Gregory Melleuish, in last week’s Australian, “Bishop's lesson full of political ideology”, highlights two important issues.
The first is that there is more to the history of Australians than the history of Australia because many do not have white English speaking ancestors.
The second is that “unfortunately, history at present is not much interested in character or the actions of individuals. Historians are far more interested in the action of impersonal forces, of institutions, ideologies and social forces. This raises significant problems for any attempt to teach history and historical analysis to young people.”
Melleuish’s first point will be self-evident to many young Australians, so why force the virtually useless Bradman and ANZAC stuff on them? All its does is promote ignorance and bigotry. And there is already plenty of it around.
Take Lawrence Mead who (in an article next to that of Melleuish) argues that only English speakers have adequate “internalised moral norms and structures”. And take the Principal Air Force chaplain (Anglican) Royce Thompson, who last year told a pre-dawn ANZAC Day service that the thousands of Australian men and women serving overseas were continuing the Anzac tradition by facing evil at every turn, and that it is a time to be inspired by their sacrifice and courage, so that we might play our part in seeking to confront the evil in our world.
One might ask whether Ataturk was any more “evil” than George Bush - but this question is unlikely to asked by those forced to focus on Australian history!
Melleuish’s second point resonates with me. I hated history at school (all that stuff about English kings and queens, and Australian sheep and explorers), until I got to study Otto von Bismark, the man and his actions. This provided, in the words of Melleuish, a “laboratory in which to explore character”. And despite the views of Mead, character is not dependent on language or race. But you would be unlikely to know this if forced to focus on Australian history!
Melleuish’s second point has been made by others. In On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, psychologist Norman Dixon wrote: “Judging from the attitude of some historians, a putting together of psychology and history is, to say the least, bad form.”
And Joachim Fest, in Speer: The Final Verdict, wrote that:
The tendency of professional historians to look down on biography as a genre continues, even though ‘the lives’ of the protagonists would tie up many loose ends and provide a clearer picture of the process of progressive involvement and persuasion. … This disregard for personal drama has robbed history of an entire dimension. This conflict cannot be resolved. Scholarship invariably tries to arrange a confusing flood of images into regular patterns. But the protagonists are made up of the very contradictions which the profession finds intolerable. … For human beings are more inconsistent than scholars like to acknowledge.
I will admit that studying Bradman as a personality could potentially be useful; but Australian jingoism is likely to prevent any focus on the unattractive parts of his character.
Melleuish’s call for a “real debate about the teaching of history in schools” makes a lot of sense.
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