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History that celebrates progress and aims for the stars

By Barry York - posted Monday, 16 March 2009

With the closing date for submissions having passed on February 28, the Rudd Government’s National Curriculum Board’s history group is finalising its recommendations for a new history curriculum to be taught in our schools. Judging by the framing paper compiled by the group, the future history curriculum will basically be conservative and reactionary. Certainly anyone who was concerned that there would be a left-wing bias in the recommendations of the group, which is chaired by Professor Stuart Macintyre, a former member of the Australian Communist Party, need worry no more.

The greatest thing about the study of history is that it shows how societies progress, how the old gives way to the new through revolution and reform. All the old regimes have believed they were permanent, part of a natural order of things, and have had their own ideologues, priests and professors, to reinforce that “common sense”.

Progress is mentioned only in the most fleeting way in the NCB’s framing paper, yet it is the very factor that makes history so exciting and engaging, especially to young students who have the future before them. This is a huge and deep flaw and one that renders the paper little more than a fairly dull and uninspiring offering of a curriculum reminiscent of what was taught in our schools 40 years ago (when I was at high school). It is a sign of the times that this nonetheless will represent an advance in those schools that have replaced history as a distinct subject with the post-modern Studies of Society and Environment.


Curiously, the paper ignores completely the English revolution of the 17th century, which saw humanity for the first time overturn the notion of the divine right of kings. This revolution set the course for modern parliamentary democracy and influenced the revolutions of the United States and France in the next century and the various European and British revolutionary and progressive movements of the 19th century. It is a scandalous omission, especially when other, later, revolutions are specifically mentioned.

The framing paper does not just overlook progress as the central theme of history, it offers a reactionary bias against it through references (at points 35 and 37) to environmental limits on human development. This is an outrageously biased position and one that should be phrased in terms of an area for discussion and debate rather than a foregone conclusion. The old regimes have always tried to convince the masses to live “within their means” and the current ruling class does the same by asserting, through its state-funded ideologues, that we are living beyond the limits imposed by Nature.

The problem with this “green” point of view, as with all conservatism, is that it suggests we have reached a limit, that we must face the future with great caution rather than embrace it with enthusiasm and confidence. It is not the lesson history has taught us, nor is it one that should be taught in that way. It reflects the view that sees nature, the environment, as static, as a thing rather than a process. History shows how human beings have reached a stage of social development in which they, generally speaking, have never been so well off - things have never been so good for such a large proportion of the world population - and never been so free to make choices about their individual and collective lives.

History can inspire with the understanding that human beings can continue to change things for the better, that no system of social relations is set in concrete, and that we have progressed precisely through our mastery of the natural world. New modes of production and new scientific knowledge, backed by political will, have always shown that reactionaries are wrong in telling everyone else that they must live within their limits, including those of Nature-as-thing.

History shows that human beings are wonderfully creative and ingenious problem-solvers. Indeed, human history is a story of progress, from people who lived more or less in harmony with the natural environment to people who have more or less mastered it. The result has been a steady improvement in the quality of human life, in the ways in which societies are organised, in the range of choices available to individuals, in standards of living, life expectancy, and human rights, especially for women and children, in greater understanding and awareness of the natural environment and in legislation conserving that environment. This has happened because humans moved beyond hunter-gathering and, in this sense, history is also about the future.

History teaches that progress has not ended but is only beginning - if we want it to. Through celebrating human progress, the history curriculum should teach about how humanity can and should aim for the stars.

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About the Author

Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21st Left. He rejects the current pseudo-left and regards himself as a leftist influenced by Marxism.

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