Our History

Learning through stories

Its so exciting to get two Opinion Pieces on this topic within days of each other in the Dominion Post. Are we beating ourselves up about this, or what?

Karl du Frense (19.09.19): “I remember almost nothing of the history I learned at Secondary School.”  That’s because your teacher was bored witless, Karl! Brian would rather go off topic than do the dull stuff about what Governor George Grey did.

Lana Hart (23.09.19): “New Zealand history is boring, says my daughter” Lana explains that her poor child, by year 8, has done nothing other than the Treaty of Waitangi four times, which really is the wrong place to start.

Always start a history lesson with the people.

I’ll tell you something about Governor Grey which is not in school books and isn’t boring but explains why he behaved like such a prick for a lot of the time. He had an unsatisfied wife. The man was pompous and a know-it-all and the master of his universe, but his wife didn’t like him. What does that do to a man, when you come home after swashbuckling across the country and there is no cosy hearth and a “well done!” but a sneering, manipulative woman who’s trying to get home? A woman you put off-side when you suggested her inattention caused the death of your only child? Niggle niggle, harp harp. Do you try to prove yourself in other ways? He neglected her, of course, and locked himself in his study to write his Māori ethnographies, while she flirted with his half-brother and other passing braves. Eventually, on a ship to a posting in South Africa, he caught her dallying with an Admiral and dumped her off in Rio to find her own way home. Didn’t speak to her for 30 years, and only then because Queen Victoria ordered him to.

Colour in the people, and history suddenly becomes a lot more interesting.

Treaty of Waitangi.  Let’s colour in Hobson. He was a sick man, lacking in charisma and weak about the knees. Samuel Revans (editor of the Wellington paper) described Hobson as 50 years old and 70 in age. You can despise his political failings and still empathise with his struggle to get through the day. He set off to take his hastily agreed Treaty around the country but suffered “nervous apoplexy” and returned to Auckland, “weak and giddy” and handed the Treaty to the missionaries to carry. Nowadays we’d recognise he’d had a stroke and relieve him of his duties. He struggled on, hounded by the settlers, isolated and maligned. An ordinary man floundering way out of his depth. He died two years later. In an obituary, and I suspect Sam Revans’ pen again here, it says “none would have doubted his capacity to govern, had he not governed.”

Lana Hart is right when she says we need stories to make our history compelling.

New Zealand history is full of complicated and charismatic people and history is easily learned through their stories and struggles. Let kids research Whina Cooper, Kate Shepherd, Tītokowaru and write stories from what they learn. Give them the one-up-manship of Te Rauparaha and Jerningham Wakefield clashing cultures and make them walk in their shoes, in their times. Through people they’ll find stories to make their hair stand on end. Let them gobble these up through the years of school history and they’ll never get bored.

Get them reading our great historical fiction writers: Fiona Kidman, Maurice Shadbolt, Jenny Patrick, Whiti Ihimaera, Patrica Grace. Go to the libraries and read settlers’ diaries. Go online to Papers Past and read Sam Revans’ caustic wit. Back this up with our insanely good non-fiction writers: Vincent O’Malley, Paul Moon, Claudia Orange, Philip Temple, Ann Salmond, James Belich. History boring? Not a bit.

Lana Hart says:

Writers, musicians, poets and teachers, take to your keyboards and start narrating the colourful stories of Aotearoa.

She is so right. The only history we have is the one we tell ourselves, the one we remember and research and pass on. We need hundreds of narrators telling hundreds of stories in a hundred different ways from hundreds of viewpoints. We need kids telling stories, too, of what it means to grow up in New Zealand and how history looks through their eyes, the triumphs and failures of the past interpreted by a new generation with all they know now .

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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