Current Affairs as History

By Morgan, Patrick | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Current Affairs as History


Morgan, Patrick, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


A new draft syllabus for VCE Australian History in Victoria has been modified after protests from teachers. But why was it proposed in the first place? And is the present syllabus acceptable?

THE recent 'history wars' imbroglio revealed that progressives control the public bodies which set the agenda in history studies, a control confirmed by a new draft syllabus for VCE Australian History in Victoria. Instead of being chastened by the recent debate, they have come up with a draft syllabus even more extreme than in the past.

Why have the numbers doing history declined so much over the years? When my children studied Australian History in middle high school forms in the 1980s, the textbook set was Changing Australians by Sue Fabian. In this book, the author took fashionable causes (such as women, Aborigines and the environment), projected them back on to the past, and called the result 'history'. Our children, though sympathetic to these three groups, found they learnt little from such a course, as everything was predictable and ideological-no facts inconvenient to the general tenor of the course were allowed to get in the way ('[Aborigines], too, had fights and wars, but these seem to have been rare'). And when our children did other subjects such as literature, religion, politics and even geography, they found the syllabuses there too focused on the victim status of women, Aborigines and the environment. Having this pushed at them from all angles led to a mixture of boredom and resentment.

Over the years, the Form 12 VCE syllabus in Australian. History has come to resemble the Sue Fabian approach. It is now an 'Imagining Australia' course rather than a true history course. The 2003 course is divided up into the four half-century periods since European settlement, with the new huly trinity being women, Aborigines and multiculturalism.

In the section of the course from 1945 to the present, the student has to choose a topic that caused divisions and debate in society. This predetermines the issues, since Australia has been a coherent and stable society, whose mainstream interests are not reflected here, whereas minority interests such as multiculturalism get a prominent place in the sun. And look at the specific list of divisive issues nominated: 'The Communist Party Dissolution Bill, Labor Party split, Whitlam dismissal, Gordon-Franklin blockade, the Mabo and Wik decisions and the Stolen Generations'. These are all icon issues of the Labor left. The Whitlam government loans scandal and the Hawke-Keating economic reforms are more important than the Gordon-Franklin blockade, but they can't be mentioned as they run against left orthodoxy. The activities of the Liberal Party, which governed for 37 out of these 58 years, are elided.

The course is heavily weighted to political and ideological concerns at the expense of economic and social ones. In the section from 1850 to 1900, one might expect the prolonged land boom and great prosperity of that period, when wheat and wool were established as staple exports, would gain a mention. Instead we get a negative or black armband interpretation: 'colonial governments encouraged new agricultural settlements through selection programs, radically altering the natural environment through the exploitation of natural resources ... and European fauna introduced, which subsequently became feral'. This is an unbalanced statement-it wasn't just a story of exploitation, it was also a great national success story on which our prosperity to today has been based.

The course suffers from the Sue Fabian fallacy of projecting today's concerns on to the past in an ahistorical way. The 1901-1945 section of the courses directs the student to study how 'feminism challenged traditional roles' in that period. Feminism as a major strand in Australian life in the first half of the twentieth century?

The 1788-1850 section predictably begins with terra nullius and the claim that 'this act of colonization denied the existence of people whose world view was different to that of the European settlers'. …

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