What history wil our children be learning? (Photo: Cornell Tukiri ©)

The draft curriculum for the teaching of history to New Zealand schoolchildren has been in circulation for four months. Kennedy Warne looks at some of the public responses.


“Knowledge is a form of power,” said Dr Ranginui Walker in an address to a First Nations conference on education in Alaska in 1993. “Those who control the curriculum of education are able to determine its outcome.”

A significant part of that outcome was to perpetuate a society “which took Pākehā domination and Māori subjection as a natural state,” he said.

I wonder what Walker would make of the Ministry of Education’s draft curriculum for the teaching of history in schools from year 1 (new entrants) to year 10 (14-15-year-olds in their second year of secondary school)? 

It proposes a very different telling of New Zealand history from the Pākehā-dominant narratives that have prevailed in education up until now.

The curriculum draft is a densely written 11-page document. It proposes that the teaching of New Zealand history be framed by three “big ideas”:

    • Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.
    • Colonisation and its consequences have been central to our history for the past 200 years and continue to influence all aspects of New Zealand society.
    • The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power.

The draft curriculum specifies that, by year 10, children will have learned that the Crown’s overriding agenda has been to undermine Māori authority and prevent Māori self-determination, but that Te Tiriti o Waitangi offers an opportunity for reconciliation and restoration of mana Māori. 

They will have been taught that New Zealand’s history of migration has been selective and discriminatory, and that immigration schemes were designed to shift the balance of power from Māori to settlers. 

They will have learned that politics is a struggle between marginalised groups and the holders of power, and that the state acts for the benefit of people only when it is forced to, often by groups within society challenging social norms and calling out injustice. 

Their understanding of foreign affairs will focus on two ideas: that New Zealand’s involvement in the Pacific has been primarily motivated by its own interests, and that the country’s participation in international wars has been selective, based on prevailing views about identity. 

Land, water and resources, they will have learned, are contested by various sectors of society.

If knowledge is power, then the draft curriculum is signalling a significant shift in society’s power base. 

Not surprisingly, it has drawn political fire. National MP Paul Goldsmith has said that the curriculum focuses too heavily on “identity politics” at the expense of more formative influences such as economic development. Roger Partridge, co-founder of the New Zealand Initiative, has called it “a loaded, myopic and politicised account of New Zealand’s past.”

Others, while praising the curriculum’s intent, have questioned the narrowness of its content. One of the most comprehensive responses has come from a scientific body, the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi, which convened a panel of historians to review the proposed curriculum. 

The panel welcomed the centrality of Māori history in the curriculum, but was troubled by what it felt was missing. By whittling down the curriculum to so few themes, it said, the drafters risked fragmenting the country’s history and rendering the national story incoherent.

The panel’s report noted that the 600 years of Māori habitation prior to Pākehā settlement rates little mention. Omitting pre-European history, the panel wrote, “gives the impression that any Māori history worth knowing is that defined by the colonial preoccupations of Pākehā.”

Also largely missing is what is referred to as the “contact period,” the first encounters between Māori and Europeans and the early colonial history of Aotearoa New Zealand, from 1769 to 1840. 

The invisibility of this latter period of history, wrote the panel, “particularly as it relates to Māori innovation and exploration of the world beyond Aotearoa, the role of missionaries, Christianity, literacy in te reo, and the utilisation of introduced military technology and new agricultural resources, are critical to understanding the Treaty of Waitangi and what comes after it.”

The Royal Society advisors were concerned by the curriculum’s treatment of diversity. “It is, in our view, critical that all New Zealand children and young people see their own histories explicitly identified in the curriculum,” they wrote. 

Yet diversity is not greatly elaborated or celebrated in the curriculum. The focus is on how diversity has been restricted or discriminated against through immigration policy. For year 7 and 8 students, for instance, a “key knowledge” is learning how “stereotypes of a ‘New Zealand’ identity have been purposefully constructed at different times to define who is included and who is excluded.” Identity is portrayed as a social construct tied to the expression of privilege and power.

Manying Ip, a historian of the Chinese experience in New Zealand and a member of the panel, has written elsewhere that a sound history curriculum needs to include everybody’s story, including the stories of immigrant communities such as the Chinese. “The linkages of non-Pākehā, non-Māori history must be established within the national history framework,” she writes.

The panel agreed. “Students from a variety of backgrounds should be able to find something to relate to their personal history,” it wrote. Not only that, but the “relationships, interactions, and exchanges” between peoples should be celebrated. 

“Too often, history in this curriculum is what is done to people — often by impersonal forces,” the panel continued. “There is not enough about how people lived their lives in good times and in bad, and faced joys and adversities, in ways that can engage us today, while also showing the difference between then and now.”

Without a strong recognition of diversity in the curriculum, said Ip, the risk is that the diverse communities that call Aotearoa home “will fail to see themselves in their country’s histories. And that will make it all the harder to see themselves as an important part of their country’s future.” 

Other subjects that seem, to the panel, to be conspicuous by their absence include the history of social welfare, labour and employment, the role of disease (a missed opportunity given the current pandemic) and the changing role of gender in society. On that subject, the panel regretted that the curriculum relegates women’s presence in our national history to “a silent and largely invisible place on the sidelines.”

Other historians have noted the same lack. Jock Phillips, former editor of the online Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, wrote: “All New Zealanders should know the history of the subordinate position of women in New Zealand, the oppression suffered by gay people, and the attempts to correct these injustices historically.” 

On culture, also largely absent from the curriculum, Phillips commented: “The creative culture of all New Zealanders, tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, should be explored. This has been both an outlet of personal identity and also an important expression of group and national identity. New Zealanders should know about Āpirana Ngata’s Ngā Mōteatea but also the music of Split Enz or the art work of Colin McCahon.”

Where, too, I would add, is the vast span of time in which Aotearoa’s history was devoid of human presence — 80 million years or so since our splitting away from Gondwana? If history is “the aggregate of past events,” then in our case these events have been geologically and ecologically momentous, and the defining narrative of these islands. The human encounter with all that came before humans is an important, but missing, strand in the curriculum as it stands.

The ministry has defended the draft curriculum, saying that the intent was to provide just a few “high-level themes”. Individual schools and teachers would be able to teach “a range of histories” through those themes.

But it is how the treatment of those themes is expressed in the curriculum that has troubled a number of historians, who have voiced their concerns on the New Zealand Historical Association website.

Jack Vowles, a professor of political science at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University, finds the curriculum’s focus on conflict to be worrying. “A curriculum for the history of our country should not be shaped by only one school of historical thought that promotes distrust in institutions, guilt about the past, and deep pessimism about the foundations of human society,” he writes. “New Zealand’s evolution as a bicultural representative democracy, perhaps the first in the world, also needs recognition.”

There is a risk that teaching a confrontational view of history as something that plays out between winners and losers, those with power and those without, the privileged and the disenfranchised could result in polarised classrooms and a fraught learning environment. 

Research here and overseas has found that where curriculum content includes traumatic histories, where students inescapably identify with those they are studying, and where a moral response is mandated (as it is in the draft curriculum), many students can find the topics disturbing, even distressing.

“History can hurt,” wrote the Royal Society advisory panel. “Thinking historically in the wake of empire often entails encountering, thinking about, and discussing cross-cultural conflict, violence of various sorts, the alienation of sovereignty, land, resources, and racism.”

Teachers will face the hard mahi of delivering this difficult history. How will they fare, given the combative narrative that much of the draft version is presenting? Will they be equipped to deal with historical racial trauma when it arises — in themselves as well as in their students? 

“History can embitter and create division,” wrote the panel. “[We] would wish that the teaching of history could create greater understanding and cooperation. How it is taught is crucial to which outcome emerges.”

The word “contest” appears 13 times in the curriculum draft. Contests over authority, contests over the control and use of resources, contested ideas about identity. Is everything, ultimately, a contest? Dutch historian Pieter Geyl thought so. He called history “an argument without end,” echoing the title of Ranginui Walker’s own history of Aotearoa, Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou, Struggle Without End.

One of this country’s most well-known names in history, Michael King, wrote that the effect of communicating the past should be to say: “This is what we’ve done that we can be proud of — or not proud of; these are the values of our forebears that provide helpful signposts for future directions and behaviour.”

King quoted the novelist John Dos Passos: “In times of change, when there is a quicksand of fear under people’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across an alarming present.”

The teaching of history can provide that sense of continuity. For individuals and peoples, it can be a real and vital lifeline. In the education system, that lifeline has historically been severed for Māori. The draft curriculum goes a long way towards restoring it. 


Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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