Paper set to restart history wars in Australia
The history wars are about to be reignited, thanks to a paper that argues that Australian history in schools focuses "excessively" on topics such as the Vietnam War and the Whitlam government while ignoring issues such as economic development.
The paper, commissioned by the Federal Government for consideration at a national Australian history summit this month, also stresses the need to tackle the common perception that "Australian history is crap … 'cause nothing happened"'.
Its author, Gregory Melleuish, says school is the only significant contact most people have with the study of history. But he argues there is a tendency for Australian history lessons to "exclude or marginalise" many significant elements.
"These include economic development issues, middle-Australia, people of religious belief and the churches," Associate Professor Melleuish says in the paper, which outlines what he believes students should be taught by the end of year 10.
"It is necessary that a place be made for these elements."
Education Minister Julie Bishop announced the summit last month, claiming that not enough students were learning Australian history, there was too much political bias and that not enough pivotal facts and dates were being taught.
She said it was essential that a structured, narrative approach was taken and every child should know when and why James Cook sailed along the east coast of Australia.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister John Howard waded into the history wars, using his Australia Day speech to urge "root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history".
In the past, Professor Melleuish, associate professor of history and politics at the University of Wollongong, has criticised cultural studies at universities, claiming students spent "three or even four years studying Barbie dolls, shopping malls and gender identities".
Mr Howard quoted him in his Australia Day speech, saying: "We've moved on from a time when multiculturalism, in the words of historian Gregory Melleuish, came to be associated with 'the transformation of Australia from a bad old Australia that was xenophobic, racist and monocultural, to a good new Australia that is culturally diverse tolerant and exciting'."
In his paper, Professor Melleuish said he had read the textbooks set for the compulsory 20th century Australian history course in NSW.
"I found that these books lacked balance, focusing on some topics excessively such as the Vietnam War, the Whitlam government and social movements of the late 20th century while other significant matters such as economic development received minimal treatment," the paper says.
One perennial complaint about Australian history was that it was not interesting because it lacked the wars, violence and revolutions of other countries, he said. But Professor Melleuish said there were episodes of great drama.
He said his experience was that Australian history struggled to compete against European and ancient history. "The reasons for this weakness need to be uncovered and addressed."
Professor Melleuish's paper proposes that the bulk of Australian history be taught in years 9 and 10, with some work in primary school.
NSW is the only state or territory where Australian history is compulsory in years 9 and 10.
A paper by Tony Taylor, an associate professor of education at Monash University, will also be discussed at the summit. He says history will be introduced as a clearly defined discipline into all Victorian government and Catholic schools next year.
"Under the previous curriculum framework, it was possible for a student to reach year 10 (in Victoria) without having attended a 'history lesson'," the paper says. "That is no longer the case."
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