Why is it that so many people believe their understanding of history to be accurate and fixed for all time, rather than being an interpretation of events based on social attitudes that are in a constant state of flux. Even when the “facts” aren’t in dispute, one’s understanding of history will vary depending on many factors.
One simple and obvious example would be the Crusades, long thought of by the Christian West as a noble and honourable campaign and by the Muslim East as being a murderous and barbaric one. The recognition in the West that the crusades were neither noble nor honourable is not because the “facts” have changed but because we have a different understanding of the significance of those facts.
During my primary school education in the 1950s I was fortunate in that for two years I was taught by a teacher who had a keen interest in North Taranaki history (the region where I lived at the time), and especially in the period of its early European settlement through to what are now know as the New Zealand wars, but in the 1950s were known as the Māori wars (you can smell the colonial bias from the very name).
Unlike the prevailing attitude of the time, which was that colonialisation brought civilisation and enlightenment to the indigenous Māori, by force if necessary, the teacher presented us with a Māori perspective. Although I now realise that the presentation of that perspective was highly idealised, especially when it came to the motives and morality of the Māori on one hand and the Pākehā settlers on the other, what he taught us was more in line with the prevailing understanding held by historians today than that of (Pākehā) historians and public opinion in the 1950s.
The reason for bringing up the topic at all is because the government has decided that the teaching of New Zealand history is to be made a core part of the primary and secondary school curriculum – long overdue in my opinion. Up until now the teaching of New Zealand history has been entirely optional, usually not covered at all, and when it was, it was from a colonial perspective, and the teaching of pre-European history was conspicuous by its absence.
Of course, the decision to teach NZ history brings up the question of what to teach. Already arguments have begun, some of it rather acrimonious. I’m quite confident that we’re unlikely to reach a consensus. My take is similar to the one taken by Matthew Wright in his article Why history must be taught in New Zealand schools:
[I]f we’re to understand New Zealand’s history, we also need to teach how history works – how we think about it, and why it’s always going to be a discussion, broadly shifting with the generations.
I think this is true of all history, not just that of Aotearoa New Zealand.