History is more than a set of pre-defined answers

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 28 May 2021

Where do we come from? What has shaped this country? How did our society and culture evolve?

These are big questions. To answer them requires an understanding of history. And even with that understanding of history, different people will come to different conclusions.

The Ministry of Education’s draft curriculum for ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories’ has a different take on historical inquiry. Instead of giving students the knowledge, materials and guidance to understand our history, it defines what conclusions students should have drawn by the end of their school career.

The gist of the proposed curriculum is that New Zealand history is a Māori power struggle in the context of colonisation.

This pre-determined narrowness is one of the major criticisms in a report prepared by the Royal Society.

The Royal Society convened an Expert Advisory Panel on the draft curriculum. The panel, comprising both distinguished Māori and Pākehā representatives, takes issue with the Ministry’s approach.

“The curriculum draft, as it currently stands, directs students to judge the past before allowing them to ask questions, explore, and find out what that past was,” the Royal Society’s experts write.

Perhaps such a prescriptive approach might be more justifiable if students at least received plenty of historical information and materials. However, as the Royal Society warns, that is not the case. On the contrary, “major topics are missing or very lightly covered.”

For example, the experts decry that “the current draft says relatively little about the twentieth century, women’s history, welfare history or economic history.

The curriculum’s selectivity is especially odd when it comes to Māori history. Supposedly Māori history is at the curriculum’s centre. But, as the Royal Society states, “there is a 600-year gap between the arrival of Māori and the arrival of Europeans. It is almost as if Māori arrive in New Zealand and become instantly the victims of colonialism.”

The draft curriculum  also presents New Zealand in isolation from the rest of the world. Yet, New Zealand has been in frequent exchange with the world on many levels. It just does not feature in the draft curriculum.

Thus, the Royal Society recommends acknowledging these links explicitly: “The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national territories and boundaries,” the Society suggests to add.

Indeed, institutions are important. For example, the ‘rule of law’ concept and the courts, justice, police, and Parliament primarily derive from the British experience. They cannot be understood in isolation.

Thanks to submitters like the Royal Society, we can hope for an improved final curriculum. Future generations of students would benefit from it.

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