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The History Wars: now for the hard part!

By Mervyn Bendle - posted Wednesday, 23 August 2006

The Australian History Summit was convened in Canberra last Thursday to find a solution to the crisis in the study and teaching of history that has blighted intellectual and cultural life in Australia.

Its work assumed even greater importance in the light of the latest British terrorist outrage. The attacks, planned by “disaffected British citizens” of Pakistani descent, demonstrate that liberal democracies must work harder to integrate their citizens around the values upon which their political systems are based. In an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world, Australia desperately needs to promote a unifying sense of national identity. It appears it is no longer possible to indulge those politicians, academics, teachers, and intellectuals who wish to promote a fragmented, distorted, and destructive view of our nation’s history.

The 23 prominent historians, educationalists, and other stakeholders met at the invitation of federal Education Minister Julie Bishop. Guiding their deliberations were two detailed discussion papers specially prepared by leading historians. Neither paper provides any support for the critics who have insisted that the summit is an attempt to impose a right-wing interpretation of history on Australian schools.


Indeed, they revealed the extent to which the History Wars are not just about ideology, but are also about bureaucracy. It is now clear that the defenders of the status quo are not just defending a distorted and fragmented view of Australia’s history.

They are also defending a set of ramshackle and inefficient education systems operated by the states on behalf of special interest groups with little or no recognition of the nation’s requirements in the crucial area of history education.

This is clear from the detailed overview of history education provided by Associate Professor Tony Taylor of Monash University. This paper confirms the worst fears of critics, showing that “there is absolutely no consistency of curriculum approach” to history education around Australia, with history usually buried within the highly diffuse “Studies of Society and Environment” curriculum area (SOSE).

Moreover, teachers are pressured into ignoring history as other areas are given a higher priority. Where history is taught, it is often done so by teachers with “little or no background in the subject”. Consequently, Taylor concludes, “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”.

The other paper, written by Associate Professor Greg Melleuish of the University of Wollongong, provided a vision of a way forward. Melleuish argued that the study of history equips people “to live useful and dignified lives as citizens and members of Australian society in the twenty first century”. However, for many students, schools offer “the only significant contact with the study of history during their lives”.

He therefore identified three essential components of Australian history to which all school students should be exposed by the end of year 10: a knowledge of the significant public events and developments that have shaped Australian history; a basic knowledge of the global environment within which that history has unfolded; and an appreciation of the texture of everyday life in Australia at strategic times over the past two centuries.


He went on to provide a detailed outline of a model curriculum that could be the basis for a uniform national approach to Australian history.

The summit was an excellent initiative that has clarified the depth of the crisis. However, it made few discernible proposals for concrete action in the immediate future. Instead, the summit communiqué concluded with vague calls for the development “of a series of open-ended questions to guide further curriculum development”, along with a “chronological framework of key events”. This suggests that the summit participants see the problem only in intellectual terms and don’t recognise the strategic and logistical dimensions of the crisis.

(Of course the Minister has since spoken of withholding a share of some $13 billion in education funding from those states that refuse to co-operate in reforming history education, but it is unclear if she would ultimately proceed with such a threat, and the fact that it was made further politicises an already volatile situation.)

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About the Author

Mervyn Bendle is a senior lecturer in history and communication at James Cook University in Townsville.

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