A few years ago, I worked as a quiz writer on a TV show aimed at secondary school kids. Trial runs before the show left us scrambling. The historical questions had been pitched way too high.
Some kids weren't even sure what century the Treaty was signed, let alone the date. As for what each article of the Treaty was about? Anybody’s guess. We came away from the trials facing a dilemma. How were we going to ensure we didn’t make fools of these kids on national television? We resorted to multi-choice and true or false questions.
To be fair, I don't think many adults would be able be to handle the kinds of questions we’d had in mind. Questions about the number of Māori seats in parliament. The significance of Parihaka. Who Eva Rickard was. What year Bastion Point was occupied.
A good number of Māori will know. But far too many people still don't understand, value, or even give a toss about, some of the pivotal moments that have shaped this nation’s history.
Never is this more obvious to me than when I wake up in the morning and open my emails. Every day, I receive lists of news items from different media. Judging by my inbox some days you'd think I live in two different countries — one Māori, one Pākehā.
Each celebrates and mourns its own heroes, stories and tragedies, and the only time these two countries ever appear to share the same jurisdiction is when there's conflict over land or resources.
Here’s an example from just last month. While Matatini was being celebrated by Māori media as the pinnacle of kapa haka achievement, the Hawke’s Bay Today was reporting that the "home field" of the Hawke’s Bay Athletics Club (where the festival was held) was still out of action a week later, causing havoc with the training programmes of the elite athletes.
Some people blame the lack of history in our schools for the bigotry that often reveals itself in this country. They argue that, if the conflicts of our past were studied and discussed, then the conflicts of the present would be easier to understand.
But this is a much bigger issue than can be fixed in the classroom alone. Nor should the responsibility of providing a balanced education belong just to our teachers.
For a start, teachers aren't blank slates. They come to the classroom with their own ideas, knowledge and values. Like all of us, those values reflect the education they had growing up.
Looking back, particularly to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, a great deal of what was considered a standard education would be seen as inappropriate today.
Take the New Zealand School Journal, for example. I recently read my kids a story from 1975 titled “Maxine and The Lost Baby”. Accompanied by staged black and white photos, the story opens with Maxine finding a Māori baby sitting alone outside a dairy. A thorough search for the child's parents ensues. Eventually, after every person with a Māori-sounding name is approached, the Māori baby is reunited with its Pākehā parents. How's that for a twist?
But wait, there's more. The Pākehā parents scold the toddler for escaping through the fence, and then explain to Maxine:
“We adopted him. We had no baby of our own. The doctor helped us to find one. John was the one we liked most of all."
When I finished reading the story, my kids exchanged awkward glances. My 12-year-old, weirded out by the whole thing, said: "Mum, isn't that a bit racist?"
Even at his age, he could pick up the subtle messages: Māori are irresponsible parents who lose their babies. Pākehā parents are kind and loving. It's acceptable to "pick" Māori babies like sweets. Some Māori babies are better than others. And on and on.
It's not surprising that, at the time the story of “Maxine and the Lost Baby” was published and distributed to every classroom in the country, the state was removing hundreds of Māori children from their whānau and placing them in foster homes or state care where many of them suffered terrible abuse.
Education has long been used as a way of normalising one set of ideas and values over another. It’s colonisation by stealth. A battle for our hearts and minds, using words and ideas as weapons.
That’s why, when we say we want history to be compulsory in schools, we need to realise that the challenge is as much to unlearn the history that has already been taught, as it is to try and teach a new, "objective" history.
The potential for the school curriculum to be used as a machine for government propaganda is at least part of the reason the Ministry of Education remains resolute in its position on the teaching of New Zealand history in schools.
Our Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, takes the line that each of our schools can choose what they teach and how they teach it.
The last thing any government wants to be accused of, after all, is brainwashing our kids. And you can see it from the ministry's perspective: Tell New Zealand history one way, get shot. Tell it another way, get shot by the other side. More to the point, do we really want to give the state responsibility for telling Māori history?
Besides, teaching history is one thing. Shifting lifelong entrenched positions is another. This isn’t something that can be left to one government ministry to fix. It requires leadership across all of government. It requires a commitment by those in power — not just to “close the gaps” but to ensure that future policies take into account what caused the marginalisation of Māori in the first place.
Like any conflict, to get over it, we need to talk about it — and it shouldn’t always be left up to Māori to start those conversations.
That’s not to say there isn’t a role for the Ministry of Education to play. One of the lasting legacies of Pita Sharples is the 2014 Māori History Project. It resulted in the publication of a set of guidelines to strengthen the teaching of Māori history in primary and secondary schools. It's a fantastic resource, full of practical ideas and suggestions — including encouragement for schools to look to iwi for expert guidance and support.
That’s great. But we shouldn’t assume that iwi have the time, resources or capacity to back-stop every school within their rohe. Nor should they be expected to. They have more than enough on their plate as it is.
Some would argue that the $1.6 million spent on the Māori History Project was a waste of money, because there's still no obligation or incentive for schools to take it on board. The only solution, some say, is for the state to be more prescriptive. Hold schools accountable.
But it's a slippery slope. My kids have attended schools overseas where everything from the school timetable to classroom textbooks is dictated by the government. You don’t have to spend long in that kind of environment to understand that limits on state control is a good thing.
Besides the responsibility to ensure kids get a balanced education is ours, as parents, as much as it the state's. While people get caught up in arguments about who’s going to teach our kids New Zealand history, rarely do I hear parents talking about what they’re doing. Teachers can only do so much. The government should only do so much.
The essence of devolution, the benefits of which the Ministry of Education is so quick to boast about, is that the ability to influence what's being taught in our schools is already in our hands.
That’s true. The levers of change are within our reach, in the form of representation on school boards of trustees, emails to the principal, parent-teacher interviews, and good ol' fashioned nagging. Be a hōhā.
But it’s not just a matter of what’s in the curriculum. The goal should be to teach our kids how to think, not what to think. The reason I expose my kids to old School Journals is that I want them to understand that just because something is written in a book doesn't make it true. Likewise, just because an idea is presented in the classroom as a fact, doesn't mean it can't be challenged.
The power to raise critical thinkers rests with all of us. We don't need to wait for the Ministry of Education to make history compulsory to do that.