New Zealand’s new history curriculum for schools is flawed by omission and ideology but teachers will do their best to ensure it helps students, writes Paul Moon
Unlike most other academic disciplines, history has a civic responsibility: it feeds into the very architecture of our identity, and holds us – as a society – to account for our actions. So it was with heightened expectations that many of us involved in the subject looked forward to the new curriculum on New Zealand history, which has now emerged in its finalised form.
Certainly, elements of the curriculum rise to meet those expectations, particularly the strong emphasis placed on students developing the skills to interpret and critique historical materials. However, the curriculum overall has been marred to some extent by a concoction of clumsy content selection, the intrusion of ideological elements, and a consultation process that was more perfunctory than purposeful.
First, the content. Inevitably, the release of the new curriculum was bound to be met with cries of “what about…?” as those with an interest in history wondered why something that they regarded as crucial was missing. Understandably, the curriculum cannot encompass every aspect of the country’s past. However, the curriculum’s authors bypassed altogether concerns raised by experts over significant omissions. Among many examples, the thoughtful and nuanced submission from the Royal Society illustrates this failure. It respectfully noted that several topics were barely addressed, if at all, in the curriculum. These include the role of women, and particularly, wāhine Māori, the welfare state, labour history, economic history, international history, and popular culture. Puzzlingly, these points of the submission were largely ignored.
One of my own concerns with the curriculum is how half a millennium of hapū and iwi history has been practically erased. Reading the document, you could be forgiven for thinking that once the Polynesian migrations to the country finished, around the 1300s, New Zealand history went to sleep until the arrival of Europeans. Yet, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the abundance of evidence accumulated by the Waitangi Tribunal on hapū and iwi history will know that this is an extraordinarily rich seam that ought to have been tapped, but instead remains inexplicably overlooked.
The second area of unease over the curriculum relates to its ideological tilt. Several examples of this have already been identified, but one that might not be apparent at first glance is its denunciation of what is loosely referred to as “cultural appropriation”. Cultures act like sponges, absorbing elements from everything around them. That is a trait central to how they evolve and how they continue to serve their members’ needs. No current culture on earth is an exception to this. However, the curriculum’s writers seem unaware of this immutable fact, and have chosen – wrongly – to treat certain cultures as though they were Victorian-era museum exhibits, placed in a metaphorical glass cabinet, where they are isolated and left to calcify. Any possibility of a culture borrowing from others is condemned by the curriculum’s writers as “inappropriate”, which makes as much sense as saying that gravity is inappropriate. Not only is this a highly subjective stance, and one which turns its back on reality, but it is not the role of a history curriculum to dictate arbitrarily what might or might not be regarded as “inappropriate”.
Finally, there is the unusual process by which this new curriculum was developed. The ministry obscured details of those responsible for drafting it, and introduced an opaque public-submission process, with an external company with inadequate expertise on history hired to review the submissions. And strangely, no precise terms of reference for the review of submissions were published, no criteria for evaluating them was outlined, there was no feedback to submitters, and as it turns out, no material changes to the curriculum were made. In addition, while the ministry deemed many of the submissions to be of insufficient value to act on, inexplicably, it has decided not to release them to the public.
However, amid the clandestine processes, the ignorance of some of the fundamental aspects of the discipline of history, and some concerning omissions in content, there is still reason to be optimistic. Over the past year, I have spoken with dozens of secondary school history teachers around the country. They are, without exception, dedicated to making the best out of what the ministry has shunted in front of them, and based on what I have seen so far, our students will be well served as a result of their efforts.