In a piece on the ABC's the Drum, Only one side is fighting the curriculum wars, Tony Taylor has revived the spectre of the history wars. The introduction to the piece reads:
Behind the false assertion that the national curriculum is left-wing lies the hope that an Abbott Government will instead expose children to the corrective propaganda of the Right, writes Tony Taylor.
According to the short bio on the Drum, Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University. In 1999-2000 he led the federally-funded national inquiry into the teaching learning of history in schools. From 2001-2007 he was director of the Commonwealth National Centre for History Education and from 2008-2012 he was a member of the ACARA's history advisory committee.
At one level, Dr Taylor's piece can be read as a defence of his work on the national curriculum in face of attacks from, among others, the IPA, a right wing think tank. At a second level, it's actually a contribution to the so-called history wars in its own right. I leave it to you to read the piece and the comments it attracted. For the moment, I want to make a few observations based on my own experience.
By it's nature, the study of history involves selection, selection of field, topics within fields and the questions we ask of the evidence. In many ways, the study of history centres on what we chose to remember about about the past. Those items not chosen slowly disappear from shared memory.That is why the question of school curriculum attracts so much angst, for here we have centrally directed choices as to what will be remembered.
I note that this selectivity is not limited to formal curricula. I have written before about the way that cultural gatekeepers affect what is on offer in history. I have also noted the influence of popular taste, including the way in which military history came to dominate the history shelves in book shops. Another example can be seen at school level in Australia in the rise of the popularity of ancient history compared to modern. Students simply find it more interesting. I don't blame them.
There have been enormous advances in historical knowledge and techniques since I first studied history. We know far more about the past, pulling the veil back on lost aspects of history in a way that I would have found inconceivable as a school boy. You can see this in popular forensic history programs such as Time Team or the Australian show First Footprints. There is also far more interest in history as such. Here the internet has been a huge help in providing easier access to basic information. The history I write through my columns and on-line would not have been possible even ten years ago.
The reason ancient history is more popular than modern lies in two things. One is the advancement of knowledge, enriching the material students can draw from. The second is interest; my impression is that students like the relative freedom of ancient history as compared to the more rigid and doctrinaire modern. I emphasise that this is an impression. No doubt my school teacher colleagues can correct any errors.
Looking now at the teaching of modern history, one of the things that I have noted is the progressive loss of historical context; students at school and university see history in chunks, disconnected from broader patterns. This is where selection comes in. The context that I learned at school with its emphasis on European and especially English history, its focus on Empire and Commonwealth, is no longer acceptable. Indeed, it was biased. But it did provide a context that allowed me to see patterns and then, later, to challenge my own views in light of evidence and my evolving thinking.
I think that we have lost that unifying context, for there is no agreement on a general framework. The themes that do exist are partial, fragmented. Outside the new field of Big History, students do not appear to be given a general overview. When I first studied history at university, we began with a full year general course that aimed to provide a full introduction from pre-historic times, setting at least a partial frame for later studies. I am not saying that we should go back to that, but it did help.
Some years ago, I was greatly worried by what I perceived to be the biases in the teaching of history and the consequent loss of focus on what I considered to be important, the loss of my own history as fashions changed. I am no longer worried about that. As part of this, I no longer worry (or at least not to the same extent) about the bias in the school curriculum. Why? The answer lies in the internet.
As a "popular" historian, I put the word in italics to indicate not that I am popular but that I write for a general audience, it is up to me to use the platforms that I have been given. Say I feel that that the historical topics that I am interested in are being ignored? Then it's my job to write about them, to try to attract interest. Say I think that discussion on a particular topic is biased? Then write about it. Say I believe that a new context is required, or at least an altered context, then write about it.
I can do all this. Each week, my history writings have a potential reach of thousands through print and on-line. Most just skim, but some respond. To my mind, that's a very democratic thing. It gives me freedom to write, to think, to communicate in ways never possible before. I have access to source material in a way that's never been possible before.
All this is rather wonderful, something that I have tried to explain from time to time. For the moment, I just remind myself to enjoy the experience.
kvd reminded me that Denis Wright has some rather good posts that in some ways linked to my theme. In order, they are:
Look how much historical information Denis packs in and in such a simple style.
And here's a link to an introduction to the Punic Wars sent to me by youngest. Made by game makers, it's actually a very good introduction to a complicated topic.