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History never retreats

By Mervyn Bendle - posted Thursday, 27 July 2006

An Australian historian once said: "When people act in the present, they look on the past in creating the future." And indeed identity - personal, national, cultural and religious - is one of the key dynamics shaping global politics, and a sense of identity arises from history.

As a nation, we simply cannot afford the luxury of wallowing in the sludge of self-imposed confusion, doubt, guilt and apologetics. Neither should we continue to entertain the postmodernist fallacy that the time of grand narratives has passed and that we are somehow liberated if we have no sense of who we are, where we come from, what we stand for and where we are seeking to go as a nation.

As a young teacher recently said to me: "The process of stripping away the legitimacy of all major social institutions seems almost complete. Students have been trained to distrust any claim to knowledge or authority. They've been trained to think that being left in ignorance is some form of liberation from oppressive forces. It's not as if it's some sort of conspiracy, it's just the way the system works."


Which is why the Federal Government's sponsorship of the history summit on August 17 in Canberra is such a good idea. Not only is a comprehensive knowledge of history essential for a sense of national identity, it is also essential for students seeking a broad education.

Many first-year university students are frustrated and even angry when they realise they have been cheated at school and denied the essential knowledge they need to comprehend the world. They resent not knowing about important historical events, such as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the industrial, scientific and communication revolutions.

Much of the debate focuses on (the teaching of) Australian history and this is understandable given the appalling state into which it has degenerated. As it stands, school students are exposed to many loosely related themes and fragments of their national history, and they are likely to arrive at university with some basic knowledge of a range of fairly obvious themes: Aboriginal history, convicts, gold discoveries, Gallipoli, the role of women, immigration and so on.

Regrettably, this knowledge is loosely integrated and presented within a moralising framework, so students know only too well how they are expected to morally evaluate such themes, what they should and shouldn't say or think about them, and what opinions they are expected to have and can safely express.

So it's ironic that the debate is characterised by the claim that schools are teaching critical thinking. This is so obviously not the case. Students are so pressured and constrained under the present system that they focus not on the development of critical skills but simply on finding out exactly what they have to study, do, write and think to pass the various assessment tasks with the best possible mark.

This process is deadening and it is carried over into university.


A few years ago I lectured about 400 first-year education students, most fresh from secondary school. One tutor came up to me and complained: "The students like the way you present so many different views on these topics, but what they really want to know is which opinion they should have."

So much for critical thinking.

But the crisis in history education involves much more than just Australia. We live in an increasingly globalised world and knowledge of national history by itself is not enough. This became obvious for many students who took my course in the history of terrorism this year. An adequate knowledge of the intertwined histories of liberal democracy, socialism, conservatism and totalitarianism, as they have unfolded so violently during the past two centuries, is essential if students are to understand the nature of global conflict. How can they evaluate the ideological claims that are made about Western civilisation if they don't know its history or the histories of the other great civilisations of the world, such as Islam?

The August 17 summit must be more than just a talk-fest, with the players going through the motions of considering the various views, expressing the views of their constituency, enjoying the attention, finding some consensus position, then departing, leaving things just as they are. This must be avoided. And here the organisers have a great responsibility. They need to promote meaningful debate and constructive and scholarly engagement with the subjects. The summit will have little effect if its work is not subsequently supported by an appropriate infrastructure that promotes scholarship and informed open debate.

Ideally, this would include a new journal of historical scholarship and a centre of excellence in history education, together with a program of conferences and professional education for teachers, academics and others involved in historical scholarship and teaching. The Federal Government, in other words, should put its money where its mouth is.

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First published in The Australian on July 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Mervyn Bendle is a senior lecturer in history and communication at James Cook University in Townsville.

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