The status of our own history
While many of us are raised with storybook histories of pharaohs, kings, queens, and notable events from all over the world, many New Zealanders come to adulthood with comparatively little knowledge of our own nation’s story.
The New Zealand History Teacher’s Association are attempting to change this and have launched a petition to “make compulsory the coherent teaching of our own past across appropriate year levels in our schools.” They want every student leaving school to understand our history.
It’s full of stories of high stakes battles, fascinating characters, consequential relationships, and deep heartbreak.
I can hear the collective sigh. As a history student at school I loved that we spent our hours exploring the crowns and palace intrigue of the Tudor-Stuart period, rather than discussing land wars and what seemed to be a confusing dispute over translation and treaty. And yet, as an adult living in New Zealand, my understanding of New Zealand’s history has a much greater relevance to how I make voting decisions, choose what to advocate for, and how I interact with the communities around me. Moreover, when exploring the history of our land, it quickly becomes clear that it isn’t boring at all. It’s full of stories of high stakes battles, fascinating characters, consequential relationships, and deep heartbreak.
Understanding our history, and especially the stories of the place in which we live, as Eric Alterman of The New Yorker points out, “locates us and helps us understand how we got here and why things are the way they are.” As the chair of the history department at Yale, Alan Mikhail, states “a study of the past shows us that the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture, and economics.” Knowing New Zealand’s history, battles, people, tensions, and politics are key to young New Zealanders learning how to negotiate the future of this country and their place in it. Understanding our history prepares us to better participate in society and the different issues and opinions that we might have.
“a study of the past shows us that the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture, and economics.”
Responding to the History Teacher’s Association petition, Kelvin Davis, deputy leader of the Labour party, said last week “in terms of the teaching of Te Tiriti in schools, remember that schools are self-governing, self-managing. It’s inappropriate for governments to come along and dictate specifics of what’s taught in schools.” I now wish, however, that I had learnt more in school about New Zealand’s history, because it impacts my day-to-day life much more than Henry VIII’s many wives ever will.
Pending any curriculum change, we can all recognise our own role in learning and teaching our history. Choose local storybooks to read to children. Visit maraes and historical sites around New Zealand as you holiday, ask questions, listen to the stories of our history told from differing perspectives. As communities exploring the stories of our nation together, we should allow our history to inform the decisions we make today. Then we’ll all be better prepared for the difficult questions that are sure to come.