The review the Prime Minister recently ordered of the national history curriculum, mentioned in this column on 26 June,2007, (“Plan for students to skip study of Gallipoli”) has raised the fundamental issue whether the subject should be compulsory. A reader, David J. Davies of Pymble in New South Wales writes:
“I think that compulsory teaching of Australian history as high as year 10 is unnecessary. My experience was learning Australian and English history starting in year 3, and finished in year 8. In those days, the next year was the Intermediate year, when we were examined by the University. We had the option of History or Science with more advanced Maths. Why would 6 years be inadequate to teach history, ours and English? In an interview for employment, do you expect to be asked; “Where did you come in History?” Far more likely it would be English and Mathematics that would count, except in special cases. I feel strongly that the public be given a say into this matter, as the public and their children need to be prepared for something more than their memory of history. I would place our language and logical ability way above a purely memory subject.”
Gregory Melleuish, Associate Professor of history and politics at the University of Wollongong, also believes that making Australian history compulsory in the schools may not be “a good thing at all.” But he does so for a different reason – ideology.
Writing in The Australian on 28 June 2007, he points out that there has not been a debate about the desirability of teaching history, in particular Australian history, as a compulsory subject – it has just been assumed, by both sides of politics, that compulsory Australian history is a good thing. He asks whether the arguments in favour of the teaching of Australian history in schools strong enough to justify compulsion, or would young minds be better served if, for example, they undertook the compulsory study of a foreign language?
He says the basic argument used in favour of the study of history is that we need to understand our past. “It is an argument based on sentiment that emphasises the bonds that tie the generations together,” he writes, asking:” But what exactly is our past and why, in a country inhabited by the descendants of migrants from so many parts of the world, should it be limited to the Australian past?”
He concludes that “history” at present is not much interested in character or the actions of individuals. “Historians are far more interested in the action of impersonal forces, of institutions, ideologies and social forces. This raises significant problems for any attempt to teach history and historical analysis to young people.” While we are often told history encourages what are “termed critical skills,” he says there must be a question over the capacity of young minds to exercise these critical skills. But when young people exercise their critical skills, “too often they are merely parroting a fashionable ideology.” He says that the one history curriculum held up to us as the exemplar for the whole country, the NSW Year 10 course in Australian history, is “ideology masquerading as critical thinking.”
Many “professional historians,” he believes are more interested in serving political causes than historical ones. Yet the NSW Minister,the Hon. John Della Bosca, criticised the highly qualified Dr Gerard Henderson’s inclusion on the review panel of the national history curriculum for the reason that he is, notwithstanding his education and publications, not a “professional historian”. Such people, Professor Melleuish says, are more interested in conducting “history wars” that have political objectives than in engaging in professional debates that have as their objective the establishment of historical truth.” He finds it odd therefore that the Howard Government sought to make the teaching of Australian history compulsory in schools.
This is the crux of the matter. One of the most curious aspects of Minister Julie Bishop’s recent history summit was the extraordinary and insulting exclusion of Dr. Keith Windschuttle, whose work in the area of Aboriginal history is based on the old fashioned, time consuming practice of actually consulting primary sources, rather than ideology, in making and reporting findings of fact. According to a report by Justine Ferrari in The Australian on 7 July, 2007, publishers in the 1980s and 1990s sanitised Aboriginal history by censoring accounts of Aboriginal violence, including sexual abuse and infanticide. Dr Windschuttle began the process of revealing the fabrication of Aboriginal history which had occurred, and he did this by being egregiously professional. He went to the original or at least the best source, and made an objective assessment as to what happened, rather than relying on dogma as to what ought to have happened. But Dr. Windshchuttle’s extremely important pioneering work has resulted not in an accolade but in a sanction from Federal Minister Bishop – he has been sent to an historical Coventry. He was actually excluded from the summit as some sort of “extremist.” Perhaps the Minister thinks that he is not a “professional historian” in the post modern sense that is he is not driven in his findings by ideology. The Minister’s exclusion of Dr. Windschuttle encourages us to think that the idea of a review of the unsatisfactory National Curriculum, and the inclusion of Dr.Henderson, came not from Federal Minster Bishop, but rather from a prime ministerial direction.
The electorate is entitled to ask just where Federal Minister Bishop does, and for that matter, NSW Minister Della Bosca stand in the debate between history as ideology and history as it used to be, the objective search for the truth based on the best evidence available?Professor Mellueish understandably fears the sort of “compulsory history” our children will be forced to study, “full of ideology parading as criticism.” Compulsory Australian history, he fears, would crowd out the history of the rest of the human race, leaving the next generation culturally impoverished, and that as in NSW, forcing ideology down students' throats will turn them away from a love of history. But why should we surrender to the enemy?
When I read recently in NewsWeekly that a British survey found that half of young people questioned did not know that the Battle of Britain took place in World War II, I wonder whether it is not unreasonable to assume that the strategy of the neo-marxist elites in Western, and especially English speaking countries, is to make our youth ignorant of the reasons why our civilisation has achieved so much.
Our education ministers have a responsibility to ensure this does not occur. The overwhelming majority of Australians would expect this. But they seem totally incapable. Just as a succession of ministers have been too long incapable of stopping the scandal of the appalling widespread abuse of little children and women in Aboriginal communities.
History or ideology?