Australian History Wars ... Now What?





Does your child know when James Cook sailed up the Australian coast? That's what Education Minister Julie Bishop is asking kids she meets. Hardly any have the answer, which is confirming the Government's view that Australian history has gone missing in our schools.

Governments like to call "summits" on every damn thing. Still, the August 17 one-day Australian History Summit might at first blush seem an odd enterprise. Not, however, if you are John Howard and your agenda includes fixing how Australia teaches its story.

It mightn't match his industrial relations obsession, but Howard has been preoccupied with history teaching, which he sees as part of the "history wars", for a long time. (Remember, Janette Howard is a former history teacher.)

Howard's most recent Australia Day speech urged "root and branch renewal". For many years, he said, fewer than a quarter of senior secondary students had taken a history subject, and only "a fraction" of those took Australian history.

And "too often, it is taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues". As well, history had "succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated".

In July 1996, lashing into Paul Keating for the "partisan reinterpretation of Australia's past", the new PM declared "we would benefit as a nation if there were a greater awareness of the historical forces that have shaped our development" and of individuals' contributions. The past needed to be understood "on its own terms", not judged by "our own contemporary standards" (a reference to the "Stolen Generation" argument).

Bishop is running the summit but Howard, expected to drop in, is keeping a close eye on it....



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D. M. Giangreco - 7/26/2006

On the whole, the "Beyond the history wars" seems a generally balanced piece, and I don't know if it's writer covers educational matters for The Age or is one of the paper's general writers (assigning non specialists is vastly more common than not), but that little aside about Howard's wife made my teeth grind:

"It mightn't match his industrial relations obsession, but Howard has been preoccupied with history teaching, which he sees as part of the 'history wars', for a long time. (Remember, Janette Howard is a former history teacher.)"

Certainly she is an influence on him or at least is a reinforcement to his sensitivity to this area, but the insinuation that being married to a "former history teacher" has a direct link to his near "obsession" with the importance of history and, more fundamentally, his administration's policy of direct involvement is absurd. The comment is unsupported by anything in the article. Perhaps his wife's relationship to this "preoccupation" of his is common knowledge in Australia, but it appears that the reporter is just throwing in a factoid, and it's a little like saying, "President Bush is married to a former grade school librarian and he was reading to a group of grade school students in a library on 9/11. Hmmmmm."

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