Caleb Anderson: NZ History Curriculum - Critical Race Theory coming to a school near you
The final version of the New Zealand History Curriculum contained no significant changes in spite of widespread concerns. The consultation process was an exercise in window dressing. The review panel was stacked, dissenting historians were silenced, the terms of reference limited, the period of consultation constricted, and the outcome predetermined.
What has been produced is not a "history curriculum" as such. What has been produced is a perspective on history that is fundamentally based on Critical Race Theory.
Critical Race Theory assumes the following:
1. That the primary driver of human action is the pursuit of power
2. That power has been almost exclusively exercised by people of European descent
3. That the people of colonised lands were not materially benefited in any significant way by the process of colonisation
4. That colonisation displaced a near utopian existence with an existence of institutionalised oppression
5. That this oppression remains embedded in every aspect of social and institutional life and is the ultimate cause of all disparity
6. That the solution is decolonisation
7. That any arguments to the contrary are contaminated by privilege and must be immediately invalidated and driven mercilessly from the public domain
We should not be concerned that there are controversial ways of looking at history, debate is the lifeblood of the historical method. But alternative perspectives can be deliberately suppressed for personal or political gain, and in order to advance one perspective alone, creating the impression that alternative perspectives are not credible. As a consequence, critical knowledge is cast to the wind, perspectives become untethered from the events which gave rise to them, and the deliberate selection of some facts, and denial of others, can create questionable conclusions, unbalanced views, and unjustified causes.
History is more an art than a science. Being open to alternative perspectives forces the consideration of inconvenient facts. This is how ideas are sifted, shaped, refined, tested, some last and some don't. Legitimate historical inquiry is a natural bulwark against extreme ideas and intentional manipulation. Of course, history practiced legitimately is something of a rough and tumble exercise, you can be confronted with perspectives you find offensive, and you may have to concede or modify a position in light of new facts. But there are nearly always reasons why some facts are left out, or understated, and why some are included, and sometimes overstated. When critiquing a historical perspective, it is often a very good starting point to ask yourself precisely which critical information is left out, there is always a reason for this.
In short, to engage in history properly is to willingly expose your primary assumptions (and prejudices) to the light of alternative perspectives.
With respect to colonisation, we are never told that intertribal slavery existed in almost every colonised land prior to colonization, or that the earliest slave traders were not the nations of Europe, or that tribal groups often lived in perpetual fear of their more powerful and ambitious neighbours, or that colonisation was sometimes a lifeline to smaller tribes fearful of annihilation at the hands of larger tribes.
We are not told that traditional societies were generally highly stratified, with almost no upward mobility, that tribal life was often brutal and short, that cannibalism was sometimes practised, that pantheistic and spiritualistic religions made people fearful, that primitive and labour-intensive technology exposed people to a life of toil, and regularly to the vagaries of famine.
We are not told that sometimes the colonising powers were very reluctant colonisers, that a piece of land purchased by a settler may have been paid for at least a dozen times to multiple owners, that missionaries and foreign service officials were often the most ardent advocates for the protection of indigenous people, that the punishment of indigenous children for speaking their native language at school was often at the behest of their parents.
We are seldom told that the anglo nations were the first in the world to legislate against slavery, that colonisation brought advantages ... more comfortable homes became possible with the arrival of nails, written language with the arrival of the alphabet, warm clothing and blankets with the arrival of textiles, better diets with the introduction of new crops, more accountability (and justice) with the arrival of a legal system, a more coherent set of propositional ethics with the arrival of Christianity. It is easy to trivialize these things from our twenty-first-century perspective, but these changes yielded no small gain, and help to explain the eagerness of many colonised people to engage with the colonisers.
Consideration of the bigger (and fuller) picture brings perspective.
Colonisation was often, and ultimately, a brutalising process, and the impacts of colonisation endure. But the history of the world is one of constant colonisation, of the over-layering of people groups, of subjugation and integration, and worse, over and over again. There are almost no exceptions to this. People moved when they needed to, and displaced others when they could. Stronger tribes prevailed, and weaker tribes were assimilated, enslaved, or exterminated. Similarly, the nations of Europe emerged from tribal beginnings and, as a result of often protracted territorial conflicts between these tribes, national borders emerged.
Colonisation is a manifestation of the outworking of universal principles, and reflects powerful human instincts to survive at a minimum, and to thrive at best. Judgment of historical realities needs to be tempered with a realistic, and balanced, vision of human nature, not a myopic and idealised one, and not one which attributes vice almost exclusively to some, and virtue almost exclusively to others. The proposed new curriculum is not a balanced presentation of the facts, but a cut-and-paste justification for an unbalanced and agenda-ridden view of history. Its core assumptions are selective and highly challengeable.
If anything, history teaches us that we are not so different from those who have come before us, or from those who inhabit a different part of our planet. We have similar motivations, good and bad. Individually, and collectively, we repeat the sins of earlier generations, nuanced and rationalized to our time and context, and commensurate with our ability to do so. We can be cruel when the opportunity for gain presents, when our interests are threatened, or when we are fearful. We sin against others, not always in equal measure, but we sin against them nevertheless. The same precipitating motivational drivers exist for us all, adjusted only to scale and circumstance. This should create within us a reluctance to point our fingers. It is sometimes right to seek redress, but we should be honest about the actions of our forebears too, we should not rest our arguments on convenient facts alone, and sweep inconvenient facts under the carpet.
Radical re-sets, always accompanied by a historical cut and paste exercise, usually do not go well, and can be ultimately catastrophic. The French, Russian and Maoist elitist revolutions were all attempts at sudden change. Books were burned, statues toppled, churches razed to the ground, and re-education, including radically different interpretations of history, became a paramount preoccupation. In Paris, the streets ran with blood, and a prostitute was carried to Notre Dame and invested as the new goddess of reason, in Russia, a man owning three cows instead of one could be dispatched to a Siberian gulag for his overt capitalism, and in China, countless people disappeared without a trace. Perhaps worst of all, in the grip of something akin to a mass psychosis, people began to turn on each other. Knowing what happens when ideas are pushed to (or beyond) their limits (which invariably happens when competing perspectives are disregarded) gives us a taste of how badly things can actually turn out. We could never end in such a place, how sure are you of that?
Repeated comments by the Maori Party, and others on the left of politics, that Maori were subjected to genocide, and a holocaust, are an object lesson in where you can end up when you play loose with the facts of history, and when you can come to believe your own lies. What do they know, if anything, of the experience of the Jewish people throughout the ages? To equate the planned, systematic extermination of six million Jews with the colonisation of New Zealand is unforgivably ignorant. Loose-lipped commentators in the United States have been stood down, and forced to apologise, for anti-semitic comments of lesser magnitude than this, and yet the New Zealand media have barely commented, or challenged, such baseless assertions, it largely passed without notice, more than once
In short, history is impossibly complex, as are the people it seeks to represent. As there is no truth, but many truths, there is no history but many histories. Thus what makes history exciting, is also what makes it prone to abuse. The new curriculum is not a history curriculum in any valid sense. It is a selective view of the past, based on questionable assumptions. The new curriculum seeks to enshrine Critical Race Theory as the primary lens through which we make sense of past and present realities. It silences dissenting views, narrows perspectives, pits people groups against each other, attributes vice to some and villainy to others, and contaminates our national consciousness.
Perhaps worst of all it contravenes the duty of all educators to ensure that their students have a right to their own worldview, to question without fear, to seek the fuller picture, to ascertain motive, and to weigh in light of broader considerations. In short, our students have a right to be free from indoctrination by those who have no tolerance for those who see things differently or who are easily offended.
Critical Race Theory is cleverly hidden throughout this insidious document but it is there nevertheless, the subtle twists of phrase, and the occasional concessions to good sense, make it all the more dangerous. All indications are that this government will muster every mechanism at its disposal to see that this document is implemented to the letter. Instructions to schools have been clear, and problematic books have already been removed from libraries.
Three Waters will not be this government's legacy, The Aotearoa NZ History document will be its true legacy. As they are consigned to the opposition benches, as they soon will, the left will console themselves that the seeds have been planted ... in our institutions, in our schools, and in the minds of the most impressionable, and it is only a matter of time before they will get to water these seeds again. With the left, it is always the long game that counts.
I would strongly recommend ‘The Uses and Abuses of History” by eminent historian Margaret MacMillan for a fuller explanation of the risks of doing history badly. And I would like, as a person of part-Jewish descent, to recommend the following website to the Maori Party, or anyone interested, for their education and edification: https://www.ushmm.org/
History done well is an adventure, if done poorly, it is best left alone!
Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal. This article was first published at Breaking Views