The draft New Zealand history curriculum – a major rewrite is needed please….

It’s great that we will soon have a history curriculum.  It needs to offer rich knowledge to all New Zealand school students, regardless of their socio-economic status, ethnicity or religion.  As Elizabeth Rata and Briar Lipson would argue, rich disciplinary knowledge that all students possess is needed for equity, civil society and democracy.

The curriculum should also foster both the spirit and method of critical inquiry.  It should challenge students to ask what motivated people in different historical contexts, what were they thinking, what did they need to take account of, and how did they expect others to behave.

The curriculum should make students aware of what the rest of the world has gifted us, and what we ourselves have created.  It should encourage students to treasure their whakapapa of the mind, regardless of where their bloodline whakapapa came from.  It should be centripetal in drawing people together, and not centrifugal in tearing them apart.

The curriculum as proposed tells us that “Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand”.  That colonisation has been central for 200 years and our history has been shaped by “the exercise and effects of power.”  It tells us that ideologies and beliefs “underpin expressions of power and resistance and insisting on rights and identity.” 

What is striking is what the curriculum misses out, such as the iwi versus iwi Musket Wars.  These began from 1807, escalated in 1818 and finally fizzled out around 1837.  They killed around 40,000 people, ten times the number who died in the New Zealand wars, and many more than we lost in the two world wars combined. 

The devastation the Musket Wars caused, and tensions with immigrants in the 1830s highlighted the need for a strong government to keep the peace and create the rule of law.  This realisation pathed the way for the Waitangi Treaty signed on 6 February 1840.  As if in a parallel universe, two days later Samuel Parnell, a London carpenter, arrived in Wellington and immediately declared that he would only work eight hours a day.  Given labour shortages at the time this was quickly accepted.  The Waitangi Treaty was the beginning point for our constitutional development, while Parnell’s eight hour day began the struggle for workers’ rights.

The curriculum as drafted implies New Zealand has two cultures, one foundational and enduring, and the other colonial and ephemeral.  However, New Zealand has been a multi-cultural society since the late 19th century.  Auckland is now home to about 100 nationalities with around 150 languages spoken.

The curriculum does not cover New Zealand’s economic and institutional development, the impacts of science and technology, and the development of global trading relationships.  It implies that ethnic group identities drive history, and that individuals’ vision, imagination, entrepreneurship and courage scarcely matter.

Our history and our students deserve better. 

A way forward is to start by placing New Zealand in the wider international context.  This includes how the environment shapes destinies, how human learning developed over millennia, global economic and technological drivers, and how these all shaped New Zealand.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel argues that Eurasian peoples developed technologically faster than those in Africa, the Americas and in Oceania not because they had any special abilities but because of the biophysical resources and geographic nature of the Eurasian continent.

In particular, Eurasia had a wealth of domesticable plant and animal species.  Crop domestication began around 9500BC in the Levant, and rice was domesticated in China about 6200BC.  Eurasia’s east-west major axis and minimal latitude changes facilitated diffusion of valuable plant and animal types, and the movement of people, ideas and technologies.  Food surpluses allowed settled communities that supported higher specialisation of labour and political organisation.  This in turn saw the emergence of advanced technologies such as metallurgy, writing, mathematics, and the development of complex institutions.

It was much more difficult for plants, animals, ideas and technologies to move along the south-north axis because of latitudinal barriers and oceans.  As humans moved south among small island groups flows of new ideas and learning sharply diminished, and some technologies were lost. 

Māori survived in New Zealand without a single grain crop, no herd animals, and dependent on what they could fish and forage to augment the inferior kumara varieties, gourds, yams, taro, rats and dogs they brought with them.  They depended on carcinogenic and barely edible fernroot as a staple food. 

The historical fact that pre-European New Zealand was a stone age culture is exclusively and unavoidably a reflection of how environmental constraints determined stages of economic development.  It is not a reflection on Māori intellect, innovation and openness to new learning. 

A history classroom discussion could pose such questions as: “Imagine if Māori had brought with them and established in New Zealand potatoes, corn, wheat, oats, sheep, pigs and cattle.  What might their economy and society look like when Tasman and later Cook arrived?”

New Zealanders have inherited the learning created by other cultures over thousands of years.  This includes mathematics and science from Mesopotamia from as early as 3000BC, ancient Greek philosophy, Roman law, Chinese inventions such as paper and the compass, Indian and Islamic mathematics, and the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Changing belief systems and institutions also shaped New Zealand. Christianity was an open not a closed institution and it quickly took root in New Zealand.  Māori gifted land to missionaries and helped build schools to access technology and literacy.  Human capital and new ideas were transferred in immigrants’ minds and they diffused within New Zealand, including through marriage.

Great Māori leaders such as James Carroll, Apirana Ngata, Peter Buck and Maui Pomare advocated adoption of modern technology: “a new net goes fishing”.  They supported the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 to ban charlatans who claimed supernatural powers, and to support access to modern rather than outdated traditional medicine.  This Act was supported by all four Māori MPs as well as by other Māori leaders. 

New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the most dramatic of all economic events: “The Great Enrichment”.  Economists such as Angus Maddison and Deirdre McCloskey have documented how, for millennia, real per capita incomes and living conditions increased at a glacial pace up to the late 18th century. Then from around 1800, GDP per capita grew at an explosive rate first in Britain, followed by Germany, America and throughout the developed world.

This Great Enrichment lifted billions of people out of poverty and extended lifespans by decades.  It came from technological and institutional innovation, from liberated human minds, and from social norms valuing business success, innovation and entrepreneurship. The poorest people in New Zealand now live far better than Queen Victoria lived in 1840.

New Zealand has drawn on learning accumulated over thousands of years from many parts of the world, and from the European Enlightenment and the science, reason, democracy, humanism and civil liberties that came with it.

School students should understand that the rights we take for granted are unusual in the world and vulnerable. In the 1990s many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to New Zealand in fear for their rights after the territory was transferred to China in 1997.  The CPC has since reneged on its assurances and ended civil rights in Hong Kong.  We need to uphold our civil libertarian and democratic rights if we wish to remain part of the modern humanist world and not the tribalistic or authoritarian worlds. 

The history curriculum should celebrate individuals for their social contribution rather than their narrow self-interest.  In our humanist democracy individuals are free to exercise their rights.  Individuals are not the instruments or property of religious, ethnic, nationalistic or other tribalist groups – students should learn to think for themselves.

Throughout world history it was individuals who challenged repressive religion, slavery and patriarchy, who made the big scientific breakthroughs, who reaped their teeming artistic, lyrical and musical brains and gave us their harvests, who innovated and built businesses and created whole new industries.

Americans celebrate Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison and Martin Luther King.  New Zealanders can celebrate such figures as Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare, Kate Sheppard, Emily Siedeberg, Hayward Wright, Ernest Rutherford, Janet Frame, Woolf Fisher, Kiri Te Kanawa, Graham Liggins and Bob Elliot.  Increasingly our leaders and heroes will include ethnicities other than Māori and Pakeha.

Key questions to pose to school history students might include:

  • How did New Zealand go from a stone age society in 1769 to one of the world’s wealthiest and most equitable societies by 1900?
  • What explains the Great Enrichment from 1800 and how did this affect New Zealand?
  • What caused the Great Depression in the 1930s, and what role did this play in the 1939-45 conflagration? 
  • How was Apirana Ngata able to foresee that the Versailles agreement would lead to the emergence of an authoritarian leader in Germany and to new conflict?
  • What have been the key economic events in New Zealand over the post World War Two period?
  • How has New Zealand maintained individual and civil rights and democracy whilst still succeeding economically?
  • How has New Zealand adapted to the economic rise of Asian economies?

Students who can grapple with such questions will be well educated in history, and above all will have the critical thinking skills that will serve them well in later life.

About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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2 Responses to The draft New Zealand history curriculum – a major rewrite is needed please….

  1. I really cannot let this go, Peter. One of the world’s most equitable societies by 1900? When the Māori population was decimated and estimated to have dropped from around 200,000 to 40-50,000 by that year? a mere 18 years before the ravages of the flu hit those same communities? What counts as equity, I wonder? We are dealing every day wth the ruins of Māori society, and attempting to reconstruct something out of the destruction of the Māori social, political and economic resource base. What history have you been reading? This is not to say there are not good things that came out of the collision of peoples, of course there were! But we are foolish if we do not acknowledge the cost that change levied on us. And I agree, the curriculum should mention the conflicts and the migrations of the 1820s and 30s. Those are vitally important too, but those conflicts did not involve the stripping away and destruction of Māori legal, social, and economic templates and the ultimate devolution of Māori from lords of the land (as Mark Hickford identifies) to landless serfs or wage labourers newly exposed to the winds of the industrial revolution in one or two short generations. Perhaps you should take up the reading of cultural reports for those facing prison in this country, perhaps you might do some Land Court research for such reports, do a little more digging and see how their ancestral families enjoyed this equity in 1900 of which you speak. The future does not reside in grievance and unresolved conflict, but there has to be at least a dash of honesty. This triumphal mode extolling the march of Western civilisation (including Francis Dart Fenton’s defence of the “path of the Perfected law” in 1858, very far from perfect, as it turns out) just does not cut it any more. We all have to grow up sometime, and that includes us both.

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Thoughtful and erudite comments thanks. I agree we must do a lot better for Maori. I find the corrections system and educational performance as they impact on Maori to be especially troubling.

      However the counterfactuals of history suggest to me we have done quite well over many measures in absolute though not in relative terms. Too much of our history has been glossed over for example -see Ron Bishop’s accounts of the “musket wars”, and of course the disgraceful behaviour of the Crown over land confiscations etc.


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