School girl in class stock image via Getty
School girl in class stock image via Getty

Peter Williams: New histories curriculum misses 600 years of our past

Opinion 20/05/2021

OPINION: I’m really pleased to see that the Royal Society of New Zealand no less, an important body of highly educated people whose mantra is to explore, discover and share knowledge has made a quite outstanding, and I would say stunning, submission on the Aotearoa New Zealand’s Histories draft curriculum that will be taught in our schools from next year. 

Now as you know, this curriculum is based around three big ideas - that Maori history is the foundational history of this country, that colonisation and its consequences were central to the country’s history, and that the course of history is shaped by the exercise and effects of power. 

I think the third so-called “big idea” is almost nonsensical because the history of the world and every country in it is shaped by the effects of power, and that the exercise and effects and power would be taught much better in an international context. But putting that to one side, the Royal Society has made a telling point. 

There is, it says, a 600-year gap between the arrival of the first waka from Polynesia and the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s. As the Royal Society says it’s almost as if Maori arrive in New Zealand and instantly become the victims of colonisation. Ouch. Wow. That will hit the indoctrination police at the Ministry of Education right between the eyes. And how can you disagree? 

If the human history of this country is somewhere between 800 and 900 years, then surely some appreciation of life in the first three-quarters of that time is called for, especially the forty or fifty years after the arrival of the first Europeans and before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. 

The Royal Society also expresses reservations about the curriculum’s intention that students would make an ethical judgement concerning right and wrong. And so the society should, and so should all of us. This is history, not sociology. And in history, what is right and what is wrong?  The current issues in Israel and Gaza are a current example of distinguishing right from wrong.

The Royal Society is also concerned about the way the New Zealand Wars are being framed as well. I’m so pleased that this submission has been made public. I would expect there have been others of a similar ilk. 

The big question is, will anybody at the Ministry pay any attention? Will the activities of Te Rauparaha be taught and any judgement made about his activities? And if you want to read some more about him the latest Listener magazine has a fascinating story, which has been republished on the New Zealand Herald website, about what you would only say were murderous and barbaric activities of a man who is now celebrated in Ngati Toa and Maori history. 

And will there be much taught about the attitudes of Hongi Hika of Nga Puhi and his first interactions with European traders and missionaries in the early years of the 19th century, including his trip to England to meet King George the 4th in 1820 - a trip which was highly influential in bringing British ideas to New Zealand, culminating in the signing of the Treaty 20 years later? 

So these are no doubt some of the specifics that the Royal Society sees as significant stories in the way New Zealand developed, and which don’t appear to be part of the curriculum. And when you read that curriculum, the overarching theme seems to be a very judgemental one. My suspicion is that is the intention.

Listen to Peter Williams every weekday from 9am on Magic Talk.