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