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Stop tinkering with school history, and start teaching it

History in schools is not engaging our students. History class image from

In 2008, historian Dr. Anna Clark conducted a survey of the state of history education in Australian classrooms. The book that resulted from this study — History’s Children — presented a bleak image of students who were unenthused, disengaged, and confused by the subject.

Given that the book turned up on shelves during the final skirmishes of the so-called “History Wars”, a reader could be forgiven for taking the wrong message from Clark’s well-crafted exposé of history in Australian classrooms.

After all, students often singled out the treatment of Indigenous history as “dull” or “repetitive”, which may have caused those who coined the term “black armband view of history” to point out that focusing on the injustices of the past was not what the children of Australia wanted to hear.

But this was beside the point. The central problem identified by Clark was not one of content or scope but of method; history teachers, unsure of how to approach the topic, would teach directly from textbooks or a hackneyed set of standard texts that students had often already studied in other subjects.

In the words of one Year 12 student:

You can’t ask a textbook questions.

The problems identified in History’s Children have not only endured, but they have the potential to become worse in the near future. The term “black armband” was resurrected in April by the then-Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, who used the phrase to complain about the “confidence-sapping” nature of the Australian Curriculum.

Pyne advocated expanding the role of Anzac Day and the Anzac tradition, arguing that this would provide students with a focus of study that would imbue them with national pride. This idea was further developed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott last week, upon the launch of the Anzac Centenary Public Fund. In future, Mr. Abbott told the assembled guests, Anzac Day would become a “public celebration.”

In focusing on one aspect of Australian history — and not one that is generally inclusive of the diversity and historical complexity of this country — the new government would do well to note the recent furore in the United Kingdom regarding the National Curriculum proposed by UK education minister Michael Gove.

The narrow parochialism of that debacle is in danger of being replicated here. Yet there is more at stake here. Invoking the “proud traditions” of Anzac in order to generate a more “positive” curriculum has the effect of imposing a standardised national historical narrative.

Students must find valour in the Anzacs, and must celebrate their achievements. Yet this is much the same issue that Mr. Pyne had previously condemned when he referred to that now-infamous “black armband.” It has long been an argument of some history warriors that a prescribed, politically-correct narrative has become the standard in classrooms; students are made to feel as though there is one argumentative line, and one line only, that they can take.

Whether or not Pyne has some justification in thinking that this might be the case regarding Australia’s colonial history, it must be recognised that the same is now being done with the Anzacs.

This is not how history is done. The Year 12 student who, in 2008, complained about being unable to question a textbook was right. After all, unlike many other subjects, history cannot be learned by rote.

It is not simply a collection of dates or events, nor an algebraic equation with one set answer. At its heart, history is all about interrogation and close critical analysis of evidence. That analysis will lead any given student of history to different conclusions than any other student of history, because each will have a differing take on how much critical weight to give each piece of evidence, according to its provenance.

This is why there are so many history books: if we were to pick up three books on the outbreak of the First World War, we might well find that one blames the Germans, another blames the Russians, and the other insists that no one is to blame at all. All three might well use much of the same evidence; it is up to the reader (and, indeed, the author) to decide what their own interpretation of that evidence is.

Past studies, such as Dr. Clark’s, suggest that the critical analysis that is integral to history as a discipline has been lacking, and this has led students to dislike or even hate the subject. Yet even this inadequate measure of independent thought seems likely to disappear as the federal government seeks to replace a flawed system with a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all answer.

Given the fact that school students have been told, by the Prime Minister no less, that “we should celebrate what [the Anzacs] gave to our country – the virtues, the ethos which inspires us to this day”, how many can we expect to question whether those virtues were evident during the Surafend Massacre? How many will stop and ask why these honourable and inspiring soldiers were invading sovereign territory at Gallipoli when Australia itself was not threatened by the Ottoman Empire? Will they feel that they are even allowed to?

It’s correct to say that teaching of history in our schools should be reformed. But the cornerstone of this reform should not be content but method; if we embrace students’ spirit of enquiry, and allow them to challenge authoritative texts and sources, we will see a greater engagement in the classroom. If we do not do this, then we should do away with the fiction that our schools are teaching history at all.

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