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Myth, legend and the other stuff of history

By Inga Clendinnen - posted Friday, 27 October 2006


The “history wars” might be over, but history is in the news again because the Prime Minister has put it there.

The putsch began in mid-2004 with the announcement of a $31 billion education package from the federal government. Certain conditions had to be met before schools would get their bonus funding, among them that “every school must have a functioning flagpole, fly the Australian flag and display a ‘values framework’ in a prominent place in the school.” The Prime Minister, John Howard, and the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, assured us that “this is a major investment in Australia’s future … It will leave us better equipped to face the global future and help us build on our long traditions of innovation and technical excellence.”

That seems a lot of hope to invest in a piece of fabric and a poster, but if the connection was obscure, the intention was plain. Then came the Prime Minister’s 2006 Australia Day speech. Only a couple of paragraphs related to the nation’s history, but they were heartfelt, so we would be wise to pay attention.

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Mr Howard is concerned about the state of the teaching of history, especially Australian history, in schools today. There is too little of it, too few students are studying it, it is the wrong kind of history anyway: “Too often it is taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues. And too often history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.”

Mr Howard wants a “structured narrative”, and he wants that narrative to be an “objective record of achievement” which will make us proud of our country, our forebears and ourselves.

History fuses easily with patriotism; Mr Howard wants them fused: “We want [newcomers] to learn about our heritage. And we expect each unique individual who joins our national journey to enrich it with their loyalty and their patriotism.” It is to achieve those ends that he wants “a root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools”.

I had become accustomed to listening to my Prime Minister with a degree of nervous dread, so I was surprised to find myself in sympathy with much of his speech, even with his longing for a clear, celebratory story of how Australia got to be the fine country it undoubtedly is.

I think he wants his story because he thinks we’re going to need it. For most of our immigration history we have managed to avoid significant ethnic or religious clotting, with most incomers dispersing throughout the country within a generation.

Now there is the risk of the geographical concentration and the social isolation of people of a different and charismatic faith who share a long and continuing history of injustice at European hands, and this at a time of decreasing job security and shrinking opportunities.

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Furthermore, with intolerant religions and amoral global capitalism snatching more and more territory in the world, secular liberal democracies begin to look less like the highway to the future and more like an endangered species.

But despite my sympathy, I think it will be difficult for Mr Howard to arrive at his “objective record of achievement”, and then to present it as “Australian history”, for a number of reasons.

The first is that in human affairs there is never a single narrative. There is always one counter-story, and usually several, and in a democracy you will probably get to hear them. Remember the origin of the history wars.

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This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 23, 'The History Question' by Inga Clendinnen.



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About the Author

Inga Clendinnen is a writer, academic and historian whose work on Aztec and Mayan cultures and the Holocaust has been praised around the world. Recently, she has also turned her attention to the historical relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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