Why history must be taught in New Zealand schools

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.

A photo I took in 2011 of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

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.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

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

5 thoughts on “Why history must be taught in New Zealand schools

  1. I’m no historian, but I do remember reading something about history always being written by the winners, presumably because so much of history is about conflict. The Australian history I was taught in school went one step further and denied that there’d been an conflict at all. It’s only now that we’re starting to get an idea of just how bloody the colonisation of Australia truly was. I suppose every culture attempts to paint itself in the most pleasing light.
    Btw that example about Adolf Hitler really stopped me in my tracks. We’re so used to thinking of him as evil incarnate that it’s almost impossible to admit that the man might have had one or two redeeming features. :/

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    1. Oh, I don’t think Hitler had any redeeming features! The only good thing Hitler did was kill Hitler, but by then it was too late… His WW1 experiences gave him shell-shock and time in hospital to brew hate – and his liking for kids was basically because he was trying to indoctrinate a generation into his evil. Ouch. Not to mention the fact that he was cranked up on methamphetamines most of the time – there are some books about his doctor, Morell, and the Nazi drug habits. In the broadest historical sense, Hitler tapped into existing trends within Germany in order to create the depth of evil that followed, and I suppose if he hadn’t pushed that line, somebody else would have (they were already taking steps in that direction in WW1, under Ludendorff). But the question’s still there – would things have gone in precisely the same way?

      The point about history always being written by the winners is often attributed to Hitler – though it’s an obvious point. Not just the winners but also those involved who want to make themselves look good. Churchill actually did it – ‘History shall be kind to me, for I shall write that history’. His 6-volume History of the Second World War was self-serving in many ways. That’s true of the way colonial-era history was portrayed in Australia and New Zealand, too – a lot of it was framed to validate the mechanisms of colonialism. That’s changed in the last generation. I guess in future times, that view will change again, subtly or otherwise, as new questions get asked.


      1. lol – I’m actually relieved that I don’t have to think of Hitler as ‘warm and fuzzy’. 🙂

        Again, I’m no historian but I have read that the Treaty of Versailles was so draconian that it probably helped push Germany and ordinary Germans into Hitler’s arms. There’s always a push-pull effect of some sort, isn’t there?
        And I agree re history being used to validate colonialism. How they got away with Terra Nullius though, I simply don’t know. 😦

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  2. I’m not a professional historian, and haven’t even been to university – but your view of how history should be taught in schools certainly makes sense to me. I certainly hope the days of schools simply force-feeding a potpourri of dates, people, facts and chronologies are long gone.

    I still remember that my secondary school history classes in the early 70s (which I must say did include some NZ history) consisted of the teacher standing at the front of the room dictating huge slabs of text straight from his textbooks for 40 minutes, which we had to write down verbatim and then be tested on later. I would say I later developed my love of history despite my history lessons, not because of them.

    Nowadays, fortunately, children are taught ‘how’ to learn and to think critically. I trust this latter approach view will also carry into how NZ history is taught.

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