Julie Bishop's History Wars


Tomorrow (17 August), 22 people meet in Canberra for the first Australian History Summit a ‘gathering of minds,’ according to Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop to discuss ‘the rationale for, and outline of, a narrative approach to Australian history in schools.’



The Prime Minister, John Howard, thinks we need ‘root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools, both in terms of the numbers learning and the way it is taught.’ Why do we need this renewal? Well, the PM said, ‘too often, Australian history is taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues.’

A fragmented stew? Roots and branches? Sounds bad!

This isn’t a recent crusade by Howard and Bishop. Howard’s been on about history for years. And it’s not just about ‘facts and dates,’ it’s a clash of ideologies ‘a clash between what can be called the optimists and the apologists’ he told us in 1993. Howard’s among the optimists, who ‘essentially take the view that Australian nationhood has been a success.’

Howard then warned us in 1994 that the pessimists, led by Paul Keating, want to ‘rewrite Australian history’ and to ‘stifle voices of dissent‘:

There are still far too few Liberals who fully comprehend just how committed Paul Keating and many in the Labor Party are to the quite ruthless use of history or more particularly their version of it as a political weapon. Not only do they wish to reinterpret Australian history to promote their contemporary political objectives, but they also wish to do so to marginalise the contribution of the liberal-conservative side of Australian politics and entrench the Labor Party as the only true product of Australia’s political soil.

The narrative Howard wants to put back into Australian history is our heroic and unique achievement against great odds. But ‘History is an academic discipline; it is not a morality tale in which good always triumphs over evil and we find ourselves always on the side of good,’ as the political theorist Lord Bhikhu Parekh once said.

Despite Howard’s hyperbole, Keating may have initiated public debate about Australian history (most famously in his Redfern speech), but he didn’t interfere in how history is taught, respecting the academic nature of the discipline. In the lead up to Bishop’s Summit, New Matilda asked Jenny Macklin, Shadow Education Minister, if she thinks the Government should determine how history is taught. ‘Definitely not,’ Macklin told us:

this is the responsibility of the professionals in this area … Governments, and oppositions, are entitled to express a view, as is anyone in the community. It’s dangerous for governments to think they can define (and potentially re-write) our historical traditions’

So is the History Summit an attempt by the Government to impose their own ideology, in the face of what they see as an emphasis in history teaching on someone else’s ideology?

Stuart Macintyre, author of The History Wars , says the present Government is attempting ‘to impose its views on public institutions by intimidation, sacking and stacking.’ Whereas Keith Windschuttle, new ABC Board member and conservative historian, argues: ‘it’s also an issue that, in my view, is seriously distorting the kind of research that is being done in our universities and by historians generally.’

But isn’t this just a ‘natural’ imbalance? Certainly not an imbalance created by a previous government rather by the fact that historians are seldom conservative. Right-wing, perhaps; small-l liberal, definitely. But conservative?

Conservatism has, at its heart, nostalgia. And people who really understand the past seldom long to be there. As PJ O’Rourke observed, ‘if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: œdentistry. ’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Howard’s call for more ‘facts and dates’ is in itself fundamentally conservative. History, in this view, is about great men who did specific things on specific dates. The ordinary Australian people, and broad and slow social changes that affect us, are not history, according to this view. It’s elitist history. And it’s a history that glorifies the individual, and minimises emphasis on social movements.

But according to history teachers, this emphasis on ‘facts and dates’ is misguided. It’s also a fundamentally White version of history pre-European settlement, Aborigines unfortunately neglected to jot down key dates on their calendars.

Howard claims Keating’s (and Labor’s) view of history is what Geoffrey Blainey called the ‘black armband‘ view but a s Bob Carr said on Lateline in 2003:

The story of White achievement doesn’t obliterate the story of Aboriginal suffering, and the story of Aboriginal displacement does not cancel the achievement of European civilisation on this continent. We’ve got to accept this key principle that history comprises many stories.

If Labor’s history wears a black armband, Howard’s history wears a white collar.

There’s plenty of evidence that the benefits of learning history do not consist of a memorised timeline. The Future of the Past report said history teachers see helping students develop a moral framework as their key role: ‘by carefully and systematically examining, through an historical perspective, a range of past human behaviours, from the virtuous to the vicious, students are able to find a meaning which will assist them in formulating a personally-constructed, lifelong moral perspective.’

History students do better in tests that look for logic, argument and critical analysis surely more important life skills than knowing when Tasman ‘discovered’ Van Diemen’s Land?

Nick Ewbank, President of the History Teachers Association of Australia is one of only three people attending Bishop’s Summit who actually teaches. He would have liked to see more. Although he agrees history teaching needs a fac
tual basis, he warns against viewing it as a series of facts to be regurgitated by students as ‘Interpretation and evaluation are higher-order skills.’

Interpretation and evaluation probably more useful than knowing the date the last shipload of convicts arrived in Tasmania.

Kim Beazley has foolishly dismissed history as an ‘elite preoccupation,’ but it is a vital component of turning school children into informed citizens. And as an academic discipline it’s something best left to the professionals as an historian told New Matilda:

The Government’s ongoing crusade to create a uniform and mildly triumphalist version of our national story reeks of populist sloganeering. How is it we can create a ‘one history fits all’ narrative when so much of our history “ and particularly its less celebratory moments “ has yet to be recognised by the Howard administration with any sense of objectivity? The great tale of history is that, unfortunately for Canberra, its very essence is a set of subjective interpretations.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.