Recently, during a staff-room lunch break with colleagues in my Faculty, a debate sprang up about teaching about violent histories. They had been talking about the reluctance of the New Zealand Ministry of Education to position New Zealand’s colonial history as a central component of the school curriculum. It was one of those conversations that started casually enough but ended in fiery denunciations and a string of reply-to-all emails that lasted through the afternoon. Someone had brought in a basket of feijoas† from their garden and I tucked into them as the debate unfolded at the other end of the table (I’ve published on this debate so my views are already known to my colleagues).
I should mention here that in New Zealand, teachers have a high level of autonomy over what they teach. Very little content is prescribed and no required canonical texts are included in the various curriculum subjects. Some teachers introduce material about New Zealand’s difficult and violent colonial history into their classrooms, but most do not. It is a bit of a taboo subject and it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.
For many teachers — even those who are sympathetic to the idea that their students should have some familiarity with New Zealand history — the colonial past is that chamber of horrors that sits at the outer edge of social studies or history classrooms. Most pass by with eyes averted on the way to more palatable classroom stories of glorious death and destruction at Gallipoli or the Somme. I do not really blame them. It’s a shitty job to explain to angry parents that yes, the nation was indeed built on some terrible British atrocities and that has consequences in the present. There is also a wall of public silence about the nation’s colonial past and it is a brave teacher who breaks the silence by drawing attention to that enormous, fully resuscitated giant Moa strolling around at the back of the room.‡
But as a result, the majority of New Zealand school children are singularly ill-informed about their nation’s history. For most students, the colonial past is the intellectual equivalent of that netherworld space beyond the school admin block in the out-of-bounds area by the caretaker’s tool-shed where they keep the insect pesticides in locked containers. You only go there if you are up to no good.
I suspect that it is not enough to simply ask teachers to be brave and to teach about New Zealand’s difficult past. We don’t get to wash our hands of that responsibility that easily. We also need to be fronting up to the Ministry of Education and colleges of teacher education. And most of all we need to speak into those toxic collective silences. The wars fought abroad tell us something about who we were. But the wars fought on our own shores teach something about who we are now and that is not always an especially comfortable realization. The silences about the past do not protect us.
*Moa: Large, flightless bird (3.6m or 12ft fully extended height) native to New Zealand, now extinct. It’s a pretty shit metaphor on several levels but it was either that or the Mokohinau stag beetle. Which doesn’t have the same ring to it.
† Feijoa: An autumn fruit of the acca sellowiana species, popular in New Zealand. Also known as the ‘pineapple guava’ although it tastes of neither.
‡Elephant in the room/Moa in the classroom. Potato/Potahto. Whatever. You get the gist.