Friday, September 20, 2019

It's way past time to reclaim and honour our history

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, September 19.)

I remember almost nothing of the history I learned at secondary school. This is odd, because history interests me.

As a kid I would pore over my uncle Dick Scott’s illustrated history of New Zealand, Inheritors of a Dream. I still have it on my bookshelf.

At Central Hawke’s Bay College in the 1960s I was taught history by Brian Davies, one of the few teachers I remember with any affection.

Davies – who, sadly, was found dead a few months ago after being reported missing in Tauranga, aged 85 – would often go off-script and discuss current events. He would talk about the split between the two great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, and the ideological contest between capitalist democracy and totalitarian communism.

But even Davies couldn’t make the history curriculum interesting. I know we were taught 19th century New Zealand history because I vaguely remember stuff about Sir George Grey, but none of it stuck.

Later, at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, I was taught history by Spiro Zavos. I enjoyed Spiro’s classes too, but the enjoyment had little to do with history. He had the advantage of being almost the same generation as his pupils and was easily diverted into discussions about things that were happening in the world of now.

Alas, Spiro left at the end of that year and would later switch to journalism. The Englishman who replaced him was as dry and dusty as the textbooks we were required to read.  

Mr Chips he wasn’t. I retain no memory whatsoever of what we were taught in my upper sixth year, as we called it then, except that the Tudors were involved. It was paralysingly boring and I couldn’t see the relevance of it.

I still can’t, and can only conclude that the curriculum was a hangover from the days of empire. It probably reflected a view that New Zealand was too young, too small and too insignificant to have a real history of its own, and that the only one worth telling was the one we inherited from Britain.

But there’s no earthly reason why history should be dull, and still less reason why we shouldn’t celebrate our own – which is why we should applaud, at least in principle, the government’s decision to make the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory. It should have happened decades ago.

We have a rich and colourful heritage, both pre- and post-European settlement, that has been sorely neglected. In this respect we are quite unlike the Australians and Americans, who cherish their histories – the bad bits as well as the good.

A couple of years ago I found my way to the site of the Battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu (the beak of the bird) in south Taranaki, where the Prussian adventurer Gustavus Von Tempsky and 20 colonial troops were killed in 1868 by Hauhau warriors under the command of the formidable chief Titokowaru. Right there you have two compelling characters to rival America’s Sitting Bull and George Custer.

I wouldn’t have bothered seeking out the battle site, except that I had a personal reason for going there: my great-grandfather, a member of the Taranaki Volunteers, was wounded in the fighting and narrowly escaped with his life. But here’s the interesting thing: you could drive right past the battle site and not know it’s there.

The same is true of many other significant sites from the New Zealand Wars. How many people know eight soldiers died at Boulcott’s Farm, in what is now the heart of Lower Hutt? Or that a British force of more than 250 laid siege to a Te Ati Awa pa at Battle Hill, near Pauatahunui?

In Australia or America, sites like Te Ngutu o te Manu – Rangiriri, Orakau and Gate Pa too – would be tourist attractions, like the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat or Little Bighorn in Montana. 

So yes, it’s way past time to reclaim and honour our history, and secondary schools are a good place to start.

But there’s an important caveat to all this. There is no neutral view of history and no consensus about how it should be explained and interpreted. It follows that the teaching of history is ripe with potential for revisionism and ideological spin.

The proposed emphasis on colonisation, for instance, makes me uneasy – not because the subject should be ignored, but because colonisation has been seized as a convenient bumper-sticker explanation for everything bad that has happened to Maori.

A balanced reading of our history suggests it's a lot more complicated than that, but I've got an uneasy feeling that the curriculum will come loaded with a very large dollop of white shame and guit.


pdm said...

I did not realise that re Brian Davies Karl. Although I was not in any of his classes I remember him from CHB College and I credit my proficiency in English (such as it is) very much at the hands of his wife Mary who was my English teacher in both 5th and 6th forms.

One of my regrets is not taking 6th form History when I could have - was lazy and went with four subjects instead. Dumb move in hindsight.

Karl du Fresne said...

According to the NZ Herald, Mary pre-deceased him:

khrust said...

In principle, I share your enthusiasm for the teaching of NZ history in our schools. However, the likelihood that what actually gets taught would be reasonably objective or even-handed, is remote in my opinion. Like you I am concerned that an ideologically-driven, postmodern-influenced, anti-colonial account of our history will be dished out. This would just add to Maori identity politics (as we have seen recently at Ihumatao) and intensified feelings of white-guilt / white privilege amongst those of European descent. Would that be good for the country?? Even if the curriculum is carefully designed to be fair to both Maori and European interpretations of what happened, individual teachers would still have considerable leeway in how they pitch it. It would ultimately come down to the ideological leanings of modern teachers. I don't have a comfortable feeling about that.

Philob said...

Karl, I agree that NZ history should be taught, but also am troubled about the ideological leanings of teachers.I too was bored by history at school, but am interested in it now, (even more interested in historiography). I put that down to having by now, at my age, experienced history myself. So now I know, I really know, what it is about.
You are not the first person to notice how low-key are the sites of the battles of the various land wars marked - as compared to say, the USA. I think that the reason is simply the newness of New Zealand. Imperial and local soldiers were assisted to settle with land grants and purchases. The descendants of the victors and the vanquished nowadays live side by side. Many have inter-married, but among others a sense of injustice lingers. Put simply, the locals do not want any memorial of anything that causes division amongst them. They are quite happy to let the undergrowth swallow the memorials, and to leave the signs vandalised.

Odysseus said...

"Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future." I think there is little doubt that the inclusion of a standardized New Zealand history in the curriculum will be a tool to advance the wider objectives of the far Left in restructuring society.

Ruaridh said...

Karl, this is not a comment. I am communicating with you this way because I don’t have your email address. I wanted to let you know that an email dropped into my inbox with a heading that ir led to another comment on one of your pieces. When I opened the email the first part was similarly dressed up but then launched into an invitation to borrow from some undisclosed finance company. I say “undisclosed” because the message was replete with hyperlinks none of which I was prepared to touch for fear of the precipitation of a security breach at my end. You may wish to follow up with the blogging entity on which you rely.

Kind regards,


Karl du Fresne said...

Every so often, a spam message penetrates the system's radar, which is obviously what happened here. Normally I hit the delete button straight away, but on this occasion - probably out of sheer habit - I inadvertently hit "publish". I realised my error immediately and deleted it, but obviously too late to prevent it implanting itself. My apologies - I'll try to be more diligent in future.

Brendan McNeill said...


It's difficult to be hopeful about the proposed compulsory teaching of NZ history in our schools, and you are right to be skeptical.
All history is viewed through the lens of the story teller, that's inevitable. That our State education system is largely in the hands of revisionists who often choose to repudiate everything associated with western civilisation is regrettable.

It's difficult to imagine anything other than a cultural Marxist view being promulgated, with the white colonial oppressor, aided and abetted by Christianity being centre stage. It has never been more important a time to engage with our children and grandchildren to help them navigate the days in which we live.

Andy Espersen said...

You are so right, Karl, when you "fear that the curriculum will be loaded with white shame and guilt". It all hinges on getting an objective curriculum, as close to reality as we can get to it. It sure does not bode well that Chris Hipkins, when introducing his plan, stated that the curriculum would be written after consultation with educators, students, their parents and whanau, hapu,iwi and Pacific communities. But history curricula must be written exclusively by acknowledged and able academic historians. To be able to write objectively about what took place 8 generations ago is no simple matter. It takes years of university research.
Leaving it to Chris Hipkins' chosen advisors will of course simply produce a curriculum based on what are the politically correct opinions today. Perish the thought. I would then rather see no history taught.