COMMENT: When a TV reporter at Waitangi asked Jacinda Ardern, James Shaw and Kelvin Davis what Article 1 of the Treaty said, all three were thrown by the question. Even allowing for the fact they were not expecting it, their difficulty was astonishing. New Zealand history might not have been well taught to previous generations in our schools but it certainly gave attentive pupils the terms of a Treaty that is fairly concise by the standards of historic documents.
Its first article, of course, confers on the Crown the right to govern New Zealand. If that is called a transfer of sovereignty it becomes contentious, which is no doubt why the question was put to the Government leaders at Waitangi and was possibly also the reason they stumbled over it. But it is surprising any of them needed assistance. If they really did not know Article 1 off the top of their heads, it might be a reflection of how little history has been taught in schools for a long time now.
It might also reflect a wider change in education. Knowledge is said to be no longer something taught to children in schools but something they discover for themselves with guidance. Facts no longer need to be learned by rote, supposedly, because they can be looked up when you need them. Does that mean generations that are now in government no longer carry a working knowledge of the Treaty in their heads?
Surely not. Yet it was agreed by all parties at Waitangi that schools need to teach the Treaty in its historical context, so presumably they have not being doing so. An association of history teachers has launched a petition seeking legislation to require "the coherent teaching of our own past....".
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Their chairman, Graeme Ball, said no one knows precisely how much colonial history is being taught in schools because it is not a requirement of the curriculum. Only one achievement objective deals with New Zealand's shared past, he said, and it is not compulsory.
History can be highly contentious but that is no reason for schools to avoid it. Rather, it is more reason to give every New Zealand child a grounding of factual knowledge that will enable them to discuss it.
The Prime Minister, who was at secondary school in the 1990s, says she was taught about our colonial history and believes there is a public expectation it is being taught in schools. She is right about that. She hopes the teachers' petition will prompt a conversation about history. It should.
National leader Simon Bridges wants our history taught in a "balanced" way. Former leader Don Brash, also at Waitangi this week, believes the scale of inter-tribal warfare before 1840 should be part of a an understanding of the context of the Treaty.
Colonial history as previously taught has undergone substantial revisions for settlements of Treaty grievances over the past 30 years. That phase is nearing an end and it ought now to be possible to find a balanced history for teaching in schools. Its conclusions will always be contentions, which is why we all need to study it.