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.
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.
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.
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.