We Need History Lessons, Not Culture Wars


Christopher Pyne couldn’t wait till Anzac Day itself to make a fuss about the history curriculum. This week he’s been doing the media rounds and talking about how Anzac Day is taught in schools. The shadow education minister wants to see the Anzacs form a stand-alone part of the history curriculum, rather than being lumped in with other national moments of commemoration, such as Harmony Day and Reconciliation Day.

According to Pyne, the National History Curriculum “doesn’t reflect the fact that young people, and in fact people of all ages, are flocking to ANZAC day ceremonies, and what that might speak to is how the Australian public are yearning for a view of our history which is not the black armband view of our history, where we hang our heads in shame every second day, but in fact where we celebrate our national history like all countries should”.

During the Howard years this kind of comment from government officials on Australian history and culture became wearisomely familiar. When Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 many working in the so-called knowledge industries — the media, universities, the arts — breathed a sigh of relief that the culture wars were finally over.

Now we’re bracing ourselves again. The National Curriculum bluster is a heavy-handed act of provocation from Pyne and only the latest effort from high-ranking Coalition figures to reopen the culture wars.

As if on cue, Miranda Devine followed up with a few old-style blasts in a columnn praising Nick Cater’s recent book, The Lucky Culture. Cater is an editor at The Australian and shares Devine’s concerns about the pernicious influence of certain intellectuals on discourses about our national history and culture. Devine writes, “A new ruling class of university-educated “progressives”, “sophisticates”, “elites” and “latte-sippers” have emerged as an un-Australian clique trying to lord it over everyone else.” Just to show that highly paid and influential News Ltd columnists can lord it over everyone else too, Devine finished off with her recommendations for the school curriculum: “The Lucky Culture should be on the curriculum of every high school history class, along with the complete works of Geoffrey Blainey.”

It’s no coincidence that proponents of the “black armband” view of history are in Pyne’s sights. To their detractors, “black armband” historians and thinkers take the glass half-empty approach in their emphasis on the dispossession, exploitation and violence that has marked Australian history, particularly with regard to Indigenous people. Alongside the disputes about history, equally fervent policy debates about land rights and Indigenous welfare were taking place. During his terms as PM John Howard sided with conservative historians such as Keith Windschuttle and Geoffrey Blainey — and took up the cudgels to defend the rosy view of colonial history. Then, as it is now, the schools curriculum was on the agenda.

When Kevin Rudd issued his apology to the Stolen Generations, it was significant not only for those who had been wronged, but also for scholars who had worked in an environment of such public disapprobation. With a university sector how reeling to cope with funding cuts, and contending with internal threats to intellectual freedom, Pyne and Devine’s breezy contempt for intellectuals is ominous indeed.

According to the Howards, Pynes and Devines, we need to look on the bright side of Australian history. Forget the Stolen Generations, forget the White Australia Policy, forget terra nullius. When Tony Abbott addressed the IPA recently and extolled the virtues of Western civilisation, he was playing the same tune in a different key.

“Contemporary Australia has well and truly — and rightly — left behind the old cult of forgetfulness about our Indigenous heritage. Alas, there is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.”

Of course, triumphant accounts of a glorious and uncomplicated national past do much to boost  a conservative policy agenda when it comes to border protection, immigration control, deployment of military forces and the NT Intervention.

When the SMH last year polled prominent Australians on their views about Anzac Day, Keith Windschuttle had this to say: “Despite the sneers of university historians who now try to demystify and discredit the legend, it is the great definer and unifier of the Australian nation." 

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds are two of the “university historians” caught in the spray of Windschuttle’s derision and in Pyne’s range too. Their 2010 book “What’s Wrong With Anzac” examined the militarisation of Australian history and the manner in which the Anzac myth has been shaped and mobilised in aid of conservative political forces. They note that the Anzacs have only relatively recently been installed in the pantheon of Australian history — and that doing so has involved glossing over some of the less palatable aspects of the invasion of Gallipoli.

It is important that school leavers are equipped with an understanding of why governments send young soldiers to war. Anzac Day provides an object lesson in the principle that history isn’t merely a set of events, that the story changes depending on who is telling it. It is these approaches to scholarship and teaching that conservative cultural warriors would like to stop. Why? Because it’s un-Australian. 

At any rate Anzac Day has now thoroughly and variously permeated the national psyche. Go into a pub tomorrow and check if you’re doubtful. There are those who celebrate the diggers — and those who mourn them. Some people make sense of national history by making pilgrimages to battle sites such as Gallipoli and Kokoda. Others play two up after going to the Dawn Service. None of these modes of memorial are endangered by closer examination of our military history — in schools and in universities.

These aren’t arcane questions best thrashed out on campus — just as the debates about Indigenous history were directly connected to the policy debates of the day. The way Anzac Day is taught and remembered  involves more than just the culture wars — it also touches on the actual wars that we fight. We owe it to the men and women who enlist in the defence forces to think critically about our military history. Now, more than ever, we should be scrutinising the engagement of Australian troops to fight someone else’s war in the Middle East in 1915.  Australian troops return from Afghanistan are reporting high rates of PTSD. Indeed the picture of the mental health of our troops that is emerging is shocking.

As sabre-rattling over Iran and North Korea continues, as the legality of the invasion of Iraq spearheaded by John Howard remains under question, and closer to home as the Opposition Leader continues to make brash statements about increased involvement of our armed forces in border protection, we need all the history lessons we can get.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.