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The History Wars (in our schools)

By Stephen Hagan - posted Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Martin Luther King ,US civil rights leader and Baptist minister, once said: Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

I wonder what the revered black leader would say if he was around in Australia today, witnessing the incompetence regularly played out on national television of our current crop of leaders on race issues; state and federal, Labor and Liberal, as they hastily manoeuvre fanciful notions into policy.

Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, inexperienced but eager to impress, is seemingly unhappy with history teachings in our schools. Trying hard to imitate her illustrious leader, John Winston Howard, Minister Bishop demonstrates an overzealous desire to stamp her authority on her portfolio, by changing the way children are taught Australian history.


It sounds familiar – sack ATSIC (we know what is best for our blacks), change Industrial Relations laws (we know what is best for our workers) and now change the teaching of history (we know what is best for our students).

I am not suggesting for a moment that her rhetoric is akin to an imposition of The Little Red Book treatment: the book from the Chinese Cultural Revolution that tells readers how to apply Mao Zedong’s Thoughts (circa April 1964) to problems encountered in pursuit of the revolutionary path. But after being stunned out of her complacency by revelations made by a journalist upon return to Australia from the United States, the honourable Minister has steadfastly embarked on an overhaul of history teaching in our schools.

In her address to the Australian History Summit Dinner on August 16 in Canberra on  the topic ‘Forgetting Our Past, Failing Our Future: The Teaching of Australian History’, Minister Bishop opened with the following emotive point on why she has undertaken her noble crusade.

“Last year Roy Eccleston, a journalist at The Australian newspaper, returned home after four years living and working in the United States.

In the US, his young son learnt the basics about important Americans in first grade – from George Washington to Martin Luther King. His daughter’s fourth grade history book traced the national story from native Americans through the revolutionary war and onwards.

Since returning to Australia, Mr Eccleston’s children have looked at how their suburb has changed over time. They’ve done some work on a family tree. But, as Roy lamented earlier this year, ‘a structured, consistent study of the nation’s history’ was nowhere to be found.


When he expressed his concerns to the local school principal he was told not to worry. His children wouldn’t be alone in their ignorance.

Parents all around Australia are worried that their children will grow up with virtually no understanding of their country’s history. Unfortunately, they have good reason to be.”

Does the Minister have a valid point?

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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Related Links
Minister Bishop’s Address to The Australian History Summit Dinner
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)
The Department of Education, Science and Training
The Department of Education, Science and Training: School Education
The NSW History Council

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