History in schools should not be a rosy story of the nation’s progress. Colonisation is the central fact of New Zealand history and cultural life and it must be prominent in what is taught, writes Tony Ballantyne

Debates about the removal of statues propelled by Black Lives Matter and critiques of the legacies of colonialism here in New Zealand pose important questions about New Zealand history. What kind of history should be taught in schools, who should be prominent, and what themes are the most important for students to learn about? And more broadly, what should New Zealanders know about the history of the islands?

Although it has become commonplace to suggest that New Zealanders, especially Pākehā, are uninterested in the past and adept at forgetting our difficult histories, in reality there is a long tradition of writing about our history: the first general history of New Zeland was published in 1859. We have not routinely engaged in thoughtful public debate about how we make sense of our past and we have failed to teach it consistently. Currently, students in years 7 to 10 learn about the Treaty of Waitangi and some significant aspects of New Zealand history in Social Studies, but few students take History as a subject for NCEA. Those who do, don’t necessarily study New Zealand.

History in schools should not be a rosy story of the nation’s progress. Colonisation is the central fact of New Zealand history and cultural life and it must be prominent in what is taught. Certainly the New Zealand Wars need to be explored, analysed and understood; but not just as a series of military engagements. Their economic, social and political dimensions are also crucial. Students must learn about colonisation more broadly too, for instance, about how disease, war, land alienation and confiscation, and environmental change undermined Māori communities and shaped the development of New Zealand society. New Zealanders also must learn about the experience of Moriori in the nineteenth century, the history of anti-Asian immigration laws, New Zealand’s Pacific empire, and the ‘dawn raids’ of the 1970s. These stories need to be bought into dialogue with the more progressive histories that we are keen to retell: the signing of the Te Tiriti/the Treaty, women’s suffrage, and the reforms that meant that New Zealand was seen as the world’s ‘social laboratory’.

In addition to learning about these elements of the national story and how they relate to each other, it is essential that teachers ensure that their pupils actively engage with local histories, the stories of hapū and iwi, families and individuals who shaped their places and communities. Local histories matter as much as the national story. Perspectives on the past vary significantly between Parnell and Papatoetoe, Aranui and Fendalton, Rawene and Riverton.

Nor should New Zealand history be understood in isolation. New Zealand school pupils should continue to learn about the two World Wars, the Holocaust, political conflict in Ireland, and the civil rights movement in North America. Having some knowledge of those developments not only helps us understand the world we live in, but also provides some context for important elements of New Zealand history. Students should also be introduced to eighteenth and nineteenth century British and Irish history. Understanding the history of New Zealand politics and culture and making sense of Pākehā identity is very difficult without some basic sense of modern Britain and Ireland. And, of course, Britain built a world-spanning empire and having an understanding of how the movements of animals, people, money, things, and ideas around that empire helps us understand how colonial New Zealand developed.

What is almost entirely absent from New Zealand schools is any serious engagement with the Pacific, the most immediate of these broader contexts for New Zealand history and a key cultural frame of contemporary New Zealand life. That is a very serious gap that must be addressed.

Most New Zealanders did not learn much or any New Zealand history at schools. But we all have some knowledge of it through the rich human tales of making homes and forging relationships, narratives of love and loss, faith and belief, sickness and health, hard-work and recreation that are shared within families. We access those stories through family-trees and whakapapa, photo albums, and often-repeated family tales. They are recalled in homes, on marae, in places of worship, and at cemeteries and urupā. These human stories are vital threads in the histories of these islands and they provide important perspectives on the past too.

So while it is good to know something of the national heroes that grace our banknotes – Sir Edmund Hillary, Kate Sheppard, Apirana Ngata, and Ernest Rutherford – looking beyond those iconic figures opens up a world of insights. How many of the following have you heard of: Matiaha Tiramorehu, Hirawanu Tapu, Kazuyuki Tsukigawa, Bendix Hallenstein, Choie Sew Hoy, Amy Bock, Margaret Cruickshank, Agnes TuiSamoa, Nikola Nobilo, Joan Wiffen? To begin exploring these stories, check out the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and the resources on Te Ara: the Encycopedia of New Zealand at teara.govt.nz .

Whether you are 17 or 70, it is never too late to begin to think about the histories of these islands: explore the landscape, visit museums, read widely, and even look at a few statues.

Tony Ballanyne is a Professor of History, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Humanities and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture at the University of Otago. He is completing a book on James Cook...

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