Are we feeling the hot breeze of another history war? Australians are experts at waging them, though at times inexpert with the materials. This process is something which intrigues and baffles outsiders. Professor David Cannadine of the Institute of Historical Research in London was one. After a visit to Canberra in 2005, the distinguished historian of Anglo-American culture noted the intense scrap taking place between foes, those of the “heroic” history mould; and those believing in the dark, pessimistic narrative of brutality that engulfed a continent.
The debates, through print and footnote, continue to tap the barrel of uncertainties and suspicions with the release of the National Curriculum Board paper by Professor Stuart Macintyre yesterday (13 October). The foes, whether they be “black armbanders”, or the heroic, chest-thumping type, may have shifted chairs with Rudd’s coming to power, but not allegiances. A national apology has been issued, and the lines in the sand drawn for more confrontations. Inevitably, the NCB paper is rapidly becoming an object of political disputation.
This is what the paper actually suggests. The influence of globalisation cannot be ignored. Consider, the report argues, how a quarter of Australians were born elsewhere. This had to be paired with an appreciation of Aboriginal history. The gist of this argument? That ‘the restriction of the national curriculum to Australian history is inappropriate.’
Foundations needed to be broadened, migrant and indigenous histories placed in context. Major civilizations needed to be understood. Australian history would remain, but trimmed to accommodate a more international, “comparative” perspective. Studies in junior secondary would feature discussion about the “earliest human communities” (60,000 B.C. — 500 A.D.) and to the birth of the modern world (1750 A.D.). Australia comes in a humble fourth place, featuring from 1901 onwards.
It is hard to fault this, or reasoning that allows children to be liberated from their labouring immaturity, to paraphrase Kant. Get them early, in short, and immerse them broadly, in practice. From kindergarten to Year 10, school children will have to pay homage to historia, and in its international guise. This is only to the good.
The report, despite its sober, calm assessment, has riled various critics. The Australian, smelling a progressive rat in the proposal, ran saw it thus: “Curriculum to Scale Back Aussie History”. Former advisor to John Howard Kevin Donnelly feels much the same: the old left is out for its revenge on the triumphalists. Macintyre, was a one-time communist, so he reminds us, and believer in “history from below”. That discredits his opinions and tomes on any subject. More footnote bashing is in the pipeline, or so it would seem.
Opposition frontbencher Tony Abbott sees the need to flutter the Union Jack over any history curriculum, an indication for some that it was never taken down. The “modern world” was made in England, though he never specifies what he means by that. ‘People have to know where we came from, and they’ve got to know about the ideas that shaped the modern world’. Australians were ‘a product of western civilisation, in particular we are product of English-speaking civilisation.’
If the NCB recommendations are followed, its hard to see how Abbott could have any complaints at all. Imperial history (read British), explains much of Australian settlement, but it would be nice for Aussies to realise that they might be using Euros (or Francs) today were it not for British suspicions of their colonial rivals in the Eighteenth Century. Empires, within a savage hotchpotch of conquest and settlement jousted for ascendancy, and that story can hardly be missed. Abbott would just like to think the perfidious Albion did it all.
Putting Australia back into the world is certainly better than keeping it out of it. While the frontier settlement (or invasion?) should be studied with specific local references, and a place definitely exists for local histories, specialisations can duly follow. Parochial history rarely does anybody any good, except those who carve a perilous niche in the hope that their views will win popular support.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and lecturer in history at the University of Queensland.