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May 01st 2010 print

Gregory Melleuish

The Dubious Future of History

I should like to begin with a quote:

As there is no country where statesmen have been so much under the influence of the past, so there is no country where historians have been so much under the influence of the present. Between these two things, indeed, there is a natural connection. Where history is regarded merely as a picture of life and manners, or as a collection of experiments from which general maxims of civil wisdom may be drawn, a writer lies under no very pressing temptation to misrepresent transactions of ancient date. But where history is regarded as a repository of title deeds, on which the rights of governments and nations depend, the motive to falsification becomes almost irresistible.

This may sound like Australia in the twenty-first century but it comes from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s great History of England written in the 1850s. It reminds us that what we now call “history wars” have long been a feature of English culture, the culture that provided the foundation stones for our own culture. The intellectual portion of the battle between King and Parliament was often fought out in works of history and how they interpreted the past.

When Edmund Burke began his analysis of the problems with the Revolution in France his starting point was how the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England should be understood. Burke understood that what was crucial about the French Revolution was its rejection of the authority of history and of the traditions of the past and the attempt to replace history by an appeal to abstract principles.

The French themselves have conducted a two-century historical battle over their Revolution because it is the foundation document of their modern history. But it is also true to say that the Revolution confirmed the importance of philosophy, of the Cartesian frame of mind, in French culture. France produces intellectuals because the French prefer clear ideas and logic to the messy empiricism of historical inquiry.

The same cannot be said of England. For the English, philosophy was like porridge or haggis, a largely Scottish indulgence. Somehow it has always been difficult to use the word intellectual in the English context. The involvement of thinking men in public affairs and the more general concern with practical matters meant a general suspicion of abstract ideas and of appealing to first principles. The same is not as true for America. For Americans their Revolution meant a new beginning and a rejection of the ties of the past. By necessity they had to appeal to universal ideas.

Of course, as radical historians often bemoan, Australia has never had a revolution and “blood on the wattle”, so that there has never been any real discontinuity that involved a renunciation of the British heritage. In the nineteenth century arguments about politics and the future of the colonies invariably revolved around the meaning of the British Constitution. In Australia political controversies have often come to be seen in historical terms because present policies are not decided so much on abstract principles, such as the application of human rights, as on historical actions of the past. This is because of the continuity of Australian history, and this includes the inheritance of a legal system based on common law in which precedent plays such an important part. Political debate, at least in part, is to be conducted in terms of the evaluation of past actions and the need for those actions to be rectified, improved or even heartily approved.

One could argue that this gives history a special place in Australian political culture as it places matters of history at the centre of political discussion. This can be seen in a number of areas: 

• Stolen generations and Aboriginal matters generally; 

• The Australian Settlement of the early twentieth century and economic policy more generally; 

• Arguments about political parties and for what they should stand, in which appeals are made to the great leaders of the past.

This is not to deny that there is the tendency for modern intellectuals to want to escape the past, to “transcend it” and to begin anew on first principles. This is what we might call, following Matthew Arnold, the Jacobin principle. The French Jacobins essentially sought to begin anew during the French Revolution; the Republic was to be Year 1 of a new era. They threw out hundreds of years of law, custom and practice so that France would conform to their ideals.

Jacobinism today is most often found amongst philosophers, economists and constitutional lawyers of a radical and rationalist bent. For them, rational consistency is more important than whether something actually works. But it is as true today as it was when W.K. Hancock wrote Australia in 1930 that Australians do not really like economists. Philosophers hardly feature in their consciousness, while they are more interested in the practical exercise of their rights than in theories about rights.

The same cannot be said for history and its place in Australian culture. Historians and history have a significant place in the Australian public sphere. One has only to think of Geoffrey Blainey, of the late Manning Clark, of Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle. This presence is not matched by any other academic discipline. It is a consequence of the fact that history matters in Australia; the study of the past is not seen as some sort of antiquarian exercise. It is something that is relevant for the here and now. It has a direct relationship to political matters because politics in Australia is so often understood through history.

May I give one concrete example of how important history has been seen to be in Australia. Back in the 1990s when the Labor government established its Civics group and sought to inflict Keating’s republic on us it chose historians such as Stuart Macintyre to be on that committee rather than political scientists. The same is true of the academic advisers to the Discovering Democracy program that came into being under a Liberal minister who was a political scientist. Why should this have been the case? Why were historians such Stuart Macintyre and his mate John Hirst chosen to deal with such issues as civics and the nature of Australian democracy rather than political scientists who had a much surer theoretical grasp of such matters?

I believe the answer lies deeply embedded in Australian culture. Historians were, and are, seen as the appropriate people to deal with civics and democracy because such matters are understood empirically and hence historically in Australia. They are not considered to be matters to be comprehended through abstract theorising.

Put another way, in Australia, history matters. It is a highly important element of Australian culture. It matters because Australians understand that it is through history that they come to understand who they are and from where they have come. It enables them to explain the present. Of course, there will always be contending versions of the past because there are alternative views of the nature of the present. As with Macaulay, our present seeks to control our past, just as our past gives shape to our present. In fact it is so important that some will seek to falsify the past for political purposes.

In these circumstances, something like a history war is unavoidable because the stakes are relatively high. The victor wins not only the historical but also the political debate. The stuff of history, especially Australian history, is not merely an academic matter that can be safely relegated to the seminar room. It has practical implications for the present and for the future.

One obvious comparison is with climate change. If this was just an academic matter, scientists could go on forever debating the mechanics of global warming and global cooling. There would be argument and counter-argument and a number of schools of thought because that is the way the academy has traditionally operated. Climate change only becomes an issue because it is seen to have practical policy implications. Under these circumstances the nature of the science changes because the stakes are raised and issues of political power come into play. The tactics of the pro-climate-change science activists match those of their counterparts in history. There has been an attempt to create the illusion of a consensus amongst scientists through a variety of means, some of them unsavoury, and then to portray anyone who opposes that consensus as not being a real scientist.

This was exactly what Stuart Macintyre attempted to do in the History Wars. Macintyre portrayed his opponents as not being really historians, as outsiders not engaged in legitimate debate and discussion but in attacks on the history profession. Attempts were made to paint Keith Windschuttle as not being a “real” historian. However, there were no such issues where political scientist Robert Manne was concerned, despite his lack of a doctorate in history. 

We are living at a time when there is a powerful temptation amongst academic activists to shut down important debates that are a central part of any democratic society. They do so by attempting to deprive those who are outside the magic circle of these so-called “experts” the right to be heard. In recent times we have heard a powerful cartel composed of Universities Australia, the ARC and the CSIRO tell us that they are banding together to protect “scientists” from the evil machinations of climate sceptics.

This desire to create an “official” position on matters of public importance is, I believe, one of the defining features of our time and it has worrying implications. One of the other defining features of the age is the desire to centralise more and more things in the hands of the national government, to seek uniformity rather than diversity.

Keeping that in mind, we need to understand some of the consequences of both a national curriculum and the inclusion of history within that curriculum. 

• The first thing is that a national curriculum means that there will be only one curriculum for students to study in Australia. 

• The second thing is that the inclusion of history in the national curriculum means the consolidation of the place of history within Australian culture. It also means that there will be more history teachers and consequently the expansion of history as a discipline in Australian universities. 

• The third thing it may indicate is a rejection of the somewhat abstract social sciences/social studies for an emphasis on something more concrete. However, in this matter there is a need to be careful because it may simply mean that history turns itself into a form of social studies. One has only to bear in mind the way in which narrative history was rejected by the 2006 Australian History Summit.

On the one hand the new curriculum represents an enormous opportunity for those of us who love history and want nothing more than students also to come to love it. In an ideal world students would be able to explore the ways in which human beings have acted, the problems they have faced, and the ways in which they have attempted to surmount those problems. They would be free to attempt to fathom the reasons why men and women, considered as individuals, have made the choices that they did, both for good and for bad. History is a discipline that allows us to explore our humanity and to appreciate our strengths and our weaknesses.

On the other hand there is a real danger that history will become simply a tool of indoctrination in the hands of a select group of academics, bureaucrats and politicians. We have already seen how over the years a small group of bureaucrats and academics in Canberra gained control of such projects as Discovering Democracy and civics education. Once in control they attempted to exclude ideas that did not suit their ideological preoccupations. This included the promotion of the idea of an Australian republic and an attempt to overturn our constitutional monarchy.

Another clear example of the ideological bent of this group was their exclusion of those who argued that one needed to appreciate the role of religion in Australia if one wished to understand the true nature of Australian democracy. Macintyre and Hirst are not great fans of religion. Macintyre has been accused by Bob Gould, of all people, of attempting, in his Cambridge History of Australia, to write the Irish Catholics out of Australian history. Religion is mentioned only once in the section of the new curriculum dealing with Australia.

There can be no doubt that this section of the new curriculum will mandate a rigorous secularism, despite the fact that a significant proportion of our students are educated at religious schools and that religion is becoming a much more important part of our contemporary world. Christianity continues to thrive while the corpse of Marxism rots and putrefies. One suspects, however, that this is the opposite of the view that will be presented to students. Religion is an important part of human history. It should be studied as part of any history curriculum. To leave it out is an ideological act.

The religion issue illustrates one of the major problems for anyone seeking to evaluate the draft history curriculum. As it stands it is a bare-bones document. It appears to be rather bland. At a glance it appears not to be overtly ideological. 

It is only by considering the emphases and the omissions that one can get a sense of what it might eventually look like when it comes to be taught. For example, the emphasis on the Industrial Revolution may well reflect Macintyre’s desire to inflict on students stories about the evils of capitalism. The concentration on movements and groups instead of individuals also indicates the collectivist bent of its authors.

It goes without saying that a compulsory national history curriculum raises the stakes considerably regarding the place that history will play in shaping Australian culture in the future. It raises the stakes because of the potential power that it hands to what will probably be a revitalised historical profession. Will it be a history profession that falls in behind its leaders, including Comrade Macintyre, or will it be one that embraces the idea that there can be more than one, state-approved, version of the past?

As noted above, the real problem in recent public disputes in both history and science has been the way in which debate and discussion have been characterised as the profession versus amateurs or academics versus opinionated commentators. My worry is that this tendency will become more pronounced in the future, so that academic historians and the students they teach (who will become the school history teachers) will tend to fall in behind a particular view of history.

That is the most worrying aspect of the History Wars as they have developed up to the present. For Macintyre and for many academic historians these wars are not about conflicting interpretations of history. They are about historians versus the rest. They are about historians protecting their turf against those who, in their eyes, really do not have the right to speak.

Leaving aside the issue of a national curriculum generally, this is not a very propitious time for the introduction of national history curriculum. This can be seen when the two arguments that I have attempted to make here are brought together: 

• History has a special place in Australian culture but that means that it is also going to be tied to contemporary political issues. History wars invariably follow from this connection. 

• There is a tendency within Australian intellectual elites to want to enforce a single authorised view in such areas as science and history.

A national history curriculum has the potential to provide the opportunity for an authorised version of history that can ignore other views because they are not legitimate; they are merely the opinions of those who really do not know what they are talking about.

It can be objected that my fears in this matter are ill-founded. One knows from the experience of compulsory history in Years 9 and 10 in New South Wales that the execution falls well short of the intent. There will be enormous problems training teachers to teach this curriculum who possess competence let alone enthusiasm. Preaching at students does not necessarily produce converts. It can be counter-productive. It can result in turning students off history for life.

Nevertheless what is taught will have an impact on a significant number of students. As it influences public historical understanding, so its impact will flow onto other areas, including politics. Its potential for both good and evil cannot be ignored.

What is to be done?

The first point that needs to be made is that we are not talking about competing models of indoctrination. What we really want to be rid of is the notion that indoctrination has any place in the teaching of history. We want to create a type of history that appreciates the past in all its richness, the contribution that it has made to the present, and acknowledges that history is made by human beings who are capable of doing great things, of committing terrible crimes and of being very ordinary.

We also need to learn from the mistakes that have already been made. The way the previous government dealt with the 2006 Australian History Summit, which set in motion the events that have led to the current curriculum proposal, was riddled with mistakes. It failed to appreciate the nature of the history profession in Australia and consequently its planning was completely inadequate. We do not want a repetition of that debacle.

The first thing that needs to be appreciated is that history, its study and teaching, is a serious matter. Just because it is in the cultural basket does not mean it is something that can be treated as peripheral. If one loses the history battle this can, and will, have implications for a whole range of other areas in this country, including the economic ones that governments regard as being so important. The second thing that needs to be appreciated is that a critical approach may simply be brushed aside by the historical establishment as yet another attack by the ignorant and ill-informed.

In an ideal world there could be some hope that a change of government might lead to the dismantling of the national curriculum but I think this would be wishful thinking. We now have to live with the reality of a national curriculum.

I believe that a much more positive approach needs to be taken. There is the reality of a compulsory national history curriculum and the flow-on effects that this will have for the study of history in universities. We need to work with that reality and attempt to prise open what appears to be a closed shop. Teachers and lecturers cannot provide alternative views of historical events if they do not have the books and articles that provide them with those views. Following in the footsteps of Keith Windschuttle, we have a responsibility to continue to produce works that challenge the existing orthodoxy, that provide an alternative to the official view. We also need to follow Windschuttle in the task of exposing the falsification of history which, as Macaulay saw, is the great temptation of those who would impose an official view of the past.

At the same time we need to provide an alternative model of history to the one that is on offer. We need to emphasise the importance of narrative, of people making their own history, and of the place of individuals. The history curriculum appears to be in danger of becoming another form of social studies, the study of social movements and vast impersonal forces. We need to fight for the place of individuals in history.

One way of looking at this matter is to say that we need to engage in the continuing history war that is the normal consequence of the role that history has in our culture, but without being stigmatised, and therefore dismissed, as history warriors. The dismissal of opponents as stupid and mad has been a standard tactic used by the Left for a long, long time as a means of hiding its intellectual deficiencies.

Now I am sure that many of you will see what I propose as somewhat idealistic. You will say that whatever happens we will find ourselves being portrayed as “history warriors”. Still, I am sure that there are historians and history teachers out there who do not want to toe the party line. There are schools that will baulk at some of the ways in which history is being served up to their students. They need to be supported; they need to be assured that there is more than one interpretation of history. If they are not given assistance then the future may very well belong to Macintyre’s heirs.

Associate Professor Gregory Melleuish teaches in the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong. His most recent book is The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian History and Politics (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009). He is editing a collection of essays, to be published by Connor Court, that will evaluate the contribution of James McAuley to Australian intellectual life.