The output and standards – at least in technical competence – of writing on New Zealand history have risen since the Second World War. The most important factors in this development (as elsewhere) have been the expansion of university history departments and the increase in the numbers of research students. Other factors include Government sponsorships of official history, notably war history, but covering such fields as Parliament; the unfailing, indeed increasing interest in local history; and the steady demand for limited editions of journals and records of exploration and early settlement. For its size New Zealand produces a considerable volume of historical writing, but this effort is unevenly and sometimes unsatisfactorily distributed over the various fields.
It is an often-repeated truism that New Zealand general histories are written in advance of proper research. This gap has been narrowed in the two most recent accounts, those of Keith Sinclair (1959) and W. H. Oliver (1960). There is still a pressing need for a full-scale academic general history. The Cambridge History of the British Empire, Volume VII, Part II, New Zealand (1933) has never fulfilled this role adequately, and now less so than ever. The principal sources for such a work (and others of a general nature) are at present the M.A. theses written under supervision at any one of the universities. So far there has been no coordinated plan of academic research, the universities preferring to work independently. There seems little prospect of a post-graduate school in any centre. The greatest volume of New Zealand research has been done at Auckland, where three students – R. M. Chapman, on the 1928 election (1948), T. G. Wilson, on the rise of the Liberal Party (1952), and R. T. Shannon, on the decline of the Liberal Government (1953) – opened up new lines and methods of investigation, which they as teachers have communicated to a new generation, with valuable results. Indeed, the great majority of post-war M.A. theses in all centres have been on political history.
To make this new work readily available to scholars and teachers is still, for various reasons, a difficult problem. There is need for an academic journal of New Zealand history, though some of its functions are at present carried out by Historical Studies (Melbourne) and Political Science (Wellington). The presses of the universities may now be expected to provide other avenues, following the example of the Auckland bulletins. Much will, however, depend on the growth of the university, school, and general reader market, and a useful work in popularising academic history is being done by Historical News (Christchurch).
An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of New Zealand historical writing is a difficult, indeed an invidious task, particularly at this point when rapid expansion is taking place. Perhaps the chief strand in our academic tradition has been a radical political one. The book which has most influenced New Zealanders' view of their past is William Pember Reeves'sLong White Cloud (1st ed., 1898; 4th ed., 1950). Reeves qualified his picture of Liberalism emerging triumphant in 1890 for those with eyes to see, but writers such as L. Lipson (Politics of Equality, 1948) have ignored the qualifications and built up a “Reevesian” version of our history, adding 1935 to 1890 as a second watershed, and giving a quasi-Marxist “class” interpretation to our political struggles, and to some extent reasoning back from political tension to exaggerated social disharmony. The main needs in historical scholarship are to re-examine and balance this radical tradition, and to break down the primacy of politics by social, economic, religious, and regional studies. The pressing need is for more mature historians other than M.A. students to work in these fields, and not much progress will be made until there are chairs of social and economic history in at least one of the universities. Such studies will no doubt bring to light more of the variety of life, even in a small country, and substitute new and more complex patterns for the bold sweeping “Reevesian” ones which have dominated our general history.
Besides the political preoccupation, there has been concentration on the origins of European settlement and on Maori-Pakeha relations up to the 1860s. Until Maori social history is covered at all levels and in all decades since the wars, our understanding of the past and present race relationship in this country will be partial.