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.