History Education

Political debate Australia is starting to remind me of the balls that used to be held at uni halls of residence when I was a student.   Rather than some kind of broad discourse we move from one topic to another with the media paying obeisance to an agenda set by the Government with a bit of routine speechifying and media releasing.   When I was a student there was the Viceroy’s Ball and we were supposed to dress up as colonials.

Then there was a Revolutionary Ball, where I guess you were supposed to look like Lenin or Robespierre and then an Elizabethan Ball where you came in frilly collars and cuffs.

Likewise, the debate on the teaching of history hasn’t come up in any general debate about education (where it would make most sense) but because it’s come up as the government organised topic du jour.

At least it’s provided the occasion for John Hirst to talk some sense as he so often does.

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Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Paul Kelly’s article in the Weekend Oz also gives a useful summary of Tony Taylor’s critque of current State history curricula, although Kelly’s article is a much more partisan effort than Hirst’s. Nevertheless, you can’t reasonably come away from them without concluding that Howard has a point about the parlous state of current teaching of history in Australian schools, nor can one reasonably conclude (as the federal ALP wants us to) that it’s just a Howardian beatup to impose a narrow conservative triumphalist “great men and lists of dates” approach to the teaching of history.

It may be that such a debate would be more usefully conducted as part of a more general debate about education, perhaps even a debate about a national primary and secondary curriculum. But those efforts haven’t achieved anything in the recent past, so maybe taking it one subject at a time will yield some concrete results where previous efforts at curriculum reform have been abject failures. I certainly agree that history should have a place as part of the middle school core curriculum along with English, maths and science, and that it shouldn’t just be part of some waffly SOCE subject (as is presently the case in many states and territories).

cam
cam
15 years ago

Teaching of history is important to nationalists though, it is where the permanency and strength of the state comes from and supposedly the nurturement of the individual’s cultural, social and national stems from too. So I am not prepared to discount the political aspects of it.

It also looks like the federal and state oppositions have completely collapsed. it should be state oppositions that are raising this issue. Since incumbents seem to have massive advantage in dictating the issues and media exposure, the political opposition to the states is now the federal government, not the state opposition parties. Same for the federal government, their main opposition is the states.

I think the fact that the federal government is Liberal and the states Labor coincidental. Political opposition appears to be structural rather that ideological.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Historians like Greg Melleuish like to put things into context. And I suspect that the context some people are using for this debate comes from Britain and the US. Maybe the context is overwhelming what’s happening here and now.

During the 1980s Margaret Thatcher was worried about the state of the history curriculum. She believed that:

History is an account of what happended in the past. Learning history, therefore, requires knowledge of events. It is impossible to make sense of such events without absorbing sufficient factual information and without being able to place matters in a clear chronological framework — which means knowing dates.

But the National Curriculum people insisted on leaving out the dates and putting in fluffy things like concepts. Thatcher found this highly unsatisfactory.

It never seemed to occur to her that there were a lot of facts to choose from and that the way they were chosen and threaded into a chronology might be controversial. Why not, for example, construct a chronology out of all the worst examples of British colonialism?

Some of America’s neoconservatives and Straussians had a more sophisticated understanding of the politics of history. For them American history ought to be an almost mythological account of the nation’s founding. For them history becomes a kind of civil religion. And just as Sunday school teachers aren’t interested in looking at Old Testament from the perspective of the Canaanites or Philistines, these thinkers don’t want their history to drop the narrative thread by shifting to minority group perspectives or dwelling on awkward questions like slavery. The key ideas are the genius of the founders and the enduring value of American institutions. That’s how to decide which facts are in and which are out.

So here are two very different risks. The first is that history becomes a tedious list of names and dates to be learned by rote and the second that it becomes a compelling mythological/religious narrative complete with heroes, villains, climaxes and happily-ever-afters.

A satisfying and memorable narrative requires things that academically respectable history can’t always provide. Maybe that’s what’s making some people suspicious. They’re afraid Australian history will be turned into Star Wars in colonial costume or degenerate into a shopping list.

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Nicholas

I agree entirely with your comments about the importance of European history (and that Australian history is essentially a footnote, albeit an especially relevant one for us mob). However, my general understanding is that Year 11 and 12 modern history in most states concentrates on European history. I think I would make senior school modern history part of core curriculum as well (although I’m not expressing a definite conclusion to that effect), and coverage of Australian history in years 7-10 is a logical precursor to it. I don’t think you can equate the teaching of history with civics (although history well taught would encompass aspects of civics anyway, as your rant about Whig history suggests), Asian language, personal development etc. They should properly remain elective subjects. A reasonable level of knowledge and understanding of history seems to me to be more critical to a real, rounded liberal education than any of those subjects, and almost as indispensible as English, maths and science. Irrespective of what job a child is going to do, she needs to make sense of our culture and current events, and how can she do so if she doesn’t know where we came from or how we got here? Of course, you learn some aspects of European history from studying English literature if taught competently, but it’s fragmented and somewhat incidental.

Rafe Champion
15 years ago

On the topic of engaging the children, there are two strategies that could run in parallel with whatever is decided about the core curiculum.
1. Some input from local history societies.
2. A family history by each child. This could start in primary and continue to year 12 to grow with the sophistication of the child and their ability to tap sources such as on-line records in foreign lands.

As for engaging the teachers, there is the ever-present problem of the politicised and obscurantist teachers unions.

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Nicholas

Why do you think it’s incumbent on the federal government to dictate to the states and territories how they must arrange the rest of their timetabling to accommodate history as a core subject? Does being prescriptive about one subject necessarily require being prescriptive about all of them? If we assume a timetable where a school has 8 x 40 minute periods per day, and that each nationally mandated core subject is taught for 4 periods per week, then adding a fourth core unit in history to maths, English and science just increases the number of periods devoted to core subjects from 12 to 16, still leaving 24 periods for all those other subjects you mentioned (or from 15 to 20 still leaving 20 for other subjects if core units are taught for 5 periods per week). Surely it’s OK to leave decisions about which other subjects are taught, and with what intensity, to individual states or even individual schools. They could either decrease the number of other subjects taught, or keep the same number but teach them for a lesser number of periods each week, and various other options e.g. teach a thinly timetabled smattering of lots of subjects in Years 7 and 8 and then let students specialise to an extent and choose a smaller number of electives in years 9 and 10 that are each studied for more periods per week. That’s how it was all arranged way back when I was in high school and it seemed to work quite well. But there are lots of ways of approaching it, and none of them need to be dictated by the federal government as part of a plan to make history compulsory at middle school level.

I really don’t understand what point you’re making. Clearly some people are nervous that Howard has an agenda to impose a history curriculum consisting of a “tedious list of names and dates to be learned by rote” and/or a “compelling mythological/religious narrative complete with heroes, villains, climaxes and happily-ever-afters” (to quote Don’s succinct summary). I would certainly be worried if it appeared that this was what was in prospect, but both Hirst’s and Kelly’s articles seem to indicate that this is not what is being proposed.

Rafe

I doubt that teaching family history or local history is what either Howard or any of the summit participants had in mind. While I think there’s a powerful argument for making both European history and the big events, questions, themes and narratives of Australian history compulsory for the reasons outlined earlier (it helps students to grapple with and develop some better informed ideas about why our culture, society and political institutions are the way they are), I don’t think those factors apply with any great force to local or family history.

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Thanks for the clarification, Nicholas. I’m approaching the issue from a rather different standpoint. Darwin has always had a very mobile population, so we tend to be more aware of the great disruption caused to kids’ educations when families move interstate, because state-based curricula both at primary and secondary level are so widely divergent.

However, I also approach such things as a moderate federalist. Nevertheless, there are areas of activity where harmonisation of law and practice is desirable if not essential. Hence we don’t seem to have had much difficulty arriving at harmonised commercial laws and practices in Australia, but achieving any reasonable degree of standardisation in school curricula and standards has for whatever reasons proven impossible. I think it’s an area where Commonwealth leadership is well overdue. At the same time, my federalist instincts suggest that Commonwealth leadership should be confined to identifying subject areas to be regarded as core disciplines, and then encouraging or coercing the states and territories into harmonising their curricula in those areas. Regional diversity and choice at state and local level should remain otherwise undisturbed.

I doubt that many people would argue that maths, English and science should not be compulsory to year 10, and I think there’s a strong argument that history should be similarly regarded. Nevertheless, perhaps whether history should be part of core curriculum is a debate we should have had in a more fulsome way before Howard simply proceeded to a summit to decide how the subject should be taught. One could certainly argue that understanding of Australian culture, society, political institutions etc. can also be gained from learning subjects other than Australian history.

Your reference to “circuses” suggests that you think the “history in middle schools” issue is just a Howardian diversion to distract public attention away from other issues less congenial to the government. That’s a fairly standard argument employed by Howardian opponents whenever his government comes up with just about any policy at all, and sometimes it’s no doubt true. However it isn’t obvious to me why Howard would feel a particular need to create a distraction right at this moment. Sure there’s a bit of upward pressure on interest rates and inflation, but not to a drastic extent. And the Telstra privatisation looks to have fallen into a hole, while the AWB saga staggers along seemingly without end. But neither looks likely to become a big negative for Howard with the great mass of voters. The same goes for the Iraq fiasco as long as Australian forces don’t sustain major casualties. I don’t see any plausible basis for positing a machiavellian explanation. Howard reckons history should be taught in all high schools, and also reckons it’s important enough to weigh in with some federal leadership. I agree with him. Even if one doesn’t agree with Howard (as is clearly the case with you), that doesn’t lead to a conclusion that he necessarily has a covert agenda unless one’s default assumption is that he should always be presumed to be a lying rodent until proven otherwise.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Nic’s spot on here – there’s no recognition of opportunity costs in this “debate”. And knowing Howard’s fondness for indirect methods we are also right to be sceptical of his denials that he’s not out to get his pet verson of history enforced.

Of course it’s not surprising that a summit of historians would call for more history in our schools. I suspect a summit of badminton players would call for more badminton.

Francis X Holden
15 years ago

dd – and a summit of bloggers or blog commentors?

Francis X Holden
15 years ago

I meant to find time to agree with DD about the opportunity cost. No luck – so just a short bit to say that after a few years as a president of a local high school council I’m concerned that everything seems to get plonked onto the school curriculum.

In reality – it’s plonked into a school day. Something always has to give but no one talks about that.

Anti drugs – plonk it into school, sex knowledge – plonk it onto school, vocational training – plonk, civics – plonk, how to vote – plonk, sose – plonk, more science – plonk, how to use computers – plonk, history – plonk……..

To add to the excitement we have just had one of members of Brendan Nelson’s 2004 national inquiry into literacy teaching, Yvonne Myer, sue the school because her son couldn’t read properly. Can’t say she was all talk and no action.

I can’t help but wonder what sort of spray she would have got from the presshad she been a single mum on the welfare who sued her local state school because her kid couldn’t read.