Year: 1992


Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In a paper given at the 1990 NZARE conference1, I argued that there was, as yet, no history of New Zealand education and that it was difficult to see why much of what had passed as the history of New Zealand education should not, more properly, be regarded as the history of a variety of endeavours apart from education. For what we had were not studies which explored the practice of education or sought to recover the experience of learning and teaching but rather, numerous accounts of educational policy making and administration. Somewhat provocatively I suggested that if one did not know otherwise, then one might suppose that education was, first and foremost, a species of administrative or bureaucratic activity, rather than one which was primarily concerned with the processes of teaching and learning.
Central to my argument was the contention that, for a variety of reasons, New Zealand historians have been overly reliant upon the records produced by educational administrators and policy makers. As a consequence of this they have largely “ignored the two principal protagonists in the educational encounter, the teacher and the taught and the principal arena of their engagement, the classroom.”

This, I suggested, had led to a somewhat truncated role for the historian of education in New Zealand, that of gauging the efficacy of the initiatives of politicians, administrators and bureaucrats. Without being overly cynical, one might claim that they have been engaged largely in producing a series of footnotes to the reports and regulations issued by Ministers of Education and their Department.

If teachers have appeared at all in the work of historians, then it has generally been in relation to their implementation of policies policies determined by Government and its agencies. As I argued in 1990, this is not only a restricted view of the historians’ role, it is also a distorted view of that role. Rather than merely concerning themselves with the effects of the implementation of policy, the primary concern of historians should be that of recovering and elucidating, with all its subtlety, the experience of the participants in specific events and situations in the past. They must aim at giving as complete a picture as possible, and one which will also be meaningful to the historian’s own contemporaries, of the world as it appeared to, and was experienced by, the “actors” in the various institutions studied. Simply to show that there was (or was not) a fit between specific policies and what appear to be their outcomes, does not thereby allow one to conclude that those policies were a significant aspect of the experience of those “actors.”
In this paper I propose to explore these issues further and to do so specifically in relation to the treatment of the Thomas Report of 1945 by historians of education and others.