The prime minister has some news about the place of New Zealand history in the school curriculum. Recent events show us how crucial it is that it’s given the prominence it deserves.
Today, during the unveiling of a New Zealand Wars memorial plaque, Jacinda Ardern will make an announcement concerning the teaching of history in schools.
The announcement, hinted at by the prime minister as she launched Te Wiki o te Reo Māori on Monday, comes in the wake of the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association presenting a petition to parliament calling for New Zealand history to be made a compulsory subject.
Currently, not only are there no guidelines regarding the instruction of New Zealand history at secondary schools, it is not compulsory to teach history at all, be it at primary or secondary level.
History teaches us how society and its institutions were created, how they developed and how they achieved their unique cohesion. It is through a coherent instruction of history – one that includes the issues held in wide consensus alongside the ones that are contested – that we can teach future generations about our national values and identity, as well as about the challenges we face as a community.
The past is the key to understanding of the present, and an invaluable tool for the shaping of the future. To mention but one example hotly relevant – a better understanding of the principles of land ownership and land transfer in 19th-century Aotearoa/New Zealand can contribute to our ability to conduct an informed public debate on current land disputes.
Learning history is not only important for the sake of “knowing our past”. Contrary to the way people sometimes imagine it, studying history is not simply memorising dates and events. More than any other field of knowledge, the study of history is the study of all aspects of the human experience. War and peace, wealth and poverty, continuity and change, health, death, faith, arts or technology – for every aspect of our life there’s a historical example worth learning about.
History is a large repository of stories and anecdotes about how people engage with one another, how societies behave and how events unfold. It is only thanks to the systematic study of history that when facing any current challenge, our knowledge is not limited to the events that took place during our lifetime: at our disposal are centuries of human experiences and dynamics. Looking back at past events, experiences and outcomes can help us to place current events in a wider context and to assess a wide range of possibilities that are available to us today.
In this age of social media and “fake news”, we experience an influx of information and, quite often, of disinformation. We need to help young people improve their abilities of sifting through this information and evaluate it in order to make informed decisions. The study of history achieves two goals simultaneously – it provides students with the toolkit to make up their own minds, and it exposes them to the repercussions of not doing so.
Thorough knowledge of the ways in which democracies gradually succumbed to populism in the first half of the 20th century is a crucial first step in our attempt to halt the current wave of populist movements threatening to overtake some of the world’s greatest democracies.
Moreover, as a recent poll initiated by the Auckland Holocaust Memorial Trust showed, many New Zealanders lack basic information about the tragic results that populism can bring with it, to the point of thinking the Holocaust is in fact “a myth”. This kind of ignorance should be taken into account nowadays, when – following the Christchurch attack – New Zealand finds itself having to grapple with instances of xenophobia and racism.
Learning history helps us cope with disinformation in a topic about which we lack knowledge. History does not just hand over the answers to our questions. The study of history entails an active process of thinking and analysing. This process results in the students’ acquiring critical thinking tools that help them to understand the dynamics of historical events (and thus help them to ask questions of present events as well).
The study of historical events also provides a student with the opportunity to learn how to assess conflicting versions of the same event, and how to differentiate between “data” and “interpretation”. It invites the student to question widespread assumptions and to challenge the dominant worldview. This is particularly important in a country like New Zealand, whose history can be viewed and told through a variety of perspectives.
The same analytical thinking process also contributes to the enhancement of one’s moral compass. Not only does the student uncover the historical events that shaped the value system in which she operates today, but she is also encouraged to place herself in the shoes of past historical actors, to consider their different world views, to evaluate their behaviour in difficult circumstances and even to measure them against the complexities of her own contemporary life. This practice of one’s skills of moral evaluation and decision-making is crucial for making sure future generations are informed about our values and what we stand for as a society.
It is this wholesome character of history that makes it such an important and beneficial subject, which should be part of the general education of our young students. Our world today is a challenging and sometimes overwhelming place. A coherent and systematic study of history – our own and that of others – can help our children and future generations to position themselves better in this world. It gives them the agency they need to determine what their place in a long chain of human existence is going to be, as New Zealanders and more generally as humans.