IN 1888 the young poet Henry Lawson declared that more
Australian history should be taught in schools. As John Hirst
argues in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, drought,
strikes and depression had made Lawson both nostalgic and eager
that his country be proud of its past.
A year earlier, his first, fervently nationalistic poem had been
accepted for publication by The Bulletin - Sons of the
South - which asked his fellow countrymen to choose between
"The Land of the Morn and the land of the E'en/ The Old Dead Tree
and the Young Tree green/ The Land that belongs to the lord and the
Queen/ And the Land that belongs to you."
Now, 119 years later, our land still belongs to the Queen and it
is not the republicans facing depression who are calling for more
history to be taught, but politicians in a time of prosperity.
The announcement by the federal Education Minister, Julie
Bishop, yesterday that the study of traditional Australian history
should be reinstated across the country, so that every student
"knows why Captain James Cook sailed along the east coast", is
In many states, history is sidelined and its teachers
inadequately trained. Thanks to former premier Bob Carr, NSW
already leads the charge on this front, with compulsory Australian
history courses in years 9 and 10.
But it's not just any kind of history. The Government is eyeing
the curriculum - Bishop said there was "too much politics in it,
too much indoctrination and not enough pivotal facts and dates".
Which means that these courses will need to comply with John
Howard's concerns about a "fragmented stew of 'themes' and
'issues"' in school history.
The aim of elevating history in schools is admirable, even if
the means are still uncertain - and the insistence on dates at all
times potentially eye-crossing for students. Rote learning is
boring. Themes like war, protest, gender, nation-building, identity
and propaganda are what makes history spring to life for students,
and lead to a more sophisticated understanding of how cultures are
shaped, and why wars are fought.
History without analysis would be like a pie chart, or a
But if we are to teach history to students better, why not make
our politicians take a few lessons as well?
We could start with the desperate concern for racial purity in
the 1800s which shaped much of our attitudes to the Aborigines. The
strong linking of our identity to the "working man's paradise" in
the 1890s. The gloriously defiant, and successful suffrage
movement, led by women like Maybanke Anderson, who wrote in 1891
that: "It can be no more right or expedient for one half of our
population to make laws for the other half than it would be right
for the people north of the 34th parallel to legislate for those
south of it."
We could move to the mottled success of our migration policy,
from the Snowy Mountains scheme to the longstanding White Australia
We could flip from the 1820s in Tasmania, where there were
vicious disputes between Aborigines and settlers, to 1979, when
historian Geoffrey Blainey said that the Australian War Memorial
should recognise warfare between whites and blacks "within the next
10 years", to Cathy Freeman winning Olympic gold.
One of the strains of history often criticised by politicians is
that which includes those previously made invisible - women,
migrants and Aborigines. Any mention of class or gender is derided
as Marxist or feminist. Yet a simple scan of a syllabus such as
that in NSW shows these groups have just been added to a
traditional teaching of Gallipoli, Don Bradman, Charles Kingsford
Smith and the construction of Canberra.
What we need to teach is simply a whole and inclusive history,
which shows that we did not simply go to war and listen to white
men talking about politics. We also fought for equality, were
determinedly iconoclastic and irreverent, waved soldiers off then
kept things going on the home front, brought pasta and souvlaki to
Sydney, bumped Aborigines off their land by force, and developed a
commitment to reform which was noted worldwide: the secret ballot,
women's suffrage, the concept of a living wage, the establishment
of aged pensions and unemployment benefits as well as free
This is history - ugly, inspiring, messy, conflicting, often
inconclusive and baffling, but always illuminating.
There is ample reason for us to fight over what we have done,
who we are and what we might become. As Russell Ward wrote: "The
dreams of nations, as of individuals, are important, because they
not only reflect, as in a distorting mirror, the real world, but
may sometimes react upon and influence it."
When teaching history, it is not only important that we get our
facts straight, but that the dreams and nightmares we record are
those of all of us, not just a few.