History helps our kids navigate the world

The New Zealand government announced earlier this year that it will soon be compulsory to teach New Zealand history in our schools.

Every child in Germany learns about the Holocaust – the terrible atrocities which Hitler and the Nazis did to the Jewish people. “We teach every chapter of German history,” a German friend of mine explained. “Especially the darker chapters so that they are not forgotten and/or repeated. We‘re doing that in primary AND secondary school. It‘s compulsory.”

Year 4 students’ history book Germany. Photo: Volkner Eisenach

in his biography, Born a Crime, South African comedian, Trevor Noah, wrote: “In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: ‘There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.’ Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers had been given a mandate. ‘Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.’”

I think our kids can handle the truth about our history, especially the darker chapters. Learning this will help them better understand the issues behind events which are still happening today, like Ihumatao.

This week I read The Adventures of Tupaia, written by Courtney Sina Meredith and illustrated by Mat Tait. It tells the story of Tupaia, the legendary navigator who helped Captain Cook sail through the South Pacific to Aotearoa.

Tupaia was born on Ra’iātea and at the age of 12 received a tātau and began his formal training to be a navigator. He was living in Tahiti when Cook arrived. Tupaia agreed to join Cook on board his ship and help him find other islands.

“Without Tupaia’s wisdom, Cook would not have been able to navigate the South Pacific the way that he did,” says Courtney.

I’m pretty sure most Kiwi kids learned about Captain Cook at school. How many of us learned about Tupaia? I used to wonder why so many of my Maori and Pasifika friends left school early back in the 1980s at Mangere College.  Maybe it’s partly that in subjects like history we learned about Queen Elizabeth I of England. Not once did we learn anything about the history of Mangere. Or about people like Tupaia.

If people don’t see their history in the history books why would they want to learn it?

There’s another reason why we need to teach more New Zealand history in schools. It’s because it shows our young people that there is more than one way to see the world and the events that take place.

Tupaia described how he used the ocean, the wind, the birds and the stars to guide him around the mighty Pacific.

“It certainly seems a confusing way to be in the world,” Cook says. And that’s the reason why we must teach this history, so our kids know that their way of seeing the world is not the only way. Later in the text Cook says he doesn’t understand the way Tupaia sees the universe. “My people experience space and time differently,” Tupaia replies.

Tupaia taught Taiata, his young prodigy: “It’s important that you understand and remember, Taiata. You must know where you come from in order to know where you are going. To leap into the great unknown means you must be able to find your way home.”

And that’s why we need to teach our history to our young people in our schools – so they know where we’ve come from, including the “darker moments”, and this will help them know how to move forward … together. The picture below is amazing because it honours Cook and Tupaia, great figures from our past, equally. It’s how our history should be taught, celebrating all our cultures, equally, in Aotearoa.

Check out the Tupaia exhibition at Auckland Museum until March 2020: https://ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/articles/events/2019/09/voyage-to-aotearoa-tupaia-and-the-endeavour/

Here’s a trailer for the Tupaia book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNtsEIMnCtg

Here’s an interview with illustrator Mat Tait: https://podtail.com/en/podcast/rnz-afternoons-with-jesse-mulligan/the-adventures-of-tupaia/

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