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OPINIONPoliticsDecember 7, 2023

Why ‘restoring balance’ to the histories curriculum is not as innocuous as it sounds

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Image: Getty Images

The government’s policy to ‘restore balance to the Aotearoa New Zealand Histories curriculum’ could work to undermine more inclusive and honest ways of engaging with the past, argues history teacher Christopher Burns.

When the plans for compulsory New Zealand history content were announced, Jacinda Ardern presented them as an opportunity to connect the histories passed down “by kaumātua on the taumata” and those taught by “our teachers in our classrooms”. However, the goal to “restore balance to the Aotearoa New Zealand Histories curriculum” as part of the National-Act coalition agreement can seriously undermine this goal. It may sound innocuous enough, but notions of “balance” can work to undermine more inclusive, relational and honest ways of engaging with the past. 

When the public was asked to give feedback on the draft version of the curriculum, many respondents voiced their concerns about a lack of “balance” in the curriculum. In their report on this feedback for the Ministry of Education, New Zealand Council for Education Research claimed that “the idea of ‘getting the balance right’ emerged as a clear theme”. 

The desired balance was primarily between “Māori and Pākehā histories”, with a concern there was too much focus on Māori history in the draft. One submission stated, both cultures should receive equal time for their stories to be told and learnt”, while another claimed “bicultural history should be about both cultures”.

These quotes illustrate that one effect of a focus on “balance” can be to reassert a narrow focus on Māori and Pākehā to the exclusion of other groups. Perhaps the most prominent concern raised from the draft was from Asian and Pacific respondents concerned their experiences were not reflected in the curriculum content. This concern is heightened when the focus is on “balance”, as different histories are imagined as separate and curriculum development becomes a zero sum game as different groups jostle for space and recognition. 

An alternative way of viewing the past, and one that is limited by a focus on “balance”, is one that is relational and focuses on connections between groups and, in particular, with Māori. This approach is supported by the first “Big Idea” in the curriculum document: that “Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa”. 

This “Big Idea” encourages learners to explore the hundreds of years of iwi and hapū experience in Aotearoa. But in addition to this, it provides an orientation for non-Māori to explore their own histories in relation to Māori. Māori histories can provide a foundation for a whole curriculum that both reinforces the special status of tāngata whenua and supports a continuous exploration of the different connections communities have to this land and each other. 

In their interviews with The Spinoff, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei historian Joe Pihema and social studies and history kaiako Kārena Ngata provided some insight into the benefits of a more relational view of the past. Pihema asserted that the “reindigenisation of history” is vital not only for Māori communities, but also for tauiwi “to help them to create rich and deep local connections that can provide them with spaces to build their identity as well”. As Ngata reminds us, “honouring Te Tiriti is understanding you’re in a relationship”. 

A focus on “balance” can undermine this relationship as it works to maintain a separation between different understandings of the past in Aotearoa. As scholars such as Joanna Kidman have illustrated, Pākehā-dominated nation-building narratives have relied on marginalising the violence of colonisation and constructing myths of harmonious Māori-Pākehā relationships. However, as many Māori were raised with this memory of violence and injustice they have formed separate accounts of New Zealand history that challenge the dominant narrative. 

The new histories curriculum has the potential to be a significant moment in the challenging and enriching process of unravelling these separate histories. The Act Party may have campaigned on “ending division by race”, but, if acted on, their call for balance will work to ensure our understandings of the past remain divided.  

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