Onwards to the Metropole!

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The Guardian today has two news items which may not be unconnected – a profile of Lynton Crosby, former John Howard strategist and now strategist to Michael Howard, the UK Tory leader, and a call from the Tories’ Education shadow for British students to learn “basic facts” about history and for history to be compulsory at schools til age 16:

“Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms,” said Mr Collins at the National Catholic Heads’ annual conference in London. “A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future. When surveys show nearly a third of all 11 to 18-year-olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings and when fewer than half know that Nelson’s ship at Trafalgar was HMS Victory we have to take action.”

The very idea of a national history is something associated with the rise of the modern Nation-State – Governments have always been very concerned with inculcating in their citizens a sense of shared nationhood and tradition. Liberal thinkers of the Nineteenth century, such as John Stuart Mill, saw education as the key to the attainment of democracy and personal liberty, and education has always been a flashpoint for State intervention, and political controversy. Anna Clark’s chapter in The History Wars provides a good overview of the controversies over the history syllabus in Australia which were raging even before Windschuttle.

The Governor-General, Major-General Michael Jeffery, raised a familiar theme on Australia Day when he argued that “a greater emphasis on teaching civics and citizenship in schools would help to stimulate interest in politics among people”. David Kemp, when Schools Minister in 1997, announced a programme called “Discovering Democracy”, following on from much hand wringing over civics education during the Keating Years:

A Constitutional Commission report in 1988 found that 50% of the population did not know Australia had a written Constitution. A 1994 study discovered that 73% of people over 15 had a “total lack of knowledge” of the role of the Governor-General.

The often invisible General Jeffery has been trying to make up some ground lately, also suggesting – to a controversial reception – that Indigenous culture be taught in all Australian schools.

What doesn’t appear to be in dispute is that the study of Australian history in schools has been declining for some time. Part of this is the tension between humanistic and vocational education. Contrary to myth, there never was a golden age of humanistic education in Australian universities. Most universities in their early years were either carbon copies of Oxbridge focussing on Classics for a small elite (hence the motto of Sydney University – sidere mens eadem mutato – “the mind is the same though the stars change” or more poetically and less literally “always the same even under the Southern Stars”) or like The University of Queensland, were established largely to provide professional education in disciplines such as Agricultural Science and Engineering key to the developmental State. Nevertheless, the expansion of universities in the 1960s saw an expansion in the teaching of Humanities and Social Science disciplines – which were very quickly politicised (hence controversies about the teaching of Sociology in sandstone universities and the split in the Sydney English department in the 1960s).

So the Australian State early held two educational goals in tension – producing practical specialists for national development and inculcating a national identity through civic and historical education. The same forces (again not new) which impel students towards studying subjects which have clear vocational outcomes sit uneasily with the desire to build a cohesive and compelling national identity. At the same time, history suffers by being collapsed into multi-disciplinary subjects like SOSE in a “crowded curriculum”.

What adds to this tension is the suspicion on the part of the State that history teaching has been infected by the evil viri of post-colonialism and postmodernism. It’s been observed before that some of Australia’s wealthiest business magnates send their kids off to the UK or the US for an expensive liberal arts education. There’s no doubt that a knowledge of history is pedagogically necessary for any socially critical thought. I could weep when in the past as a University Lecturer in Politics and Sociology, I’ve marked essays that betray an absolute ignorance about the basic facts of the development of Western Civ. Even some of the Twentieth Century’s most innovative historians such as Fernand Braudel insisted that a basic knowledge of chronology was essential to a deeper understanding of history.

There ought to be no contestation about this. The possibly Crosby inspired call in the UK for more knowledge about national history resonates easily because as one of the Nation-States with the most integrated and longest standing historical traditions (albeit largely an invented one), Britain has a relatively settled national history (though shakier than it was because of the decline of Empire and the increasing assertiveness of the Celtic periphery). It’s precisely because our national identity is so fraught with contradiction – myths like Eureka, for instance, being capable of appropriation by both Left and Right, that we can paradoxically go to war over history while we accept that we’re largely ignorant of it.

But, then, ignorance of the facts is a great aid to belief in myths. And a great impediment to critical thought of any stripe.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Antonio
Antonio
2022 years ago

Hear hear Mark!

I have to say though that as a thoroughly Brisbane public school educated person (how did I ever turn out Liberal!) in the late 80s and early 90s, I was always fascinated by history and the humanities at school. We were taught aboriginal history and culture at every year level from year 3 to year 8. It was taught appallingly badly and was extremely uninspiring of further study. Even though I went to one of the most progressive State High schools (Brisbane State High), I found history from 9-12 boring, dry and extremely western-centric. Even though I did Ancient and Modern history, the focus was always on White Australia, Greece, Rome, Britain and the US.

As a dual citizen (Portugal/OZ) born in another country (South Africa), I always asked about learning about African, South American and Asian history. The lecturers scoffed and said that those areas were not part of the curriculum. Even with Keating as Prime Minister the emphasis stayed with study of Anglo nations.

Now we are reaping the rewards, not only are the humanities as a whole dying but asian studies is in the poorest state it has been for a generation! And we live in the middle of asia for God sake!

Now, as one of the few PhD students left in asian studies I am fast realising that my future probably lies in Scandinavia and the Germanic countries where critical studies in the humanities and asian studies in particular are thriving.

In years to come I hope that State and Federal Education Ministers and senior members of university humanities departments are publicly defrocked and have their mortar boards smashed for robbing future generations of the opportunity to be criticially informed about their own past and the past of the part of the world that they live in. Somehow though, I doubt it.

[rant ends!]

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Antonio, you might find the first chapter of the Braudel book on ‘The History of Civilisations’ I linked to interesting. Braudel was involved in a revision of the French history curriculum which insisted that ‘world history’ be taught – including African and Asian history – in the early 1960s. Later things reverted to a chronological perspective with the final year being devoted to modern (essentially French and European) history.

Of course, the continental academic high school education is a lot more academically rigorous than anything we have in Australia. Having said that, I loved doing modern history at Kedron High, and really enjoyed American history, Indonesian history, and Oz history at UQ. Contrary no doubt to popular perceptions, a number of the better lecturers I had were right-wing folks (including one Liberal Party member) and the one ALP bigwig I had was too busy flying to Canberra to sit on committees and such to put too much time into her teaching. I did the third year honours seminar on philosophy of history as well with Martin Stuart-Fox and aspired to doing honours in history but student politics gave me an execrable gpa!

Antonio
Antonio
2022 years ago

Actually Mark, when you were going through UQ History there would have been three Liberal party members in the faculty. Can you guess who they were?

Now the said ALP member who you were referring to is Denver Beanland’s PhD supervisor. Only in Brizvegas eh?

Someone really should write a history of the UQ History Department. Some really bizarre goings on therein lurks….

Andrew Bartlett
2022 years ago

Adding to the Brisbane upbringing commentary –
whilst not in any way suggesting I am not qualified to mouth off in a learned way about whatever I want to, I studied very little history at school. It seems barely comprehendable to me now, but at my High School it was made clear that people intending to go on to University and aiming for a ‘good score’ should do Sciences (physics, Chem, Maths 1 & 2) and the others did the humanities, which included history. I’ve regretted that many times since.
On another matter, I think it’s unfortunate the G-G’s comment on indigneous culture being taught in schools was treated so dismissively – it might not have been the most deeply thought through proposal, but surely anything that encourages some extra awareness of, contact with or thinking about indigneous issues in any way has to be going in the right direction?

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

Antonio, agree wholeheartedly. Didn’t Howard cut out a 2 or 3 hundred million budget for Asian languages some years ago? Andrew B might be able to confirm that.

Coming from a private school where the curricula was (Wyndham scheme—a relative of mine since disowned) 2F Maths, Science and Rugby football, I am wondering now how long tertiary units in Asian languages, Foundation Studies in Asian Societies and the like, will be available in an era of sausage machine vocational corporatism. Various subjects which I have recently completed after a decade in SEA have opened my eyes to the massive amounts of history, thought and discourse but sadly unknown to the bulk of our fellow citizens.

My theory on this is that geographic isolation and Anglo-centrism breeds wilful ignorance in Oz, compared to say the ordinary EU citizen who is culturally and linguistically a genius by comparison. My daughter in law for example is Slovenian and speaks Russian, Mandarin, English (v. fluent) and German on top of her native Slovene/Croat. Most of my Javanese Indonesian friends speak a dialect such as Sundanese as well as Bahasa Indo and English.

Along with the US we are arguably amongst the world’s worst mono lingual nations,–even the Canadians have French.

I think foreign language is the key as the history and culture of the foreign language is inextricably tied to the learning of any foreign language. This of course should be coupled with a compulsory course in Aboriginal studies in Oz secondary schools, but I fear in this case a federal grant requiring compulsory Windschuttle material as textbooks would be the Howard preferred option.

Antonio
Antonio
2022 years ago

Peter,

Yeah the federal government did significantly cut the school asian language program. Needless to say, even as a Liberal I didn’t think it was the government’s finest hour. Quite a number of prominent members of the Liberal party were pissed off with that move and promotion of asian language programs remains part of the Qld Young Libs policy.

Strangely enough, the only voice from Labor that I heard on the issue was Kevin Rudd who is fluent in Mandarin. To me, the unwillingness of the federal ALP to make issues of things like this is very revealing. Perhaps the unwillingness of the state Labor governments to promote decent programs such as these (asian studies, indigenous culture) in schools (especially now when they are running huge GST-fuelled surpluses) also has something to do with it!

Also Peter, I think it is a bit unfair on the Yanks to call them monolingual. One aspect of US culture that is contantly overlooked across the atlantic is the growing influence of Spanish and latino culture on the US. A significant number of americans are semi fluent in Spanish and it is the most common second language taught in schools (particularly in the South). See further (http://www.hispanomundo.com/).

You also can’t forget those crazy francophonic cajuns in Louisiana!

Nabakov and all that
Nabakov and all that
2022 years ago

As me mum’s old boss, Robert Julian Yeatman (along with Walter Carruthers Sellar) used to say “‘History is not what you think. It is what you remember.”

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2022 years ago

Antonio, what I meant re Yanks being monolingual was more the attitude and relativeness—ie leaders will speak Spanish to get votes from the Hispanic sector but Kerry avoided speaking French at any time during the campaign as this would have, if reported, been a red rag to the redneck bulls. I should have said strong monolingualism with the one major exception of Spanish.

Canada of course makes it compulsory for civil servants to be multi-lingual, the other end of the spectrum to the US considering the respective percentages of US-English/Spanish and Canadian-English/French speakers.

(Spanish should all migrate to one state ?)

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I think the economics of teaching languages in schools militate against it. If you decide, as a school administrator, on Asian languages, which one of 5 or 6 would you choose? If you go for more than one it becomes hugely consumptive of teaching resources with small classes especially in the senior years.

Then I recall the furrowed brows of a Commonwealth official back in the 80s on learning that only one in 3,000 who took an Asian language at school ever became proficient at it. I’m not up with recent stats, but it was no big surprise to me that the Feds finally gave up, regrettable though that was.

It seems to me that personal motivation has a lot to do with efficacy in language learning. I recall that at UQ in the 60s the German Department ran specialist courses in Science German. In that course highly motivated students made significant progress in weeks rather than years.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Brian, they must have been an entrepreneurial mob because in the 80s when I was at UQ they were teaching “Business German”. There is no German department anymore (or Russian department so I never got to take that cool sounding subject on 19th century Russian literature) – it’s now part of some School of Cultural Studies and cutting back on language teaching or something or other. The EFTSU you get from the Govt doesn’t go anywhere near covering the costs of teaching languages properly, so it’s far more than student “choice” but rather the general anti-Humanities thing the technocratic Libs seem to have going that is killing European languages at Unis as well as Asian languages. As I understand it, though, Classics enrolments at UQ – more in Latin than Greek – are buoyant.

Antonio, I can guess. When I lived in St Lucia some years ago a certain Lecturer who gave Denver a 7 for a subject for which I got a 6 (grrr… but then I knew that my then girlfriend who had a first class degree in history and used to work as a Liberal staffer wrote his essays for him so I wasn’t totally disturbed…) lived in the apartment above mine and had the habit of talking extremely loudly on his balcony when speaking on the phone (the learned gentleman was Canadian…) so against my will almost I was well up on the History Dep’t gossip – randy mob that they apparently were…

Antonio
Antonio
2022 years ago

Brian,

A lot of blame for the appalling position of state and high school LOTE in this state has got to planted fair and square at the conservative P&Cs and the often very conservative teachers unions.

In the late 80s my mum set up an after school program at the Holland Park state school teaching Japanese and French. The rogram was voluntary and user pays for the students. Flyers were distributed and the program became a huge success. All this was in spite of the constant threats our family received from teachers at the school and the union reps. First, we were distracting students from their study of English language and grammar (“if they can’t even speak English properly, why teach them Japanese” – absolutely moronic for SO many reasons). Then, the racists showed their heads (“My father died fighting the Japanese” – I kid you not, from the mouth of the apparently progressive Union rep). And finally the P&C were sprung into action and made life so difficult to access the school rooms that we eventually abandoned the program after we finally succeeded in getting LOTE Japanese in the school from year 4 onwards.

What happened then was interesting, enrolments in Holland Park State school went through the roof. It was even becoming competitive with Ironside for academic results. Then the principal resigned, LOTE was abolished for apparently economic reasons (and this was before 1996) but for years the teachers had complained about the LOTE teachers taking over their classes.

Now the school is in the doldrums with low enrolments and poor community culture. Any suprise?

My point is Brian, even if the money isn’t there, why not empower parents and the general community to get involved? And if people generally want to do something that benefits their community, why use the old bollocks of bureaucracy to stop them?

To me, that is the true liberal way!

Oh and Mark, I have just been reminded by someone in the know that there were actually four members of Coalition parties on the staff of the History department in the 80s and 90s. 1 National and 3 Libs. Bloody hell, sounds like a veritable counter-revolution cell in that den of trots eh?

Antonio
Antonio
2022 years ago

P.S. Mark,

The top enrolling classics language at UQ is actually Sanskrit with over 30 in first year. When I filled in teaching advanced Sanskrit in the late 90s we had at least 6 hard core students in third year level – and that was with no advertising for one of the most difficult languages on the planet.

One of my goals is to teach classical tibetan at UQ and i’m pretty sure that with good advertising and awareness campaigns we could even crack 30. I think these things probably have a lot more to do with marketing which unfortunately most academics are rather poor at.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“I think these things probably have a lot more to do with marketing which unfortunately most academics are rather poor at.”

Not always, Antonio. I had 120 enrolments in HHB236 Virgins, Saints & Sinners: Explorations in the Sociology of Religion in 2001. It was a new subject. When we revamped the Arts degree that year, we hired some marketing consultants to do focus groups and found that it was almost solely based on the name.

Not that it wasn’t a worthwhile subject!

Antonio
Antonio
2022 years ago

Ah but Mark, your successful marketing here was already apparent IN THE NAME! Revamping the names of many subjects would be a good start for many humanities subjects and to some extent this is already being done in some departments. For the less titillating subjects more conventional marketing techniques are probably needed. As an ex student-pollie Mark, you should be totally au fait with all the resources needed to convince a student to walk in the door and vote… SORRY… enrol in a subject!

Joel Parsons
2022 years ago

Well, down at the University of Melbourne, one pecularity of languages is the popularity of Swedish with males from private school backgrounds . . . I have heard that they even have an exchange program. I’m sure all those students are absolutely obsessed with Swedish history . . .

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

That’s interesting, Antonio and Mark. Sad about the German Dept. It was a real little community when I was there. We did a lot of stuff together and at least once a year put on a play ‘auf Deutsch’ as it were.

There was always a symbiotic relationship between languages in the secondary schools and language teaching at unis. If the schools needed the teachers the Unis had to produce them. In primary schools it seemed to be more opportunistic, depending on local initiatives. I didn’t know the unions had a thing about it.

I actually think it is more important to teach about other cultures rather than languages as such, using differences in language to illustrate differences in culture.

Another point is that Australian business and our society generally underuses language resources within the community. For some reason business doesn’t trust ethnic Asians to deal on their behalf with the countries of origin. That’s my impression, at least.