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Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Condemned to repeat the past

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He was not unique in his misapprehension nor in being unwilling to acknowledge how our country came to be what it is today. Photo / Greg Bowker
He was not unique in his misapprehension nor in being unwilling to acknowledge how our country came to be what it is today. Photo / Greg Bowker

Vicksburg National Memorial Park in Mississippi was designed to commemorate the American Civil War. It is, of course, supersized in that particularly American manner, a vast 750ha, and it is an impressive site, sombre and majestic. The battle took place over 47 days and 1600 men died. It is presented in a way that puts you in the firing line and allows you to follow the course of the battle.

It is just one of many well-maintained memorials that allow Americans to connect with their bloody past.

It's different here. But when you have a Prime Minister who can say "One of the unique things about New Zealand is that we are not a country that has come about through civil war or a lot of fighting internally" you realise that understanding history won't be a national priority.

He was not unique in his misapprehension nor in being unwilling to acknowledge how our country came to be what it is today. The Ministry of Education reinforced this attitude when it refused to countenance the creation of Learning Outcomes and Achievement Standards for the subject of the New Zealand Wars in the national curriculum.

The request came in a petition presented to the Maori Affairs select committee a few weeks ago by Otorohanga students Waimarama Anderson and Leah Bell.

Learning outcomes and achievement standards that are mandated in other areas include "Choreograph an effective group dance to communicate an intention", if you're doing dance, and "Undertake a personal action with reflection, that contributes to a sustainable future" in Education for Sustainability. The ministry's refusal managed to betray our past and our children's future at the same time. It also, probably, has created at least two political firebrands a few years down the track. But it is in line with a lot of thinking about how we view our history.

Visiting Vicksburg made me wonder why we don't have similar battle-site memorials for the New Zealand Wars. Well, we do but we don't have many, partly because we have long been prone to destroying the past to serve the needs of the present.

As Henry Green, a historian at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and author of Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: A Visitor's Guide notes, first you need your site. Of Gate Pa in Tauranga, for instance, he says: "When this redoubt became redundant in the 1870s, local farmers demolished what was left of it so their stock wouldn't fall into the trenches."

But some sites survived. Thanks to DoC, at Ruapekapeka Historic Reserve, not far south of Paihia, maps, signs and markers enable one to get a real sense of how what is often described as the last battle in the Northern Wars played out. We owe it to ourselves to visit these places. As far as the past goes there's nothing like being there. To be ignorant of history is regrettable, but to refuse to acknowledge it is dangerous, fostering misunderstandings that cast a pall over the present. Yes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but those who ignore it will never learn anything.

Meanwhile, in the great tradition of "well you do it then", former teacher Tamsin Hanly has done something about how the past is taught. She has rewritten history by using up-to-date research to tell our stories in six volumes for use in schools. And she has published them herself. A pity the people with responsibility for what our children hear about at school didn't show the same initiative.

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- Herald on Sunday

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