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a history summit in Canberra « Previous | |Next »
August 17, 2006

So we are going to have a history summit in Canberra today. Why so? Sure history as a stand alone subject has taken a battering in the education system. It has been neglected. Do we need a summit to to revive the subject in our schools, give it a secure place in the curriculum and ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn about their country's past? These are good objectives but you don't need a summit to discuss them. Who would object to them? I cannot see much a debate about those objectives.

So what else is going on? Why a summit? The political context is the Prime Minister's address to the National Press Club lauding "The Australian Achievement", where he rejoiced that "the divisive phoney debate about the national identity" had been "finally laid to rest", called for "root and branch renewal" of the way history is taught and then stated that "a structured narrative" of Australian history should replace what he described as the present "fragmented stew of 'themes' and 'issues'".

So is Canberra saying that history can only be taught as a narrative and that the states should ensure that this is so? How then are the history wars launched by the New Right going to be negotiated?

In launching the history summit last night, federal Education Minister Julie Bishop stated that Canberra is not saying that it is trying to creating some form of an "official" history. Well, that is good to know. However, she does say that 'there is too much political bias and not enough pivotal facts and dates being taught' implying an empiricist understanding of history. Doesn't conservatism have a very political view of the past?

One of the summit's discussion papers is about narrative history. In it Gregory Melleuish rightly says that narrative is a tricky concept:

There is no single narrative into which all history can be placed but a number of narratives, some of which may conflict and others that may be complementary. Narrative is both about what we put into a story and what we leave outThere are as many possible narratives as there are historians willing and able to write them. This does not mean that all narratives are ‘subjective’ or ideologically motivated, but rather that different historians choose to emphasise different things according to the story that they are attempting to tell

So Canberra is saying let a thousand narratives bloom? Highly unlikely, as their preference is for a conservative narrative that celebrates Australia's achievement, not the black armed-band narrative, or an ecological history. Nor one from a multiple perspectives or even a value pluralist, perspective. That means postmodern, multiculturalism and moral relativism for the conservative warriors, doesn't it.

Julie Bishop's empiricist understanding of history holds that 'students develop a body of knowledge that is rich in dates, facts and events, and from which students can then draw their own opinions about historical events'. What has happened to interpretation and narrative? She adds:

"...there has been a tendency to downplay the overwhelmingly positive aspects of the Australian
achievement. We need to find a balance that constitutes an understanding of our nation's past and is made up of the essential facts, dates and events that every student should know when they finish their secondary schooling.

Shouldn't we teach students to evaluate the competing narratives? if so, what is the basis for evaluation since narrative knowing involves interpretation as well as facts?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:49 AM | | Comments (0)