Academic journal article History of Education Review

Imagining the Secondary School: The 'Pictorial Turn' and Representations of Secondary Schools in Two Australian Feature Films of the 1970s

Academic journal article History of Education Review

Imagining the Secondary School: The 'Pictorial Turn' and Representations of Secondary Schools in Two Australian Feature Films of the 1970s

Article excerpt


Derrick Armstrong (2003) recently wrote that: 'History lives through the forms of its representations.' (1) Increasingly the most common representation of historical knowledge is derived from the visual media. This trend has been called the 'pictorial turn'. Rosenstone has argued that historians need to consider historical film as another way of 'doing history' with its own conventions, styles and 'language'. (2) This article engages with the cinematic history of Australian education by examining the historical representation of secondary schools in a number of Australian feature films of the 1970s. By what narrative strategies, metaphors and understandings were Australian high schools encoded into images and how might these interpretations differ from written accounts of the secondary schools? Specifically the analysis centres on two seminal films: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975) and The Getting of Wisdom (Beresford, 1977). These films of the 'New Wave' cinema revival have usually been interpreted as discussions about Australian national identity, and the historical settings of secondary schools have not been foregrounded. This article however focuses on the social and material worlds of the schools. It reflects on the types of education depicted and the characterisations of teachers and students. The analysis includes consideration of gender, class, and sexualities. Finally, the article asks: what was the historical understanding of secondary schools that made them so attractive for cinematic explorations of Australian national identity in the 1970s?


Until very recently academic historians have largely ignored, or, if not ignored, then pilloried, film as a way of interpreting the past. Fischman has maintained that educational researchers have a 'blind spot' regarding visual culture. (3) This is the case even though a number of historians have been warning that 'something significant is going on' and that film has slipped under the historian of education's radar and 'seems like a relentless force moving across academe'. (4) W.J.T. Mitchell has asserted that the 'long dominance of the book is giving way to the picture ... as the determining factor in our culture' and he has labelled this phenomenon, the pictorial turn.' (5) The image is pervasive and film has become the lingua franca by which most people learn about history. John O'Connor, after directing a project for the American Historical Association on the moving image, asserted that visual literacy should be on every methods course for research historians. (6)

Engagement with the field of History and Film challenges thinking about 'doing history'. Filmic history has its own conventions, styles and 'language'. This includes the use of camera angles, colour, setting, music and editing. Filmic history attempts to communicate an understanding about the past by embracing the personal and the emotional in (usually) a seamless and closed narrative about particular people in the past. The people in historical films can be real historical figures, or, as they are in the two films discussed here, they can be representatives of a class of persons, for example, students or teachers. Compression, condensation, invention and stereotypes are often employed as a form of cinematic shorthand to convey whole sets of information about the past. Further, because of the immediacy of films as representations of history, they pull the past into the present, and thereby bring the past into relationship with the present. (7) They come alongside. All this opens up new questions regarding the history of Australian education, especially about the nature of filmic representations of Australian education. What happens to the history of education when it escapes the academy? How are schools depicted by those who would visualise the educational past?

While in the history of education, the scholarly study of the cartoon and photograph has been foregrounded, (8) this article begins to investigate the longstanding interest of Australian filmmakers in stories that feature schools of one type or another. …

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