Social Amnesia and the Eclipse of History in New Zealand School Syllabi 1947-2002

Term Paper, 2002

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of Contents


Social Studies
The 1947 syllabus
The 1961 syllabus
The 1981 reassessment of the 1961 syllabus
The monocultural nature of the 1961/1981 syllabus
The 1997 syllabus
Debate about the new curriculum
The final version

Race relations
Great Britain
Relations in the South Pacific and Asia and Studies of Imperialism


Primary Sources (in chronological order)
Social Studies
Secondary Sources (in alphabetical order)


This essay analyses the content of the New Zealand Social Studies and History syllabi of the past 55 years.[1] It concentrates on the one hand on content that refers to race relations in the country, to see what information was included or excluded to draw a certain picture of race relations; on the other hand it looks at how New Zealand interprets its links to other countries, to find out where it places itself culturally and politically in the world. It looks for patterns within the curriculum content that indicate certain ideological directions at the time the curricula were written, and for changes in these patterns over time. The underlying assumption here is that ‘any school curriculum, regardless of its composition, is invariably a political instrument.’[2] Openshaw and Archer have shown that even Social Studies, which have been regarded as unbiased and value-free, are as indoctrinated as history syllabi of the early 20th century.[3]

The main objective of Social Studies since its introduction in 1947 has not been to teach history. With little changes in formulation its aims have been to prepare children for life in New Zealand society, to introduce them to democratic institutions and make them eligible citizens. History as such plays a minor part in this. In 1986, Ann Low-Beer, a visiting British historian, reported that the majority of Social Studies teachers had no training in history, and historical material like primary resources hardly existed.[4] The framework of Social Studies in the 1980s, like today, was sociological, based on general conceptions of human nature and interaction. Low-Beer’s survey of teachers in 15 Wellington Junior schools asked whether students at the end Form 4, that is at the end of the compulsory Social Studies course, had an overall view of New Zealand human history. The responses made clear that ‘“Social Studies is about the present” and a picture of New Zealand [sic] past “is not the point of the course”’. According to the teachers, after eight years of Social Studies the pupils had “no idea”, they knew “not even the basics like the names of Prime Ministers this century” and it was “best to assume total ignorance of history in all pupils entering Form V”.[5] Pupils thought similar about this issue. Keen found in 1977 that only 25% of older pupils felt that Social Studies had given them any insight into history.[6]

The eclipse of history in New Zealand schools is enforced by the declining popularity of the optional subject History in secondary schools. Over 90 per cent of all boys and girls chose ‘History and Civics’ in 1930.[7] In 1975, 24.1 per cent of 5th Form students took History, which fell to 15.2 per cent in 1989.[8]

Russell Jacoby has explained that modern societies have developed the belief that what has been can be stored and forgotten. The past is left behind, and what comes later is necessarily better. But the present can only be understood as a result of past events. What happens if a society does not nourish the remembrance of its past? Society is not static, it has become what it is today through developments that have taken place over centuries. ‘Exactly because the past is forgotten, it rules unchallenged; to be transcended, it must first be remembered.’[9] Jacoby has coined the term ‘social amnesia’ to describe the ‘social loss of memory’ that occurs when memory is ‘driven out of mind by the social and dynamic of […] society.’[10] If society does not remember, it will forget the reason for why things are as they are. Judith Simon has suggested that Social Studies in New Zealand is the cultivation of social amnesia. Especially in Māori-Pākehā affairs, but also in international relations, its omission of history has helped to present a favoured picture. Also History in secondary schooling has contributed to a forgetting of New Zealand history, as it suited the country’s understanding of itself at certain times. The remembrance of some aspects of the past are encouraged, whereas others are rather forgotten.

Social Studies

Social Studies in the primary school was introduced in 1947 as a combination of History and Geography because ‘by virtue of their content’ these two subjects ‘give many opportunities for the development of the attitudes, appreciation, and abilities that are necessary in a democratic system such as ours.’[11] The new syllabus from 1961 took most of the emphasis away from New Zealand society and with a stronger sociological tone put the weight on children’s abilities ‘to think clearly about social problems, to act responsibly and intelligently in social situations, and to take an intelligent and sympathetic interest in the various peoples, communities, and cultures of the world.’[12] In 1981 a reassessment of the 1961 syllabus was published which brought a swing back to New Zealand issues, and enforced the 1961 emphasis on social aspects. The current Social Studies syllabus of 1997 put the strongest stress yet on New Zealand society.

The 1947 syllabus

This syllabus still promotes a heavily euro-centric perspective and content. In Standard 2 it introduces children to ‘Great Stories’, and in Standard 3 to ‘Stories from World History’.[13] These stories, such as ‘Robin Hood, Captain Cook, The Great Fire of London’ and others are derived mainly from the British canon, and are enriched with ancient Greek and Roman myths and European and American episodes. The history of exploration of the world is confined to European discoverers. New Zealand history has its part, but the strong European influence is still clearly perceptible. Altogether this first post-war syllabus is in a transitional state, moving away from Britain and at the same time still incorporating it where useful. For example, in Standard 4 England is present in the topic ‘Our farming forefathers in England’.[14] In Form 1 a study of the British Commonwealth practically focuses on the British Isles, but reduces the motherland to its economy. The pupils learn ‘why Britain became a great manufacturing country; farming; feeding the people of Britain.’[15] No reference is made to the British monarchy or other links between Britain and New Zealand. Empire history, which played a major role before World War II, is also reduced to a short glimpse at the colonial beginnings in Australia and Canada and the loss of the American colonies. Yet when it comes to ‘Divisions in the World To-day’, the British Empire is still counted as a political entity.[16] British and Empire history are strongly reduced, but still present, while at the same time other international links are not established.

The portrayal of relations between Māori and colonisers also clearly show the pre-World War II tenor. Māori are only recognised as important before the colonisation. Their history is limited to the time between their arrival in New Zealand and the arrival of the Europeans. Their culture is treated as outdated and archaic. Ranginui Walker has called this the fossilisation of social studies teaching, ‘which continually harks back towards the past with its stress on pas, palisades and digging sticks.’[17] The ‘Making of New Zealand’ is a celebration of the influence of the Europeans. It accounts for Māori only where they are defeated and colonised. In Form 1 pupils learn about ‘Hone Heke’, ‘the siege of Orakau’ and the ‘pursuit of Te Kooti’.[18] Māori are given the role of the transformed, those who have been made what they are in 1947. They have been cultivated by the Europeans like the land. At the same time there is no room for the question of whether injustices have taken place. In Form 2, the ‘Maori wars’ are treated as a static entity, of which ‘incidents’ are interesting. Controversial issues about them are of no concern. The 1947 syllabus represents a mono-cultural perspective on New Zealand, which assumes that Māori have been assimilated as part of the European culture.

The 1961 syllabus

This new syllabus changes the world view put forward by the 1947 syllabus. Its main prescription for the planning and design of Social Studies programmes knows only two areas: New Zealand and ‘other parts of the world’.[19] It tries to avoid euro-centric formulations. For example ‘traditional tales, myths and legends’ and ‘explorers and travellers’[20] are still part of the syllabus, but now explicit references to European stories and individuals are avoided. All studies in the present and past are two-fold: One part focuses on New Zealand, the other on ‘the rest of the world’.[21] The actual setting is completely arbitrary. One study about other people suggests a number of areas but offers that ‘any other area that appeals’[22] could also be chosen. There is not one specific reference to Europe, the British Isles or Empire history. The study of the Commonwealth in Forms 1 and 2 takes a post-colonial approach, without any historical reference to the British Empire which was its origin. The curriculum presents the Commonwealth also not as a political entity but as a loose collection of countries. In short, this curriculum makes no political or economic connection between New Zealand and any other country of the world. The traditional links with Great Britain are almost completely cut off, but not replaced with any new international relationships.


[1] History as a subject is not part of the New Zealand core curriculum. For the past 55 years it has been incorporated in the subject ‘Social Studies’. Social Studies is compulsory from Standard 1 to Form 4. Since the introduction of Social Studies in 1947, history as an independent subject is only offered as an option in Forms 5-7. Social Studies represents the subject, which gives pupils compulsory historical insight, which has to be looked at to see what the minimal study of history for New Zealand pupils is. History is taken into account to show what a secondary pupil can learn if he or she chooses to deepen historical knowledge, and at the same time to show what the limits of possible historical education in New Zealand secondary schools is.

[2] G. Lee and D. Hill (1996) as cited in Openshaw, Roger (1999): ‘Citizen Who: The Debate over Economic and Political Correctness in the Social Studies Curriculum’, p.20

[3] Archer, Eric and Roger Openshaw (1986): ‘Citizenship and Identity as ‘Official’ Goals in Social Studies’

[4] Low-Beer, Ann (1986): ‘The eclipse of history in New Zealand Schools’, p.113

[5] Low-Beer (1986), p.114. She quotes answers from teachers in her survey.

[6] D. Keen (1977) as cited in Low-Beer (1986), p.114

[7] Shuker, Roy (1992): ‘Cleo in the Curriculum: The Place of History as a Secondary School Subject’, p.189

[8] Simon, Judith (1992): ‘Social Studies: The Cultivation of Social Amnesia?’, p.254

[9] R. Jacoby (1975) cited in Kay Harrison (1999): ‘Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum: Dosing for Amnesia or Enemy of Ethnocentrism?’, p.68

[10] Jacoby (1975) as cited in Simon (1992), p.253

[11] Department of Education (1947): ‘Social Studies in History and Geography: Revised Syllabus for Primary Schools’, p.1

[12] Department of Education (1961): Social Studies in the Primary School, p.1

[13] Department of Education (1947), p.3

[14] ibid., p.4

[15] ibid., p.5

[16] ibid., p.6

[17] Walker (1973) as cited in Archer and Openshaw (1986), p.62

[18] Department of Education, p.5

[19] Department of Education (1961), p.5

[20] ibid., pp.7+9

[21] ibid., p.9

[22] ibid., p.8

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Social Amnesia and the Eclipse of History in New Zealand School Syllabi 1947-2002
Victoria University of Wellington  (Robert Stout Research Centre)
MNZS 511 Contemporary New Zealand
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
523 KB
Social, Amnesia, Eclipse, History, Zealand, School, Syllabi, MNZS, Contemporary, Zealand
Quote paper
David Glowsky (Author), 2002, Social Amnesia and the Eclipse of History in New Zealand School Syllabi 1947-2002, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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