History records that we go through cycles of civilisation and barbarism. Civilisation builds things, barbarism knocks them down.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is a profoundly civilising force, which this week moved even the current President to sign an executive order that could help remove big scared bullies from its police. But elements of the movement's supporters in other countries, including New Zealand, have turned barbaric.
Lacking a target in the present they turned on the past, destroying or defiling statues that grateful people once built for the future. The sad thing about this is not just the sight of stone figures being boxed in or carted away to save them from vandals (originally the name of a horde that sacked ancient Rome), the saddest thing is what has happened to the study of history.
You often hear New Zealanders of my age say they were not taught this country's history at school in the 1950s and 1960s but that's simply not true. Maybe it just didn't interest them. Or maybe they mean they were given a jaundiced colonial version of history but that is not entirely true either. Governor Grey's invasion of the Waikato, for example, was already being re-interpreted as a land grab to satisfy Auckland business interests rather than a response to the King Movement.
I had the good fortune to study history before it became just a moral lesson for the present. The generations after me have not been so lucky. Their history has been rewritten by "post-modern" scholars who decided their discipline was no longer to try to understand the past on its own terms, that there was no such thing as objectivity and history ought to be written with the value judgements of the present.
That's the history schools have been teaching for a long time now. I don't think it's called history anymore, it's just part of social studies, a more accurate term for the simplistic snippets of events that pass for history in the national curriculum. I get the occasional emailed request to assist a pupil's research. It usually involves answering a small set of questions loaded for a preconceived conclusion.
I give answers that try to balance the record for them and gently suggest the issues were not as black and white as their questions imply. I fear I'm not helping their NCEA results.
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When Jacinda Ardern was asked what she thought should happen to colonial statues, she reminded us her Government is committed to restoring the study of history in schools. Like most resolutions of this Government, it probably won't happen because it gives no thought to how good intentions can be carried out. But just imagine if it did.
If the Prime Minister imagines today's version of history would not trouble the populace, she should have come down to the Auckland waterfront on Labour Weekend last October when Australia's Endeavour replica was here to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook's first voyage to the Pacific.
The beautiful replica was not supposed to be the centre of attention. It was accompanied around New Zealand by another sailing ship, the familiar Spirit of New Zealand, and a number of double-hulled Polynesian canoes in an attempt to assuage anti-colonial protests. When the "flotilla" assembled at Gisborne, national media duly admired the waka and downplayed the Endeavour.
After Gisborne, the media largely lost interest in the anniversary but the public did not. When the vessels got to Auckland they were moored in the basin bounded by Princes Wharf and the Maritime Museum. The canoes had pride of place in front of the museum, the sailing ships were tied up along Princes Wharf, the Spirit of New Zealand in front. Endeavour was a way down the wharf.
But only one of those ships had a long line of people waiting to go on board when I went down there on the afternoon of the first day. Next day I took my granddaughter to see it and there was still a line, steadily moving. I went back on the third day and yet again people were lining up to get on it.
Many thousands of Aucklanders came down to see Endeavour and nothing else, which is a pity. I also went aboard the late Sir Hec Busby's waka and some of his family told me about navigation using stars and ocean currents. I also accepted Tuia 250's invitation to engage in debate, asking why Polynesian navigation skills don't appear to have been used for return voyages.
History has to be open to all questions. Studied properly, it lets you meet people in a different time and understand them. It tells you we are not a superior people in the present, too many of us have become as sanctimonious as any barbarians of history.