Monday, April 16, 2007

Personal Reflections 17 April 2007

Photo: New England Airways passengers, Lismore. Lismore headquartered, New England Airways, one of Australia's pioneer airlines, flew between Sydney and Brisbane via Lismore. New England, East West and Eastern Australia are three airlines that started in New England and went on to achieve national status.

One of the problems I have, or at least think I have, in writing about New England populism or indeed on other New England topics is working out just how to be taken seriously.

The difficulty, at least as I see it, is that because New England lacks any formal recognised institutional structures the broader area and its history fall below the radar screen, making it easy for people to dismiss. Yet the New England story is worth telling, both for its own sake and because it has a continuing if usually unrecognised influence on current events.

Looking for ways to break through this barrier, I decided that if I was going to explain New England populism I needed first to set a historical context. To this end, I decided to do a post simply outlining elements in New England's history, linking photos and short text, presenting it in a way that you might see done for NSW or Queensland but will rarely if ever see done at sub-state level.

I hope to post this tomorrow or the next day.

All this reminded me of one of my complaints when I first studied Australian history, the failure of so much history to recognise the depth and variety of the Australian experience. Much later when I returned to University to do postgrad work, this became almost an obsession, an obsession that in fact continues.

Part of the role of history, again as I see it, is to reflect back to us the things that have made us, good and bad.

One of the reasons I became interested in Australian history lay in the failure of Australian historiography of the time to properly reflect my past back to me. Growing up outside the capital cities in a strongly political and academic family, I was annoyed by the way that things that I considered to be important were either ignored or misrepresented.

Later I realised that this was inevitable. Historiography is always partial - part of a whole - in that topics selected depend on the interests of historians and, importantly, on the accessibility of source material. The simple fact that most historians lived in the metro areas and had easy access to metro newspapers and official records dictated topic selection and approach. My interests were bound to miss out.

Time passes, new interests emerge, new partialities develop. Semesters replaced full year courses, the idea of presenting history as a story fell out of favour, to be replaced by a new emphasis on themes more suited to the semester format. New stereotypes emerged.

As with all things, there were some good aspects.

I have spoken before about the past failure of historians to recognise and reflect on the history of Australia's indigenous peoples. So that was an advance. In similar vein, past historiography was male focused in part because of an emphasis on politics and power, so the new coverage of women, the family and social history was welcome from my viewpoint.

But the difficulty in all this was that I now found myself wrestling with new stereotypes and approaches that were, I thought, just as unrepresentative if not more so than those they had replaced.

Whereas I had been wrestling with ways of better representing and presenting the past variety of experience, I now had to deal with the sometimes contemptuous dismissal of that past as simply "Anglo". So I was now fighting on two fronts. I also had a sense of ennui as I looked at my daughters' studies with what I saw as very partial and biased presentation of Australia's past.

Now we have the history wars and John Howard's emphasis on Australian history and Australian values, itself a reaction to the dismissal of our past.

Obviously I have some sympathy with the arguments of those who suggest that the treatment of our past has become twisted. Yet Mr Howard's approach itself is a fundamental breach of the principle that I have fought for over so many years, the need to recognise the variety and diversity of the Australian experience.

As I see it, his approach is fundamentally a-historical, the replacement of one set of stereotypes by another.

I must say that I am beginning to feel very tired. How many fronts can one person fight on, how many changes can one adjust too?

I would like to see a more active discussion not on Australian history but on Australian historiography, the role and processes attached to the study of our past. Not on what should be taught, but on what might be researched. What would we as Australians like to learn about our past? This, I think, would be far more productive than the current discussions.


ninglun said...

That last point is one I can agree with, though people do choose what to research on th grounds of interest or relevance. It is a curious fact that Ancient History is the big growth area in schools in NSW though; not many at the senior level opt for Australian, which is a shame. On the other hand, there was a few years back a healthy interest in Aboriginal Studies. Sydney Girls High used to teach it. I am not sure how it stands now. I must check.

My only ex-student that I know of working towards PhD level in History has gone for Medieval, and he is of HK Chinese background!

ninglun said...

I just checked the 2006 HSC. Only 267 did Aboriginal Studies (315 in 2001). 11262 did Ancient History (7218 in 2001). 9541 did Modern History (8754 in 2001). I compare with 2001 as that was the first year of the new HSC. One of the options in Modern History is Australia in the World 1945-1983. I suspect it is not all that popular. Australian History is mandatory in Years 7-10.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's very interesting Neil. I can understand the interest in ancient history since Clare is doing that course.The course has interesting subject matter and is both modern with its emphasis on social history and ordinary life and traditional in its rigour.

Aboriginal studies suffers from the problem, I think, that it is not seen as a main stream course. I would be interested to know the proportion of non-indigenous kids on that course.

I have been thinking further about the history point and school and will pick it up in a further post.