The Future of History

Age - 22nd September 2001
Author: Alan Attwood

LATE in 1895 the man who called himself Mark Twain came to Australia on a lecture tour. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was 60, suffering from carbuncles and in dire financial straits: he needed the money from the lectures and whatever material he could gather for publication. "I'm going to write a book on Australia," he told a reporter on arrival in Sydney. "I think I ought to start now. You know so much more of a country when you haven't seen it than when you have."

His book, Following The Equator, appeared five years later. In the Australian section he described the public enthusiasm for the Melbourne Cup, the mistreatment of Aborigines by early settlers and the quaint way in which many people called England "home". But he was especially intrigued by the country's past: "Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies."

What would he have thought, then, if he'd known that many Australian children had learned nothing at all of these beautiful lies? In 1895, the year of Twain's visit, history did not even exist on the Victorian primary school curriculum. Pupils were given instruction in reading and grammar, arithmetic and drill gymnastics, but not history. It was introduced as a separate subject only in the following year and even then it was supplemented by lessons in "Empire". For many years afterwards, such history as was taught was essentially English.

A few years later, a former Victorian Inspector of Schools, Charles Long, wrote a textbook called Stories Of Australian Exploration. It was published in 1903, with a preface in which Long argued the case for the teaching of Australian stories: "Flinders, Sturt, Mitchell, Eyre, Leichhardt - does the mention of these names cause a thrill of pride and gratitude in the breasts of Australian youths? It does not, I venture to say; and why? Teachers have neglected to instruct their pupils in the history of the discovery of the land in which they live."

Almost 100 years on, not so very much has changed. At all levels of education in Victoria, people lament a lack of interest in, and knowledge of, Australian history. Where once history alternated with Empire it has now widely been enveloped by Studies of Society and Environment. Teachers talk glumly of being "Sosed". Symptoms of which are commonly described as a crisis in history, range from a shortage of trained history teachers to a decline in the proportion of history students at VCE level and inexorable erosion of university history departments.

Well before the centenary of Federation could be celebrated this year, organisers felt it necessary to run an advertising campaign educating citizens about the event being commemorated. Hence the ads: "What kind of country would forget the name of its first Prime Minister?" and others in the series, all aimed at addressing profound national ignorance about the past.

The deputy chairman of the National Council for the Centenary of Federation, Rodney Cavalier, says the council has spent around $10million on education programs - including books, seminars, and TV series - all aimed at informing the public about their past. Why? Because, as he puts it: "It is possible to go through high school without studying history; it is possible to study history without doing Australian history; and it is possible to study Australian history without even looking at the 20th century."

The books and programs commissioned by the council will outlast this year. And it believes Australians have more self-knowledge than before. In 1997, around 27percent of respondents in a survey understood what becoming a federation meant. Now, the council claims the figure is 87percent; 83percent of survey respondents recall seeing or hearing ads or promotions about the centenary of Federation. But the council's own figures suggest the public may be distinctly underwhelmed. Two years ago, 39percent of people declared it "very important" that the centenary be celebrated. Just last month, well after most of the festivities, that figure had dropped to 37percent.

Part of the problem may be the nature of the event. In a country where antipathy to politicians is widespread, the first national parliament was being recalled. Historian Stuart Macintyre, Dean of Arts at the University of Melbourne, has noted that when force-fed to students the so-called fathers of Federation can "blur into a bearded bore". (Edmund Barton, the answer to the first PM question, was the only non-whiskery one.) And if there's one big problem with Australian history it is this: the perception that it is boring. This partly accounts for a lack of enthusiasm among students.

In a speech to a conference of history teachers last November, state education minister Mary Delahunty lamented that only one in eight VCE students studies a history subject, with even fewer going on to study history at university. And consider the breakdown in VCE history. Three Year 12 options are offered: Renaissance Italy; Revolutions; and Australian History. Revolutions is by far the most popular, attracting around 60percent more students than the 2263 studying Australian this year. Why? Dr Jacqualine Hollingworth of the History Teachers' Association of Victoria looks incredulous that the question has even been asked: "They've got Robespierre and Stalin, Washington and Mao - we've got Alfred Deakin!"

At St Michael's Grammar School in St Kilda, Revs (as it's called) is taught every year at VCE level; Australian alternates with Renaissance. It's another pointer to the comparative popularity of subjects. In the staffroom, history and humanities teachers Cheryl Anthony, Di McDonald and Graham Morey-Nase, talk about the importance of nurturing citizens who understand their society and its past.

But what they are up against, says Dr Morey-Nase, "is the perception among many kids that Australian history is boring. It is seen as being prosaic, without the broad sweeping themes of Hitler and Stalin. It's very immediate to them, and accessible, with no sense of the exotic." Putting it crudely, Australian history is seen as not terribly sexy. It is also something to which students are exposed, even in small portions, from the early grades. By years 11 and 12, Rasputin or Napoleon or McCarthy can seem more interesting than explorers and gold and Menzies.

Cavalier insists that the argument about Australian history not being bloody or riveting can be demolished in half an hour. Robert Sieminski, VCE history teacher at Bayside Secondary College in the western suburbs, describes it as "superficial - you can get around it, mate: there are tactics". As Hollingsworth says, students can find Barton much more compelling if taught that his nickname was "Toby Tosspot".

To Sieminski, it all gets back to teaching. A qualified, passionate teacher can always animate students. One problem is, however, that Monash University is the only metropolitan campus offering trainee teachers instruction in history. Which is why Hollingworth can get calls from, say, physical education or commerce teachers seeking help because they've been asked to take some history lessons. And one bad teacher can put a student off a subject for life.

At Bayside, Australian history rather than Revolutions is offered to VCE students. This was Sieminski's decision "because Australian's knowledge of themselves and their past is appalling". Like many at his school, Sieminski has a migrant background; he talks of history as a means of attaining "literacy in identity". It is also be a way of understanding the present. After the recent attacks in the United States, students were approaching him - an international studies and history teacher - to try to comprehend, and deal with, what was going on.

Teenagers tend to be plugged into the present and future more than the past. At St Michael's, observing just one year 9 Australian history class is enough to show the challenge facing a teacher like Ms Anthony. Notebook computers are used for e-mails rather than notes; one girl is clearly more interested in her lip gloss than the issue of repatriation of soldiers after World War I.

Yet William Moore, 14, says he likes the subject. It is, he says, "about things that have affected our lives ... I had absolutely no idea what happened at Gallipoli". But he is unsure if he'll study history at a higher level. "It's useful, but not as a career choice. More as a general knowledge thing."

What he is pointing to is the main problem now faced by teachers and advocates of history at all levels. There is a sense of history - and the humanities generally, literature and languages as well - being drowned by a rising tide of vocationalism: subjects being taken and taught for pragmatic reasons, none more pressing than the likelihood of jobs. The cry of "Show me the money!" is not unique to sporting circles. Parents as well as students want a tangible outcome to study. One result is that while history dwindles, business studies is booming.

But there is no shortage of people lamenting this trend. New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, a history buff himself, has insisted on students in years 7 to 10 studying history and geography. Delahunty has followed his lead, saying: "At times it has been assumed that the study of history has no practical use, that it is some sort of luxury, suited to an earlier, more leisurely age ... before everyone's lives became dominated by what really mattered - economic outcomes.

"It has also been imagined that learning history is a dangerous thing, because it might be employed for political purposes, turned into a tool of political correctness, used to impose - in that notorious phrase - a `black armband' message on young minds. History was both irrelevant and dangerous."

In her November speech, Delahunty advocated the teaching of history as a separate discipline and announced the formation of a History Council of Victoria, chaired by Macintyre and existing partly to raise the profile of history and increase support to teachers. These steps have been welcomed in history circles. But, as Cavalier says, when it comes to school curriculums, "any change is glacial".

Yet it is undeniable that what is taught in Australian history courses in schools has changed remarkably. Late in the 19th century, when Mark Twain put to paper his acerbic comments about the treatment of Aborigines, it was unusual for writers, especially visiting writers, to consider the original inhabitants.

A centenary volume, The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, 1888, begins with the first sightings by white mariners and is pitched at English rather than Australian readers. "On the continent we are regarded as the sleeping partner of Great Britain."

Manning Clark took as the theme for the first volume of his influential A History of Australia (first published in 1962) "the coming of European civilisation to Australia". And he wrote: "Civilisation did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the 18th century."

Now, VCE units in Koori history are offered at year 11. Teachers talk of feeling liberated by being able to discuss a history that extends back much further than 1788. In his Australia - A Biography, writer Eric Rolls goes back to the beginning of the cosmos. Twenty-six years after the first publication of The Real Matilda, in which Miriam Dixson noted "no women in the pantheon of Australian gods", there is also a greater appreciation of women's history. Which might not have been helped by all the preaching this year about "fathers of Federation".

With issues such as reconciliation and the stolen generation, history has become current affairs. As Geoffrey Blainey has written: "Many of the red-hot topics in national life have strong historical echoes. All the lively Aboriginal topics rest on appeals to history."

It's against this background that a conference will be held at the State Library of Victoria on October5 and 6. Called "Challenging Histories", it will take the Federation centenary year as an apt time to "examine the role of history in the shaping of Australian identities, and the responsibilities of historians to contribute to the future development of Australian society and culture".

Session topics include the teaching of history in schools and history and the creative imagination. But the keynote address - by Marcia Langton , professor of indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne - examines Australian history from an Aboriginal perspective.

An organiser of the conference, Associate Professor Kate Darian-Smith from the university's Australian Centre, says the conference aims to pull together many threads: the paucity of historical knowledge in school students; the impact of the Federation centenary on thinking about history; and issues such as reconciliation, which demands an historical perspective. And one of the points Darian-Smith is keen to make is that not all the news from the history front is gloomy.

The recent writers' festival in Melbourne devoted a whole session to "Why History Is Hot". Among the participants was Blainey, who has pointed to the boom in biographies, family histories, and genealogy. Bookshop best-seller lists include Peter Carey's rewriting of the Ned Kelly story and non-fiction narratives such as Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed the World and Les Carlyon's Gallipoli. Which reminds us of the annual pilgrimage made every year by young backpackers to the Anzac scene. Hardly the behavior of a generation with has no interest in its past.

Consider some of the big films of recent years, Gladiator and Braveheart. Teenagers who might have protested that they had no interest in Roman or British history queued to see them. Both Braveheart (as well as The Patriot, about the American War of Independence) starred Mel Gibson. One of his breakthrough roles was in Gallipoli, which is now 20 years old. We are overdue for another film of its kind with a star of Gibson's stature; it could be enough to rekindle a boom in Australian history. There is no shortage of great stories. It all depends how they are told.

When you read some of the best-known histories it is remarkable how often authors recount a process of discovery. In his introduction to The Fatal Shore, for example, Robert Hughes described how, in Port Arthur in 1974, "I realised that like nearly all other Australians I knew little about the convict past of my own country".

IN Sources of Australian History, first published in 1957, Manning Clark wrote about Australian history from 1788 to the 1920s having been well worked over. Beyond that, however, "the history is almost like an uncharted sea". There is still a need for explorers.

In a long essay called The Essentials of Australian History, published last year as part of a national inquiry into school history, Monash University historian Mark Peel raised his banner for Australian history. He wanted to teach it, he wrote, "because I regard a critical knowledge of that history as a fundamental component of citizenship".

Peel is aware of the challenge. "On the face of it, Australian history can seem rather uneventful." He has advocated "an Australian history based upon invention, debate, imagination".

Fellow historian Janet McCalman argues: "To make history compelling to young people, we need to restore the narrative form to our teaching of history in schools."

That's what it is; the telling of stories. As Twain observed long ago, Australia's past is replete with curious and strange tales. All those beautiful lies. Cook. Bligh. Leichhardt. Eureka. Goolagong. Whitlam. Whether they can divert attention from year 9 lip-gloss or Russell Crowe in a leather skirt is another question.