New Zealand Wars

Page 5 – Should teaching the New Zealand Wars be compulsory?

Posted by Steve Watters, Senior Historian/Educator - 15 September 2017

The solution, some argue, to what Joanna Kidman describes as the ingrained ‘public silences around the New Zealand Wars’ is to make teaching about them compulsory. This was one aim of the Otorohanga College petition. The petitioners believed schools could be supported in achieving this via the development of teaching resources, learning outcomes and Achievement Standards. It possibly came as a surprise to many then when the Ministry of Education in its submission to the Māori Affairs select committee’s consideration of the petition stated its opposition to this idea. Then Secretary for Education, Peter Hughes, stated that requiring schools to teach a specific subject was contrary to the spirit and underlying principles of the curriculum. Such a change, he argued, would 'erode the autonomy' of school boards to make their own programmes and change the function of the curriculum. The Ministry's te reo Māori group manager, Kiritina Johnstone, added that the focus was on ’helping schools develop their own content, which could include the history of local land wars’. Johnstone pointed out that schools in the South Island and Rotorua were already working with iwi to develop local resources about Māori history.

Tamsin Hanley, writing in E-Tangata, described this response as ‘typical of neo-liberal governments seeking to shift the responsibility for determining curriculum from the state to the school boards, communities and teachers’. Hanley suggests research demonstrated that when given choice schools avoid what they think could be controversial — and they avoid anything they know little about. In choosing ‘safe topics’, they give things like colonialism and its by-products a wide berth. Hanley argues that as a consequence our students are likely ‘to know more about Kate and William and Harry than they do about the Kingitanga’. Whereas most other countries make teaching their own history a priority, our present system is ‘producing continuous generations of ignorance — and historical amnesia. It really is a desperate situation’.

Morgan Godfery, also writing in E-Tangata, noted that as sympathetic as he was to the calls of the petitioners —

and as embarrassed as I am to admit it — I agree with the Ministry of Education and with Hekia [Parata, former Minister of Education] that the curriculum should be delivered from below rather than imposed from above. We know from experience that government-led or government-imposed histories are dangerous.

I have been involved in either teaching about or writing resources to support the teaching of 19th-century New Zealand history for more than 30 years. Despite this, I too have found myself, somewhat sheepishly, unable to support the call to make the teaching of content such as the ‘Land Wars’ compulsory.

I agree 100% that our students should never feel 'ripped off' because they are not learning their history. It is also reasonable to expect that those wanting to operate in a 21st-century classroom in this country have some understanding of this nation’s history and the ability to explore the range of perspectives associated with it. All New Zealand children must gain some sense of social literacy from their education that includes a basic understanding of how we have developed as a nation. This includes key events and forces that have shaped our society, whether they make us uncomfortable or not. But I am suspicious of any attempt to impose what could be described as ‘the national narrative.’ I can’t support the notion that we must teach the ‘Land Wars’ any more than I would support an injunction to teach the First World War. Any prescribed content is inherently vulnerable to political manipulation. It poses a threat to the many local variations that are an important part of this history. The 'bigger picture' can swallow up an iwi perspective or regional flavour. The notion of imposing some mandatory topic risks perpetuating the ‘once-over-lightly’ approach that promotes a uniform teaching of the subject matter rather than considering the nuances of these wars. There is also no single lens through which to view these conflicts.

Some will argue that making such content compulsory amounts to ‘social engineering’. Others are frightened about where such content will ultimately take us. It threatens the comforting ‘Why can’t we all be New Zealanders?’ world-view. Noted New Zealand social anthropologist Joan Metge describes this model of nationhood as emphasising the goal of national unity while at the same time devaluing diversity and the Māori contribution by implication. It is an updated expression of the old policy of assimilation imposed by a dominant majority on Māori and other minorities. More on this later.

It also has to be asked whether making something compulsory will ensure greater or deeper understanding. The previous curriculum had a requirement to consider ‘Essential Learning about New Zealand’. It included a list of sorts but I never got the impression that it was looked at in any great detail or certainly with any consistency. The bottom line is the NZC does not prevent teaching and learning about these wars. But is saying there is nothing stopping you teaching a topic the same as actively supporting its place in the curriculum?

For much of my teaching career New Zealand history was very much the poor relation, begrudgingly accepted as some sort of necessary evil. Thankfully, this has changed. Many schools now teach a range of New Zealand topics at all levels. My own children were exposed to a lot more New Zealand history than I ever was, but if I am to be honest, it was unevenly taught and the content seemed ‘safe’, largely ignoring the more challenging aspects of our colonial past.

There many reasons for this range from the impact of neo-liberalism on the education system to the more unpalatable recognition of racism and denial. The most important issue is, I suspect, a lot less sinister. For many teachers this content represents a big gap in their own education and training. It can be confronting and challenging. How can we expect teachers to voluntarily teach something that is freighted with risk? Serious training and support is a necessary first step. Merely telling teachers they must teach something won’t guarantee that any meaningful learning occurs. Teaching something badly is probably worse than not teaching it at all. The majority of teachers will always be open to new ideas about content and curriculum if assisted in implementing them.

Another issue is where in the curriculum and at what level should this content be delivered. I have observed some rather dubious outcomes when trying to work with many of the complex concepts and issues thrown up by our coverage of the First World War. Is this content something that younger students are capable of engaging with? Traditionally we have looked to history to deliver such content, but, as this is not a compulsory subject in our system the numbers who are taught this content is relatively small. I know that in some schools, it might be part of a broad social studies course, but in my experience, this is reasonably unlikely. If it is to become part of a core subject like social studies, the issue remains of ensuring teachers are sufficiently well trained to confidently teach the content. In the schools I taught in at secondary level, what was offered in this subject area came down to the teacher with spare capacity in their timetable and a perception that ‘anyone can teach social studies’. Such decisions were rarely made in subject areas such as English, mathematics and science, where there was a more universally accepted notion of subject specialisation and competence. Maybe things have changed…

So, instead of making it compulsory, how can we make the case for teaching the New Zealand Wars so compelling that the decision becomes a no-brainer for both those who set school-based curricula and those required to deliver it. I don’t believe the argument that there are no suitable teaching resources to support New Zealand history stands up any more. My own ministry has produced a range of accessible features that explore a broad range of topics relating to these wars. Like any resources, they have their strengths and weaknesses but provide a solid overview of many of the campaigns for the uninitiated. NZHistory has an entire section on New Zealand’s internal Wars. Te Ara also has an excellent overview of this topic and through its section on Māori New Zealanders provides an iwi perspective. Te Ara has the added feature of enabling readers to switch from English to Te Reo.

Any number of excellent published sources addresses both Māori/iwi perspectives and the Crown’s. The revisionists of the 1980s have themselves been revised, with the causes, nature and impact of these wars examined in ever-increasing detail. This extends also to those conflicts of the opening decades of the 19th century typically referred to as the ‘Musket Wars’, although I am unsure if they are included in the scope of the petition. The petitioners in their presentation to the select committee asserted that 30,000 people had been killed in the wars, which suggests that perhaps the Musket Wars are in scope.

We have shown over the course of the commemoration of the First World War a willingness to invest money, time and resource in something deemed important to us all. We have been encouraged to participate and commit some of our curriculum time to these events in a way that we have not been encouraged to regarding the New Zealand Wars. Compare the $4 million set aside for four years of commemorating the New Zealand Wars with the many millions more spent on First World War commemorations and ask what we as educators can do to strike a better balance between exploring the relevance and impact of foreign wars and the wars fought on our own soil. Maybe a comparative study of the two represents one interesting way of approaching this topic.

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'Should teaching the New Zealand Wars be compulsory?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Sep-2017

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