The cancellation of indigenous history subjects at Melbourne University is part of a broader issue in which history perceived as “alternative” is not prioritized and therefore side-lined or omitted – to the detriment of a broad education for students and history in general at the university.

As reported in Crikey previously, the University of Melbourne School of Historical Studies has seemingly reasonable explanations for the cancellation of subjects including ‘Aboriginal and Pacific Islander Histories’.

As a history student at the University I observed the obvious stress my lecturers in indigenous studies endured – most visible after departmental meetings – and I don’t blame them for seeking a more sympathetic environment. The departure of these highly qualified lecturers suggests there’s a fundamental problem with the way the department and the university prioritises Indigenous history.

While Professor Darian-Smith assures students and the public that “the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical Studies is firmly committed to teaching and research in the area of Indigenous History”, the university cannot seem to retain the most qualified indigenous academics in the country.

If finding and retaining academic staff and adequately resourcing these subjects requires a more affirmative approach – which is standard practice in US universities – surely that’s what the department needs to do.

This is not a matter of obscure or alternative history – it’s Australian history being taught in a supposedly elite Australian university. Yet imagine the cancellation of one of the only existing subjects on European history and the outrage that would invoke – and you get a glimpse of the priorities that are at play.

Beyond this there’s the loss of a subject which was also one of a dwindling number which are taught from a post-colonial perspective – an alternative approach to history which, whether you agree with it or not, has been one of the most influential theoretical approaches in history and politics in the last 30 years.

Using this approach probably didn’t help the case of those lecturers who are constantly called upon to justify how they teach non-white history, but the issue has gone beyond an academic discussion – it’s about whether indigenous history can be offered at all.

What’s lamentable is that if indigenous history is not offered, it’s not likely that finding academic staff in the future is going to get any easier. The less the university emphasises indigenous history, the greater the educational omission becomes for students and future teachers, which feeds into a cycle of neglecting a pivotal part of our history. (But that seems to be beside the point)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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