Tuesday, September 24, 2013

History, history wars and the wonder of the on-line world

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.


Evan said...

I think we need to unpick selection and bias.

I don't think the general is an insurance against bias.

I think bias in the sense of not being fair minded is the problem. Any area chosen can be presented with a good deal of fairness or sheer bias. Australian, or most other national histories, can be written in a way that excludes poor people, indigenous people and so on (as could a global history). Likewise these issues of bias can be treated through just about any area or era of history.

So I think that selection isn't the problem. It is fair mindedness - admittedly something harder to deal with.

Anonymous said...

Denis Wright has quite by chance composed a very good companion piece(s parts 1-3 thus far) to your own thoughts, I think. Part #3 gels particularly with your mention of 'Big History'.

First part: http://deniswright.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/i-started-school-when-i-was-four.html

Well worth a read.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. I agree that the general is no insurance against bias. However, it does set a broader context that can then be challenged.

On the selection question, I have tired to explain it this way. A degree of bias is inevitable in the topics we pick. However, given this, there are then professional techniques that you use to analyse the evidence; these should be applied objectively. Fairmindedness is not a bad description.

When as often happens in curriculum, you dictate both the topic and the way the topic must be studied, then you have both selection and application bias.

kvd, I saw the two earlier posts, very clever. I will bring them up in the main post, along with a short ancient history video youngest found.

Anonymous said...

"...relative freedom of ancient history as compared to the more rigid and doctrinaire modern" - I disagree. Examples of contemporary ancient historical revisionism are legion: witness those who claim that Arabs are the original inhabitants of Palestine; or the lessons of the Roman Republic versus the Empire on how past certainties can rewritten to suit political agendas. Actually, ancient history is much more instructive than modern history. Indeed the work of Marcus Tullius Cicero as the source for the reinterpretation of Roman history had great force upon the 18th Century enlightenment as it now does on contemporary historiography.


Jim Belshaw said...

I was thinking of the school curriculum, DG. I would agree that ancient history is as open as modern to revisionism.

Anonymous said...

This is very rough, but I'd say "history" really exists on three levels.

The first is, broadly, cultural general knowledge. Necessary for a liberal education, also for consideration of political and economic questions where analogies or lessons are drawn from history. This carries with a the lesson, on numerous levels, that the part is a foreign country.

The second is a "civics" strand. It is an open question whether that is first or second. In a way that is a subset of the cultural general knowledge, but it is the bit where the state cares to get involved in its own interests.

You need some things for both. I was shocked recently in China when my language tutor, a young research student in a humanities subject, clearly had no idea when the Ming dynasty yielded to the Qing (not, incidentally, the Quing, as I recently heard Brendan Nelson call it at the National Press Club).

Arguments about the school syllabus, I think, mostly swirl around these two, especially when we are talking about the bit of the syllabus which will be compulsory. (History as an elective is in severe decline in high schools these days.)

The civics is the bit where either selection or the slant of analysis (explicit or implicit) becomes a political argument.

Of course there is an intersection between the two. If you teach the industrial revolution, what else do you want to say about unions, the combination acts, child labour laws, labour law generally,....oh no! the rise of the labour parties in the UK and Australia as the political advocates for the organised working class! Propaganda! (We could also do Madame Bovary and the money lending acts as well, I suppose; or the "English", "Glorious" and French revolutions. Under the present Federal government such revolutionary talk should probably stop at 1830.)

Both of these over all tend to be, at least at first, a question of facts and conclusions. They can be populated by ripping yarns such as the version of the Punic Wars you give (though don't you think there is a bit of a subtext about the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana lurking beneath this?). Or it could be (as I remember learning in agonising detail) the history of the reform of the voting franchise in the UK in the nineteenth century up to universal adult suffrage.

The third aspect of history is probably the subject rather than the subject matter: a diachronic analysis (otherwise it is historical geography) of change over time - however analytically or narratively constructed, where the key intellectual disciplines are the use and marshalling of evidence to tell the story/give the analysis. This only really enters the picture in senior high school (to a point) and after.

Ancient history is more fun because even now the sources are more sparse so you can exercise more imagination joining the dots. I still remember a thrill in Medieval History studying (I think) Arnold of Brescia when I realised that I could read (albeit in translation and with less knowledge of the context) practically all of the source available to anyone. The closer you get to now, the more that freedom is circumscribed by how many more sources/facts/artefacts are available - not that I would say (as you do) that it makes things dogmatic.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a very thoughtful and interesting comment, marcellous. I am going to bring it up as part of a main post tomorrow.