekia Parata, is that compelling schools to teach New Zealand history undermines what they see as a fundamental principle of good education – independence.
The idea is that the parents and community members on the school boards, know what their children and their community need better than the government does. And no doubt they do. But that doesn’t mean every school board has the knowledge and skills to argue for and then implement a syllabus on early Māori history or the New Zealand Wars?
I’m sceptical, and so are the 13,000 New Zealanders that signed a petition calling on the government to do more to teach New Zealand’s unique history. But, as sympathetic as I am to their calls – and as embarrassed as I am to admit it – I agree with the Ministry of Education and with Hekia that the curriculum should be delivered from below rather than imposed from above. We know from experience that government-led or government-imposed histories are dangerous.
That’s because teaching history is never neutral. For decades New Zealanders were fed the idea that Māori migration from Polynesia to Aotearoa was an accident. Seven waka, so the story went, were blown off course in a devastating storm, and chanced on these islands after weeks at sea. The story is false, but it earned wide acceptance because it neatly fitted the prejudices of the time.
Māori were “savages” and, in many Pākehā minds, it was unthinkable that Polynesians could have navigated their way here, let alone systematically settle a foreign land. The “Great Fleet” myth offered historical credibility to the idea that Māori were savages, which gave the state an ideological reason for treating Māori as less than full citizens.
It’s unsettling to think that for decades the myth was taught in our schools. So it’s easy to imagine the same thing happening to the New Zealand Wars. How we tell our past often depends on where we stand, as history’s victims or its beneficiaries, and the government – perhaps better referred to here as the state – is history’s beneficiary.
Asking the state to step in and revise the curriculum is like asking the school bully to take up a position as the school counsellor.
So we shouldn’t be in any hurry to have our history mandated from above. The government has an interest in constructing a narrative that justifies how it seized power – however unjustifiable that seizure may be. If we’re going to push for compulsory New Zealand history in schools then we must, at the very least, push for history that isn’t state-designed and state-approved. On this issue, the state simply can’t be trusted.
But that doesn’t mean the state has no part to play. It still has an obligation to see that each generation of our kids grows up understanding New Zealand society and the communities where they live. They need to know our history.
And the government’s role is to provide the resources and encouragement for school boards to provide history courses that are relevant to their community.
So, while Hekia may be right to step back from dictating the specific content of the curriculum, she’s failing if there aren’t significant moves to see that school boards are equipped to do their jobs.
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