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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

(NCEA) History and the Declaration of Independence

1.1 Introduction

I'm a history student. In fact, I'm practically a history graduate. Just a BA but a formal qualification nonetheless. Even by the standards of unpopular English teachers, that's more than enough a starting point to talk about problems or issues with the curriculum. Even if the subject I want to discuss today and I haven't really done any of that since year thirteen (not strictly speaking by design, but this is the case). I speak of NZ History.

1.2 Context

As many people will know from school (hopefully from social studies when they studied the Treaty of Waitangi in year ten) New Zealand wasn't really a country until 1835. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, because countries are a construction of the early modern and modern eras... before then you can speak of polities and states but not really countries in the way we understand them. Secondly, because New Zealand wasn't a single state. I would characterise NZ's governing structure prior to 1840 as being very granular: existing on the level of what I'll lazily call the tribe. That's not a country because if we want to apply the word it's quite a few countries. Thirdly, New Zealand wasn't a country because it didn't have international recognition. Which is where I remember the Declaration of Independence coming in.

The basic idea was that you had a bunch of informal relationships going on between Europeans and Maori post-Cook. Many in the British establishment weren't happy with this so the British Resident (James Busby) was dispatched. He found/decided (a) that his supposed remit extended far beyond any capacity on his part and (b) that the French posed a serious threat as would-be colonisers (note: this was a time where the colonial game had taken a back foot and it wouldn't really start up again for another 50 years with the New Imperialism, i.e. the French probably wasn't the French govt. per se). Busby's solution to this latter issue was to get the Maori chiefs to make New Zealand a (legal) country (the third reason). Thus, the Declaration of Independence. I think this basically tracks with the version offered in the Spinoff by one Miriama Aoake:
Māori motivations to sign He Whakaputanga were, and still are, transparent. It was an alliance, a strategic investment into a working relationship with the Crown. It would affirm and enhance their mana, and ratify the covenant with King George and William IV. Should a threat from the French or the Americas arise, the Crown would pledge allegiance to the Māori cause. Māori did not need Pākehā. Pākehā needed Māori.
Notice how it says something rather different? This is the idea of multiple truths. You might have come across the layman's understanding which runs, "History is written by the victors," but that phrase usually involves an element of lies. Multiple truths, as the term suggests, doesn't. Perhaps a more reasonable lay version is "There are two sides to every story," but while this highlights the role of narrative in history it is still used too often in the context of lies/conspiracies. Multiple truths is how your reaction to the All Blacks winning in 2011 was different to mine. Even if you also didn't care about it as history the two emotional responses are different things. (This is problematic for historical research and writing, and it's why professional historians are usually PhD's.) But even though the concept is clearly real, in this case it's probably a good idea to affirm my memories with some quick research. To NZHistory.net!

The first thing to note is that either NZHistory.net has changed its name or I've been calling it something wrong in my head for a while. There are very strong reasons why I think it's the former: this is important. The second thing to notice is that there's nothing that really disagrees with either point of view. I'm not sure about Aoake's "Maori did not need Pakeha" is consistent with "the Crown would pledge allegiance" and nor am I convinced that Busby's somewhat maverick status in creating the Declaration stands up. You can also see that point (a) did matter to the Declaration: it was apparently partly part of a Busbian scheme to have British-Maori relations work the way he wanted.

The thing is, if you're thinking on that level you're probably thinking that we can easily see Busby as intending (regardless of whether he was able to) to create a formal relationship of nation-state to nation-state: that's a trivial explanation. What probably is confusing is why I talked about NZHistory.net's name. Hopefully, you're thinking putting NCEA in the title has something to do with it. You see, it's not Aoake's view of the Declaration that attracted my attention: that's a context. This stuff is all just prelude. The real issue Aoake raises is pedagogical.

2.1 Aoake's School History
I suggested that the government should consider dropping New Zealand history from the curriculum. If you have been privy to the syllabus offered by NCEA and its promulgation of mediocrity, you understand. New Zealand history is optional and at the discretion of the instructor for the course. It is not available as a topic until year 13. My teacher chose English history on our behalf. I chose to risk university entrance and dropped out of all her classes
2.2. Aoake versus NCEA

There is a serious but very common error of fact here: NCEA is not a curriculum or a syllabus... it's an assessment structure. Whether or not it promotes mediocrity is unclear. Motivation that really matters and is most rewarding is something that we should encourage: arbitrarily hitting 100% or whatever is an external motivation. With NCEA's relatively limited array of marks you have to really think about what you want. There's no wimping out and deciding that 79% is good enough: there's no room for that. And if you want some external motivation there are all those credits you can count. These points are actually more salient to Aoake's point than I think she's aware (because otherwise you wouldn't make the error). Basically, because NCEA is not a curriculum, you can't write things like "NZ History is not offered until year thirteen". There is no national prescription in NCEA and that is almost the point. Remember the plagiarism scandal?
Burnard, who is head of history at Whangaparaoa College, said memorising exemplars had become widespread since the curriculum was changed from prescribing content, such as specific historical events, to a "generic" system allowing each teacher to choose which topics to teach.
The change means that the questions in external exams for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) have also become generic.
Notice that it separates things out so it has the causal path "curriculum changed therefore NCEA changes"? (Yes I did kind of vaguely remember the line from several months ago.)

2.3 Place of New Zealand History in NCEA


In any case, Aoake is almost certainly being very misleading or very single-minded in terms of what she means by NZ History or too parochial/anecdotal. There may well be no national prescription any more but there certainly is national inertia/convention... and that's to have Tudor and Stuart England and/or New Zealand's 19th Century history as the year thirteen units. At my school we kind of did both. I say kind of because my teacher just stopped teaching part way through the unit. That sucked. I was very interested in it. But the truth is (as you saw above) basically all history standards in NZ have something like "of relevance to New Zealand" in them. That's why when I told a friend of mine I was doing Gallipoli for one standard he went, "That relevance to New Zealand, though". Other people had to contort the US Civil War or the Falklands into this paradigm. I think they passed so the prescription is flexible. Luckily it is possible to see which topics are conventionally studied and doing so makes it possible to see that surely Aoake means to say 19th Century NZ History.

2.3.1 Level One External Essay Standards Conventional Topics


Causes and Consequences

Other Essay

As you can see there is a decent mixture of different topics in here. Some of these are directly relevant to New Zealand and would be classed only as that kind of history (e.g. "Race Relations in New Zealand" or "Parihaka") whereas others are clearly NZ History and something else (e.g. "Origins of WWII" or "Battle of Paschendaele"). Some of these aren't NZ History at all... but only in the causes and consequences standard where we know there is no relevance criteria. And, damn, some of this stuff is 19th Century NZ History.

2.3.2 Level Two External Essay Standards Conventional Topics

Causes and Consequences

Other Essay

Once again we observe a myriad of subject areas. Not just in the sense of different national histories. We've got social and cultural history, classic political and military history topics and even some economic ones. And there are NZ History examples of each of these (respectively, "homosexual law reform," "establishment of Kingitanga" or "Rogernomics"). Whither Aoake's point? Or even my belief that we'd really only see 19th Century NZ History at the end (in level three's list)?

2.3.3. Level Three External Essay Standards Conventional Topics


Causes and Consequences

Trend Essay

There's not too much point in talking about this because I'll just repeat what I have already indicated but I will say four things at this point.

  • These are example lists which were only included in the original iterations of these standards. Subsequent years have not included them. This may mean these aren't exactly indicative lists, but I think we can use them to infer that NZ History is being taught at all sorts of levels. And that Aoake was too parochial in her thinking (with a little help from Hanlon's Razor).
  • As with English standards, we do see that the people who write the reports are concerned with inappropriate choice, "Some events selected were simply not significant enough to analyse and evaluate causes and consequences to the depth required for a level 3 standard." This isn't as significant a point in light of NZ History appearing in all sorts of ways at all three levels.
  • These points do raise the question of why a teacher (it's teacher Aoake, not instructor) chooses to offer one subject selection instead of another. It could well be that they're more interested. Maybe they shake things up a bit and alternate years, i.e. Aoake was simply in the wrong cohort. Maybe the teacher felt English history (presumably Tudor-Stuart England) would extend the class more (it doesn't appear until level three as a subject area). It's dishonest and more than a little mean for Aoake to reduce the teacher/school's choice of syllabus down to, "chose English history on our behalf."
  • When it comes down to it, all of these topics are optional in the sense that history is rarely in my experience a mandated subject. I can't think of anyone I've met who has been to such a school (my cousins, for reference, had to do PE in Y11 whereas we didn't).

tl;dr -- of the statements of "fact" in that quotation basically all of them were wrong and the ones that weren't were presented in dubious contexts, which still leaves the question of whether or not NZ History ought to have a place in the curriculum.

3.1 Aoake's Views on the Historical Method

History is a complicated discipline in many ways. It is plagued by several problems that don't affect many subjects and has all sorts of quirks that are relevant in other fields too. I think Aoake presents a very streamlined view of history. Which is why it's time to break out that Primo Levi quote on simplification:
This desire for simplification is justified, but the same does not always apply to simplification itself, which is a working hypothesis, useful as long as it is recognised as such and not mistaken for reality. 
I am suggesting that Aoake simplifies History far too much. She's willing to note areas that are problematic but is either unaware of or unwilling to talk about how the discipline actually engages with the issues she talks about. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have published a blog post doing that sort of thing without a disclaimer. I'm sure she should not have asked the Spinoff to publish without such a disclaimer. But anyway, the (Historical Method) According to Ginger Aoake.

3.1.1 Western Bias 
Historians themselves have been filtered through a Western paradigm of education, which disregards the oral traditions that seek to explain history from a Māori world view. 
This is basically true if you're a Western historian. Except part of this, provided you've been educated since the 1960s, is to look at oral histories. These are absolutely not something historians "disregard". They might be seen as being relatively less reliable because everyone's had their mind play tricks on them and because disentangling memory and history is an important task, but this is only relative to written texts people are sure haven't been altered. Historians who actually focus on oral histories would know a lot more about this than me, but I think I've given you the gist of the mainstream view.

Also, reliability is absolutely not the same as usefulness (just look at that NCEA report)... one major response is to ask different questions. Where the traditional military-political Big Man (or Big Woman as the case may be) top down History was really only ever interested in "what" (and we should note that while popular in popular histories, this hasn't been the academy's approach for basically 50 years so I'm getting this second hand) these days historians care about way more things. Even the what questions have changed, e.g. you might ask what people were wearing or some other incidental background thing people don't think about (although this specific example is arguably more of a problem in oral histories). Anyway, the point is that mentalities history or the history of world views is (a) now a thing and (b) is a really cool thing to boot.

3.1.2 The Limits of My Language Mean the Limits of My World
Many historians are not versed in te reo Māori, which limits their perspective and defines their bias. This has allowed for the circulation of one perspective, one agenda. 
I'm not sure what Wittgenstein actually meant when he said that. I kind of know the quote (I searched "Language is the Limit of My World") from a very simplistic introduction to philosophers ("The Young Person's Guide" or some such) and while I could read the many hits asking the question the meaning seems fairly obvious to me. Basically, if you can't articulate it, it's not really real to you... and how you articulate something is (a) both constrained by the words you know and (b) your specific language. I know this because it's sort of the point of the linguistic turn in history and we did two readings on that in History 300 last year. The example one of them used was the difference in "thing" between the French and English meaning of river, it's subtle but it's there (also, I don't remember it). Where the deconstructionists seem to go wrong of course is that even if I don't know to call a chair a chair, the chair can still (and invariably does) exist. We might think of language as a biased means of sampling from the pool of "things that are real".

Now, the simple reality is that what Aoake is saying is actually true of basically any historian. European history is littered with multi-lingual historians and in the US you apparently need three languages (or two languages and quantitative skills) in order to get a PhD in history (English and two others... unless it was one other, I forget). Even if you're an English historian you're going to have this issue. Chaucer's language and thus world is very different to ours, and the language of Beowulf may as well be Greek to me (also a lot of these cultures, polities and societies were oral ones... in other words, the Western Tradition of history basically started at oral societies, er, being looked down upon by literate ones: see, prehistory). The point is that I am sure the serious historians of New Zealand history read te reo.

To be honest, Aoake may not realise just how big this critique is. Even if an historian can't engage with the original source language they bloody better be able to engage with another's experience because that is the most simple way of saying what the discipline does, "imaginative reconstruction of past lives and experiences" (after Jonathan Scott). This isn't to say that historians are incapable of unconscious, sub-conscious or conscious bias because they very clearly are. It is to say that the Western tradition of historiography is produced in such a fashion as to signpost such things and to work to reduce it.

3.2 Aoake on the Application of the Historical Method

The last part of Aoake's piece reminds me of History 300. It basically seems to be a bunch of things that are now ingrained being treated as though they aren't and need establishing. This is quite likely true for many people. Aoake isn't wrong that certain views were established, and I think it's true they were put about... but I think mostly in the course of idea like "fatal impact" or as aspects of contemporary political matters not historiography. My impression of NZ is that we basically ignore anything between 1840 and 1915. That speaks to repetition of received notions more than any particular education programmes. But I am willing to believe they existed. All I know is that the "official" line has changed. I know because Aoake's view is much more similar to what I got at school. Looking at Aoake's profile picture attached to the article, she probably did too (although her Twitter feed is full of American Football so maybe she's not as exclusively embedded as I am in contemporary NZ society). But I think the biggest reason for my thinking Aoake is preaching to the choir is that I see the usual narrative of NZ's colonial past as having taken on a very simplistic pattern: British = bad. Man that sounds bad.

Look, I'm not saying that the colonial proceedings of New Zealand were something to look up to... none were. I'm saying things like how at some point we started treating the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi as the right one represent a broader trend. The reality is that there is no right version. The whole point of a treaty is that there is only one version which is agreed to by all parties. The Treaty of Waitangi isn't recognised as a proper treaty because of the substantial divergence. That doesn't mean it's not useful now or isn't the foundational document of the contemporary state because both are clearly true. What it is an example of is that we tend to look for goodies and baddies in history, and rather than seeing te Tiriti for what it was... a hastily constituted and barely discussed agreement... we presume a sinister (or, at least, cynical) ambition lay behind it. Why this has happened is unclear. It's probably because people are lazy. You get them to learn that the Waikato was invaded and suddenly everything else has to be read the worst way. That's not historiography. That's politics. Or maybe psychology. Not historiography.

Aoake doesn't really set up goodies and baddies in this sense. To the extent she does, it's talking about specific negative policies. Obviously, I think she's writing a general piece from the position that the good fight still needs fighting. As alluded to, I think the good fight has been won. Maybe because I remember our year ten Treaty of Waitangi module reasonably well, Maybe because we did actually do NZ History in Year Thirteen. Hell, it might even be because I think the Declaration of Independence is self-evidently important. I know I am very much in that camp that NZHistory.net* describes thusly, "Some historians suggest that the Declaration was only taken seriously by the British in 1840, when it proved to be an impediment to the annexation of New Zealand." Well, okay, I'd write, "The Declaration made it necessary to have a treaty," but I think that's the same point. And I might believe in that latter formulation because I've always found my year ten content knowledge sufficient (which reminds us of Primo Levi) and not dug deeper. Perhaps all I'm really saying is that part of my problem with the article is that I'm not the target audience.

4.1 Conclusion

I really do think that it's firmly established that there was a struggle for sovereignty in NZ. That Maori exercised agency. That this "struggle" involved invasions. That confiscations of land happened in ways they shouldn't have.** And critically that it's long since been time to look at Peter Read's little truths of NZ's colonial past, e.g. whether or not both kupapa and Queenite are inappropriate terms for the "friendly Maoris" (which brings us back to Wittgenstein). That I have read "Clio or Janus?" might be the problem, though. Maybe I know too much to have the same contextual view as Aoake without knowing enough to fake having that by being truly aware of all the issues, especially the state of the oft derided popular histories. Or maybe I just know the wrong things and/or don't have an open enough mind. But I don't think whatever quibbles we have about Aoake's purpose and accuracy excuse her handling of History as a discipline or situating of the subject within a specifically NZ history starved college system. The reality is that history is a neglected child, both in syllabuses and in Aoake's piece.


*I forgot to use anecdotes to explain why NZ history is clearly part of history before year thirteen... every year we always used NZHistory.net a lot when doing our research internal. So great was our use of it, I am convinced it used to be NZHistory.net. Also, when I typed that in I was directed immediately, a la Greater Auckland and transportblog.co.nz.

**Confiscation didn't restrict itself to the Maori groups "Crown" (i.e. colonial govt.) armies were fighting... they sometimes happened to allies or neutral parties (and by sometimes I mean some of the time, I have no idea how frequently this was but I'd back higher rates... the government was cash starved and funded itself through land sales). However, where I seem to diverge from a lot of commentary is that I think confiscating land from enemies is something I think victorious armies are allowed/expected to do.*** Look at the Napoleonic Wars or the 1871 Franco-Prussian War or WWI... they might not use confiscation, but that's what is going on. What my younger self never grasped was that these confiscations were Treaty of Versailles like, i.e. too harsh, unjust, unfair (whether or not I still think Versailles should have been so problematic is complicated, but this was the analogy to convince my pre-year thirteen self). 

***Also, I went from Chess to Age of... to Total War games... there's an article out there on the internet somewhere that I nearly read once that makes the case that the way to do best on these kinds of games is to be unfeeling, cold and socio/psychopathic in play-style. All I know is that territorial exchange is the whole point (or in the case of chess a major abstraction of what is going on).

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