Call to teach NZ history to combat rising racism

10:28 am on 12 September 2017

Two former prime ministers are urging schools to teach more New Zealand history, with one, former National Party leader Jim Bolger, warning that ignorance of the past is behind the rise of racism.

Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger says schools need to teach more New Zealand history. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mr Bolger made the comments at the launch of a book based on RNZ'sThe 9th Floor podcast series of interviews with former prime ministers.

He said he was passionate about New Zealand's history and schools should be teaching more of it.

"I've bored so many audiences by saying we should teach our colonial history, because we don't, and this is a huge mistake. You cannot know who you are as a society unless you know your history."

Mr Bolger warned ignorance of history was dangerous.

"Look out across the world and see the extraordinary divisions within societies. Frankly, the rise of white racism is partly because people don't understand their history."

One of Mr Bolger's former political foes, former Labour Party leader and prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, endorsed Mr Bolger's comments and said New Zealanders should also learn more about how their government worked.

Former Māori Party president and school principal Pem Bird has been leading a campaign to get more Māori history taught in schools.

He said the former prime ministers' comments were timely and society was ready for change.

"This is to do with our notion of citizenship," he said.

Pem Bird.

Pem Bird Photo: RNZ

"We can leave the days of ignorance behind, and there has been ignorance, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to indigenous history, tangata whenua history, and embracing that as part and parcel of our national identity," Mr Bird said.

A trial project for teaching local Māori history in schools had been a great success and he expected it would soon be rolled out nationally, he said.

New Zealand History Teachers' Association president Graeme Ball agreed schools should teach more New Zealand history.

He said most children thought they had studied the subject before they reached secondary school, but they appeared to know very little.

"When we actually quiz them on what they do know about the Treaty [of Waitangi] or other aspects of New Zealand history, they actually don't know that much, but they feel like they've had it year after year after year," Mr Ball said.

Most schools appeared to offer New Zealand topics for students who chose to study history, but more could be taught in earlier years.

Everyone should learn about New Zealand's 19th century history including the Treaty of Waitangi, the New Zealand Wars and the laws that allowed confiscation of massive quantities of land, he said.

"Once students understand those processes, then they can understand the 20th century and even today the issues that Māori are raising, the Waitangi Tribunal is addressing," he said.

However, he said some students were reluctant to learn about New Zealand history.

Education Ministry spokesperson Pauline Cleaver said it encouraged schools to weave Māori history into their teaching.

"Understanding our history will help students not only learn how the past has shaped their world but also the way it affects the present and future of Aotearoa," she said.

The ministry was about to publish updated Māori history guidelines for primary and intermediate schools, and from this year was spending $1.91 million a year to create new resources based on local stories from iwi, hapū, whānau and communities, she said.

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