Historic hope*

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 26 August 2006, p. 35.

We have a curious situation in Australia in 2006. Australian history is a tiny part of the school curriculum for the vast majority of students. When Australian history was made compulsory in Victoria some years ago, the subject’s appeal plummeted. It is not just an Australian phenomenon, however. The leading British historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that most young people ‘grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in’.

Yet interest in Australian history in the population as a whole has probably never been greater, judging by the sales of history books, the audience for ‘historical’ television and radio programs, general coverage of historical issues in the media, and visits to heritage sites and museums. Family history and genealogy thrives. Attendances at commemorative events grow year on year. Much of the history purveyed is deliberately aimed at a popular market, like that at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat for example, and this can cause apoplexy among professional/academic historians, but it is obviously meeting an expressed need.

So what history should we teach in schools if we are to restore a sense of the past to our younger generation? The recent history summit was an interesting exercise. John Howard and his education minister, Julie Bishop, are concerned that the wrong kind of history is being taught in schools. They deplore critical ‘black armband’ history, as Geoffrey Blainey called it, and, above all, post-modernist and thematic history instead of narrative and fact-based history of the great events in Australia’s story. Much of this is sound and unexceptional.

But to pretend that history is simply a matter of accurate and uncontroversial factual material to be served up to students as the truth is to miss the essence of history. History is about questioning the evidence that survives about our past and teasing out its meanings. Sometimes these meanings are uncomfortable, often they are multiple and contradictory, rather than straightforward and simple. Good history teaching means exposing students to these issues at the appropriate level for each age group. As children grow they cope with more complexity and accept that a provisional conclusion may be all that we can draw from our sources, rather than absolute certainty.

For example, the Vietnam War eventually divided Australia, with strong protests in some areas and full support for the campaign to stop the spread of ‘communism’ in others. To understand what happened students need to know about the aftermath of the World War II, the Cold War, and Australia’s general support for the role of the United States in world affairs. Yet Australia was unable to play the part it did in the war with volunteer services and had to resort to a selective form of conscription, which sent some young people to war and left others free to pursue their normal lives. The debate over conscription only makes sense if students are aware of the arguments about the issue during the World War I and the general acceptance of civilian and military direction of labour during the World War II. As the casualties mounted and the scale of involvement grew with apparently disproportionately small results, opposition to the war increased to the point where a new Labour government could withdraw Australian troops, who came home to public apathy or hostility, though many had not been volunteers.

So the study of one incident in Australian history can lead into a rich and productive understanding of our past. But what in many ways is much harder is to make some of the underlying elements of the country’s history interesting to modern students. On this I am at one with the summiteers who want greater emphasis on the country’s economic and social history, who want the complex relationships between the various groups who make up this country’s population teased out and explained over time.

It can be done in an interesting way, which seizes the imagination. I remember meeting an immigrant to Australia from Hungary during a delay between flights at Sydney airport. He told me how he had become a teacher in a tough school in the suburbs and had been given a class of rowdy fifteen-year-olds. Everyone else seemed to have given up on them, but he won their interest by showing them how generations of Australians had created the rural and urban environment in which they were growing up, teaching them some of skills needed for survival and prospering as they evolved over time. These youngsters left school with skills and a sense of history, useful and practical history. Maybe there is a lesson here.

(* Geelong Advertiser headline. My suggestion was ‘What history should we teach our students?’)

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