Is New Zealand Ashamed of its Past?: Making New Zealand Colonial History Compulsory in Schools



New Zealand prides itself as a progressive nation, yet, racial issues between Māori and non-Māori are still prevalent. Land disputes where native title is disregarded, the overrepresentation of Māori in prison and underrepresentation of Maori interests in Parliament are just some of the problems that continue today. A promising solution to drive better race relations in New Zealand is to make our colonial history compulsory in schools. It is important to recognise that history is part of national identity and providing a clear understanding of how our country was founded on bicultural terms to young people would enable future generations to understand each other in our diverse society.

Compulsory teaching of national history is not a groundbreaking proposal. The New Zealand History Teachers Association (NZHTA) have been fighting for this cause since the beginning of 2018. This year, they established a petition demanding that Parliament pass legislation that would make New Zealand colonial history compulsory across appropriate year levels in schools.

New Zealand history in the national curriculum is an option but not enforced as a compulsory topic. After taking compulsory social studies in year 10, students have the option of choosing whether they want to continue taking history. Therefore, there are students who would stop engaging with any form of history around the ages of fourteen and fifteen. Even if a student studies history at any point in school, it is possible they would have limited or no exposure to New Zealand history.

In contrast, children from other countries, such as the USA, Britain and Ireland, begin learning about their national history as early as primary school and their knowledge is continuously reinforced throughout their education. Learning about national history enables students to understand how their country came to be. Young people will one day become the key players in their country’s society and knowing where they come from and carry on the positive legacies of those who came before them.

More importantly, for countries that have a colonial past, young people must be able to understand that there are those who came before colonial powers. Specifically for New Zealand, the history prior to colonisation must be taught so that the implications of colonisation can be understood. The history of the pre-colonial settlement is usually simplified into narratives that portray Māori as savages that benefited from the introduction of Western civilisation. Yet, ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand as early as 1300 AD, where they established a society rich in culture. In fact, they had their own set of values, customs and principles that organised their communities known as Tikanga. With a strong foundational knowledge of the existence of a culturally and socially robust Maori settlement, students would then be able to recognise what was at stake in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and beyond.

A common argument made against making New Zealand history compulsory in schools is that students find New Zealand history boring. However as the President of NZHTA, Graeme Ball says, he has consistently received a 95% approval rate amongst the students he had taught New Zealand history to. New Zealand’s history is distinctive and unique. It is a nation founded on two cultures - Maori, who were here 500 years earlier, and British. We have the Te Tiriti o te Waitangi that recognises our bicultural society in writing. With such a notable document and a national holiday that commemorates its signing, there is a great deal of cultural and historical significance that can be uncovered, from the discrepancies of the Maori and English versions of the treaty to how it comes into play in racial disputes leading up to today.

As year 13 student Liam Brown pointed out, “I’m a 17-year-old Māori living in Napier, I go to school in Hastings, and still cannot name the first three articles of the Treaty of Waitangi.” Even for myself, a New Zealand student with history as one of my majors, I only just learnt about Tikanga comprehensively in my fourth year at law school. Ultimately, New Zealand history is part of our identity regardless of ethnic background. Understanding where the first settlers came from, how they lived, how our bi-cultural society came to be and how Māori became minorities in the land that was once theirs emphasises to young people that New Zealand is not only governed by Western values and that they can learn from the past to promote better race relations in the present. New Zealand can then work towards the progressive and inclusive society that we want to identify as.

Another reason some are reluctant for New Zealand history to be compulsory in schools is how it might cause more division. New Zealand history has seen its fair share of atrocities, such as the Parihaka invasion in the 1880s, where European troops invaded the Taranaki settlement demonstrating peaceful resistance against land confiscation and imprisoned them without trial. However, as the NZHTA and New Zealand historians have emphasised, the aim of teaching history is not to precipitate a sense of blame. Instead, it is proposed that New Zealand colonial history will be taught through presenting multiple views along with critical evaluation skills that enable students to draw their own conclusions.

New Zealand colonial history must be preserved and not forgotten as it enables us to understand the present. It informs a plethora of social and race-related issues today. Additionally, Dr Richard Manning and Senior Lecturer Garrick of the University of Canterbury have recognised that a wider legal provisions and key government policies can only be understood through understanding New Zealand’s past. By exposing students to our nation’s history from a young age, our education system would help foster a deeper understanding of between the cultures which New Zealand was founded upon. Future generations will then be more informed and more open-minded to identify injustices and improve race relations in our nation.


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Featured image source: Ministry for Culture and Heritage