Opinion: History repeating

With a National Curriculum in the pipeline, Australia’s history wars have reignited. IEU Professional OfficerPat Devery unpacks what this means for teachers.

Australia’s ‘history wars’ are the political and cultural tension between the ‘three cheers’ version of the nation’s history, which presents Australia as having only benefited from the arrival of the First Fleet; and the ‘black armband’ version that recognises the long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence in Australia and the impact of British invasion.

In an interview on Triple J radio (‘Culture wars in the classroom’, The Hack, 7 September 2021), the then Federal Minister for Education and Youth, Alan Tudge, said he wanted to see “a positive, optimistic, and patriotic view of our history embedded in the history curriculum”. However, this represents a limited understanding of the nature of history as an academic pursuit.

Unfortunately, the former minister is not the only one to misunderstand how teachers engage with curriculum and syllabus documents. Greater respect for the professional judgement of teachers is needed.

Ancient example

The former minister has also insisted on a form of history teaching that “recognises our democracy is based on our Christian and Western origins, with a reference to the importance of the values of patriotism and freedom” (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2021).

And yet, as Australian National University Professor of History Frank Bongiorno has pointed out, democracy’s roots are neither Christian nor Western (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2021).

It was the monarchical, rigidly hierarchical and command societies of medieval Christianity that the great minds of the enlightenment were seeking to escape when they looked to Periclean Athens for inspiration in creating a new world order.

The Parthenon, one of the great symbols of Athenian democracy, was built 432 years before the birth of Christ, celebrating the fledgling democracy’s defiant stance against its mighty eastern neighbour. Embodying the deep-seated Athenian values of patriotism and freedom, it stands as an eternal reminder that democracy’s roots lie firmly in pagan Greece.

The Athenians were an Eastern-facing society. They traded freely with the Persians, drawing from them much of their creative and scientific inspiration. Many historians would argue Greek democracy was itself inspired by the East. Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the ‘father of history’, hailed from the East, as did many of the Greek philosophers. For the Greeks, ‘the West’ was an unformed idea and was largely unexplored.

Closer look

Still other commentators have said the curriculum is not positive enough. But the assertion that the role of history is to teach children to love their country is naïve, echoing the ‘three cheers’ notion of history espoused by former Prime Minister John Howard.

Any fair-minded and professionally informed reading of the K-10 history syllabus would conclude that these alarmist claims are false.

In K-6, students still explore the traditional topics of family, local community, and recognition of significant events, including Australia Day and Christmas. They still investigate the origins of the nation’s various flags and coats of arms.

Primary students still revel in the adventures of Cook and Banks, the First Fleet, the gold rushes, the impact of European law, Federation, and democratic systems of government, with specific reference to the Magna Carta. The Snowy Mountains Scheme and even the ‘Ten Pound Poms’ all get a run.

Western, Christian culture is no less present in the secondary syllabus, the traditional battleground of the conservative culture warriors.

The growth of Christianity, the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the White Australia Policy are all listed. The Anzac tradition, with specific reference to Gallipoli, was already there, but now enjoys ‘protected’ status.

Unnecessary anxiety

What is it, then, that alarms the critics and why do they so deliberately misrepresent the curriculum? Perhaps it is a fundamental lack of understanding as to what a curriculum document is and how teachers use it.

We need to trust that our teachers are capable of making the best choices for the students in their care.

A history curriculum or syllabus is not a day-to-day set of instructions. At its core, it promotes the teaching of historical knowledge, understanding, skills, historical perspective, evaluation of the evidence and, some would also argue, values and attitudes. While broad areas of inquiry are suggested, specific content is rarely prescribed.

Professional judgement

Throughout the initial draft of the Australian Curriculum, the writers offered suggested content examples. Presumably for the sake of consistency, and no doubt to promote a much-neglected aspect of Australian history, Indigenous content examples were often chosen. So, for example, where civil rights protest movements were listed for study, the Freedom Rides of the 1960s were provided as a suggested content example.

Teachers, however, use their professional judgement to decide what content they believe would be most appropriate in fulfilling the curriculum or syllabus requirements. In making these decisions, they would consider a range of issues, including the student cohort or school context, their own personal expertise, and the resources readily available to them.

When exploring civil rights, as an alternative to studying the Freedom Rides, students in any particular class might equally find themselves researching the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1970s or the WWI anti-conscription efforts the Catholic Church promoted under Archbishop Mannix.

To criticise the document based on a few examples of Indigenous history rather than the broad scope of inquiry that is redolent with Western and Christian content, indicates a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the syllabus.

Democracy at work

Public debates about the curriculum are arguably a sign of democracy at work; but to suggest that some things, such as Anzac Day, are “sacred” (Triple J, The Hack, 7 September 2021) to the point they are beyond critical inquiry is not.

In their journey to becoming active and informed citizens, how children learn about history is equally as important as what they learn. Demanding that some content should somehow be quarantined from the contest of ideas runs counter to this aim.

Critical thinking is not hateful thinking. The former minister’s objections to the proposed curriculum changes are the very reason critical thinking should be taught. And a greater understanding of the work of teachers is needed.

Too many commentators place too little trust in the capacity of teachers to exercise their judgement in creating and delivering a curriculum that meets the nation’s educational goals, treats First Nations peoples with dignity and respect, and empowers the next generation as critical and informed citizens.

Undermining the credibility of the teaching profession serves no worthwhile purpose. We have already witnessed the dangerous consequences of undermining community confidence in democratic institutions: we’re seeing science and health experts, law enforcement officers and the media publicly derided by populists.

Trust in teachers

History is not static and students should learn about events such as Anzac Day from various perspectives, as a way of developing their critical thinking and understanding those with differing world views to their own.

We need to trust that our teachers are capable of making the best choices for the students in their care, and we need to provide them with a national curriculum flexible enough to do so.

A nation’s trust in its institutions is the essence of a free and liberal democracy. If we are to criticise this syllabus document, and by association the profession which contributed to its design, we should at least do so accurately.

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