Proposed New Zealand history curriculum; a critical appraisal

by John Robinson

Maori (strictly, part-Maori) are just one segment – around one sixth – of the people of New Zealand (16.7% of the national population in 2020).  The focus of the draft curriculum on only this one group, with the claim that “Maori history forms a continuous thread, directly linking the contemporary world to the past”, denigrates the significance of the experiences of all other New Zealanders.  Pupils, of diverse backgrounds in a multicultural society, should all be included, and taught the history of us all – including their own ancestors whether Maori or other. 

Maori should stop posturing (yes, I have read He Puapua ) and take their place as equals with the rest of us. This ethnic exceptionalism is nonsensical and damaging to our New Zealand community.

The first section in this submission raises basic questions concerning the emphasis on matauranga Maori and the emphasis on oral story-telling rather than written historical accounts.  Note is made of the comprehensive cultural Maori transformation around the period 1830-1850, and thereafter, and thus the subsequent uncertainty of what is meant by matauranga Maori, which provides a smokescreen for control by priests of the modern movement, those few who make claim to some hidden understanding – and who must then be employed to provide orders to all others.

The second section deals with some features of the suggested curriculum, with a critical analysis of the narrow and inaccurate predetermined picture suggested.  I deal here with questions concerning Maori history in reaction to the draft submission and not because this should be the one focus of a history curriculum – it should not.

The third, and perhaps the most pertinent, section notes the growing presence of a way of thinking that shuts out open debate and creates a closed mindset, a form of groupthink, a narrow ideology or paradigmatic perception which drives towards a distorted account of history.

The obvious conclusion is to reject this fatally flawed curriculum draft.  Set it aside and take a few years for the dust to settle before any revision of history curriculum, apolitical and professional, within the Ministry of Education.

Emphasis on matauranga Maori 

This land is our land.  All of us.  National history is the story of all of us.

That should be so.  But, here, it is not.  This proposed education curriculum makes that clear, with an insistence on one particular culture claiming an inherited dominant position, to the denigration of all others.  The aim is clear: “If we want to shape Aotearoa New Zealand’s future, start with our past.”  This group, which is far from representative of New Zealand’s multicultural population, has stated an intention to educate our children in a narrow view of the past, to help to guide our collective future in the modern, interconnected twenty-first century towards separation (often hidden behind the theme of ‘partnership’, which implies clearly two distinct peoples).

The one focus is repeated many times, “Maori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand”, to the exclusion of the many others.  One culture in a multicultural nation is the only one to be considered.

The resulting direction for education is also repeated many times, with the instruction for a presentation “with deliberate attention to matauranga Maori to help answer questions about the past”.

This can only be understood with some awareness of what is meant by matauranga Maori.  Some sources refer to an unchanging culture, inherited from ancestors through the centuries.  This is problematic at best; after all, pre-contact Maori society was characterised by widespread warfare, with slavery and cannibalism.  There was no central authority, no rule of law, with conflict resolution often by violence.

Maori culture has been transformed, for the most part by the efforts of Maori themselves, since the arrival of Europeans and then further people from all parts of the world.  In recognition of such changes, other sources present a considerably different version of Maori culture.  The intent of the curriculum draft is a presentation of history based on a set of precepts that are entirely unclear, to guide the thinking of the students and the fundamental beliefs of the nation – with considerable political implications.  Control is passed to the gatekeepers who will determine the meaning of these words.  There is no longer national unity within a multicultural society joined by common laws, clear and well understood by all.

Matauranga Maori describes a tribal society.  Whakapapa, loyalty to the extended family, calls for special attention to relatives, with others in a secondary role.  Rangatiratanga refers to chiefly rule and introduces Maori class differences.  Utu asks for revenge; the new definition of reciprocity retains the principle of a first loyalty to the tribe, and the requirement for utu has historically led to increased conflict between such related groups.  These ideas clash with the principles of modern civilisation, and are dangerous within national government.

Matauranga and tikanga refer to Maori knowledge, beliefs and way of life.  All have changed considerably, and fundamentally, since the formation of New Zealand.  While many Maori became Christian, many have held to the old beliefs in atua, a supernatural being or spirit.  Here, we do not know what is intended to be taught.  In New Zealand, education of children is intended to be universal, free and secular.  Any such inclusion would contradict widely accepted principles of education in a multicultural society.  As throughout this draft curriculum, the uncertainties and lack of clarity ring alarm bells.

One such is the insistence on a prime position for oral accounts.  We are well aware that stories evolve and change over time, to become myth and legend, and that a version of a historical account will depend critically on the attitude of a particular community.   Add oral story-telling to the demands of tribal whakapapa and distortions are guaranteed.

It is generally accepted that an accurate account of history must be based on information that has been built up principally by written material, this being more trustworthy than stories which so often become myth and legend.  Oral accounts may enrich an understanding of a community, but cannot form the core of a historical account, which must be based on established facts.  “How would we know of past events if it they had never been documented?  Even the stories and myths of ancient cultures, many of which relied heavily on the oral tradition, were subject to intense transformations after years of repetition.  Writing, therefore, is what propels information and ideas into permanence, or what are customarily referred to as ‘the annals of history’.”

That simple observation refutes the emphasis in the draft curriculum on the telling of stories – such an approach should be secondary to well-researched material, based on observations and reports at or close to the events considered, written down and available so that it is possible to evaluate the authenticity and accuracy of source materials

Content: no to a predetermined and biased picture

Around 6,000 years ago, people moved from the Asian continent and outlying islands to the east, reaching islands to the northwest of Australia.  Then, 4,000 years ago some travelled on to the west to the islands scattered across the wide Pacific, with the tribal cultures of those times.  The last significant land mass to be settled was New Zealand, around 1200 AD (that date is widely disputed).

In those several millennia, huge changes were taking place in the vast Eurasian landmass, from Japan and China, across to the steppes and India, to Arabia and Europe.  There were channels of contact and information was shared, over time. 

The majority of humanity gained from considerable advances in knowledge, understanding and capabilities – there was the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the invention of writing, the wheel, many domesticated animals and diverse crops, the development of systems of law and governance on a national scale, and much more.

When the ships of Europeans, principally the British, appeared in the 18th century, Maori were faced with a completely different and far advanced civilisation.  Ignoring the rest of the world, as proposed in the draft curriculum, robs even Maori history of its context, and of its place in the story of mankind.  That was an extraordinary meeting of two very different peoples, a story which tells of the formation of the nation.

One unfortunate effect was the spread of already-existing Maori tribal warfare, accompanied by the increasing use of imported muskets.  The death toll was enormous and the Maori population plummeted in a clearly dysfunctional society.  Some Maori leaders recognised that something had to be done.

The contacts with missionaries and settlers, along with a growing desire to escape from the requirements of tikanga which served to expand conflict, resulted in the transformation of Maori culture, for the most part in the several decades from 1830 on.  Many began to attend Christian services.

A key feature of the Maori cultural transformation (which brought the great peace-making, the freeing of slaves, the end to cannibalism, the end to female infanticide and the beginning of a demographic recovery, changes that must not be written out of history) was the decision to ask for, and to celebrate, British colonisation – which was realised by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.  This treaty was a simple and clear document handing sovereignty to the British Crown and making all New Zealanders, of whatever ethnicity, British subjects.  British law and government applied henceforth.  That change, brought about by both Maori and the British authorities, put an end to the disruption and collapse of Maori society.

There was one treaty – the final English text that was then translated into Maori has been identified and is known as the ‘Littlewood treaty’.  All translations from Maori to English accord with that draft, from those of 1840 and the next few years to that of Apirana Ngata in 1922.  Yet, the draft submission makes the claim that: “There are two versions of the treaty – Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Treaty of Waitangi. Some key words and phrases are different between the two versions.”  The document that is there called the Treaty of Waitangi, and is sometimes referred to as ‘the English treaty’, is a poorly written and contradictory suggestion (draft or translation) written by Hobson’s secretary, James Freeman, and forwarded by him to Australia and then Britain while Hobson was incapacitated.  An objective education programme would report those facts.

The discussion of colonisation is similarly ill-informed.  The claim is that “Colonisation began as part of a worldwide imperial project”, whereas the government of Britain did not want to colonise New Zealand until problems with settlers, the pressure of the New Zealand Company, and requests for help from northern Maori chiefs forced their hand.  There is also the false claim that colonisation continues now: “In its varying forms, colonisation … continues to evolve.”  The age of colonisation is in fact long past and New Zealand has long been a sovereign self-governing nation.

The current Maori claim (expressed throughout this draft curriculum) that their ancestors had a superior culture and world view, which was severely damaged by colonisation, is false.  The change was led by the many Maori who appreciated the benefits of the advanced civilisation they were coming in contact with.  Two major features of the contact period are: the backwardness of Maori society (which was also in a disrupted period of widespread tribal war), and the considerable intelligence and acuity of many chiefs as they adapted, and adopted the introduced advances.  Yes, they belonged to an ancient, tribal society, but that did not mean that they belonged to an inferior race, or were incapable of making use of introduced skills.  As always, it is plain that we belong to a common humanity and not to separate racial groups.  Any reference to a ‘Maori race’, as in New Zealand law, is nonsense.  The modern insistence by Maori that they are a separate (‘indigenous’) people is simply a political ploy for power and financial benefits.

A history of the formation and development of New Zealand should include the stories of the many remarkable people in those times of great change.  I have written of Tamati Waka Nene and Apirana Ngata; a short list would certainly include Te Wherowhero, initially a savage warrior, then a friend of Governor Grey and peaceful supporter of the government, who became the first Maori king, taking the name Potatau.   Accounts of those extraordinary lives would illuminate early national history and raise the interests of the pupils. 

The king movement and the subsequent struggle deserves a comprehensive treatment, not the simplistic suggestion that: “New Zealand’s settler government and the Crown were determined to undermine mana Maori, especially by acquiring Maori territories. The New Zealand Wars and the legislation that followed demonstrated their willingness to do this by any means.”  The government, under both Governor Brown and Governor Grey made great efforts to work with Waikato Maori, and were commencing to provide the facilities requested by Te Wherowhero (the year before he was called  king) when their representatives were driven out by Rewi Maniapoto (who, after the war, became a friend of Grey).  There was no general agreement on the king movement in the Waikato (with no consensus in meetings of 1857 and 1858) and many chiefs there, as across the country, refuted any effort to prevent them from selling land when they wished.

It is a nonsense to suggest a complete focus on Maori when so much of New Zealand history relates to the many other cultures with their knowledge and ways of life brought from across the world, in particular – but not only – British know-how and principles of good government.  

These notes point to the need to refuse the applied straightjacket confining New Zealand history to Maori history, and to refuse the insistence on confining Maori history to a narrow and inaccurate picture.

The trap of groupthink

I have worked for several decades for many national and international organisations on interdisciplinary futures research.  Much of this work has been based on scenario analysis, which had as a central feature the consideration of a number of possible futures, with each defined by some set of policy choices, each being guided by a particular paradigm.  I have come to recognise the importance of paradigm, world view, ideology and dominant culture (including the ‘conventional wisdom’ of any one time) in guiding and defining a way of thinking, together with the policies and actions that result.

I have come to recognise that many have become caught up in such a paradigm, including a distorted vision of New Zealand and its history, which has led to separatism, so that we are no longer one people, but are seen as two different people, with two very different cultures and sets of beliefs.  These two groups, the Maori and the other, are defined explicitly in law by race, as ‘a Maori is a member of the Maori race’.  The two are separated, with different rights in a legal ‘partnership’.  This is, quite simply, racism.  The contradictions and problems arising, the deep divisions in rights, are recognised by many, but denied by the current Government and by many Maori leaders.  This steady movement to separation by race must be corrected so that we can once again become one people in law and in government, no longer with a need to identify ourselves as belonging to one race or another.

The power of such a control group has been commented on in the introductory note of the draft curriculum: “Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power. Individuals, groups and organizations have exerted and contested power. This idea is about understanding the ways that power has been used to improve the lives of people and communities, and in ways that have created damage, injustice and conflict.”

This is all too true today.  The writers and proponents of this proposed curriculum must look in the mirror, and recognise that these words described the current way that power is being used, by themselves, to create “damage, injustice and conflict”, with great accuracy.  Powerful groups are continuing to separate New Zealanders by race, with the intent of creating a fully divided nation by 2040 (He Puapua is the most recent, and most eloquent, statement of that intention).

We are on the edge of serious social disruption, with a social movement that has driven New Zealand to formal separatism and racism, which is now increasingly referred to, correctly, as a form of apartheid.  This education curriculum is one of many efforts to extend such division, which has been set up over the past 40 years and more.

The state supports, and promulgates, this separation, these feelings of grievance and past wrongs, and this herd mentality where so much discussion takes place in communities separate from other New Zealanders.  The Waitangi Tribunal, which has been actively rewriting New Zealand history, and is driven by a belief in past wrongs together with supposed wrongs of colonialism (with any counter argument promptly silenced), provides a forum for dissatisfied Maori to sit aside from the rest of us to build a collective view of discontent.  This can be in Waitangi Tribunal hearings (where only Maori may participate) and by other organised meetings (hui) for Maori across the country, where those who attend share complaints and build a picture of past and continuing injustice, without the benefit of any different viewpoint or any check on facts, an evaluation the authenticity and accuracy of source materials.

To speak this truth, to identify this racism, is damaging to career and position – many speaking against racial separation have been falsely labelled as racist.  In today’s New Zealand, freedom of speech is only available to those with nothing to lose, such as those with no position or career to protect, mostly towards the end of our lives.  I am retired and fit those requirements, while others I know keep their heads down.

I fear that the effort will have no effect, such is the power of the elite and the domination of a belief in wrongdoing and grievance, which then dealt with by increasing inequality.   “The exercise and effects of power” referred to will assure this sad division, to continue to deny the once precious belief that we are all born equal, with no distinction by a proclaimed racial identity (‘a Maori is a member of the Maori race’, in law), no special inherited rights, and no division and partnership of two very unequal people in a divided nation.

Conclusion: complete rejection of this proposal

We should not be split along race lines but we are, a sad reality that must be faced and overcome by recovering the facts, the truth of our national history.  The proposed education curriculum provides a narrow and inaccurate prescription for future teaching, which is directed towards an increase in separation of New Zealanders into two peoples, with two different pasts and two unequal roles in the social affairs and government of our country.  There is a need for the very opposite – for national unity and a celebration of common humanity in an interconnected twenty-first century world.  

This is unacceptable.  The draft curriculum reads like a polemic for a cause, and does not provide a syllabus for national education in the history of an entire country.

The proposal is fatally flawed and must be rejected in its entirety.

Dr John Robinson, Waikanae