Wednesday, April 18, 2007

History and Schools

In my last post I spoke of the way in my own work that I had tried to understand and present the diversity of the Australian experience, of my frustration at the way in which entire slabs of that experience were ignored, at my tiredness at responding to what I saw as stereotyping. I concluded that post by saying:

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.

In a comment on that post, Neil (Ninglun) came up with some interesting statistics.

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.

Like Neil, I have been interested in the rise in popularity of ancient history in NSW. I can understand it. As I said in a response to Neil's comment, Clare (youngest) is doing it, and it is simply a very good course. The numbers contrast sharply with the numbers doing modern history.

One of the issues that comes up in my mind when we look at these numbers is the role that history should play in our schools as a discipline.

I have a conflict here. I would like to see more history, not just Australian history. On the other hand, we already have an incredibly crowded curriculum. We also load things onto our school system as though school is the place where all society's problems must be resolved.

Pity our poor teachers. Instead of inspiring an interest in the joy of learning that, to me at least, should be the heart of education, they have so many roles and so many requirements to meet in carrying out those roles that the job is really impossible.

I have therefore changed my mind about Australian history in schools.

The compulsory teaching of Australian history or of civics or any other name that might be applied should be reduced to the absolute minimum. The issue is simply too complicated, too divisive and too important to be palmed off onto our school system as the solution to our nation's ills. Instead, and this was the point I came to at the end of my last post, we need a national discussion about Australian historiography, the writing of Australian history.

If talk back radio or the interest in family history is any guide, Australians have an enormous interest in their past. Yet, at least as I see it, that interest is not properly reflected in research or writing. If so, why? what do we do about it?

I am posing this as questions because I may be wrong. Perhaps I am out of touch. Perhaps there is more writing and publishing than I know.

I do know that the range of Australian history books in the book shops is well down, that those books that are published seem to go in fashion cycles. I do know that it can be hard to find the most basic information, the facts, to support or test arguments. I keep coming across gaps in the writing of Australian history.

I suppose that the next thing I should do, like any good historian, is to try to test my facts, to see if I am missing something.

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