New Zealand History Teachers’ Association president Graeme Ball says there’s no such thing as bad history. Here he explains why New Zealand history should stand above all others.

The New Zealand Curriculum is both an inspirational and aspirational document, certainly for the subject of history, where teachers are empowered to explore topics, context and ideas that align well with the NZC’s ‘front end’. It is disappointing then that the government has chosen to focus rather narrowly on the ‘STEM’ subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. These subjects are indeed important, but not to the exclusion of others, such as history, that have at their heart critical thinking.

For those outside the subject it is possible that the outdated belief that history is all about memorising dates persists; nothing could be further from the truth. At the heart of history is questioning. Questioning is an integral part of the seeking and critiquing of evidence to support views, to the point that for the practitioner it becomes an ingrained disposition. So, what topics/contexts should we focus on in a subject where, in the interests of being responsive to the students in each classroom, there is no prescribed content?

There is no such thing as bad history. No matter what people and communities we study, wherever and whenever they were, there will be something we can learn from them about the human condition. With so many possible contexts to choose from, what elevates one above another as being more important? Student interest is a good guide, but it cannot be the only one as many students ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ about other possible contexts: the teacher needs to step in here. Is it the ‘five major events of the 20th century’, or something like that? Already half the history teaching community around the country is at their keyboards ready to protest! Who decides what does and doesn’t make the list, and why should it be the 20th century that is focused on anyway?

The only context, then, that has any claim to standing above others is New Zealand history. This is because, quite simply, it is ours. The number of other places around the world where New Zealand history is taught in any meaningful way would be, I suspect, very few.

It is important because the things we take for granted today and the issues we face are shaped by the past. A large part of that past is the interaction between the two main Treaty partners, both before and after the actual signing. What looked like a promising fresh start in 1840 didn’t quite work out that way and the Waitangi Tribunal is still dealing today with the fallout from the broken promises.

“We need to know this stuff.”

At the time of writing, an election is just a few days away and several political parties have policies that either reject or promote the place of the Treaty in New Zealand. For citizens to be able to make informed decisions at the polling booth, they need to know what exactly are the issues from the past that gain such prominence every three years. Most New Zealanders are, at heart, fair, and I suspect that if we all understood our past then the conversations would change significantly.

One complaint that comes from some history teachers is that the students aren’t interested. This is a complaint not confined to New Zealand students and their view of their own history. While in Dublin 10 years ago, I explored the 1916 Easter Rising sites. Afterwards, in a bar, I was talking with the barmaid about the Rising. Aged about 25, she said, much to my amazement, that she’d found Irish history boring at school, but was starting to take more interest in it as she got older. The grass is always greener…

Every year I struggle with this same issue with my Year 12 students. While a significant number are keen to do Year 13 History, which at my school focuses almost entirely on 19th century New Zealand, some require cajoling and promises from me that they will enjoy it. The almost 100 per cent positive feedback from the surveys I conduct at the end of every year is evidence of this. For some students the year is close to life-changing. And one year I had a question from a student that I found hard to answer: “Why didn’t we know any of this before?” A very good question.

This opinion piece was requested and written based on content from this RadioNZ article: Call to teach NZ History to combat rising racism


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