|“The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity.” - William Faulkner|
IT WAS NEARLY SIX YEARS AGO that I defended New Zealanders’ historical ignorance as a not altogether bad thing. In a column entitled “Let Sleeping Ghosts Lie”, I wrote:
There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell. Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.
Unsurprisingly, New Zealand history teachers were outraged. How can New Zealand’s peoples be reconciled, and past injustices put right, if its young people are kept in ignorance of their country’s past?
It was a battle-cry that carried the reformers to victory. Under the Labour-led government of Jacinda Ardern, the positive noises made by Bill English’s National-led government were translated into hard-and-fast policy. From 2023, New Zealand history will be a compulsory feature of the school curriculum for Years 1-10.
A cause for celebration? Well, that depends upon your point of view. History is as much about the present as it is about the past. What we choose to remember, to bring forward into the consciousness of people living today, is a profoundly political act, with frequently explosive political consequences.
Just how fraught with danger the emerging new curriculum promises to be was brought home to the viewers of an item broadcast on Monday night’s edition of One News.
A Māori mother was distressed because her son’s class had been asked to give a Yes or No answer to the question: ‘Should land be returned to Māori?’ She expressed her displeasure at what she described as the closed nature of the question and its lack of context.
There will be many New Zealanders, however, in whose judgement the question posed is entirely fair and reasonable. Any accurate account of the history of Māori-Pakeha relations since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi cannot fail to conclude that, as one history teacher interviewed for the news item declared:
“Their [Māori] ancestors were evicted, essentially, from their lands, which [were] taken from them”.
If justice and reconciliation is the goal of the new compulsory curriculum, then the question of who owns New Zealand can hardly be avoided.
The problem, of course, is that if the correct answer to the offending teacher’s question is: “Yes, the lands that were unjustly (illegally) taken from Māori should be restored to them”; then, immediately, a whole host of subsidiary questions arise. Supplying honest answers to these questions will likely prove beyond the resources of New Zealand’s teachers.
Herein lies the danger. Once the scale of injustice is exposed, how should students – Māori and Pakeha – respond? Being young, their answers are likely to echo the words of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter:
Anger is bread/To the poor, their guns more accurate than justice
Knowing New Zealand bureaucracy’s horror of passion and plain speaking, it seems a given that teachers will not only be expected to make sure that such sentiments are discouraged, but that they are also suppressed.
We are thus presented with a policy paradox. Our government is insisting that young New Zealanders be taught their country’s history: but not in a way that allows them to both perceive the truths of the past, and act upon them in the present. If you think this contradiction is bound to tie our history teachers up in all manner of pedagogical and cultural knots, then I think you’re right!
One more thing arises out of Monday’s One News item – and it bothers me.
How is the Ministry of Education proposing to deal with the cultural reality that most of the teachers, and most of the students, involved in the new history curriculum will be non-Māori? If Te Ao Māori drives the responses of tangata whenua, then is it not equally true that the cultural life-worlds of non-Māori will determine their responses? How, then, are we to avoid the new history curriculum generating in the here-and-now exactly the same conflicts that beset the past?
If the answer to that question involves a huge amount of prescriptive effort, centred around what teachers and students can think and say, then serious politico-cultural conflict is inevitable.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell wrote: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
Fasten your seat-belts.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 April 2022.