Compulsory NZ history is a turning point

Paul Moon

13 Sep 2019

Paul Moon

According to tradition, after Buddha died, his shadow remained in a cave for centuries. And so it is in some ways with history.

Although events might be consigned to the past, their effects not only live on, but in Nietzsche's words, continue to cast a "tremendous, gruesome shadow" over almost every facet of our lives. Given this importance, the Government's decision to ensure all school students will be taught our country's history is to be applauded.

Perhaps the most common response to emerge from the announcement is "which history?" or the more prejudicial "whose history?".  And there's the rub.

History is no mere list of dates and facts. It is often a contest between sometimes different ways of seeing the past, and what particular events in that past ought to be more pronounced.  Many of these interpretations tend to chafe on contact with each other, resulting in history being a discipline that has to accommodate a wide range of views. Maybe this is why successive politicians have been reluctant to support compulsory New Zealand history in schools – it seems too contentious.

Of course, there are risks that, if done poorly, compulsory history in our schools could veer into the realm of indoctrination.  It is no coincidence that one of the first functions authoritarian regimes undertake on assuming power is to produce new history books in order to emphasise the "correct" version of history that is passed on to students.

The great scholar of history Hayden White identified this possibility, observing that "in choosing our past, we choose our present … we use the one to justify the other". Suddenly, then, history goes from being a curious dip into stories about "the olden days" to a full immersion into issues that are fundamental to how we see ourselves, and the tribes we affiliate to.  Such is the power of history to shape societies.

There are also risks in allowing history to exercise a form of predestination over us. Too often, people evoke the history of their forebears as a reason for their current circumstances.

It is possible to join the historical dots in this way, but the great American academic Thomas Sowell​ has convincingly dispelled the notion of the burden of history bearing down on entire groups, exposing it for the nonsense that it is. Yet the temptation to account for current deficits due to some distant historical inheritance is still strong among many groups around the world.

However, regardless of how contentious certain topics may be, shying away from them does not make them disappear. Like it or not, history exercises an enormous gravitational force on our lives.

It is no accident that a picture of Michael Joseph Savage is prominent in the office of our prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Savage's enormous contribution to the welfare state (think a public health system, universal benefits, and state housing for the poor as just three examples) still holds sway over the thinking of many Labour politicians and supporters eight decades later.

And perhaps for the opposite reason, as far as I know, there is no portrait of Sir Robert Muldoon glaring over the shoulders of Opposition leader Simon Bridges. Maybe that era in our political history is one that some would prefer consciously to overlook.

Do our children really need this sort of complexity in their lives, though? And should they be required to confront conflicting versions of the past, and tackle the often prickly issues arising from them? The answer is a resounding "yes".

History is part of the architecture of both our personal and national identity, and the more we learn about history, the more intricate and robust that identity becomes.  If it happens to be tough, then what better introduction could there be to adulthood? And at a more practical level, history is the point where memory and materiality meet, offering us the greatest textbook for navigating our way through the practicalities of life.

Of course, there will be bumps along the way.  Accusations of biased history will be made (as if there is some impartial version that is being kept concealed from students), and anxieties of "too much Māori history" will no doubt be aired. But for all the challenges ahead, the Government has correctly judged that the price of having a whole generation of students amputated from our past is one that is too high to keep paying.

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First appearance

This opinion piece was first published on Stuff.