Howards’s History War

St. Howard surveying his political dragons – the ultimate revisionist.

Over the past few years, Australian History has been hot property in Australia. Up until now, the ballyhoo has been about our telling of our indigenous history: different historians have battled publicly over the veracity of massacre stories. I’m currently reading Keith Windschuttle’s “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History”, a rebuttal of many of the claims made about violence towards Aborigines in 18th century Van Dieman’s Land – a good read. I’m yet to make up my mind about his view, but he’s certainly done his homework.

Now, however, our PM has weighed with his view on history teaching, particularly our telling of the story of Australian History. And that is his point – that we (as history teachers) are not telling a story, but instead allowing students to wallow in a mish-mash of themes and issues, without any sense of the narrative that drove, and drives, Australia’s history.

Fair enough, I say. History has to be told in an engaging way, that fires the imagination and excites our minds, and motivates us to find out more about the themes and issues (oops!) that have shaped our nation.

Surely Howard can’t mean that we just tell a story without any discussion of what the story means? But that’s what we end up with if “themes and issues” are excised from the borders of Australian History. A story to be regurgitated at exam time, a fairy tale (of whatever political flavour) that is beyond critical examination. Ironically, Keith Windschuttle would agree – though on Howard’s side in the “history wars”, Windschuttle is demonstrating the value of criticising previous historical work. But under Howard’s view of history, a story is simply told with no investigation of its meaning.

Surely Howard’s not that obtuse. So I think he’s up to something else. What? Well, ideally, he wants a particular version of Australian History taught to students, and he wants it nailed down in the curriculum. He wants, not just facts and dates, but a flavour of Australian History that plays up Australia’s achievements, and plays down its failures.

I don’t think that such an approach to teaching Australian History is achievable. Not because I’m a secret post-modernist who thinks that all parts of the story are equally valid, or that many different angles on the story are equally true – I don’t. I don’t think Howard’s dream is achievable because all cohorts of students are different. They all connect with different parts of the story.

A student (in an English class) today told me that she would have studied Australian History if she could study Ned Kelly the whole time! Students need a broad-brush picture of the story so far in Australia, but they don’t need to know all the details right now. What they need to do is be encouraged to investigate details of Australian History that they are excited by.

If Mr. Howard insists on making history curriculum a set body of knowledge, he will be shooting himself in the foot: students will run a mile from such a pre-determined view of what they need to know. Surely the outcome that we want is young people who think Australian History is interesting!

So what’s my formula for success?

[Listen to the mp3 here]

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