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History under Howard

By Edward Cavanagh - posted Monday, 15 October 2007

John Howard’s concern about school history has made headlines again, with the release of the Guide to the Teaching of History in Years 9 and 10. The Federal government wants history taught as a compulsory, stand-alone subject and has threatened to withdraw funding from the states over the matter. More than a year since the History Summit, the “values in schools” debate is set to erupt once again in the lead-up to the Federal election.

Howard has made no secret of his disdain for modern Australian historiography, especially when it is taught to innocent young Australians. By restoring a proud, narrative history - reclaiming it from the Left - Howard will undoubtedly claim another victory in the weary culture wars. Kids will be required to memorise an “objective record of achievement”, one that might align closer to the conservative agenda.

Howard has acknowledged that history has a noble purpose. He appears genuinely concerned about the shameful, at times overly sympathetic, popular reading of Australia’s past. Furthermore, Howard has recognised the importance of history to a young adult’s education. These are all promising signs.


But is a nationwide curriculum of important names and faces going to solve these problems? The states have answered this question by their vocal rejection of Julie Bishop’s plan. But it is early days yet, and we can expect to hear more throughout the election campaign. I only hope that this issue is approached carefully and thoughtfully by both major parties.

What options are there for history under Howard?

If Howard thinks that history can simply be lifted from one side of the political divide to the other, he is gravely mistaken. A nation-state’s history is a far more complicated beast than this. Replacing one myopic account with another is not the solution our problems. A history lesson should be something where all approaches are laid on the table, allowing the student to arrive at his or her own conclusions. This is a big responsibility for children, especially when dealing with a topic so close to home (Australia).

The teacher’s role is to possess reliable enough knowledge of Australian history to guide the student towards his or her own conclusions. To put it bluntly, the teacher must know their stuff. They must be up to date with the important academic developments that the discipline has undergone. Most importantly, the teacher must necessarily be objective. This will force the students to apply themselves and result in a multiplicity of interpretations; rather than just one (the teacher’s, or Marx’s, or Clark’s, or Windschuttle’s, or Howard’s, etc.). History must be learnt, not taught.

Unfortunately for Howard, the nation-state approach to history is increasingly considered narrow in an era of globalism. A comprehensive history of Australia mustn’t be taught as a single entity, but as settler colony of an empire, part of the decolonised world, of the English-speaking world, of the Asia-pacific, of the globe, and so on.

Where appropriate, comparative historical analyses need to be considered to allow for the identification of processes and relationships which transcend traditional national boundaries. This “transnational” approach is the only way to attain a comprehensive knowledge of Australia that is actually relevant in a global context.


History is not about legitimising the tragedy of dispossession, nor is it there to awaken patriotic fervour. Neither is history about selectively memorialising the victors and victims of the past in ways disproportionate to each other and incompatible with their contemporary status.

History exists in high school curricula to give students a context in which they can place their world. History can awaken a passionate imagination in the most moribund mind, and it can prove to be a reality check for the most stubborn of the most prejudiced.

History is not about memorising dates, names and places, which vanish out of the brain as soon as exam bells sound. It is about identifying themes (which are usually transnational), understanding various contexts, and constantly probing “how?”. This is the way to attain perspective; this is the way to truly understand history.

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About the Author

Edward Cavanagh studies indigenous-settler relationships, and is the managing editor of an academic journal called settler colonial studies. He follows, and occasionally comments upon, developments in Indigenous affairs and education policy.

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