There has been a debate brewing this past week in New Zealand about whether to make teaching history compulsory in schools. New Zealand history, of course. At the moment it isn’t. Because I’ve been on the radio and TV a bit this past week, thanks to the promotion of my book on the Treaty of Waitangi, I was asked – several times – what I thought of the idea.
The answer was the same every time. It shouldn’t be compulsory, because as soon as anything is made compulsory in school it instantly becomes boring and hated. But yes, it should be taught; and it should be taught because it is a joy to learn. We all need to know our history.
The thing is that learning history isn’t about rote-learning boring slabs of data, and then being able to churn it all back again in boring ways, as if we were all going to grow up and be accountants. No, it’s about understanding the shapes and patterns of the past, and how those evolved to create the present we know today. The data, of course, is essential to gaining that understanding, and we need to hold enough in our heads to make sense of what we learn – but history, of itself, is more than just that.
In New Zealand’s case, the issue is clear enough: there is little real understanding of our past, and what is popularly known, all too often, appears to be filtered through the lens of contemporary politics – notably the way that debate over the Treaty of Waitangi, as a symbol of the colonial process and its consequences, has become polarised.
Inevitably, the suggestion that history should be taught was met with shocked indignation from various circles. There is a loud, if small, ‘backlash’ movement in New Zealand, one that rejects the way society has moved in the past thirty-odd years, which personally blames specific prominent historians for causing it. Compulsory school history, to some of these people, apparently would consist only of ‘left-wing’ propaganda to validate the supposed agenda of the post-colonials and a supposed ‘grievance industry’. I suspect what these people really mean is that the history won’t consist of what they use to validate their own contemporary agenda.
I also don’t buy the idea that historians are responsible for policies that in fact reflect recent wide social changes. Still, the point that history might be slanted when taught in schools is a real issue, because the school system will inevitably reflect the prevailing norms of society. During the mid-twentieth century, for instance, school history had a specific bias when set against today’s values, although not for reasons to do with a deliberate agenda. It reflected the broadly socially-mediated view that pakeha society had of its own past at the time. New Zealand history was almost wholly ignored until the 1970s, and when it did surface, as often as not, it was merely seen as an appendix to the history of Britain. This reflected the thinking of the day, in which New Zealand was a glorious colony-becoming-nation, a scion of Britain in which Maori had been ‘integrated’. The reality, of course, was that Maori had been simply swept aside and then ignored – as my book on the Treaty shows. Check the book out for more.
The point here is that our understanding of history, itself, is an evolving entity mediated by current society. The frameworks of analysis, the questions asked and so forth, all change as society changes. Providing this process is understood, there is no great problem. Alas, it is all too easy for people to weaponise the past: to claim that the point-data they have, alone, proves their point; to consider their own view ‘balanced’, everything else ‘biased’, and to dump their anger, personally, on whoever presents a different view. In reality, of course, history is not about reaching a ‘final’ absolute answer, because there is no such thing. The data does not change; but what the data means certainly does, because each new society asks new questions of the past. The field is relative, and therefore understanding what happened, its meaning, and how those meanings change, is actually about having a reasonable discussion.
What would I teach for school history? I’d ask the class to think about how ideas and thinking have changed through time. I’d explain the history of New Zealand in those terms – stepping back, as far as possible, from the immediate emotion of current politics. Critical thinking, analysis of source, and a understanding of abstraction go a long way towards producing both wisdom and tolerance of others. It is something that, in general, societies seem very bad at. Maybe New Zealand can lead the way.
Meanwhile, any thoughts on teaching history in schools? And, for my international readers, what’s the score over your way?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019