Rote History in Australia?

Controversy over what is taught as history is a worldwide issue.  A couple of days ago I noted the controversy over a new law in Florida.  Now we have news of a similar controversy nationwide in Australia, from the Adelaide Advertiser.

When history is reduced to “dates and facts,” kids tune out.  Worse, they tend to miss any the meaning of any narrative they may get, especially the emotional impact of the narrative.  But that’s exactly why some policy makers urge rote learning of the dates and facts:  Policy makers do not like the narrative.

History teaches us others’ mistakes, or our own, if we live long enough.  That’s where the value comes, in figuring out how to avoid those mistakes when they present themselves to us as choices, tomorrow, or today.  I do not have the facts to tell which side is right in the Australia history issue, but we can learn from the debate, and from what they do.  This also a reminder that educating our kids into our culture is an issue everywhere.

The entire article from the Adelaide paper is produced below the fold.

In the Adelaide Advertiser, an opinion column by Christopher Bantick,,5936,19822014%255E5006700,00.html:

Whose history will children learn?


CALLS by Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop for more Australian history to be taught in schools might initially seem a good thing. She has identified a gap in the narrative understanding of history by Australian schoolchildren. Even so, the push for more Australian history in schools does raise serious issues. These are what kind of history should be taught and whose history is it?Embedded in Ms Bishop’s disquiet over the teaching of history is a deep suspicion that it is not being taught enough or well in our classrooms. Her concern resonates with the unease Mr Howard expressed on Australia Day, when he called for Australian history in schools to undergo a “root and branch renewal”.

At the centre of Ms Bishop’s argument for more curricular time for Australian history is the sense that the national story is being forgotten. “Not enough students are learning Australian history and there is too much political bias and not enough pivotal facts and dates being taught,” she said. “My concern is that in the social and environmental subjects that are supposed to teach history, students are missing knowledge about key historical events and their influence on the nation’s development.” But does she have a point? At present across Australia, including South Australia, history is taught – at least in the junior years – as part of Studies of Society and Environment.

This has led History Council of SA president Alison MacKinnon, in response to Ms Bishop’s initiative, to say: “All Australians should be aware of their own history.” But SA schools have an enviable national reputation, particularly in the area of World War I. Mt Barker’s School Remembrance Project is an outstanding example of interpretive history.

Ms Bishop’s view of the past seems uncompromising and narrow. “I want the states to embrace this agenda and not succumb to pressure from various interest groups that see the rebirth of Australian history teaching as a threat to political correctness,” she said.

What Ms Bishop is not saying is that the Federal Government’s take on history is likely to reduce interpretation but emphasise rote learning of facts, easily measurable and quantifiable. Debate and discussion is reduced; instead it’s about learning people’s names and when they lived. A narrowing of interpretive history has been the Howard agenda for some time. After the 1996 election win, Mr Howard indicated his contempt for unpalatable interpretations of history. He said: “One of the more insidious developments of Australian political life over the past decade or so has been the attempt to rewrite Australian history in the service of a partisan political cause.”

Of further concern is that if state and territory education departments do not follow the Bishop take on the past, the Government may link this to the next funding agreement with the states and territories. This would minimise the scope for states and territories to teach history which could challenge the government view of the past. That would make a mockery of what Professor Stuart Macintyre noted in his 2003 book, The History Wars: “Learning history meant learning to make your own judgments.”

If Ms Bishop is concerned about the way history is taught, why does she not consider geography as well? Australian children may not know about Captain Cook, but do they know where the Riverina is, the Flinders Rangers or where the Ord river can be found?

The reason is obvious. Unlike history, geography is not open to political interpretation.

Ms Bishop should desist from what amounts to political interference in the teaching of history in Australian schools. Her desire for change smacks of a government sensitive to criticism, review and afraid of the past.

Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and a former history teacher and head of the History Department at Trinity Grammar School, Melbourne.

So long as the links survive, you may find more information Australia’s teaching of history at these sites:

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