The latest on Australia's history wars

Three current articles below:

PM takes a strong position on history teaching

John Howard has issued a personal declaration to the states that he wants reform of the teaching of Australian history in all schools and feels "very strongly" about it. Speaking a day after the national history summit in Canberra, the Prime Minister played his trump card to increase the pressure on the states - the supportive stance of former NSW premier Bob Carr.

But the states have signalled they will fight the pressure from Canberra and leading historians. South Australian Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith said yesterday she had absolute confidence in the way history was taught in the state. Queensland, criticised at the summit for having "no prescribed curriculum" for history in its Studies of Society and its Environment course, also remained defiant. Dr Lomax-Smith said she was impressed by the knowledge students demonstrated in the area. "We teach history. It may not be called history, it may be called Studies of Society and the Environment, but I can tell you it's certainly history," she said. "It's irrelevant what you call it, whether you call it society and environment or history and geography or history."

But a paper presented to the summit by Monash University associate professor Tony Taylor reveals the "learning outcome" specified for South Australian SOSE in the senior years of high school is: "Students critically analyse continuities and discontinuities over time, and reflect upon the power relationship which shape and are shaped by these."

Mr Howard criticised the fact that there was "no structured narrative" to the teaching of schools in most Australian schools. "I think we have taught history as some kind of fragmented stew of moods and events, rather than some kind of proper narrative," he said.

Historians who attended Thursday's meeting said yesterday the summit, combined with pressure from parents, would leave the states with little room to manoeuvre if they tried to resist a return to traditional Australian history subjects in years 9 and 10. "I think the teaching of Study of Society and its Environment is on death row," Mr Carr told The Weekend Australian.

University of Wollongong academic Greg Melleuish also criticised the summit last night, saying a day was not enough, there were too many delegates and the results delivered "the lowest common denominator of Australian history". "In a way they (the delegates) threw up their hands in horror because it was becoming too hard," he told ABC's Lateline.

The summit set up a five-person working party, chaired by LaTrobe University professor John Hirst, that will develop a set of "open-ended questions", along with a chronology, that federal Education Minister Julie Bishop will present to the states as a model curriculum. "I think a lot of fears will be allayed when they see ... the approach we're suggesting, which won't take quite the form that they fear," he said.


Our history in disrepair

The Howard Government's decision to re-establish history as a core academic discipline in all schools opens a new contest about education and rights in the battle of ideas in Australian politics. This decision is a direct response to the postmodernist and progressivist grip on the humanities in schools and universities. One consequence has been the degrading of history and the study of Australian history. The aim of federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, as she told this week's history summit in Canberra, is to "see a renaissance of Australian history in our schools".

Why is this aspiration so contentious? Why does it provoke outcry from several states and attacks from the academic community? The answer is because it seeks to overturn the prevailing educational ideology heavily identified with the Labor Party. The tactical dilemma facing Labor, state and federal, is whether to fight this reform, which is likely to have intellectual merit and public support on its side. Labor's dilemma is acute because the history debate highlights in miniature Labor's educational dilemma: that it is locked into backing producer interests (the education professionals) too often at the cost of the consumers (children and parents).

It is significant, therefore, that Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin described this week's history summit as "an important opportunity to do something lasting and positive for the teaching of Australian history". The summit had nothing to do with the laughable notion of imposing a John Howard British Empire view of Australia on our children. Nobody at the summit would tolerate such an idea, certainly none of the professional historians. It was never entertained and it was never discussed. Any claim about a return to a content-only single historical narrative is nonsense.

The communique produced by the summit enshrined the proposal that Australian history "should be sequentially planned through primary and secondary schooling and should be a distinct subject in years 9 and 10" as an "essential and required core part of all students' learning experience". The summit said that Australia's history was unique in many ways. A knowledge for students of their own nation was vital when many of our public debates invoke this history. For the record, the communique repudiated any idea of "a single official history" and affirmed that "history encompasses multiple perspectives".

The summit wanted a co-operative approach. It urged the commonwealth to work with the states and territories to achieve these changes. It was explicit about the need to carry teachers behind the project, saying that the changes had to be teachable, that they had to be doable, with a feasible time allocation within the curriculum, and they had to be sustainable. This involved "quality curriculum resources, professional learning for teachers and national profile events such as Australian History Week in schools".

One of the important conclusions was that history should be based on a "clear chronological sequence" so the big Australian stories of democracy, identity and economic progress were seen in their narrative sweep.

Summit participant and former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr, who saved Australian history as a mandatory discipline in his state, went to the core issue. "History should be taught as a stand-alone discipline," Carr said. "It shouldn't be absorbed in other subjects." Bishop put this more bluntly: "We should seriously question, for example, the experiment of mushing up history in studies of society and environment. There is a growing body of evidence that this experiment is failing our children."

That evidence came in a summit paper prepared by Monash University associate professor of education Tony Taylor. After a study of each curriculum, he concluded: "There is no guarantee that the vast majority of students in Australian schools will have progressed through a systematic study of Australian history by the end of Year 10. Indeed, the opposite is almost certainly the case. By the time they reach leaving age, most students in Australian schools will have experienced a fragmented, repetitive and incomplete picture of their national story."

This is a polite way of stating the failure. It is documented by Taylor in his analysis of each state and territory system. Herein lies the significance of this week's summit: it is bringing transparency to the system. Just as tariffs could not survive once their true cost was tabled on the bar of public opinion, so the present educational ideology cannot survive once its true nature is exposed in sunlight. This will be a long struggle....

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The new reactionaries: Education ministries are the last bastion of the history haters

The tide of postmodern education is receding in Australia. At this past week's history summit, a diverse group of thinkers and historians including Geoffrey Blainey, Bob Carr and Reconciliation Australia's Jackie Huggins issued a communique agreeing that history teaching needs to be reformed, that the subject should be taught as a separate and stand-alone course and that students learn best from a narrative, chronological approach to the past. If this sounds like common sense, it is. Yet it continues to elude most of the country's state education departments, which have spent years dismantling old history curriculums (which were far from perfect) to construct in their place a new postmodern establishment where history is sublimated within broad fields such as "Studies of Societies and the Environment", or SOSE. Just as in English courses where Shakespeare is forced through Marxist paradigms of race, sex and class, in such watered-down history courses students quickly learn to parrot approved ideas. Thus in opposing the narrative teaching of history as a stand-alone subject, education ministry bureaucrats have become an elite gang of establishment reactionaries, barricading the door against parents and historians revolted at what children are taught today.

While the state education ministers of Queensland, South Australia and West Australia all vociferously opposed what they believe is commonwealth interference in their respective patches, it was Queensland's Rod Welford who best summed up the arrogance of this group. Complaining of the summit's "educational vandalism", the Sunshine State's education minister said: "To talk about history as a stand-alone subject, as a list of events, is an educational absurdity." But if anyone is guilty of educational vandalism, it is Queensland's curriculum developers. Students in Years 4-10 spend just 60 hours a year on SOSE. There, history must compete with a laundry list of other "studies" that fall under the SOSE umbrella ranging from politics, sociology and anthropology to environmental sustainability, gender and peace. Similar outrages are committed in virtually every other state and territory by bureaucrats keen to protect their fiefdoms.

Speaking at the summit, John Howard was quick to point out that the reform is not about creating an "official" history. Nor should it be. But what could be wrong with teaching, as Gregory Melleuish lays out in today's Inquirer section of The Weekend Australian, a narrative of the country tracing our development from penal colony to free society to a federation and democracy? This is not about denying negative aspects of our past, as suggested by the witless wags of yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. As this newspaper has repeatedly argued, knowledge of history is important for individual students and for the nation as a whole. Insisting that it be taught as a stand-alone subject is not an imposition, it is common sense. Those in the education industry who disagree should consider just whom they are in business to serve.

Above is an editorial from "The Australian"


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