Facing Facts? History Wars in Australian High Schools

Article excerpt

On 25 January 2006, on the eve of Australia Day--the day when the renegotiation of history in Australia is at its most symbolic and fraught--Prime Minister John Howard addressed the National Press Gallery. Halfway through his speech, Howard announced that the history wars, in which he had been prominent from time to time since 1996, were over. (1) The 'divisive, phoney debate about national identity', he reported, 'has been finally laid to rest'. (2) Fewer Australians, Howard contended, were now 'ashamed of Australia's past' than had been the case a decade earlier. In an unusually ironical tone, he went only a little way towards acknowledging the damage inflicted on Aboriginal society. Proper recognition of 'the Australian achievement', the Prime Minister briefly noted, had restored 'a better balance between pride in our past and recognition of past wrongs'. Having moved beyond an obsession with diversity, Australians, he asserted--meaning largely men--'are now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve'. Essential features of that character are loyalty, patriotism, egalitarianism, hard work, law abidance, tolerance and a respect for the country's British heritage. For his critics, however, tolerance implied a need to tolerate differences, and the model Australian citizen had no guidance when faced with unjust laws or corrupt government.

Howard's Australianness was not shaken by the internationally reported outbreaks of racist violence at Cronulla in Sydney's southern suburbs in 2005. And he claimed that the values he espoused were underpinned by the Australian achievement: the supposed reconciliation during the twentieth century of a 'market economy with a fair [cohesive] and decent society'. In order to foster these values, Howard noted in his speech that the time was ripe 'for root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools, both in terms of the numbers learning and the way it is taught'. 'For many years', he commented:

   it's been the case that fewer than one-in-four senior secondary
   students in Australia take a history subject. And only a fraction
   of this study relates to Australian history. Real concerns also
   surround the teaching of Australian history in lower secondary and
   primary schools.

   Too often, Australian history has fallen victim in an ever more
   crowded curriculum to subjects deemed more 'relevant' to today. Too
   often, it is taught without any sense of structured narrative,
   replaced by a fragmented stew of 'themes' and 'issues'. And too
   often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has
   succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective
   record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.

   Part of preparing young Australians to be informed and active
   citizens is to teach them the central currents of our nation's
   development. (3)

Reactions to Howard's speech were predictable and contradictory. Julie Bishop, the then-new Federal Education Minister, supported her leader, indicating that her preference was for an American-style of school history teaching that emphasised nationalism. (4) Historian Geoffrey Blainey said on national television that there are 'a lot of basic things that I think students should [know]' including the democratisation of Australian society. (5) Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne, interviewed on the same program, noted that 'we would all agree that we need to do more to restore history, but we need to make sure that that is open to diverse viewpoints and that it is not simply an exercise in indoctrination'. Instilling a particular point of view is certainly what the Prime Minister intended. Annabel Astbury of the Victorian History Teachers' Association told the program's interviewer that Howard's 'clear agenda' concerning the teaching of history in schools 'reveals that he really has no idea of what's going on in the classroom'. …