It was sure refreshing to see the current head of the National Party saying on Waitangi Day that teaching of New Zealand history should be compulsory in the New Zealand curriculum:
I think we should have as part of our own New Zealand history course, a compulsory part that is there that all young New Zealanders learn. I think it’s incredibly important, children should know their history.”
Many in my generation will certainly be able to recall the history of England from Elizabeth 1 to 1688, or the history of Fiji. That is after all what we were taught in High School. But for the actual history of New Zealand we have to later wade through Sinclair, followed by several corrective volumes of Belich. Current history teachers are keen, relevant government Ministers less keen on the compulsory part.
Education Minister Chris Hikpins said schools needed more support to strengthen the teaching of New Zealand history. Prime Minister Ardern, Minister of Crown Relations Kelvin Davis, and Minister of Economic Development Shane Jones were all keen that the Treaty of Waitangi should be taught, but not compulsorily. Minister Davis said “In terms of teaching 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 can imagine that kind of resistance from the pedagogically obsessed within teaching colleges, but not from a Minister of the Crown, at Waitangi, representing our country.
Now that there are no ceremonies or events of note held at Te Tii Marae at Waitangi, we have less contest of history’s causality to remind us of how New Zealand came to be. As government Minister Peeni Henare said at Waitangi ,”I’d hate for it all to become rather bland.” Nations consist of stories told, and in the contest of interpretations of those stories.
We certainly have regular reminders of the history of how we engage in warfare, through ANZAC Day and the recent centennial of our involvement in World War 1. A kilometre of motorway in Wellington was undergrounded to ready the national memorial for that memorial day. There could not have been greater state resource or near-compulsion than with that topic, so why not Waitangi?
On the left we abandon anything that might lead us to down the slippery, smelly path of nationalism, but do so by abandoning the study of the nation. That’s what those Ministerial responses feel like.
This government is doing an outstanding job of handing out the bacon. Both in its metaphorical form in increased welfare spending and economic development grants to the region, and in its literal bacon form at breakfast in Waitangi.
But if we don’t all get to teach and learn about a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over a job that’s about more than handouts. What that looks like can be seen in any hard-right party in Europe or the United States. It’s not pretty.
Way back in 1989, Francis Fukuyama asked in an essay “The End of History?”, and has now had to walk that back in his most recent book about the “unexpected” populist nationalism of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, the United States’ Donald Trump, and many many more. He knows he was wrong.
Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past. They are necessary fictions, and firmly recommend a particular kind of truth. As the official repository of New Zealand history notes, the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was a nation-narrating exercise and really wasn’t about the Treaty at all.
At the 1940 centennial, the Treaty of Waitangi “took a back seat to the celebration of a century of European effort and progress in New Zealand. Local and provincial events plugged into a full diary of national events – the unveiling of memorials, historical re-enactments, and music and drama festivals. An array of specially commissioned publications recorded the stories of progress, re-writing the country’s past.”
It’s fine to hold the bias and erasures and absences up to modern light, but we can also look at the content of what was collected and shaped at that time as something that has made us who we are. It’s possible to teach with enough open-endedness to propel young minds to their own interpretations and sources.
Another major year in both nation-forming and in Treaty commemoration for us was Sesqui 1990, celebrating 150 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. That broadened out to include a range of cultural festivals. The Treaty of Waitangi reconciliation and compensation process was well underway. But prior to Waitangi Day was New Zealand’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games that year. That event showed that New Zealand was a strong and competitive small member of the Commonwealth who put on a strong show with over 50 medals. More nation narration.
So there will always be a degree to which any history of your own country taught compulsorily in a curriculum will have biases. But as the historian Thomas Bender once observed, “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, party coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shred future.” Coercion of interpretation comes with compulsory curriculula. That is indeed the risk you take: whose interpretation?
But that’s not an excuse to stop.
It’s really easy for the left and the right to write our common past as economic history, because as a small and highly globally integrated trading nation we track the global economic mood more than most. If you like that kind of thing, I would recommend Brian Easton’s On Stormy Seas, and William McAloon’s Judgements of All Kinds: Economic Policymaking in New Zealand 1945-1984.
But New Zealand is different from other nations, and its nationalism is different too. We bound our nation as a people as a common origin, to the state as a community governed by laws, together from the start by treaty. We have a specific historical moment that binds us. Good and bad, broken and mended. Waitangi.
Back in the day when nation-states arose out of city-states and kingdoms and empires, they explained themselves by telling stories about their origins. Very often, histories of such nation-states are little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state. In the New Zealand case we shine the spotlight on that stitching every single year.
When our forebearers signed up to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, it was set on its way to becoming a state and a nation at the same time. It would be nice to think that we have eradicated the default thinking of our common origins back to England as we did in official celebrations until well after World War 2, but the recent agreement between our Prime Minister Ardern and current United Kingdom Prime Minister May over trade reassurance following Brexit’s effects showed we’re probably never going to lose it entirely.
We’re well overdue to have a full history of the resolution of Treaty of Waitangi claims and their consequences for settlement iwi as well. There’s a history of us to be written in recovery and doggedly grinding people out of failure and into success, as well as a history of distorted pride, and of tragedy through civil war. There are some great teaching modules on this already available and no good reason for them not to be compulsory.
Similarly, provincial government was arguably more useful and powerful than central government in New Zealand until they were abolished in 1876. That accelerated weakening of regional coherence in favour of a centralised state in a very small agrarian country is also worth teaching in a curriculum.
Even now in Auckland, with the longest construction boom we have ever had and far and away the largest Crown-local government partnerships in both construction and events such as APEC and the Americas Cup that we have ever gone through, the idea of a narrative that seizes the imagination of the history and future of Auckland through this era is painfully weak. Regions can reasonably expect to enable citizens to have an idea of their common history and future character too.
We can also teach the decline of the relative importance of the state. We’re not proposing to take over small island states as we did in the past. We have a slightly more balanced ego about ourselves that better befits our strength, no matter how many world cups in different sports we have in the cupboard.
With the taming of Waitangi Day commemorations at Waitangi, and the advance of most of the remaining Treaty of Waitangi historical claims, the history of New Zealand at the present does not seek to answer any significant questions. If we don’t start asking and answering those sorts of questions, other people will. They’ll find little need to defend specific character like local language. They’ll find it really easy to ward off Maori Wards to ensure Maori are not represented in provincial government – as they did when Auckland was amalgamated, or in the many attempts since. And they will be able to do this because there is no shared base of national knowledge that compulsory Waitangi education would allow.
They will say that they alone love this country, and the rest are just about handing out the bacon.
They need to be proved wrong.