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The fabrication of nationhood

By Tim Pascoe - posted Monday, 30 September 2013

National history is one of the few school curriculum subjects mandated in education systems throughout the world. The history curriculum is generally recognised as a site where nations store, transmit and disseminate narratives that define conceptions of nationhood and national culture. However, the Minister for Education Christopher Pyne has signalled his intent to review the national history curriculum to reflect "the whole of the Australian story" rather than taking a "black armband view of Australia's history."

While such a rhetorical flourish is reminiscent of the Howard-era History Wars it is a categorically different beast. Pyne assures that he does not intend to whitewash history; rather he argues that the curriculum maintains a disproportionate focus on progressive causes and ignores the role of the Coalition political parties in building Australia. Therefore, instead of a History Wars-esque principled debate regarding the utility of presenting a positive version of Australian history to school students, Pyne is promising to make the national history curriculum a partisan battleground, taking inspiration from Orwell's 1984: "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."

Policy-makers have always utilised the national history curriculum as an instrument to construct a collective national identity that ensures the continuation of the system by instilling future citizens with certain social and cultural values. However these values have largely been bipartisan and extrapolated from historical experiences: Australia's preference for an egalitarian society can be traced from frontier mythology to the shores of Gallipoli. The danger of Pyne's proposal is that history education becomes a tool to convey a favoured politicised identity aligned with the ideological mores of the party in power. Indeed, as John Howard opined in 1996: "One of the more insidious developments of Australian political life… has been the attempt to re-write Australian history in the service of a partisan political cause."


As a subject can only include so much content, curriculum developers must make selective choices on which historical events to include and which to exclude. Partisan oversight of such a process would ensure that the stories included in history education are invariably prescriptive: imparting students with certain values supposedly limited to a specific political party. Indeed, instilling within impressionable students a particular sense of political orthodoxy conflicts with the legitimate aims of history education.

Furthermore, the partisanisation of the national history curriculum would set a dangerous precedent, degrading long-cherished Australian values and ensuring the ideological pendulum of national identity changes with every government. To suggest that the Coalition is the only party supporting Capitalism is to highlight perceived ideological differences between the major parties and polarise students based on a distortion of historical truth.

The risks associated with partisan meddling in curriculum is further enhanced by Pyne's wish to return to "chalk and talk" education. Traditional pedagogy is over-reliant on textbook learning, leading to a notable deficit in understanding of textbook subjectivity as students expect to be solely assessed on direct content from the text.

Of particular concern is the extent to which textbook construction influences the teaching and learning of history. Textbooks claim the status of master narratives presenting an objective representation of reality, thereby bypassing student engagement with historical controversy. The authoritative tone of textbooks ensures that students fail to recognise that historians do not simply collect and present the past, but actively assert interpretations into the academic production itself. Indeed, through textbook control comes the ability to order the thinking of an entire generation, and transform children into political persons.

The danger of partisan tinkering with national history is well documented. On the extreme end of the scale, the Chinese history curriculum presents the Chinese Communist Party's military resistance to Japanese aggression as responsible for Japan's defeat, selectively excluding the role of Allied powers. While Comrade Pyne is unlikely to be as partial as his Chinese counterparts, it is important to recognise the inherent risks in making history curriculum a partisan battleground.

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About the Author

Tim Pascoe is currently completing a Master of International Law and International Relations at UNSW.

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