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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

adjusting history « Previous | |Next »
February 8, 2008

Historian John Hirst has an interesting piece in the The Monthly on his own part in John Howard's attempts to rewrite Australia. Hirst took part in the History Summit which was supposed to produce a linear narrative suitable for inclusion in the school curriculum, then was charged with the task of writing a history suitable for migrants preparing for citizenship tests.

Hirst makes some good arguments against the way history is currently taught in schools, but also says that straighforward narratives don't work either. Perspective has a habit of insinuating itself regardless of an author's attempts at objectivity. Another problem is that the circumstances that result in an outcome are themselves the result of something that happened before, and so on back to the big bang.

"Howard's mistake was to think that narrative would necessarily give him the history that he wanted". Hirst is too polite to say so, but narrative wasn't the only problem.

Howard rejected the Summit's draft and another one was produced in time for the election.

The document intended for aspiring citizens fared better, but the final product is missing a few bits that were disappeared somewhere between Kevin Andrews' and John Howard's offices. In the current debate over the merits and wording of Rudd's apology to the stolen generation it's interesting to consider what those missing bits were.

Hirst's original is online here (pdf) along with the officially sanctioned version. The missing bits appear in italics in Hirst's version.

| Posted by Lyn at 2:51 PM | | Comments (10)


The differences aren't that great. They are mainly political , and where they aren't they are a 'hooray for Australia" type omissions. Wonder why they took out the stump plough thing? It was interesting to see that nothing was removed from the ANZAC part, suggests there is consensus on that part anyway.

History is a slippery bugger anyway, grand narratives nearly always fail it as they require every point to be pivotal. Arthur Hermann's histories, despite his choice of subjects, end up being a never ending escalation of pivotal points.

The state is too impotent to enforce a grand narrative. In terms of dynamicism the multitudes have it all over the state. Any state history is going to be anaemic and out of date immediately. Probably because it is inherently political and politics is notoriously transient.

The idea that the state could determine history always struck me as ludicrous. If Japan couldn't do it with the comfort women thing, what made Howard think he could do it with the whole history of the universe?

Having said that, the hooray for Australia stuff has had an impact. Australia Day gets more disturbing every year.

why this this need for a grand linear narrative that whitewashes the negative to save the positive Enlightenment version, which expresses the great and enduring heritage of western civilization.

Why this kind of narrative history? Why not an emphasis on students acquiring the skills to interpret history and discern the buried assumptions that construct a particular philosophy of history? What Howard, the father of the nation, actually produced was a chronicle of dates not a narrative. Were students meant to learn these off by heart?

What I see in the conservative desire for an "objective record of achievement" is a story that provides support for market fundamentalism, the capitalist economy and the authority of the state coupled with the moral conservatism of the family, religion and community of an earlier era. Oh, and fighting lots of wars in way off places to help out the great powers of the day.

That's the conservative narrative.That is how we are meant to understand their interpretation of history. You cannot have narrative without interpretation. You cannot have interpretation without conflicting perspectives and narratives. To block this---postmodern relativism they call it-- a chronicle is produced after lots of heavy labour.

what I don't understand is why the writing of Australia's history should be done by the prime minister's office, as if it were the normal part of government business.

It's hard to believe. They--the Howard government--- were caught up in writing history instead of dealing with the effects of global warming.

The Monthly's site is down--- the hosting provider's database server is down is the message---so I cannot see the the how Hirst's history document intended for aspiring citizens was changed by the Howard Government.

My guess is that the greatest changes would be around Indigenous history---the nastier bits around frontier warfare and the coloureds---would be what is excluded by the Howard Government.

I'm not sure that Howard's history is necessarily conservative history. Maybe neo-con history.

In education the linear narrative vs themes, and rote vs self directed learning have been treated as diametrically opposed concepts. Howard's model was the linear and rote one of the sausage factory. But Hirst argues that the themes and self-directed model omits context. So students might learn the impact of the Harvester judgement on women for example, but not how that relates to other historical, social, cultural, economic or international events. To understand history (and the problems with grand narratives) you need both narrative and interpretation.

The 'objective record of achievement' versions are as much about maintaining the nation state as anything else. Anderson's 'imagined communities' and the enemy other rather than consideration of our internal squabbles.

I don't understand that either. What was the point of the summit?

Hirst says Howard wanted more emphasis on sporting achievements. Bread and circuses for the masses?

Les commented somewhere else that it's time everyone got over Howard. While I think that's true I also think this example is a good way of thinking through what governments are supposed to do and where we could/should go from here.

It's there now.

Yes, some of the nastier bits, but the cuts on indigenous history are mostly ones that suggest governments have got it wrong in the past and are still getting in wrong now.

these are the bits that were cut from the Hirst text:

A ratio
often used is 10 Aborigines for every one settler. Working from this, historians have estimated that 20,000 Aborigines were killed overall. Others argue that this is much too high and that killings should not be assumed without good evidence.

That cuts downplays the significance of the frontier wars.

The second refers to the years around 1900 when the colonial and state governments moved to a
policy of firmly confining Aborigines on their reserves or ensuring that they
disappeared into the wider society. To manage this process they took away
their civil rights. Hirst says that this mean that Aborigines could be told where to live, had to seek
permission to marry, and could have their children taken from them. There
has been a great debate too on the intent of these policies, particularly over
the forcible removal of children from their parents.The next bit is cut:

Were mixed-blood children taken from parents so that they would marry white and hence colour would be bred out (which is how some administrators talked) or was this taking children from rough camps and giving them a chance in life?

It is a good question, but it is too contentious. Yet it goes to the heart of Tony Abbott's current position around whether or not to say sorry to the stolen generation.

The number of Aborigines killed is also the pet topic of Howard's pet historian Keith Windschuttle.

Something you rarely hear about is the level of concern over mixed blood children of Aboriginal and Asian descent.

These are contentious issues yes, but the reason children were taken doesn't alter the fact that they were, and that suffering occurred as a result. If your intentions are good but the unintended consequences are bad, do you apologise? This is one of the measures we use to assess one another in daily life. One of those things you'd think Abbott would understand.