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PAUL MOON: Shaping things to come: New Zealand’s new history curriculum

For decades, our secondary school students have been undernourished when it comes to the country’s history, and so the appetising prospect of New Zealand’s history being made compulsory is one that many of us have keenly anticipated.

History is more than a rote-learned chronology that it is sometimes perceived to be. In fact, it is part of the architecture of our identity. And collectively, there can be no true sense of citizenship without a knowledge of history. Dismissing what has gone on before leaves us with little more than a succession of snapshots of the present, with each one deleted as soon as it is seen – a sort of Instagram existence devoid of any greater context. History is where memory and materiality mingle, and where social and cultural meaning is largely derived from.

What’s in the curriculum and what isn’t?

There is much in the new history curriculum that addresses the current deficit in how we see ourselves, but to an extent, the positives are undermined by some inexplicable failures. The first of these is the content selection. At some point, it seems that the impossibility of addressing everything in a curriculum became a pretext for making some deleterious decisions on topic choice. The omissions range from puzzling to worrying. Women’s history, the emergence of the welfare state, the role of wāhine Māori in our history, economic history, labour relations, the history of our role in the international realm, and popular culture history have all effectively been erased. More troubling still, the curriculum designers were notified of the importance of these topics in a submission, and yet failed to remedy the content.

Even more mystifying is the exclusion of half a millennium of hapū and iwi history prior to the colonial period. This history is vital to understanding Treaty settlements, co-governance models, and so many aspects of our indigenous culture and politics. It also happens to be one of the most heavily-documented aspects of our history, with the Waitangi Tribunal alone having accumulated vast quantities of oral histories from hapū and iwi across the country. Again, those responsible for the curriculum were alerted to this troubling oversight in a submission they received. And again, the advice was ignored, with the consequence that the old myth about Māori having no history prior to Pākehā arrival risks resurfacing.

Ideological elements

Most critics of the curriculum have focussed on its deficient content range. However, possibly more disturbing in terms of the discipline of history is the way in which the curriculum contains distinct ideological elements. When prising open the past for examination, like any operation, hygiene is crucial. In the case of history, this involves (among much else) maintaining an evidence-based approach, evaluating the relative values of types of evidence, and avoiding as much as possible the risk that the analysis will be infected with biases. Of course, no history is completely bias-free, but this is not a reason to allow blatantly subjective positions to contaminate our understanding of the past.

Cultural appropriation is one area where the curriculum-writers have jumped the fence from being educators to ideologues. The term ‘cultural appropriation’ is itself loaded and contested. However, the curriculum asserts that all cultural borrowing, no matter in what form, or for what motive, is ‘inappropriate’. This is an opinion (albeit a poorly-conceived one) that has no place in what should be an opinion-free curriculum. Consider the knots that people could get tied up in if they follow through with the advice that all cultural appropriation is ‘inappropriate’. Should people from one culture, for example, be allowed to use the language of another’s? It would be an absurd question if this line of reasoning was not already being used by some people. Surely, no history curriculum should be wading into such shallow anti-intellectual waters.

Māori and non-Māori history

Another ideological tilt in the curriculum is its framing of Māori history as being in a binary relationship to (presumably) Pākehā history. This is a false dichotomy. History requires its practitioners to incorporate evidence and perspectives from as wide a range of relevant sources as possible. There is no question that much history relating to hapū and iwi has yet to be incorporated in accounts of New Zealand’s past. However, the binary depiction of Māori and non-Māori history can only misrepresent rather than elucidate what is a far more nuanced, integrated, and sometimes entangled narrative of our past.

Then there is the curriculum’s insistence on the naval-gazing exercise of identifying the country’s national identity. The reason why many historians now eschew explorations of such themes is because national identity is an abstract aggregate of (in New Zealand’s case) in excess of five million individual identities. The extent to which a national identity is sought is usually proportionate to the extent to which the country’s diversity is disregarded. The pursuit of a national identity typically ends up as an exercise in national stereotyping, with minorities usually consigned to the periphery.

Few subjects taught in schools have nerves that twitch when touched as much as history does, and there have already been warnings that the new curriculum could create division or confrontation in classrooms. It will now be up to the teaching profession to ameliorate the worst aspects of the curriculum in a way that will help invigorate the subject and lead students to see the potential that historical understanding offers them.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology. He is a writer of New Zealand history and biography, specialising in the Treaty of Waitangi and the early colonial period in New Zealand. This piece was first published at the Blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education

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