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About inconvenient truths and convenient fictions

By John Töns - posted Monday, 20 October 2008

Truth loving Persians do not dwell upon
A trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
Robert Graves: The Persian Version.

While I welcome the decision to ensure that History is given a central role in the curriculum I am somewhat sceptical that it will make a great deal of difference.

Many in the Western world have read the book and seen the Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore used that term to describe his frustration at the intransigence he encountered when attempting to alert his political colleagues about the impending ecological disaster that is supposedly precipitated by our activities.


Either wittingly or unwittingly Gore has raised an important question - how can we be confident that we are making the right choice when we either dismiss or accept particular theories? Our lives are bound by the need to make sense of the world. We make sense of the world by viewing that world through a particular intellectual tradition. That tradition can serve us very well for many years but, seemingly inevitably, there comes a point where we lose confidence in that tradition. We lose confidence when we can no longer be confident that the tradition enables us to discriminate between inconvenient truths and convenient fictions.

It is at this point when we can be said to be facing what MacIntyre (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) calls an epistemic crisis, a point where uncertainty creeps into the cracks of what hitherto was an unassailable intellectual tradition: a tradition in which we had unbounded optimism that it would enable us to discriminate between truth and falsehood. He is in effect describing a situation where the prevailing world view can no longer accommodate the reality that represents our daily experience; a situation where convenient fictions are indistinguishable from inconvenient truths.

I suspect that our current crop of politicians either slept through or were absent for the teaching of the industrial revolution. The myth that the strength of Britain and the USA is based on the unfettered operation of the free market has given credence to an economic theory that is little more than the product of a thought experiment.

As Greider (One World Ready or Not) points out it was the direct government intervention in the market place that ensured the success of American capitalism. As for the British, laissez faire was tried and quickly reined in (remember the Factory Acts?) when it became all too apparent that the industrialists’ motives were to make a profit, pure and simple, regardless how it was achieved.

Ferro (The Use and Abuse of History) documents it is a universal tendency to airbrush history to suit current political sensibilities. Graves’s poem The Persian Version highlights it is not a matter of denying history but rather a tendency to view the past in a way to give credibility to the present. The Persians had built a great empire, all empires will have been built on failures and successes: in the long run all that matters to the establishment of the empire is that there are more successes then failures. Hence from a Persian perspective Marathon could be written off as a minor set back.

I first read Ferro’s book when I was charged with developing history curricula. Teaching West Indian students in London one of the first year texts started with the line “Our ancestors the Celts”. There was a certain absurdity in reading that line when confronted with a sea of black faces.


There was one other episode that brought home the importance of doing something about the history curriculum. A colleague had been called an ape by one of his students. He had taken her aside and tried to explain to her that although he was Nigerian and she was West Indian they both shared a common heritage. She resolutely refused to acknowledge that her ancestors had come to Jamaica from Africa. All she knew was that she was descended from slaves not from apes like her Nigerian born teacher.

Developing history books for junior high school students is far from easy; history does not easily lend itself to being condensed in a few words. Often the narrative is overtaken by a shopping list of people and events that seem to have no relevance to their lives. Yet one can excuse the writers of these textbooks - it is ultimately the role of the teachers and the developers of history curricula to show how the dots may be joined to create that narrative.

How those dots are joined and how that narrative is created depends both on the competence and expertise of the teachers and on the intellectual tradition within which teachers are constructing that narrative.

The argument I am presenting here is that the historical narrative our politicians were exposed to in their schooling is unlikely to have equipped them to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and even less likely to be able to pass an informed opinion about the content of the school curricula.

The history to which most of us were exposed was Anglo-centric. While that is not without its justification does it really prepare us for an understanding of the 21st century world? Will a history that ignores the intellectual contributions of the Arabic and Asian world to our contemporary civilisation equip us for the future? Will a history that ignores the way Africa and South America were systematically dismembered and exploited by the west be a foundation for understanding the problems of world poverty?

I would be surprised if the current crop of curriculum writers are not sensitive to the need to develop a narrative of the past that will stand us in good stead for the future; the question is can it be done? A failure to develop such a coherent narrative will mean that the politicians of tomorrow are exposed to yet another Persian Version.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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