A glaring omission in the new history curriculum: class

Tony Simpson writes in a Newsroom article about a major shortcoming of the new history curriculum. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t disagree at all with what the Committee have come up with which is largely about Māori indigenous culture, where it came from and how it has responded to incomers over the last two centuries, and vice versa. That takes us to the core of our historical experience which is in part the narrative of the relationship between Māori and those incomers and which has generated quite a lot of the uniqueness of our culture. The proposed explication of the nature of the Māori part of that is a sturdy and well-constructed leg which is long overdue for creation as a basis for our study of our history.

But it mostly leaves out the other part of the equation which is the nature of the incomers and what they brought with them (both positive and negative).

It makes a token genuflection to some of the minor components of that other leg – the Irish, the Chinese, and the Indian and Pacific communities are specifically noted – and this is as it should be.  But they leave out the major component which is European and mainly British immigration as a thing in itself. This is predicated on a serious error which is that those Europeans who came were a single people with a single set of objectives which is usually encompassed in the blanket expression “colonisation”. 

In fact there were two quite separate motivations driving the incomers in the 19th century. Some came because they saw it as a business opportunity and in pursuit of land on which to base it. But by far the majority came to make a better life which they could not attain at home in Britain. As the historian Jamie Belich has pithily remarked: “No-one ever came to New Zealand to be worse off.” 

These two objectives can sometimes be reconciled but by no means always and the story of New Zealand is also the story of the conflict between these two groups. What bothers me is when I read through the detail of the curriculum published so far I can find no reference to this conflict and its key role in what it means to be a New Zealander. An example of this failure is the complete absence of any reference to the trade union movement in the layout of the curriculum. Whether you are in favour of unions in the workplace, or think their ringleaders should be shot, unions played a very important role in the creation of New Zealand’s social democracy, and continue to do so, and should be included.

Actually I think I know why there is this failure. There is one dimension of our history which is taboo and that is the subject of class. It is considered non-U to mention it and so it is not included as a driving force behind who and what we are. But you don’t have to be a Marxist (which I’m not, for the record) to see it as a key and continuing driving force in many of our preoccupations in every aspect of our social, political and economic affairs. The relationship between Māori and Pākehā is a part of this and the way in which these things fit together also takes us to root of our identity. History is, above all, a debate about meaning and if you leave out some important component then the debate will be flawed and less complete than it might be. Read the whole article here.

One comment

  1. Incomers? Incomers? That’s what you call colonists in New Zealand? What a disrespect for language!

    I’m of colonial American stock, and I call myself what I am! Yes, my ancestors came here for a “better life,” but they didn’t belong here and they destroyed cultures and committed genocide.

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