What’s behind education minister Julie Bishop’s recent blundering interventions in various debates? Having played the good cop in the recent history summit, Bishop then name-checked (and then removed) a reference to Chairman Mao in a speech on curriculum, and then wandered into a fight about teaching Jerry Springer in Victorian English classes.

Word is that Bishop has been told to toughen up in her conduct of the current culture wars, after what the hard men on the Right see as a stuff-up in the conduct of the history summit in August.

The summit was intended as a pseudo-pluralist stack of the curriculum development process – hence the exclusion of every A-list, publicly left-identified historian.

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However the pseudo-pluralist bit got out of control. Greg Melleuish’s paper on a “normative view” of history teaching had plenty of prescriptive dictates that would exclude alternative points of view (Captain Cook’s voyages would have to be taught in the context of “the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment” for example – rather than as, say, a part of the expansion of a military/commercial empire) but as far as the right was concerned it overemphasised the multiply interpretive nature of history, with the idea of looking at historical “snapshots” and “everyday life” in a manner pretty similar to the way the subject is taught now.

The cultural warriors don’t have the slightest interest in reintroducing narrative history, only to have leftie teachers suggesting that it is a 200 year process of social struggle. They want the damned thing nailed down, and Bishop has been told this in no uncertain terms.

This sort of stuff-up has happened before – when academic John Carroll was brought in to do a job on the National Museum, and ended up writing a critical but far more balanced report than was required.

The summit and all the hoo-ha surrounding it has been pure balloon juice. The real fight will come in March next year, when a more elaborate draft curriculum is released. That will undoubtably have a narrow and specific programme for presenting Australia as a consensual, enlightenment-era society fundamentally grouped by religion – rather than as a place shaped by conflicts between class, race and irreconcilable ideas.

As I’ve said before, the reintroduction of narrative history is something that the left (ie materialists) have wanted for a long time – how else to show people that collective action makes sense if you can’t show how the strikes of the 1890s ultimately led to Australian social democracy?

So, at the point when the new programme is released it will simply come down to an entrenched fight between those – led by teachers on the ground – who believe that pluralism should hold sway in teaching, and a government determined to dictate an official version of who we are and how we got here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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