Saturday, August 19, 2006

History Wars & the PM's Summit - I am confused

I was going to write a post reporting on the history summit organised by Australian Prime Minister John Howard. So in preparation I did a skim through all the blog entries already generated. Now I find myself completely confused. I mean really confused.

I love history. I am also worried that the current Australian school curriculum cuts children off from their past even in NSW which now appears to be a national model.

This problem is not new. Back in the second half of the eighties I was recruiting graduates for a consulting business that included a strong policy analysis and Government relations stream. I was astonished to find just how bad their knowledge was of even the most basic elements of the the Australian system of Government, let alone the broader historical context within which that system operated. Historical and constitutional literacy was so low that we had to run the most basic remedial training.

The position appears to have got worse since then, although listening to some of the radio discussion about recent changes around Australia in approaches to history and history teaching makes me a little cautious since I clearly do not have enough understanding of the on-ground position across the country too be too dogmatic.

Does all this matter? I believe that it does.

In a post Why wool? on the Regional Living Australia blog I reported a conversation with a friend who asked why we were featuring wool so prominently just at present. Too her and she thought most Australians, wool was of little interest.

That may well be true. But if you don't have some understanding of wool and the linkages between wool and national history, then key elements of our national past from waltzing matilda to the emergence of the Labor Movement are cut away from their roots. I think that's a problem.

But my difficulty, and the reason for my confusion, is that my reading of the various comments on the history summit shows such a stew of issues that it becomes very hard to identify key problems and potential responses. I find my own position shifting. Consider the following.

Australian history cannot be separated from that of Europe and especially England and the United Kingdom.

When I did school history at The Armidale School at the tail end of the old Leaving Certificate system I was fortunate enough to be able to do both ancient and modern history over multiple years. Our modern history teacher, R W L Crossle (George) was a man deeply steeped in European and especially UK history who could bring things alive. History cross-linked with English under Brian Mattingley (the teacher who inspired Alex Buzo) because of the mix of English and Australian texts. I also did Latin for three years, very unsuccessfully I might add, but it did introduce me to the Latin writers and historians. When I came to do Geography Honours under Peter Brownie, another inspirational teacher, I found it easy to fit things such as developments in India or China into context because I already knew key historical points.

The point in all this apart from nostalgia?

Our benchmarks, conscious and unconscious, are set by our own experiences. By the time I started history at University I had probably completed the equivalent in modern terms of 20 plus school semester units in history. By the time I finished my honours degree I had probably completed the equivalent of another 20 semester units. I have to accept that this experience is no longer relevant.

Today's school students live in a time poor world of information overload, crowded curricula, chunked knowledge, learning outcomes and a focus on process. They are taught by teachers themselves suffering from overload. Teachers, students, schools and parents live in a world of scaling, of league tables measuring relative performance across schools and subjects, of complex calculations as to the weighting attached or likely to be attached to particular subjects. When, as happened to one of my eldest daughter's classes for reasons that neither I nor the teachers still understand, a whole class performs less well than expected, then this may affect university choices.

If my experience is no longer relevant to this new world, then it follows (or so it seems to me) that the benchmarks I use drawn from that experience to judge the discipline and its teaching are also no longer relevant since they are simply unachievable. In the absence of change to the system itself, we are driven back to what can be done within the system. Herein lies the rub and the source of conflict and confusion.

In NSW, ancient history has been growing in popularity and is indeed one of my youngest's current subjects. But it is neither ancient history nor even history itself as I knew it. Gone is the broad sweep of the ancient world, replaced by a slice/topic focus allowing students to pursue particular topics that may in fact have little connection with the ancient world.

Teachers argue and with some justice that their aim in limited time is to inspire an interest in history and to teach analytical technques that students can use in further study. Maybe this process outcome is all that is in fact achievable, but it still leaves me uncomfortable.

I become still more uncomfortable with thought of making Australian history mandatory in all Australian schools. Experience in NSW appears to suggest that this destroys, not creates, interest in history. Further, if Australian history is taught in isolation from European history and this seems to me to be largely the case in the Melleuish paper, then we lose the context in which Australian history needs to be set. Notwithstanding this, some mandatory course may be the only way in the current education system to ensure that Australians have at least some understanding of their past.

I have not mentioned Aboriginal Australia - the long prehistory of the continent - in this discussion because I see this as a separate issue. My personal view is that this should be included in one way or another in the curriculum independent of any discussion on Australian history.

Perhaps in the end, the real gain from the current debate including the specific approach set out in the summit communique is the way it is forcing discussion on history in general, Australian history in particular.


Since editing this post, ninglun on his blog has drawn my attention to the transcript of the Lateline program on the summit.

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