Should Australian students study Australian history?

A history teacher (Bantick) argues below that it should only be taught as one part of global history. While I can see the point of that, I see no reason why global events can not be referred to in outlining Australian history.

So I would argue exactly the opposite. Australian history is more likely to be interesting to Australian students than the history of places they have never seen so world history should be introduced via Australian history. Early Australian history was certainly much influenced by British politics and events -- so explaining what happened in Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries as an outcome of what happened in Britain at that time is far more likely to leave a strong impression of British history than study of British history as a standalone subject would do.

Similarly, a well-taught explanation of Australia's involvement in Vietnam would lead to some understanding of U.S. politics then and since -- JR

Australian history is set to lose its sacrosanct place in the national curriculum and might only be taught as part of global history. Should we care? Not really.

THE decision by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority to remove Australian history as a stand-alone subject in the national curriculum for history makes sense. It is long overdue.

Predictably, the Victorian History Teachers Association is rushing to the barricades over the demise of Australian history. It is too little, too late. Gone are the glory days when Australian history was a heavyweight subject. Last year just 1170 students were enrolled, out of more than 45,000 students statewide.

Still, this is not quite as dire as Renaissance history, which, as a boutique subject with fewer than 300 students, has reached critical mass and is unsustainable as a study at VCE level. Australian history is going the same way. Should we care? Not really.

The reality is that Australian history has suffered from two significantly deleterious movements. The first is the teaching through ideology and the second is repetition. The fact is that Australian history has become highly politicised. For example, you can no longer say that colonists were not all bad in their treatment of Aborigines and the environment. Settlement is now replaced with invasion. Meanwhile, Ned Kelly is a hero. His murder of police is explained away.

Then there is the repetition. The First Fleet pretty well runs aground by year 4. Still it moved down the sliprails year after year. So too with gold. Sovereign Hill is kept viable by school excursions; some are repeat visits. And Gallipoli is the annual national identity fix.

While there are many other examples, it makes sense to study Australian history as a component of global history. It is illogical to study Australian history as some kind of historical excrescence that existed in isolation in the Southern Ocean. Australian history is umbilically linked to 19th-century British history specifically, but also to European and, to some extent, post-revolutionary American history. It is a no-brainer to view it otherwise. Yet this is exactly what has bled it dry.

The argument that is often touted about the sacrosanct place of Australian history is that it is somehow a conduit for understanding national identity. The argument runs that students need to know about their own past so they can have a sense of belonging. This is so flawed as to be offensive. This suggests that there is simply one history and one identity that is the ballast of who we are as Australians. Yet an identity that emerges from social Darwinism, suspicion of race and bellicose jingoism is not one to be proud of or to endorse.

But what has also contributed to the death of Australian history is the demise of the narrative approach to the past. There is no Australian story, it seems, just topics. Still, Simon Schama, consultant on the British national curriculum for history, notes, "narrative drive and force of events have brought readers back to history and liberated them from 'the past'."

Teachers are not exempt from the killing of history. This is largely through a lack of methodology and knowledge. Australian history has been taught by non-specialists for a generation. Non-specialists who are not historically inclined are a bad sell for the past.

Schools desperate to cover classes have all too often parachuted staff into the teaching of history. That and the dreaded studies of societies and environment. What SOSE did was declare that history was a subject without a distinctive methodology and corpus of knowledge. It was in effect gutted as a subject.

There is no reasonable and substantial persuasive argument to suggest Australian history should be anywhere than part of global history.

For Australian history to survive at all, it must take off its black armband and be put into an international context. Leaving aside the long prehistory of Australia, which surely is a candidate for ancient society historical analysis under the national curriculum rubric, Australian history is modern, global history.

How different these arguments were when I participated in the national curriculum debates on history at Ruskin College, Oxford. British history was seen as a given. It was to be taught as a stand-alone subject, but the problem was the content, not its place in the curriculum. It was not about identity but about teaching history to a multicultural society.

The fact is that Australian history has to now give an account of itself. Why should it be studied at all? There is not a case that convinces as to why it must be seen as the marquee or beacon mandated history in schools.

Australian history's survival in a very different form is global. In this, ACARA not only makes sense but has probably saved the subject as such.


1 comment:

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