Should history be compulsory in New Zealand schools?

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.

The river gunboat Pioneer of 1863 with rig for her trans-Tasman crossing. From James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars, Vol. 1.

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.

Do check out my book Waitangi: A Living Treaty. It’s available in any good New Zealand bookshop. Or click to buy online.

Meanwhile, any thoughts on teaching history in schools? And, for my international readers, what’s the score over your way?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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9 thoughts on “Should history be compulsory in New Zealand schools?

  1. Here in Australia, Australian history was taught as a compulsory subject when I was at school. I hated it. Bland, boring, nothing interesting seemed to happen once the novelty of ‘convicts’ wore off.

    That was a long, long time ago, and it’s only now that I’m learning some of the true, hidden history of this country – Terra Nullius, massacres, wars between the First Peoples and white settlers, very real atrocities…and then the policies of the conquerors, policies that continue to this day.

    I would like to see history taught in schools but wonder if it is ever possible to determine a true history. :/

    1. Australia has an incredible history on so many levels (and, really, it’s integral with New Zealand’s, given that our early European history was by spill-over from New South Wales). I think the historiographical pattern has followed ours (and elsewhere) in that the nationalist-focused views of the mid-twentieth century have given way, finally, to more inclusive histories that include the indigenous peoples who had been swept aside by Europe during the colonial period. And yeah, the colonial record in Australia against the indigenous peoples wasn’t good. I have to say that what fascinates me is the incredible depth of the human story there – the continent appears to be one of the earlier places into which H. sapiens travelled (c 70,000 BCE); whereas New Zealand, and this is now known conclusively, was the last major one (late thirteenth century CE). To me that is astonishing: the Tasman separates one of the first from the absolute last. And I think Australia’s earliest human story is still to be fully unfolded by archaeologists; I am sure there will be some surprises yet.

      1. I’m ashamed to admit that I know little about New Zealand history, but the fact that you have a treaty of any sort elevates you far above us. Thanks to Terra Nullius, we never ever had a treaty with any of the First Nations people and even now, the question of treaty is a contentious one.

        I hope that we can start redressing some of the wrongs by applying some truth, and respect. A lot of Aussies say that they are not to blame, personally, for any of the negative aspects of settlement. Yet all of us, even a first generation Aussie like me, owe our very comfortable standard of living to decision in the past that dispossessed the oldest continuous culture on earth. -sigh- We need to learn.

  2. A lot of people seem to find critical thinking difficult. Often, one’s first reaction to something is emotional, which inevitably introduces bias of some sort. I wonder if schools could incorporate instruction on how to think about history as well as the “facts,” and how they change over time. Here in Canada attempts are being made to incorporate how indigenous people were treated into history courses.

    1. I agree – it’s the emotional side that colours reactions. And it’s curious: on my experience, those who are most emotive about history are those who seem least able to understand the need for critical thinking and abstraction, and who claim the past is defined purely by the point-data of the day – naturally, in absence of critical thinking – coloured by current need and purpose.

  3. I also think making our compulsory would probably be a mistake. Though I’m out of touch with how it’s taught in nz these days. There’s lots of scope with teaching history… We’re hardwired to love story/narrative and history is built of stories….just listen to what Dan carlin does on hardcore history – wish he taught history in Dunedin in the early 90s!

    1. My own experience of school history is decades ago – I do recall it as being excruciatingly boring and something to do with the European state system of the nineteenth century. Or something. I hope that’s changed since – as you say, there’s plenty of scope for interest.

  4. As I read your post, I came across parallel after parallel with US history, not surprisingly. And particularly this: “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.” There is no such thing as the absolute answer in history. Oh, that we would accept this. It is difficult to view the past in its own lens but it’s not impossible; however, it does require a bit of us. As always, thoughtful post, Matthew.

    1. Thanks Karen. I think the parallels are manifest on a number of levels; not least the fact that ‘post-colonial’ history is a global phenomenon and has had much the same interpretative approach world-wide. It has also triggered very similar responses by those who disagree with it. Mix into this the fact that the US midwest-to-west, New Zealand and Australia were all emerging simultaneously in the nineteenth century as western-culture colonial frontiers, and had many shared ideals and even direct cultural links – identified as ‘Pacific rim’ culture – and the parallels when interpreting and re-interpreting what happened draw closer. The problem with all of this is that while such thinking is well accepted among historians – internationally – and across many of the humanities, it is not by those who have vested contemporary interests and wish to weaponise the past as a device to validate their particular views. And so the arguments begin… sigh…

      Here in NZ, one of the noisier groups opposing the way history has been re-thought has a very clear contemporary agenda. Their method for pursuing it is to (a) blame historians for the current state of race-relations and then (b) data-mine the past as a weapon to invalidate historians, personally. The fact that their material is cherry-picked, de-contextualised and so forth is obvious, but it does not stop them; the standard response to anyone on their website is that ‘person X should know that Y occurred…’, implying that person X is is ignorant of the isolated factoid, and as if such citation suffices to discredit a complex argument. I even had one of the followers mine one of my earlier books and quote a half-phrase back to me, out of context, as if this somehow meant something (it didn’t, of course). One cannot discuss matters with such people, of course; they either can not or will not accept anything historians say.

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