It's madness that we don't teach our ākonga the history of Aotearoa

Film-maker Taika Waititi has joined a campaign to give teachers more tools to identify and act on racism in the classroom.

OPINION: I took every history course available at my (rather cloistered) Baptist girls' grammar school in 1980s Melbourne. Partly driven by an intense fear of anything math-related (avoidance has always been a strong suit) and partly by an attraction to storytelling, the past was a foreign country I yearned to know.

Mostly, I yearned to learn American history – which some schools offered, but mine did not - for no good reason other than modern American culture was beginning to seep into fuddy old Australia, courtesy of music videos on Countdown and later, via MTV. It was exotic. It seemed cool. In the end - if it included long-peddled myths about Columbus and Thanksgiving - then I'm glad I didn't.

Instead I learned the history of Ancient Greece and Rome, China, and Europe (actually, mostly England, including all the kings and some queens, up to the point of Australia's "discovery".)

I remember the teaching of Australian history was cursory and dealt mainly with the Gallipoli campaign (more myths) and Australia's actions in World War II. It did not include an indigenous viewpoint at all, other than accounts of how James Cook was threatened by local Aboriginal men, when he sailed into Botany Bay.

Students around the country will have access to free period products in schools from Monday. (File photo)
Students around the country will have access to free period products in schools from Monday. (File photo)

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Even that's been twisted out of shape by 250 years of Eurocentric teaching; recent analysis by Dharawal scholars of the words Cook and his crew heard as a threat, show it was probably a warning to other local people of the area (the sight of the Endeavour under sail looked to them like a cloud, and in Dharawal culture, a low-lying cloud means the spirits of the dead have returned. It's likely they saw Cook and his crew as ghosts.)

Ignorant children grow up to be ignorant adults, and to this day, although I read and absorb as much as I can, I remain largely ignorant about the real history of my country. To be fair, until recently and perhaps still, the Australian curriculum does not properly address the massacre, enslavement and displacement of Australia's indigenous people by white settlers.

Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

Unfortunately, my children (now adults) had much the same experience as Kiwis. They learned the kinds of history I learned - that of other nations. That's not in the least little bit intended as a slight to teachers in the current school system - it just means we are not yet giving children the opportunity to learn about their own history.

It's madness that we don't teach our ākonga the history of their own country. That's about to change, with the release of draft history curriculum planned for roll-out next year, which has drawn a sad but predictable reaction from groups on the right of politics, including some very agitated language from ACT MPs.

Former teacher Chris Baillie, followed by his party leader David Seymour, characterised the curriculum as "left-wing" and "radical". Ratcheting up the emotion further, a media release from Seymour seemed to suggest teaching the consequences of colonisation would be "dismal, depressing, and incorrect, casting some groups as villains and others as victims."

L-R:  Chris Baillie.
Question time in the House of Representatives debating chamber.
19052021 PHOTO: ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF L-R: Chris Baillie. Question time in the House of Representatives debating chamber.

“If students are to be taught New Zealand history, they deserve an honest account of who we are as a nation" the ACT leader claimed.

Honesty is the whole point of the thing, and a close reading of the draft shows it would correct some long-standing and important omissions in our children's education.

The draft proposes seven themes; the arrival of Māori to New Zealand, first encounters and early colonial history, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, immigration and colonisation of New Zealand and the New Zealand Wars, national identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New Zealand’s role in the Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand in the late 20th century and the evolution of a national identity with cultural plurality.

I liked Professor Charlotte Macdonald's kōrero on RNZ this week, that we ought to be drawing on Māori oral history to fill in the gap between Māori's arrival in Aotearoa and the arrival of the colonists, too.

To echo Education Minister Chris Hipkins' words in the House, I do not feel at all threatened by the teaching of Māori history to our rangatahi; in fact, there's much more from te ao Māori that could be woven through the teaching of other subjects (if it is not already) that would enrich the learning of all New Zealand students.

Pushing back against the hard truths of history is not unique to Aotearoa here and now. The Canadian province of Alberta is currently embroiled in controversy over a draft curriculum that appears to "whitewash" Canadian history, including the experience of indigenous children in residential schools.

But not knowing the full story has left generations of New Zealanders unable to properly understand the past, and how it inevitably shapes they way we respond to issues we face in 2021and beyond.

New Zealand students have been left in the dark about our truth for way too long. We should be deeply curious about our history, good and bad, and whether it might be "depressing" in some's view, is not a good enough reason by miles to stop or radically revise the current plan.