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The science of history

By David Long - posted Friday, 14 September 2007

At the risk of annoying all those history professors and teachers and enthusiastic, amateur historians, something must be said about the idea of a uniform history curriculum for Australia.

Yes, it stinks! But not for the reasons the above folk might think.

Most Australians are aware that the Federal Government has announced the membership of its Australian History Curriculum Board. They probably think that federal funding has overcome ideology and with it, the black arm-band view of Australian history that has been inflicted on generations of Australian children.


What the government has not shown, however, is that a new history curriculum will be any more useful than the one it replaces.

If we want kids to grow up with a capacity to use their reason, to discern the difference between reasonableness and sophistry, between democratic government and tyranny and to recognise the noble from the base, then they must be given an education which cultivates those powers.

The current history debate is about which version of history contains the truth; but that ducks the question of the type of truth there is in history studies and what use that truth has.

History is such an amorphous collection of topics that someone might object that the uniform curriculum will relate only to Australian history. To this objection, it can be responded that a single day contains 86,400 seconds per person; a year contains about 3.5 million seconds per person. History, by its criteria, will only ever be a mere subjective glimpse of a land that will remain fundamentally unknown, where some may look but never visit. Is it possible to document the whole history of Australia?

The simple answer is that history is by its nature selective and it becomes increasingly selective with each step backwards. When we reach, for example, the year 1752, we might ask what is the possible benefit in knowing that Rousseau published his essay Discourse On the Origins of Inequality in that otherwise un-momentous year?

There is, however, great benefit in understanding the ideas that his essay contains, since those ideas had a momentous influence on the rest of the world.


This debate between what is taught as the history of events and what could be taught as the history of ideas is part of the wider contest within the university between liberal education and the social sciences that includes historicism.

In defence of the history of events, it has been said that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes. It has also been said that if we know how we got to where we are, we shall know where we are heading and why. These statements, however, are absurd.

First, no student “learns history” in the sense of the whole story. A student learns a very edited, sub-edited and condensed view of history for two very good reasons:

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About the Author

David Long is a lawyer and writer with an interest in classical political philosophy and Shakespeare. He has written previously for The Bulletin and The Review.

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