Difficult Histories: Optional or Essential?

Schwierige Geschichte: Optional oder essenziell?


New Zealand’s high autonomy history curriculum is coming under increasing criticism by the media, politicians, teachers, students and historians as failing to provide young people with essential knowledge about this country’s colonial past.[1] While not all history educators agree, critics argue that it should be a requirement that young people learn about the difficult features of New Zealand’s past, rather than this being optional, as is currently the case. However, rather than framing this question as a binary, between teacher autonomy and curriculum requirements, it would worthwhile to consider the essential knowledge that all young people in New Zealand deserve to have in their education if they are become historically literate, informed citizens with a balanced perspective and who can think critically about the challenges they face in the future.

An Honest Approach to the Past

In 2015, two secondary school students instigated a petition that called for the wars fought between the Crown and Māori in the 19th century to be included in the curriculum. Signed by over 12,000 people, the petition was presented to the Māori Affairs Select Committee at Parliament and although it did not result in any changes to the curriculum, it did see the setting up of a national day to annually commemorate the New Zealand Wars. Two former prime ministers (from opposing ends of the political spectrum) have called for schools to teach more New Zealand history, with one, warning that “ignorance of the past is behind the rise of racism”.[2]  Historians have also been active in reiterating the importance of young people learning about New Zealand’s colonial past.[3] At the classroom level, the history teaching community is increasingly committed to prioritising New Zealand history (and Māori perspectives) in teachers’ programmes.

At the recent New Zealand History Teachers Association (NZHTA) national conference, teacher’s such as Defyd Williams called for an “honest approach” to the past that doesn’t just “look at the good bits”.[4] The NZHTA executive recently passed a unanimous resolution to “… adopt an activist approach to the teaching of New Zealand’s colonial history” and Graeme Ball (chair of NZHTA), in his submission to the Māori affairs select committee, highlighted the lack of compulsion to teach history in the curriculum and the low priority New Zealand’s past had in many school history programmes.[5]  Some academics argue the essence of the problem is racism. University of Canterbury academics (Richard Manning and Garrick Cooper) characterise the schooling system as racist for not teaching New Zealand’s colonial history and argue the low priority of Māori history in the curriculum reflects the racism of history teachers.[6]

Option or Requirement?

Not all history educators agree that it should be a requirement that young people learn about the difficult features of New Zealand’s past (evident in comments on my earlier articles in Public History Weekly). Steve Watters (Ministry of Culture and Heritage) is suspicious of a national narrative emerging that does not take into account tribal, or regional, perspectives. Watters warns that the shift to compulsion could result in a curriculum that ignored the complexities of the past, reflected current political priorities and glossed over the different experiences of colonisation. He writes:

“I can’t support the notion that we must teach the ‘Land Wars’ any more than I would support an injunction to teach the First World War. Any prescribed content is inherently vulnerable to political manipulation.”[7]

Watters reminds advocates for New Zealand’s past to be a required component of the curriculum, that there is not one version of New Zealand’s past but rather a series of contested histories that reflect different perspectives (and these may or may not intersect).

The History Education Young People Deserve

There are risks with all curriculum frameworks (both new initiatives and the status quo) but rather than seeing this issue as a binary between teacher autonomy and curriculum requirements, we may want to place young people at the centre of this issue and shape a history curriculum around the following question:

What is the essential knowledge that all young people in New Zealand deserve to have, if they are to be educated to actively participate in society as historically literate, critically informed citizens with a balanced perspective and who can think independently about the challenges they face in the future?

In this context developing critical understandings about New Zealand’s colonial past, is an essential ingredient of a balanced education as this country renegotiates questions of identity between Māori and non-indigenous New Zealanders. The high autonomy curriculum model does not deliver this for all young people and they are the poorer for it.

Inclusive and Critical

If young people are to develop historically informed understandings of New Zealand’s past, that are inclusive, allow space for different perspectives and encourage opportunities for meaningful critique, it will require a shift in orientation in regards to curriculum responsibilities. While there are outstanding examples of teachers (and communities) who are engaging with a Māori past, as agents of change, teachers face a number of barriers and are limited in what they can do individually in a high autonomy curriculum environment.[8] The nature of the neoliberal curriculum reforms of the last 30 years (that have downplayed disciplinary knowledge) has limited the extent of teacher agency under the guise of teacher choice.  Any successful curriculum initiative in this area, requires structural changes to the curriculum. This needs comprehensive support by all key stakeholders in the history teaching community (especially the Ministry of Education) as well as authentic consultation with Māori experts such as the initiatives that emerged from the Māori history website. It is not a straight forward journey, but combined with goodwill on all sides, robust and respectful conversations (and the capacity to listen), there is the potential to provide all young New Zealanders with the gift of a critical, balanced, meaningful history education that equips them to make sense of their world. They deserve nothing less.

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Further Reading

Web Resources

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[1] Jonathan MacKenzie, “Time to tell our stories,” Stuff, September 12, 2018,  https://www.stuff.co.nz/opinion/107003588/time-to-tell-our-stories (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[2] John Gerritsen, “Call to teach NZ history to combat rising racism,” September 12, 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/339225/call-to-teach-nz-history-to-combat-rising-racism (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[3] “Teaching the Wars”, New Zealand Wars, http://newzealandwars.co.nz/teaching-the-wars/ (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[4] Te Ahua Maitland,”New Zealand Land Wars should be taught in high school, says Waikato history teacher,” Stuff, April 6, 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/102488733/new-zealand-land-wars-should-be-taught-in-high-school-says-waikato-history-teacher (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[5] Jo Moir, “Call for New Zealand’s colonial history to be more widely taught in high school,” Stuff, June 20, 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/104864962/call-for-new-zealands-colonial-history-to-be-more-widely-taught-in-high-school (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[6] Elton Rikihana Smallman, “NZ’s school system ‘racist’ for failing to teach colonial history: Academics,” Stuff, September 23, 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/107209913/academics-want-schools-surveyed-to-see-which-teach-nz-history-and-which-dont (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[7] Steve Watters, “Should teaching the New Zealand Wars be compulsory?,” https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/conversations/new-zealand-wars/should-teaching-new-zealand-wars-compulsory (last accessed 15 October 2018).
[8] Mark Sheehan, “A matter of choice: Controversial histories, citizenship, and the challenge of a high-autonomy curriculum,” Curriculum Matters, Vol. 13 (2017): 80-102.

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Image Credits

Zicht op de moordenaarsbaai © 1642 Isaack Gilsemans, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Citation

Sheehan, Mark: Difficult Histories: Optional or Essential? In: Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 34, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-12859.

Editorial Responsibility

Dominika Uczkiewicz / Krzysztof Ruchniewicz

Der Neuseeländische Rahmenlehrplan für Geschichte wird zunehmend von Medien, Politiker*innen, Lehrenden, Schüler*innen und Historiker*innen kritisiert, da er nicht imstande sei, den Jugendlichen grundlegendes Wissen über die koloniale Vergangenheit ihres Landes zu vermitteln.[1] Die Kritiker*innen vertreten die nicht von allen Geschichtslehrenden geteilte Ansicht, dass die schwierigen Momente der neuseeländischen Vergangenheit verpflichtend im Unterricht behandelt werden sollten, statt sie nur im Rahmen eines freiwilligen Wahlfaches zu thematisieren, wie es bisher der Fall ist. Statt diese Angelegenheit als einen Gegensatz zwischen der Autonomie des Lehrers und den Lehrplananforderungen darzustellen, lohnt es sich, das grundlegende Wissen zu ermitteln, das allen jungen Neuseeländer*innen vermittelt werden sollte, um sie zu geschichtsbewussten und alle Seiten abwägenden Bürger*innen zu erziehen, die die Herausforderungen der Zukunft kritisch angehen können.

Ein ehrlicher Zugang zur Vergangenheit

2015 initiierten zwei Gymnasiastinnen eine Petition, die im 19. Jahrhundert zwischen der Krone und den Māori geführten Kriege in den Lehrplan aufzunehmen. Mit über 12.000 Unterschriften wurde die Petition dem Sonderausschuss für Māori-Angelegenheiten des Neuseeländischen Parlaments vorgestellt. Zwar kam es zu keinen Lehrplanänderungen, dafür aber wurde der nationale Gedenktag an die Neuseelandkriege eingeführt.

Zwei ehemalige Ministerpräsidenten (entgegengesetzter politischer Orientierung) haben die Schulen dazu aufgerufen, mehr neuseeländische Geschichte zu unterrichten, da „Geschichtsvergessenheit wachsendem Rassismus“ zugrunde liege.[2] Auch Historiker*innen haben wiederholt betont, wie wichtig es sei, das junge Menschen die Kolonialgeschichte ihres Landes kennenlernen.[3] Zunehmend mehr Geschichtslehrer*innen entscheiden sich dazu, der neuseeländischen Geschichte (und der Māori-Perspektive) mehr Aufmerksamkeit zu schenken.

Während der jüngsten Jahreskonferenz des neuseeländischen Geschichtslehrerverbandes New Zealand History Teachers Association (NZHTA) haben Lehrende wie Defyd Williams „einen ehrlichen Zugang zur Vergangenheit, der nicht nur die positiven Ereignisse berücksichtigt“ gefordert.[4] Die NZHTA hat vor Kurzem einstimmig eine Resolution verabschiedet, „sich aktiv für das Unterrichten der neuseeländischen Kolonialgeschichte einzusetzen“[5] und Graeme Ball (Vorsitzender des NZHTA) unterstrich in seiner Aussprache vor dem Sonderausschuss für Māori-Angelegenheiten das Fehlen einer lehrplanmäßigen Verpflichtung, bestimmte Inhalte der Geschichte zu unterrichten, und die geringe Bedeutung, die viele Schulen der neuseeländischen Geschichte beimessen würden. Einige Historiker*innen sehen Rassismus als Ursache hierfür. Dozent*innen der University of Canterbury (Richard Manning und Garrick Cooper) bezeichnen das Schulsystem als rassistisch, da es die Kolonialgeschichte Neuseelands ausblende, und vertreten die Ansicht, dass die schwache Berücksichtigung der Māori-Geschichte auf den Rassismus der Lehrpersonen zurückzuführen sei.[6]

Wahl- oder Pflichtfach?

Nicht alle Geschichtslehrer*innen unterstützen die Forderung, Neuseelands dunkle Vergangenheit verpflichtend in den Lehrplan aufzunehmen (wie auch aus Kommentaren zu meinen früheren Artikeln in Public History Weekly ersichtlich wird). Steve Watters (Ministerium für Kultur und Nationales Erbe) befürchtet ein nationales Narrativ, das Stammes- oder regionale Perspektiven ausblendet und warnt vor der Einführung eines Pflichtfaches, da dies zu einem Lehrplan führen könnte, der die Komplexität der Geschichte ignoriert, aktuelle politische Interessen spiegelt und die unterschiedlichen Kolonialerfahrungen nivellieren würde:

“Ich kann die Idee, die Neuseelandkriege verpflichtend im Unterricht zu behandeln, nicht unterstützen; ebenso würde ich mich gegen eine Verfügung wehren, den Ersten Weltkrieg zu behandeln. Jeder vorgeschriebene Unterrichtsstoff birgt die Gefahr, politisch manipuliert zu werden.”[7]

Watters erinnert die Verfechter eines Pflichtwaches zur neuseeländischen Geschichte daran, dass es nicht nur eine Perspektive auf die Vergangenheit gibt, sondern eine Vielzahl teils miteinander konkurrierender Erzählungen.

Die historische Bildung, die junge Menschen brauchen

Alle Rahmenlehrpläne (ob Entwürfe oder bestehende) bergen Risiken, aber statt dies als Gegensatz zwischen der Autonomie der Lehrerschaft und den Lehrplananforderungen darzustellen, sollten die Jugendlichen ins Zentrum gestellt werden und ein Geschichtslehrplan rund um nachfolgende Frage entworfen werden:

Welches grundlegende Wissen brauchen alle jungen Neuseeländer*innen, um als geschichtsbewusste, informierte und kritische Bürger*innen aktiv an der Gesellschaft teilzuhaben und selbstständig zukünftige Herausforderungen meistern zu können?

In diesem Zusammenhang ist ein kritisches Verständnis der neuseeländischen Kolonialgeschichte unverzichtbar für eine ausgeglichene Bildung in Zeiten, da das Land neuerlich die Frage seiner Identität zwischen der Māori und der nicht-indigenen Bevölkerung verhandelt. Der derzeitige Rahmenlehrplan ermöglicht dies nicht allen Schüler*innen, die daran verlieren.

Inklusiv und kritisch

Wenn junge Menschen ein kritisches Verständnis für die Geschichte des Landes entwickeln sollen, das inklusiv ist, Raum für verschiedene Perspektiven bietet und sinnvolle Kritik zulässt, ist eine Änderung des Rahmenlehrplans unabdingbar. Auch wenn es eine Reihe bewundernswerter Lehrer*innen (und Vereine) gibt, die die Māori-Geschichte bereits einbinden, treffen sie auf viele Hürden und können unter den Bedingungen des aktuellen Rahmenlehrplans nur beschränkt Veränderungen herbeiführen.[8] Die neoliberalen Lehrplanreformen der letzten 30 Jahre (die die Vermittlung von Fachwissen verdrängt haben) haben die Gestaltungsfreiheit der Lehrer*innen unter dem Deckmantel der Wahlfreiheit beschnitten. Jede erfolgreiche Initiative in diesem Bereich erfordert eine strukturelle Änderung des Lehrplans und die Unterstützung aller im Bereich Involvierter (vor allem des Bildungsministeriums) ebenso wie die ernsthafte Einbindung von Māori-Expert*innen, wie es bei der Erstellung der Māori History-Webseite der Fall gewesen war. Es ist kein leichter Weg, aber mit dem Wohlwollen aller Beteiligter und durch offene und ehrliche Diskussionen (und die Fähigkeit zuzuhören) ist es möglich, allen jungen Neuseeländer*innen eine kritische, multiperspektivische und profunde Geschichtsbildung angedeihen zu lassen, die ihnen Orientierung in ihrer Lebenswirklichkeit gibt. Sie verdienen nicht weniger als das.

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Literaturhinweise

Web Resources

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[1] Jonathan MacKenzie, “Time to tell our stories,” Stuff, September 12, 2018,  https://www.stuff.co.nz/opinion/107003588/time-to-tell-our-stories (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[2] John Gerritsen, “Call to teach NZ history to combat rising racism,” September 12, 2018 https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/339225/call-to-teach-nz-history-to-combat-rising-racism (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[3] “Teaching the Wars”, New Zealand Wars, http://newzealandwars.co.nz/teaching-the-wars/ (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[4] Te Ahua Maitland,”New Zealand Land Wars should be taught in high school, says Waikato history teacher,” Stuff, April 6, 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/102488733/new-zealand-land-wars-should-be-taught-in-high-school-says-waikato-history-teacher (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[5] Jo Moir, “Call for New Zealand’s colonial history to be more widely taught in high school,” Stuff, June 20, 2018 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/104864962/call-for-new-zealands-colonial-history-to-be-more-widely-taught-in-high-school (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[6] Elton Rikihana Smallman, “NZ’s school system ‘racist’ for failing to teach colonial history: Academics,” Stuff, September 23, 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/107209913/academics-want-schools-surveyed-to-see-which-teach-nz-history-and-which-dont (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[7] Steve Watters, “Should teaching the New Zealand Wars be compulsory?,” https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/conversations/new-zealand-wars/should-teaching-new-zealand-wars-compulsory (letzter Zugriff 15. Oktober 2018).
[8] Mark Sheehan, “A matter of choice: Controversial histories, citizenship, and the challenge of a high-autonomy curriculum,” Curriculum Matters, Vol. 13 (2017): 80-102.

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Image Credits

Zicht op de moordenaarsbaai © 1642 Isaack Gilsemans, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Citation

Sheehan, Mark: Schwierige Geschichte: Optional oder essenziell? In: Public History Weekly 6 (2018) 34, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-12859.

Editorial Responsibility

Dominika Uczkiewicz / Krzysztof Ruchniewicz

Copyright (c) 2018 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).


Categories: 6 (2018) 34
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2018-12859

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5 replies »

  1. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    I think the concerns of those who reject – or, at least, are cautious about – some form of prescribed ‘colonial history’ content are valid, but I don’t think this automatically means not to do anything and stick with the ad hoc approach we currently have. As Mark suggests, what we need to do is put the students – and, indeed, the well-being of New Zealand as a whole – at the centre of this and use that as our starting point.

    From that perspective it is hard to justify doing nothing or leaving it the education ‘market’ to decide what each school’s “clients” will get exposed to. It is not impossible, I think, to develop some sort of agreed key events/issues that should be examined as things always are in our discipline: from multiple perspectives and with a critical lens. There is nothing to stop teachers from going beyond this, or even critiquing with their classes why those particular events/issues have been chosen.

    I also believe that exposure to our colonial past should not be confined to just senior History but it should appear throughout the curriculum levels. This would require PLD for teachers so that they would be confident and comfortable in delivering this; I also think ALL trainee teachers should have as part of their training a compulsory paper on our past.

  2. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    Very interesting discussion Mark. In NSW we have more prescribed content but then face the challenge of agreeing on that content.

    Anzac and Indigenous histories, for differing reasons, are the first to be included. But even when core content is agreed upon there is the challenge of trying to give it some complexity and multiple voices. And even bigger challenge is finding the space in a junior school timetable to do any sort of justice to any of it.

    I am surprised at the apparent lack of content prescription in NZ.

  3. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    Compulsion has never been well received – even by students – as it is suspect – e.g. groan, groan we are doing it because we HAVE to.

    It would be preferable to have it “stongly/highly required” in teachers. We also need more resources at different levels given varying capacities in students over years 9-13. Curriculum development that encompasses other subject areas in a complimentary manner would be ideal too in setting a wider context for specific studies. And the NZ wars is only one example of a long government-Maori history.

    Best to have diverse NZ history topics which illuminate issues – with varying interpretations too. My thinking at this stage anyway! More anon

  4. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    I was involved in this debate when I visited New Zealand (kindly hosted by Mark Sheehan) in 2007. I was professionally involved in the history curriculum debate in England in 1989-90. I think Steve Watters is wrong. I believe that a good history curriculum should provide a framework that allows for independent study within an agreed band of dates.

    Clearly, any government needs to avoid an approach that could be interpreted as continuing a colonial attitude, and that is why the principles of historical thinking are useful as a syntactic underpinning of any framework. Significance is one of these principles. The internal wars that are being discussed here were clearly significant, and of course they were not the only significant event, but nevertheless they combine both significance with accessibility and visibility, as evidence of these wars in some regions of the country will make history come to life for school students.

    I think it is false liberalism to deny the present and future generations of the country an opportunity to have a kind of shared discourse over a series of significant events. It is absolutely wrong to pre-empt this study with a fixed interpretational template. Schools, i.e. teachers and students should enjoy syntactic autonomy but within an agreed framework which provides a number of cases where the big picture can be supplemented and indeed illustrated by local examples, where an enquiry approach can be used to facilitate dialogue between all present and future citizens about their histories. A framework curriculum with breadth studies and depth studies would be a good starting point.

    Teachers don’t have to lose autonomy as there are so many different ways to approach this. But student entitlement is surely as important as or even more important than teacher autonomy. But in a democracy clearly teachers need to have a measure of autonomy. My own opinion, for what it worth now I have retired, although I am an Honorary Research Fellow (University of Exeter) is that Aotearoa New Zealand should in a curriculum seek also to see itself as part of the wider Pacific world, and as part of the wider post-post-colonial Commonwealth. I have written about this in a PHW article recently. Good luck with trying to have sensible solutions.

    Now seems a good time for decision-making over a workable, usable teachable framework. Well done Mark for bringing this issue to the fore once more. In many ways including these wars as part of the curriculum offers an opportunity to decolonise as it squares up to some uncomfortable and difficult histories.

  5. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator. Just copy and paste.

    Heading a history department in a large suburban high school I enjoy the autonomy of planning modules and thinking about the shape of the history curriculum across Years 11 to 13 (the last three years of schooling in New Zealand). I also recognise however, that it is quite a responsibility; not least because research tells us that there are many reasons why history teachers working in a highly autonomous setting make decisions which can steer them away from approaching contested histories such as New Zealand’s colonial past. There is also a tendency for the profession to stick with the status quo i.e. continuing to teach content that is European/USA focused. Looking back at old curriculum and assessment documents from the 1980s it is quite easy to spot topics that are still taught today.

    Having said that, leadership has emerged from the grassroots in the history teaching community and from its professional body, the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association, to deliberately engage with the difficult features of New Zealand’s past and promote change. Agencies such as the Ministry of Education could play a role in supporting and guiding these emerging practices. A recent example would be the multi-agency ‘increasingly digital’ initiative led by the National Library which explores, among other areas, how to engage young people with the 1835 He Whakaputanga (Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand) and the 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi). It seems to me that there is enormous potential for cross sector collaboration and engagement.

    Providing the contexts and essential knowledge to frame teachers’ decisions about the history curriculum is I believe an assertion that is worth debating and testing. It might be that this framework could be used in terms of learning progressions for history and for assessment. Regarding the latter, this could mean a move away from decontextualised questions (the current situation) towards questions that were linked to a range of contexts. I think this is open to debate but there is a strong case for arguing that asking good historical questions requires an understanding of context.

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