‘The empty pur­suit of “ex­cel­lence” en­cour­ages a nar­cis­sis­tic fo­cus on tick­ing boxes that en­hance ca­reers rather than change the world’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Han­nah Forsyth is a lec­turer in his­tory at the Aus­tralian Catholic Univer­sity.

Ilove it when peo­ple ask me what I do for a liv­ing: “his­to­rian” is al­ways well re­ceived. Most peo­ple will re­call a his­tory les­son from school or even re­fer me to a close rel­a­tive who ap­par­ently “loves his­tory”, in­ti­mat­ing that such arm­chair his­to­ri­ans might of­fer some help­ful tips on my next project.

Those who are gen­er­ally sus­pi­cious of the hu­man­i­ties tend to look more kindly on his­tory. “I think his­tory is a sci­ence,” one politi­cian told me re­cently, ev­i­dently im­ply­ing a flat­ter­ing con­trast be­tween his­tory and other, wool­lier, hu­man­i­ties dis­ci­plines.

Even at­tacks on the dis­ci­pline re­veal its im­por­tance. Aus­tralia’s gag­gle of per­sis­tent cul­ture war­riors be­lieve that “his­tory re­ally mat­ters” and so go to sig­nif­i­cant lengths to show that we are teach­ing it wrongly. These bas­tions of the in­tel­lec­tual right are not pre­oc­cu­pied with whether ge­og­ra­phy, for in­stance, is still teach­ing flags and cap­i­tal ci­ties, but are con­cerned that if his­to­ri­ans have some­how for­got­ten about an­cient Greek democ­racy or the achieve­ments of the Bri­tish Em­pire, this might mean the end of civil­i­sa­tion in the present, too.

Any­one can see that de­spite some hope­ful pock­ets of change, his­tory is still cling­ing, al­most piti­fully, to the well-trod­den study of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion. Don’t get me wrong: I think we should teach this stuff, be­cause un­der­stand­ing the struc­tures of the world we live in could help us build a bet­ter one. The same logic, though, says that his­to­ries of sex­u­al­ity, mi­gra­tion and non-West­ern re­gions are also im­por­tant and timely. And I can’t imag­ine why a sin­gle Aus­tralian would sug­gest that un­der­stand­ing our Indige­nous her­itage is any­thing less than the re­spon­si­bil­ity and priv­i­lege of ev­ery cit­i­zen.

But de­spite this sig­nif­i­cant di­ver­sity in what his­to­ri­ans teach and re­search, as a dis­ci­pline we re­main wed­ded to a very nar­row con­cep­tion of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion in the way that we value the per­for­mance of his­tory. I at­tribute this seem­ingly in­tractable prob­lem not only to the dis­ci­pline it­self but also to our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems.

No one likes an aca­demic his­to­rian who crit­i­cises his­tory in schools, and I have deep ad­mi­ra­tion for school his­tory teach­ers, whose job seems unimag­in­ably hard. But a sys­tem where both the teacher’s ex­per­tise and the stu­dent’s learn­ing are re­duced to a cen­trally reg­u­lated tick-box is hardly one likely to en­cour­age think­ing out­side those boxes.

Although we have much more free­dom as his­tory re­searchers, uni­ver­si­ties are lit­tle bet­ter. The empty pur­suit of “ex­cel­lence”, marked by mean­ing­less rank­ing sys­tems, en­cour­ages a nar­cis­sis­tic fo­cus on tick­ing boxes that en­hance ca­reers rather than change the world. Laud­able con­cepts such as “en­gage­ment” and “im­pact” of­ten boil down in prac­tice to cyn­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions about how a project can gain re­search fund­ing, rather than truly ex­am­in­ing the di­verse ben­e­fits that his­to­ri­ans have on the world.

But the main prob­lem is not so much the boxes as the val­ues against which they align. These are with­out ex­cep­tion grounded in ed­u­ca­tion tra­di­tions that priv­i­lege the at­tributes of cer­tain staff – and by ex­ten­sion, stu­dents. Grow­ing up with books on the shelf, ex­pe­ri­ence of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and reg­u­lar din­ner-table de­bates al­ways seem to of­fer a de­cided ad­van­tage in his­tory.

This class-based ad­van­tage is also West­ern. His­tory is grounded in West­ern knowl­edge tra­di­tions, and these ways of know­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing – the struc­ture of nar­ra­tive, the logic of per­sua­sion, the types of ev­i­dence and the high lev­els of writ­ten English ex­pres­sion – are so val­ued by the dis­ci­pline that other forms of knowl­edge and ways of know­ing are pushed out.

I re­cently spoke to a his­tory teacher in the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity of Menindee, who ex­pressed frus­tra­tion over this. The lo­cal Barkindji chil­dren, he ex­plained, grow up with a deep, de­tailed and lived un­der­stand­ing of Abo­rig­i­nal his­tory and cul­ture. But even in the school sub­ject of Abo­rig­i­nal stud­ies, the sys­tem, he felt, was slanted to­wards the suc­cess of pri­vate school girls on Syd­ney’s wealthy north shore; Barkindji chil­dren’s knowl­edge of the same sub­ject mat­ter was not val­ued in the same way.

His­to­ri­ans may seek to “de­colonise” his­tory in our re­search, and we may even teach the key texts on de­coloni­sa­tion in our classes. But the struc­ture of his­tory con­tin­ues not only to value West­ern civil­i­sa­tion in its sub­ject mat­ter, but also to priv­i­lege be­ing a mid­dle­class Westerner.

Per­haps the good­will granted to us, as his­to­ri­ans, is a prob­lem – maybe we tick too many com­fort­ing boxes, align­ing to things we ought in­stead to un­set­tle.

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