Dr Aroha Harris

Aroha Harris: “Teaching our history properly should be an ordinary step, not a bold one.”

I have both a lot to say, and little to say, about the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association petition for the compulsory (and — importantly — coherent and well-resourced) teaching of “our past”.

I have a lot to say because this is about history, and history is my feed, and there’s just so much of it.

I have a lot to say because the past matters, and because history continues to act on us today, whether we’ve learned about it or not.

But the many things I have to say, I have said before and, frankly, some days I bore myself with the repetition of it all.

I have little to say largely because I am frustrated. I am frustrated that if New Zealand history in general was already taught well, and robustly, and resourced as it should be, then there’d be no need for a petition.

Teaching our history properly should be an ordinary step, not a bold one. It should be a discussion about how to best teach it and what standards to set, not a petition about teaching it at all.

Surely, well-taught New Zealand history, even a very general broad-brushstrokes history, would include the history of Te Tiriti, the history of how iwi Māori and the Crown became so invested in our Treaty relationship. And the history of how the nation, the country, our society was built on the transfer of Māori property to settlers.

If Māori are omitted, relegated, or dealt with tokenistically in the teaching of New Zealand history, then it’s not good history. It’s just not. We should want better for our children.

And, yes, I know some schools do a great job of Māori and New Zealand history, but the knowledge children leave school with seems to be more a matter of chance than design.

I doubt we would need a compulsory curriculum, if we were already committed to providing our children with an effective New Zealand history education.

As the petitioners state, this is a “basic right” of all our school-aged learners. Compulsion shouldn’t come into it, because we should already care enough about the historical literacy of our children to be at work on a well-rounded curriculum.

But, apparently, we don’t. And so the petition calls for compulsion.

But let’s not allow the argument about compulsion to derail all those good possibilities for the future if we’re willing to invest now in an informed and enriched citizenry.

And, please, don’t get me started on compulsion: compulsory taking of Māori land, compulsory denial of te reo, compulsory restrictions on whāngai practices, on hapū fisheries, on customary resource management systems. Really. Just don’t get me started.

To the folks trying to scuttle the whole idea with the question: “Yeah, but whose version will be taught?” Read the petition.

In its short and simple reason, the petition draws attention to the ideas of multiple perspectives, learning to draw conclusions based on evidence, and good historical practice.

These are good skills to have, transferable skills, skills that can teach us to debate without debasing either ourselves or each other. Well, maybe it’s too late for some of us, but why subject our children and mokopuna to the same fate?

And to the folks afraid of what we’ll lose from the curriculum if our history is made compulsory: (a) it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and (b), shall we reflect a little on what we’ve already lost by remaining ignorant of our past and acting like it doesn’t matter?

Shall we reflect on what we might look like, who we might be, if we can come to appreciate the ways the past has shaped us?

Kia kaha tātou mā.


Sign the petition here.

See also, this piece by Joanna Kidman and Vincent O’Malley.

Dr Aroha Harris (Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi) is a member of the Waitangi Tribunal and a senior lecturer in history at the University of Auckland. She is a founding member of Te Pouhere Kōrero, the national organisation of Māori historians and researchers, and co-editor of their journal of the same name. Her writing has appeared in a number of articles, and in anthologies of short fiction and poetry.

© E-Tangata, 2019

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