The decision this week that New Zealand history should be taught in New Zealand schools is long overdue. Inevitably, the question is ‘what’ history – an issue raised by the backlash brigade, who object to the Maori renaissance and the way society has rejected the old ideas of colonialism in the last generation.
The broad change of thinking is a general social phenomenon, emerging organically as society changed generationally. However, the ‘backlash brigade’ have managed to find people they can blame for it – typically, historians, for supposedly misrepresenting the past. Never mind that – as a historian friend of mine noticed – the loudest of these lobby groups named themselves after a well-known brand of furniture polish (‘Pledge’). Or that, as I’ve pointed out before, they’d get an ‘F’ in any history class I was teaching.
The issue of how history will be framed, and what will be taught, is important one. My thought is that a key part of any syllabus should be how the study of history works – for once we understand that, we can understand why historians have drawn the past in the way that they have. This is a key issue. Despite the apparent assumptions of the furniture-polish brigade, history is not a quest for a ‘final answer’. It can’t be. We know what happened, because it’s in the documentation. However, exactly how and why things happened is another matter, and it’s one that will always be framed by the questions we ask of the documentation. Those questions, inevitably, will change as our own society changes – and as new thoughts emerge.
It’s this that drives changes in the way we see the past. The issue of how we study the past a major consideration for professional historians. As with any of the humanities, the facts do not ‘speak for themselves’; they must, themselves, be evaluated and given place in order for their meaning to be clear. This stands against the usual popular supposition. Many books have been devoted by historians to the methodologies involved. However, as an example, imagine a First World War veteran whose role was messenger. This meant he had to be personally brave, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. The facts show that he was wounded and gassed, and after the war there is record of him greeting school-children with a broad smile, and having afternoon tea with cream cakes. These facts, left to ‘speak for themselves’, portray an upstanding war veteran who was popular and liked kids. There’s only one problem. I’m describing Adolf Hitler. See what I mean?
There appears to be no real understanding among the public – and certainly none in some of the louder ‘backlash’ lobby groups – of how the study and analysis of history works; they assume it is a quest for a ‘final’ definitive ‘answer’ to the past, revealed by data that is literally true and thus ‘speaks for itself’. In fact, the nature of the data and the fact that analysis never stops means that the study of history is actually a discussion. Often, the people I’ve dealt with in this manner – notably the ‘furniture polish’ brigade – flat refuse to accept that this is a valid approach. Instead they dismiss the work of historians as propaganda, insist the historians are not being ‘reasonable’, even allege history is a ‘conspiracy’ (usually funded by ‘Maori’) to ‘hide the truth’. Or they co-opt selected data to support their own view of the past which, inevitably, is self-serving justification of their band-wagon – a transparent re-run of late-colonial era fantasies of New Zealand being ‘one’ people. On my own experience, such critics also confuse the abstract conclusions of historigraphical method with personal conviction on the part of the historian. Projection at its finest, I suspect.
None of this helps promote a proper understanding of how the study of history is achieved by professional historians – all it does is reduce debate to personal sniping and abuse. So where does New Zealand history stand in all of this? You could write a book on it – and I did, you can click on the link. It’s best to read that first, I can’t entirely summarise the concepts in just a few words here.
The issue, though, broadly comes down to this. When I was at school in the 1970s, we got taught lists of English monarchs and such things as the European state system of the nineteenth century. It was much the same when I got to university – there was one course on New Zealand history, and that was it. The idea was that New Zealand didn’t have a history – it was too new. Most people didn’t think New Zealand had a culture, either.
One of the outcomes was that the self-serving historical myths generated during New Zealand’s late colonial period – mainly to do with the idea that Maori had been ‘integrated’ into Pakeha society and New Zealand were ‘one’ people, the origin of Maori, and ways to justify the arrival and dominance of Pakeha from the nineteenth century – were perpetuated. Into that mix came various angst-ridden thoughts about the place of Pakeha New Zealand – were we a colony, or were we a nation? Nobody knew; and the national insecurity complex – the ‘cultural cringe’ – made sure that debate was never going to be answered.
That changed in the 1980s, at least in the academy; the ‘baby boomer’ generation arrived in force, and with them came new approaches to thinking – including the new ideology de jour, post-colonialism. Historians reflected this wide social trend in their own thinking; and because being seen to adhere to the new ideas was also a device for achieving intellectual status, it was possible to make a major impact by saying the right thing to the right people. I can think of two historians, right now, who have made their careers basically trading on PhD theses they wrote at the time. The whole was facilitated by a viciously exclusive academic sub-culture – which I was exposed, in full force, at Victoria University – in which the difference between being ‘innovative’ and ‘wrong’ was as simple as belonging to the right in-crowd or not.
The main problem with this early outpouring of new thought was that, inevitably, it over-compensated. The novelty of it masked the fact that it allowed itself to be defined by the prior view of history, and often all it did was simply reverse the old tropes. If colonial-era history said Maori had lost the New Zealand Wars, the new ‘revisionists’ had to say Maori won it. If colonial-era history said there had been a succession of ‘musket wars’, the new ‘revisionists’ had to deny that they existed. And so it went on. History, inevitably, was more complex. The older view clearly hadn’t represented it correctly; but, by allowing itself to be framed by that view, nor did initial post-colonial analysis.
A lot of the work I’ve done in my professional career has been an effort to find somewhat better balance and analytical depth in the way history has been seen – and I am not the only one. I was officially referred to a ‘post-revisionist’ on the government history website, which I thought was pretty cool although, in point of fact, I wasn’t questioning the basic thrust of the new approach, only the polemic with which it was initially applied. I see that others have since followed suit; in general, the work done in the past ten to fifteen years by historians generally has been considerably better matured than the earliest post-colonial material. I devoted a chapter to exploring how that had happened in my book on the Treaty of Waitangi.
So where does that leave us for the schools? As you can see, my take is that if we’re to understand New Zealand’s history, we also need to teach how history works – how we think about it, and why it’s always going to be a discussion, broadly shifting with the generations.
The point about it – and again, something my records show the ‘backlash’ brigade seem unable to understand – is that disputing aspects of a particular viewpoint is not the same as rejecting the whole of that viewpoint. Debating some of the more extreme assertions of the post-colonial viewpoint does not mean that their general philosophy is incorrect.
And I have, of course, written the very book to do that with. Click on the link. Check it out.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019