When Prime Minister John Howard weighed in on the history wars debate at the recent Press
Club luncheon he was “talking out of his part,” and demonstrated how
“out of touch” he was with what goes on in the classroom, says Annabel
Astbury, manager of professional programs, History Teachers’
Association of Victoria.

Said Howard (full speech here):

Quite apart from a strong focus on Australian values, I believe the
time has also come for 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. For many years, it’s been the case
that fewer than one-in-four senior secondary students in Australia take
a history subject. And only a fraction of this study relates to
Australian history. Real concerns also surround the teaching of
Australian history in lower secondary and primary schools. Too often
history has fallen victim in an ever more crowded curriculum to
subjects deemed more ‘relevant’ to today. Too often, it is taught
without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented
stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’. And too often, history, along with other
subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a postmodern culture of
relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or
repudiated.

Part of preparing young Australians to be informed and active citizens
is to teach them the central currents of our nation’s development. The
subject matter should include indigenous history as part of the whole
national inheritance. It should also cover the great and enduring
heritage of Western civilisation, those nations that became the major
tributaries of European settlement and in turn a sense of the original
ways in which Australians from diverse backgrounds have created our own
distinct history. It is impossible, for example, to understand the
history of this country without an understanding of the evolution of
parliamentary democracy or the ideas that galvanised the Enlightenment.

And yet, says Astbury, “if you look at the Victorian history courses,
they actually contain the things that Mr Howard is lamenting that
there’s an
absence of.” In fact there’s “a clear sense of strong narrative in the
history
courses.”

Apart from that, “I don’t think Howard is really
giving history teachers the credit that they deserve.” Good history
teachers “do give classes a structured narrative” and to say that they
succumb to trends and that achievements are never celebrated is just “not
true.” You only have to look at students’ entries to the National History
Challenge “to see a sense of pride and an active participation
and engagement in the history of Australia,” she argues.

Howard’s speech was tinged with an “insular and inward looking tone,” says
Astbury and he seems to believe that if students are
well versed in Australian history, then they will become active
and informed citizens. But active and informed citizens are turned out
from all aspects of the curriculum. Not just history. What about maths,
science, languages? Teachers in all areas of the curriculum can “impart
values to which one can aspire.”

Meanwhile, to suggest – as Howard appears to – that history should be
taught in a “sanitised” and unquestioning way is surely not the path to enlightened citizens. Critical analysis of
history,
and placing Australia within an informed context, helps teach empathy
and compassion and is more likely to produce active and informed citizens.

+++

Nick Brewbank, President of the History Teachers’ Association of Australia

Immediate reaction? Mixed. Glad to see that
history was making headlines. We believe, like Howard, in the
importance of history but disagree with “what seem to be some of the
underpinning lines of his argument.” That’s to say, emphasising British
success
with “a little bit of Indigenous history thrown in as a sop to the
left-wing people.” History as a series of dates and events rather than
“a deeper examination of why things happen.” It would appear that
Howard wants
to have a single narrative history of Australia bu

antithetical to the whole idea of history as a discipline…one
unchallenged and unchallengeable idea of what happened is “strange” to say the least…

Agree: relativism is not to be encouraged – historical arguments
needed be mounted on evidence, but as long as that’s in place, then you
can’t be accused of relativsim…

Mr Howard seems to want
making history about where our British institutions came from.. why we
should be studying history… should be studying history becuse it
gives them the skill of analysiing… Skills which cross all
curricula… sift through – sort the gold from the dross… not
immediately accepting what they’re told is far more important than
dates…

Wish lost – if history could be guaranteed a place in all
curriculum… At NSW, compuls 50 hours from year nine/ ten… events/
dates based…around Aus compulsory….

ther thing that baffled me about the speech… Fed government has been
funding for 5 years. Commowealth History Project providing PD to
teachers around the country, National Centre for History Education…
Professor Tony Taylor out of Monash Uni…welcome an extension to this when funding issues come up in 2007.

Coalition of the Willing … to restore “good ole fashioned values”

“surprisingly unaware of what his government’s already doing…” –
National History Challenge – federal govt funds this aas well,… “a
little bit lacking in knowledge of the broader projects that his
government’s undertaking…”

+++

Michael Horne, history teacher:

While the Prime Minister’s calls that more students be
required to study Australian history in more detail should be welcomed by
history teachers, the claim that presently its teaching “too often” resembles a
“fragmented stew of themes and issues” smells of ill-informed political point
scoring. By necessity, the “structured narrative” of Australian history Mr
Howard wants to see taught is already evident. It is impossible to investigate
the themes and issues inevitably raised in historical study without teaching the
narrative facts first. The teaching of structured narrative, which already
occurs in hundreds of history classrooms around the country, does not require
and should not imply a return to archaic rote learning. Memorisation of one set
of facts brings an implication of absolute historical truths that are actually
impossible to attain.

A return to memorisation
of important (for whom?) dates and events would be to deny much recent
educational scholarship which highlights the value of the skills learnt in the
history classroom. A value for perspective and the ability to critique evidence
are primary among the benefits given our students in the current model of
history teaching.

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now