Room for many schools of his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Zoe Pol­lock

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.

Pic­ture: Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial

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

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