Eighteen months ago, the Government announced a curriculum change making it compulsory for all schools to teach “key aspects” of New Zealand history. The Ministry of Education was tasked with creating a new curriculum to “span the full range of New Zealanders’ experiences… with contemporary issues directly linked to major events of the past.”
Asking the Ministry of Education to draft a compulsory New Zealand History curriculum for school children was always fraught with risk. The Ministry has disavowed knowledge-based curricula – to the extent that the much-vaunted National Curriculum fits on a scanty 64 A4 pages. It covers the entire social sciences for years 1-13 in a single page.
As educationalist Briar Lipson revealed in her 2020 book, New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, overwhelming evidence suggests the Ministry’s anti-knowledge stance is behind the decline in Kiwi students’ educational outcomes over the last two decades. Consequently, the shift to a knowledge-based curriculum at least for teaching New Zealand history is a welcome development.
But how would the Ministry cope with designing a curriculum that does justice to New Zealand’s rich history?
Not well, is the answer. As everyone knows, there are many sides to history. Yet few would have predicted the Ministry could have produced such a loaded, myopic and politicised account of New Zealand’s past as the draft curriculum released for consultation in January.
To be fair, Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories in the New Zealand Curriculum is not all bad. Its ultimate goal is enabling students to “make an informed ethical judgement about people’s actions in the past, giving careful consideration to the complex predicaments they faced, the attitudes and values of the time, and [students’] own values and attitudes.” No one would quarrel with this aim. Surely that is precisely the goal of studying history.
“The” or “a”?
Yet, despite the draft curriculum’s reference to plural “histories,” the curriculum’s first of three “big ideas” that all students are expected to understand prescribes a much narrower learning outcome. After 10 years of compulsory study all students are expected to understand that “Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Precisely what the words “foundational and continuous” mean is not clear. The pages of most New Zealand history books stretch back millions of years before any human foot stepped on Aotearoa’s shores.
Indeed, humanity arrived late to New Zealand – by most accounts, a little under a thousand years ago – more than 50,000 years after Aborigines settled in Australia and more than 200,000 years after the first human footprints in Africa. In the absence of human and other mammalian predators, New Zealand developed its unique bird-dominated fauna, including the wondrous Moa (not to mention the humble Kiwi).
Māori history is undoubtedly the first human history of Aotearoa. But the country has a rich history before settlement by homo sapiens.
But even ignoring the country’s pre-human history, the “first big idea” is loaded with a second problem: Māori history is not simply “a” foundational history; it is claimed to be “the” foundational (and continuous) history.
Yet surely the history of a country formed by a treaty signed between two peoples is founded on two histories? Indeed, until the arrival of British settlers in the early 1800s, there was no “Aotearoa New Zealand.” Māori were tribal, rather than organised as a nation state.
The “foundational” histories of the new nation that emerged from the signing of the Treaty are the meeting and blending of two histories: those of Māori and the British Crown. Both histories have rich tapestries, with their own mythologies, customs and culture. And both histories have chequered pasts, including injustice, warfare, and slavery.
Since the birth of New Zealand, the country has added its own history to the histories it inherited. For good and for bad. A history of civil war during the 1860s, followed by unjust confiscations by the state from Māori. Of leading the world with the grant of voting rights to woman. Of triumph on the sporting field and in the laboratory. Of creating one of the world’s first welfare states (and thereby providing the blueprint for “mother” Britain’s National Health Service). Of consistently ranking in the top echelon of countries for human development, prosperity, economic freedom and freedom from corruption. And of bi-partisan support for settling historical grievances from past injustices to the nation’s first settlers. Along the way, New Zealand’s initial history of biculturalism has been supplemented with a modern history of tolerant multiculturalism.
Māori history is foundational to New Zealand history. But teaching children in 21st century New Zealand that it is “the” foundational history of the nation is simply wrong.
Colonialism and power
The second and third “big ideas” all children are expected to understand from their 10 years of compulsory history study are also erroneous – or at least exaggerated. The other two ideas are that:
- Colonisation and its consequences have been central to our history for the past 200 years and continue to influence all aspects of New Zealand life (emphasis added); and
- The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power.
It is true that colonisation is central to New Zealand’s history. That New Zealand is predominantly English-speaking, has a Westminster-style democracy, and a legal system based on English common law is a direct consequence of the treaty signed by Māori chiefs with the British Crown in 1840.
It is also true that colonisation has seen a litany of injustices to Māori. And not just the confiscations of tribal lands. Who could have conceived, for example, that the Crown would assert the right to make planning decisions over iwi landholdings?
All Kiwi children should learn about the confiscation of taonga, harm to iwi institutions and consequential loss of mana these injustices involved.
Yet the notion that “colonisation and its consequences continue to influence “all aspects” of New Zealand society is exaggerated.
There are many aspects of New Zealand society that owe little or nothing to colonisation and everything to human nature and human enterprise: familial love, romantic relationships, the enjoyment of art and culture, friendship, recreation, industry and trade, and even everyday work.
The idea that power structures (above all else) have shaped New Zealand history, with power-wielding “victors” and powerless “victims,” is also flawed. This idea is predicated on Marxist notions of class warfare. Of different individuals, groups and organisations engaging in a perpetual contest to decide who gets the biggest share of the spoils.
But New Zealand’s history is much more complex than can be explained by arguments about the exercise and expression of power. It involves a spirit of community and shared values, reinforced by our small size and geographic isolation. It has been shaped by both bold and foolhardy political leadership. It has been buffed and buffeted by world events, including two world wars and periodic global financial shocks. It has been forged on the sports field, in the science lab and elsewhere by great New Zealanders performing on the global stage. And it has been enriched by immigration and multiculturalism.
At significant times in New Zealand’s history, relations between Māori and Pākehā have involved a profound struggle for power. And never has this been more true than during the New Zealand Wars and their aftermath.
But for all its chequered past, New Zealand’s history has been shaped not just by conflict but by consensus and by a sense of common humanity.
Sadly, the drafters of the New Zealand Curriculum seem to have misplaced theirs.