Saturday, October 21, 2017

The IPA report on the teaching of history - all piss and wind?

In October, Dr Bella d’Abrera from the Australian Institute of Public Affairs released a report entitled the Rise of Identity Politics: an audit of history teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. Under the heading left is Parading Social Science as History, the IPA supporting story begins:
The history and substance of Western civilisation that are essential to understanding our present and shaping our future are not being taught to history undergraduates. 
Instead, the focus of a typical undergraduate history degree has shifted from the study of significant events and subjects to a view of the past seen through the lens of the identity politics of race, gender and sexuality. 
The Institute of Public Affairs’ audit of the 746 history subjects offered in 35 universities – The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities – has shown that the movement that sought to infuse the humanities curriculum across the Anglosphere with identity politics has come to ­fruition. 
Identity politics encapsulates two main ideas. 
The first is that an individual’s political position (and many other things, such as moral worth) is defined by their identity. The second is the way in which a person is to be treated is decided according to that person’s identity. 
The suspicion that history as an academic discipline has been successfully hijacked by left-wing cultural theorists is no longer hearsay or speculation. The audit reveals that at least 244 of the 746 history subjects belong to the social sciences. History departments are replete with subjects that examine the study of human society and social relationships, not historical events or periods. Take for example Gendered Worlds: An Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of NSW; Masculinity, Nostalgia and Change offered at the University of Western Australia; Monash University’s Nationality, Ethnicity and Conflict; and the University of New England’s Being Bad: Sinners, Crooks, Deviants and ­Psychos. 
None of these subjects belongs in a history department. 
In comparison, of the 746 subjects on offer, just 241 explain the material and technological pro­gress and belief systems of Western civilisation. 
That there are fewer subjects devoted to what can be termed as the essential core topics of Western civilisation than social science topics is evidence the humanities have been captured by the left-wing exponents of identity politics.
I have quoted at length because it captures the tone of the report. In essence:

  • The IPA believes that an understanding of the history and substance of Western civilisation is important in understanding our present and shaping the future. 
  • The IPA has defined what it believes to be the core components that should be included in the study of history if the first is to be achieved, these are set out in the report, and has a program to promote its ideas.
  • The IPA has analysed course titles and summaries. The methodology used is actually unclear, but appears to to be based at least in part on a computer analysis of the frequency of words
  • This is then compared to the IPA's desired model to generate conclusions. 
I happen to agree that an understanding of the history and substance of Western civilisation is important. I agree that many of those teaching since the early 1980s do so from a left of centre perspective. I agree that identity politics, more broadly current fashionable ideologies, is a current issue and that it affects course structure and content. I agree that university history teaching has become fragmented, submerged and that needs to change. But dear oh dear, this report sets back all my arguments for change and different directions. This is not helped by Senator Cory Bernardi's support for its conclusions.

To start with two smaller examples both drawn from the University of New England where I have a degree of knowledge.
A UNE course entitled Being Bad: Sinners, Crooks, Deviants and Psychos is specifically identified a a course that should not be taught at university level. The title is designed to grab student attention. The actual course outline reads:
This unit will examine the development of our attitudes and approaches to law and order through a study of some of the most infamous crimes and criminals in the British world between 1700 and 1900. A series of case studies ranging broadly over space and time, will be considered from both historical and criminological perspectives. This will reveal both changing patterns of deviance and criminal behaviour and the evolving efforts to regulate and prevent it. Students will learn how to find, use and evaluate evidence about crime and use it to understand the development of modern society.
That is clearly a university level course. However, the second. UNE course mentioned in the report,  Professor Howard Brasted's Women in Islam, does appear more problematic at first sight. Here the course outline reads:
This unit is aimed at understanding the complex world of Muslim women today. Among the themes are: the Islamisation of women in Asia, women in politics, both at grass-roots and elite levels, Muslim women in the workforce, feminist perspectives both western and Muslim, the role of the media in defining Muslim women, stereotyping, Muslim women and religious participation and Muslim women and seclusion in a modern world.
You can see how this description might lead you to conclude, as the IPA appears to have concluded, that this is an example of the type of fashionable identity/fashionable cause course that they (and indeed I) complain about.

A friend recently enrolled in this course. It is one of the most intellectually challenging courses I have seen, not one for the faint hearted. It begins with the emergence of Islam, the way power, politics and survival  in those early days created different beliefs. It looks at the different interpretations of the Qur'an (students are advised to get several translations so that they can compare) and the various beliefs that emerged around the basic document. All this is traced through to the present time to help delineate current attitudes. The focus is on women, but you can't understand that without the rest. This is a truly genuine university course of the older type,  By the end, you will have had a basic education in Islamic studies, not just women in Islam.

I was fortunate enough to do university level history in a past age, one of fewer choices but greater capacity for depth, one before the vocational and the need for immediate return became so dominant. All my courses were full year courses, not modules.

In first year, History I covered prehistory to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.In second year, my pass course covered European History from the fall of Rome to the Council of Trent. My honours course covered the English Reformation. In third year, my pass course was Modern European history, with the honours course focused on the American Revolution. In my honours year I took prehistory, philosophy of history  and Australian history plus the obligatory thesis, in my case on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life.  So I have done just the type of broad studies IPA wants.

Sadly, or so it seems to me, those days have gone and will not come back. Here the IPA report is a hindrance, not a help, to those seeking change, for it does not address the real issues.

History is no longer seen as a core discipline.  As a consequence, and as Professor Trevor Burnard points out:
 History gets funded, along with English and Philosophy, at a lower rate than any other subject as a result of Australia’s peculiar policy of funding subjects at different levels depending on supposed cost of delivery and perceived social benefit. The government and student funding per university history student is $12,165. Funding for a student doing Politics is $16,591 and for Media $18,979 – much higher than for History even though how students are taught is similar. 
It was the federal government under John Howard that first introduced this funding system, ironically given his supposed enthusiasm for History as a subject. And Simon Birmingham has shown no sign of wanting to rectify what the Howard government did, in order to provide the resources to teach history effectively.
History Departments and their staff struggle with increasing loads, with the need to reduce costs at a time when overhead costs are rising. They face constant threats as resources are progressively redeployed within corporatised institutions to gain the greatest financial and prestige yield for those institutions.

In a market system within and beyond institutions, they have to attract students to do at least some of their courses, hoping that some of those will be encouraged to go on.  That means packaging courses to attract at least some of the students doing other degrees seen as being more useful or financially rewarding. I may disagree with student or official assessments, I think history and the study of history, is a fundamental and useful building block for just so many things, but few agree with me. To my mind, the remarkable thing about many of the historians in academe that I know is that they still hold to the faith, to the preservation of standards, to a belief in the value of history within the academy.

This, then, is my charge against IPA following this report. At a time when the academic history patient is on life support, the IPA is simply picking over the carcass, wishing to re-arrange the limbs. If the IPA, or Senator Bernadi for that matter, wish to see more studies relevant to the history of Western civilisation, then they need to campaign for more money for history in general. Otherwise, it's all piss and wind.



marcellous said...

I was wondering if you would nibble at this.

You've taken a high level institutional approach - what do history departments teach and why is it structured the way it is?

If you have the energy, perhaps you could follow this up with a bit more investigation of the background. I found stuff but do not have the energy to find it again.

For example, the Niall Ferguson "top 20" (in a speech "The Decline and Fall of History") - which is a top 20 of "Western Civ" includes at No 19 "History of Israel." That seems a very US-specific choice. (In part it's specific to his argument that the virtue of Western Civilization is exemplified by Israel's technological advancement compared to the surrounding Arab world.) In Australia, journalists cannot even report on contemporary Israel without receiving complaints. How would academics fare?

Then there is Dr Abrera's own idiosyncratic historical practice - if you google you will find some presumably self-published or virtually self-published books on the English reformation which can only be described as tendentious.

As to history as it once was taught, the facts and chronology that were once the province of a general historical syllabus are surely a thing of the past. Why waste valuable class time on stuff that can be looked up on the internet? Academics want to teach on their interests, which means course based on themes, historiography and probably a bit of up close and personal interrogation of primary sources. Fergusson calls this "heirloom antiquarianism" - he says general subjects would have more interest for students - well, for general students - people who if they grow up will want to read his kind of preaching from the past sweeping narrative.

The other missing ingredient in changes in the academy is probably the decline of history as a school subject and also the specific and probably transitory role of Australian universities - itself a function of the baby boom and post-war population growth - in educating teachers and embourgeoising Australia's expanding middle class (which is apparently almost all of us these days).

Anonymous said...

"they need to campaign for more money"

Every single social issue reported upon always ends with this, and I automatically 'trash' the thoughts expressed above same.

It's a stock-standard punchline to more than 75% of 'issues' raised on most ABC sites - radio, tv, internet afaics.


Jim Belshaw said...

kvd first. I think that you may misunderstand me a little, kvd. The IPA wants more university teaching of a certain type. Cash in the university system is constrained, history (wrongly to my mind) attracts less money than some comparable courses, while student choice significantly dictates where money flows. So if IPA wants certain things taught they argue for more money or for money to be redistributed or for student choice to be constrained in some ways.

Personally, I would support more money for history and take it from medical research or communications!

The IPA argues for choice, market forces and reduced Government. In this case, they want to keep their egg and east it to. Beyond the ideological arguments, there is very little operational content in that report, and that which does exist to my mind conflicts with their views.

Jim Belshaw said...

marcellous, I have mixed and indeed very confused views on the issues you raise.

I thought the IPA subject structure was US biased. There was also clearly a campaign running and activities that had been evolving over time that I was not aware of. So that's one area of study.

I also thought that the subject selections were to some degree antipathetic to my own views of Western Civilisation, in part because they were fragmentary. This actually links to your comment on what should be taught now that we have the internet including wikipedia.

I suppose that you could call me a popular historian in that I am trying to educate and share my own love of history. I obviously use the internet all the time and it does short circuit things, make them more efficient, in so many ways.

I don't know that you are a member of twitter, but if so this link will give you a feel for my latest campaign My current Express series is on the built environment and architecture. Fairfax is running some of these columns across a number of papers. The twitter series is designed to reinforce and also in the end help me sell some books.

In writing, I face a constant challenge in deciding how much background to give. The challenge is complicated by the decline in background knowledge that I would once have taken for granted. It's not just "western civilisation", but entire fields. Yes, people can look things up, much knowledge is on line, but they won't do so unless interested. If interested, another problem arises, the lack of context to interpret material that they do read.

One can argue about the value of foundation courses, but they do provide a depth that cannot be achieved through the study of segments. Knowledge forms patterns, and if you do just a bit your chances of seeing patterns is reduced. The shorter segments may give you an introduction to history method, they all try to do that, but a number of problems then arise.

The first is that method is a tool. Apart from the duplication that is involved in having to include method in so many courses, method does not and cannot address the philosophical underpinnings of the discipline. UNE attempts to handle the method problem by making history method an obligatory first year course, but this makes it all a bit abstract.

A further problem, one that I'm not sure that I can express clearly, is that one can't see how the bits might fit together. I spoke of pattern, but it's also more than that. Its a capacity, an interest, to understand ideas, to understand their structures, to relate them not just to the sweep under study but also to the current world. I am not talking about the "lessons of history" here, that's a slippery concept, but the frameworks, analytical and questioning techniques, the ideas that come from using the past to ask questions about the present.

Linking this conversation back to kvd's comment, the thing that stood out about the IPA arguments was their irrelevancy. They my be relevant in purely political terms, but they have little relevance to university teaching as a whole, history in particular. We cannot go back.

The IPA featured Campion College - - but a small Western Australian institution linked to a particular faith cannot have a significant impact. Or so it seems to me, at least. To the degree an answer exists, I think that it has to lie outside current structures.

Anonymous said...

My point stands. Not the least because it was not directed at you, Jim.

I repeat myself, but it seems to me that almost every social ill/perceived problem is to be solved/ameliorated by throwing more money at it.

If that's all you (not you specifically, Jim) have, then I think most of us rubes think that you are part of the problem, and most probably not part of the solution. After all, if you actually "solved" the problem, where would you go for your next crust? Oh wait... let's guess :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. I wasn't being sensitive.:) I would agree that there is constant competition for money, every special interest group seeks that, but wouldn't you agree that many things come back in the end to competition for scarce government funding?

Anonymous said...

And if the tv or radio is not your thing, then I can tell you that studies have shown that 98.37% of all articles on The Conversation end with, or contain the phrase "needs further funding" - or some such cry for $support.

It just gets overwhelmingly tiresome - not to say transparently self-interested. But, whatever.


Anonymous said...

Our posts crossed.



Jim Belshaw said...

While I agree with your point about constant funding requests, kvd, I think that no is actually a bit silly. Put government aside. The history I am interested in has multiple cases of local endeavour to achieve local thing by organising local resources. Then there are cases where things which have major paybacks actually require government support. It comes back to how you judge things.

Anonymous said...

Jim, you've mentioned MilkMaidMarian's blog before, and I've been reading it daily for quite a while now, because I think it's brilliant - and so I'd direct you to a particular post:

- as an instance of what I'd suggest is the far too frequent use of "other peoples' money" to 'solve' problems.

That post contains a longish article from the head of SafeWork Victoria suggesting intensified effort on 'the problem' of quad bike safety. Evidence for the need for increased government intervention is as follows:

SafeWork Australia data shows that 115 people have died as a result of quad bike incidents in Australia since 2011, 24 of these in Victoria alone.

- and my arithmetic tells me that this means 4 people per year since 2011 have died in Victoria on quads. No mention of just how many of those 4 were farmers, but anyway...

“I think you’ll see us getting quite radical in the new year…. So prosecuting farmers has not been an area that we’ve particularly been in but we think we may need to be in that space.”
– Marnie Williams, Executive Director, Health and Safety at WorkSafe – Victoria

And the kicker? Together with the State Government, we have implemented a $6 million rebate scheme and also increased use of farm oh&s inspections, such that 1 in 10 farms can expect a visit from big brother - cost unknown - because:

Despite the media focus, the academic studies, the recommendations of numerous coronial inquests and the pleas from medical professionals ....

I guess my point is - 4 deaths per year is not a particularly earth-shattering outcome except to those personally involved. And yet other peoples' money has been spent, will be spent, on 'solving the problem'.

This is far from the topic of your post (what's new :) but sometime soon, unless somebody discovers a money tree, we will just have to prioritise our areas of concern, and maybe stop just handing out funds willy nilly.

Have a nice day :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd. The Quad bike issue has been something of a hot one in Northern NSW and beyond with the NFF and pollies among others campaigning for action to reduce the number of deaths and injuries. This is an example of a 2016 story.

You know that I agree with your general point on this one since I have been writing about the costs of regulation for a long time. We are choking on it. To cheer you up, here is a Guardian piece from 23 October