Room for many schools of history
THIS book changed my mind. John Howard’s Australia Day address in 2006 reignited debate about the teaching of Australian history in schools. It was not the first time politicians had drawn attention to the history curriculum, but there was much suspicion surrounding Howard’s motives for wanting to create a national curriculum.
Whatever the views on Howard’s political agenda in imposing a national history curriculum, the idea was widely celebrated by historians and history teachers as giving an emphasis back to our subject. The importance of the subject also has been reflected in the Rudd Government’s commitment to continue work on the curriculum, extending the scope of the project to include compulsory history from kindergarten to Year 12.
In all this focus on the curriculum, perspectives from the classroom have been overshadowed by the debates between professional historians and politicians. While the History Teachers Association has been quite successful in promoting the views of teachers, Australian school students have had little input.
Anna Clark’s book History’s Children seeks to redress the balance. Clark travelled across the
History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom By Anna Clark University of NSW Press, 177pp, $ 29.95
nation, visiting 35 schools in a variety of socioeconomic areas to interview students and teachers about the Australian history curriculum.
She has avoided writing an overly theoretical book. Instead she has focused on presenting the views of students and teachers in the clearest possible way while offering some interpretation of her own. The result is a book that speaks directly to educators and curriculum writers from the classroom.
Clark’s findings are disturbing. Most students she interviewed despised Australian history. One exclaimed in response to a question about Federation: ‘‘ Australian history just makes me want to cry. It’s so boring and I can’t stand it.’’
Compulsory units on Federation were introduced after a 1997 survey conducted by the National Council for the Centenary of Federation found only 18 per cent of respondents knew the name of Australia’s first prime minister. Although most school students now can name Edmund Barton without pause, Clark highlights their lack of engagement with the topic. ‘‘ So long as Federation remains a fact to be learned it will remain dull and disconnected for students,’’ she argues. Even the study of the Anzacs is not immune. While most students responded more positively to lessons about Australia’s wartime involvement, Clark insists that the level of engagement is still superficial.
‘‘ If the Anzac story does indeed get students interested in the past, then we need it more than ever, but that identification mustn’t be at the expense of learning history in all its complexity,’’ she says.
Although I graduated from high school in 2000, the history classroom seems to have altered radically. In most states history has been subsumed into the interdisciplinary studies of society and environment.
I attended a school where we had to choose between history and geography in Year 8. I chose history and have been passionate about it ever since. The voices of students in History’s Children still struck a chord, however. I can barely recall learning Australian history at school but can still recite essays that I wrote on the Russian revolution.
Perhaps this is because the focus of elective history was international, but a lot of it also comes down to the passion my teachers brought to the classroom. As Clark points out, many of those teaching history in Australian schools have not been trained in the discipline.
So the issue is not the subject but the way it is taught. Students wish to be engaged in the classroom. But if this is to happen the curriculum needs to be flexible enough to apply to different learning environments and excite different teachers. According to Clark, teachers are ‘‘ caught between the public and political expectations of what students should know and the reality of the classroom where student interest and engagement are not so easily prescribed’’.
The relevance of a national curriculum to local experiences is also questioned. Students from remote areas in Western Australia, for instance, have a difficult time relating to tales of Botany Bay. There is scope here for a more detailed discussion about the nationalistic overtones of the history curriculum, a topic Clark avoids. She mentions, but does not question, the importance placed on the history curriculum by policymakers and the public.
Her assessment of students’ responses to the history curriculum is also isolated to the classroom. I was fascinated by students’ responses to the Anzacs as a topic; these were on the whole enthusiastic and strikingly patriotic. While Clark touches on the general rise in popularity of Anzac Day, the focus is on teachers’ excitement about the topic.
It seems to me that students’ interest in history is as much sparked by broader interpre-
tations of what’s important in our history as by the joie de vivre of their teachers. But history is not an exercise in writing a national legend and teaching it should be a process of awakening the questioning of discourses and stereotypes within our society, a point Clark makes well.
The book made me question my commitment to compulsory history in schools. I’ve always studied the topics that excited me and history was a natural choice for me. But to impose it on everyone raises an important question about our motivations. History’s Children is a warning to policymakers. Implementation of a national curriculum aims to avoid repetition in teaching the subject and differing levels of knowledge across the states. Focusing on milestones of Australian history as markers of knowledge ( and perhaps national identity) will not produce conscious, informed citizens, however.
Rather, it is the debates about and interpretations of history that make it an interesting subject. Australian students need to be equipped with the analytical skills to make up their own minds about our national story.
As Neil, a Canberra history teacher quoted in the book, remarks: ‘‘ There’s been a lot of talk about a renaissance in Australian history by making it compulsory. But if we don’t get it right it will be a funeral wake.’’ But Clark does not offer any clues on how to get it right. History’s Children raises many questions about the history curriculum and its implementation. The research is important and the results interesting, but the book is light on analysis. Clark has few solutions for the problems she identifies.
Nonetheless, History’s Children brings an important message to policymakers. Hopefully, the Rudd Government’s stated commitment to inclusiveness will be reflected in the construction of a national history curriculum that allows for diverse views and enables students to engage with history at the local and national level. Zoe Pollock is the executive officer of the History Council of NSW.
National myth: The Taking of Lone Pine by Fred Leist. Students respond positively to lessons about Australia’s wartime involvement, but Anna Clark says the engagement is superficial