Thursday, March 11, 2004

Thoughts on history

The latest edition of Upton-on-line compares the teaching of history in France and New Zealand - and the result is unfavourable. French schoolchildren receive a solid grounding in their (idealised, sanitised, propagandised) national story; in New Zealand, it is left almost entirely to chance. To take a personal example, I managed to exit high school knowing almost nothing about New Zealand history. Sure, there'd been museum visits in primary school to look at the waka (and Canterbury museum's famous blue whale skeleton), dribs and drabs here and there on various patches, but no consistent program and certainly no focus - and so very little of it stuck (the exception being the part of the fifth-form curriculum dealing with "New Zealand's Search for Security 1945 - 1985"). Part of the problem was of course that my high school generally decided to skip New Zealand history in favour of European (e.g. "Tudor and Stuart England", complete with Blackadder videos).

One of the reasons for this is probably because New Zealand history is a) short, and b) fairly boring. Maori settlement, five hundred years of low-tech existence, Captain Cook, European settlement and the Treaty, then (once Maori had conveniently disappeared from the narrative, exiled to the back blocks after their land had been seized) the smooth progression of a socially innovative liberal democracy. No serious local wars (though Maori I think would beg to differ), no bloody revolutions (the closest we get is the Springbok Tour), and no crazed absolutists making their dog an MP and having everyone's heads cut off (Muldoon didn't even come close). Compare this to Romans, Egyptians, the French Revolution and the American Civil War, and its no wonder people ignore it.

(Of course, that's also the wonder of New Zealand: boring history is safe history. "Interesting times" may make for a cracking good story and some funny anecdotes in retrospect, but they're kindof tough on the people involved at the time).

Unfortunately, this ignorance costs us. We're seeing part of that cost at the moment, in our current attitudes to the Treaty: because there's no general awareness among pakeha of what went on in the past, there's no sense of the reality of Maori grievances, and a perception of Treaty claims as being about "handouts for Maori" rather than righting past wrongs. Better teaching of New Zealand history will help to change this.

But as Upton points out, it's not just about colonial history. In order to properly understand where our country has come from, we need to understand both major strands - Maori and European. This means serious time devoted to the culture we imported from Europe (and specifically Britain) - he has a good list of the essentials in his article (interestingly, great chunks of this were covered in my high school, so I guess it wasn't all bad).

People should know their own history, and its practically criminal that its been so neglected in our schools. Understanding the past is vital to understanding the present - and to working out what we want to become in the future.