The History Curriculum has attracted a great deal of controversy since its inception in 2013. Former Prime Minister John Howard addressed his concerns with the scope of the curriculum in Quadrant. Kevin Donnelly and Mervyn Bendle have done the same. Nonetheless, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has trundled along, barely missing a step, despite an inquiry launched by the Abbott government, forging a national curriculum largely informed by the Melbourne Declaration of 2008.
This paper will deal solely with History, and how ACARA’s curriculum has contributed to what is, in my view, a corruption of the discipline in schools. Many of the problems in the History Curriculum are to be found elsewhere; the interested reader will find plentiful examples in the English Curriculum, for instance.
This lament for the state of education in modern Australia appears
in the April edition of Quadrant, now on sale.
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I will look at two things. Largely, I will look at how we teach history at present. What we teach has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I will spend only a little time on it.
How we teach history
“We are not concerned about the narrative of events, or the retelling of history,” I have heard so many times I have lost count, “we are interested in skills.”
Thus, history teaching is not about content—a dirty word among the ACARA curriculum gurus—but is instead about skills. What good is knowledge to students? Who cares if they can recount the events of 1066, or the fall of the Roman Republic, or the Pacific Campaign? What relevance will it have to their daily lives, to their future role in the workforce? But skills: now, there’s a word we can get behind. Everybody likes skills. What could be of better utility?
We have become, even among our educated classes, a post-learning society. Ostensibly, the internet has been the vehicle of this shift in consciousness; with information on anything easily obtained, we have no need to carry it about in our own skulls any longer. Of course, information is not the same as knowledge, and without knowledge, wisdom is difficult to obtain. Sending unformed young minds to the internet for knowledge is like sending them to a sewer for fresh water. I am no longer startled by the abject lack of general knowledge among everybody under the age of fifty. Once, we might have said they knew a lot about a little, or a little about a lot; now it seems they know very little about very little. ACARA’s unwieldly response to this shift is to turn learning history into the learning of abstract skills, transferable everywhere—the best response to the interconnected world. It is, in essence, to swallow more of the same poison. The antidote is rigour, but rigour won’t be found in the utilitarian and progressive model of teaching.
This utilitarian approach to education has difficulties when it is applied outside of vocational studies. Many find it difficult to convince some students that they should care about the past, especially when they are at the age when the present is trouble enough. The answer from the teaching profession has been the promotion of relevance: that we should teach to the student’s present position, rather than expect any mental elevation. This is an obvious poisoned chalice. Once we tell a student that his immediate experience is sufficient, it is hard to persuade him to step outside of it, particularly when that might require effort. In effect, we decide to leave them in their “mind-forg’d manacles”, the very opposite of what a decent education is supposed to achieve. In order to understand the shift in history teaching—from content knowledge to abstract skills—we must realise that this is the shift that happened first. We decided that all teaching should be utilitarian, and that we should focus on imparting skills that can be picked up and carried about like a toolbox, useful in any walk of life.
Broadly, the Australian Curriculum emphasises several skills in history. First, students should demonstrate an understanding of chronology. Second, they should be able to form an inquiry question: that is, a first-principle question about something historical that they choose to then investigate. Third, they should be able to use primary and secondary sources effectively, know the difference between them, and ascertain their usefulness. Fourth, they should understand different perspectives on historical events. Finally, they can produce some body of work that uses evidence, and references the sources they have used.
What is more informative is what is absent. There is no expectation that students should learn and analyse any given historical event; everything is an abstraction, disconnected from time and place. Thus, a teacher might formulate a term of work on Ancient Rome for Year 7 as follows: first, a timeline exercise, with dates sticky-taped to a string; then, looking at ancient busts or photographs of buildings or sentences taken, with no context, from Livy or Plutarch; then, asking for a creative response written from the perspective of, say, a Roman slave, with plenty of twenty-first-century moral injunctions inserted; and last, some sort of report which, inevitably, is constructed largely from Wikipedia. The student leaves the class knowing very little, but the teacher can happily tick the boxes presented in the paragraph above.
Now, I am not denigrating these skills: but they should be an organic outgrowth of accumulated historical knowledge, taught and learned sincerely. They are not something to be learned in isolation. I am against the teaching of skills at the expense of period knowledge; students will accumulate little knowledge, and learn few skills. What’s worse, they will not like history. It will become to them as the jack-of-all-trades Study of Society and the Environment was for many students in the 1990s and 2000s.
I frequently leave the reservation when teaching history, and focus on the knowledge and the content: I will use the example of an elective unit of Year 9 and 10 History I have taught before. Students should be able to recount to me why the French Revolution happened. They can talk about the monarchy, the philosophes, the middle classes, and the Catholic Church. I hope they can explain why they think the Jacobins took the road they did, and understand why Napoleon seems almost an inevitability in hindsight. Maybe, they can draw some broad conclusions about utopian political ideologies, as well as inflexible arcane systems that become unreformable, and the attraction of the guillotine. They will have read the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Some may favour Thomas Paine’s view; others, that of Edmund Burke. At the end, they will write an essay, by hand, on some question pertinent to the period; they will include dates. By the time the term is out, their brains should be hot from the effort, and they should be able to talk with some understanding about events far away and long ago. More than that, they will have gained an insight to some of the perpetual questions of human nature, and they may find themselves surprised by nothing in contemporary life. In other words, knowledge and skills are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they should be inseparable, if a teacher knows his craft. The curriculum they learn is bigger than ACARA’s imaginings; it is the curriculum that every serious humanities teacher, since the Greeks, has tried to impart. It has the stamp of something mysterious and eternal about it, which transcends the fumbling of bureaucracy and the vanities of the present moment. It is this sort of teaching that the present curriculum does its best to drown.
The learning of historical skills as a separate endeavour to knowledge seems fraught to me. Some teachers have described the “content” as a Trojan horse, through which the “skills” are smuggled into the unsuspecting student’s mind. These are the types who obsess over timelines and watch Disney movies to hone “critical thinking” and spend hours picking over a picture of an aqueduct as a source analysis. This is boring, and the students, who may have thought they were going to learn something worthy of their time, soon lose interest. The teacher, instead of reading a book and learning a little more about the Vikings, spends more time on abstractions that require no real rigour. What was the role of women in Viking society compared to modern Australia? Write a newspaper article as if you are interviewing a Viking who has travelled through time to today. Create a paper mache axe. And so on. The obsession with skills, at the expense of knowledge, begins a downward spiral of intellectual simplicity that ends with students colouring in pictures as the term drags to a sullen close.
I attended an ACARA session and spoke with one of the framers of the Australian History Curriculum. I brought up the tension between skills and knowledge. She answered that, with the right set of skills, a student could study the rise of the Nazis and apply that set of skills to any period. In other words, one could take a cursory look at the Nazis, and understand the Peloponnesian War. This is manifestly untrue: they may have a better idea what to look for, but to ignore the knowledge of the period as some sort of gaudy distraction seems to me a bizarre approach to learning history.
History is not like engineering: you do not build a vague pro forma of skills, a stencil that you can pick up and apply to any problem with equal success. You need knowledge: of specific events, specific individuals, specific social forces, specific institutions, specific wars and battles, specific political movements, specific kings and specific queens—you must reach towards a thousand variables. Once, this was so obvious it barely needed stating: now, stating it risks pariah status. One must wonder how this has happened.
Part of it lies in capacity: the proper learning of history is time-consuming, and requires focus and diligence. Many universities have largely given up on the teaching of content, and assume a great deal of prior knowledge that students, emerging from the sort of classes I have described above, utterly lack. There, they pump them full of primary sources without context and try to turn them into historians—masters of abstract reasoning, acting always from a priori first principles, deploying deconstructionist strategies to seek out bias and author intent, making no effort to truly understand the times—just as the history teacher they had in high school justified teaching history so that they might one day read a mortgage contract with alacrity and understanding.
At worst, history becomes weaponised into the study of theory, of post-colonialism and post-modernism and queer theory and the works of the post-structuralists, to advocate for social change, rather than a proper objective examination of the past with knowledge and wisdom as the prize. Thus, many who emerge with a Bachelor of Arts degree rightly earn the poor reputation that degree now confers. They come out knowing nothing, and many plunge into the schools, this time as teachers, to pass on nothing. It is a depressing sort of carousel. The implosion of higher education in the humanities and social sciences presently under way in North America should come as no surprise to those who have passed through such halls, though this is beyond the scope of this article.
What we teach
Of course, the framers of ACARA’s History Curriculum do not really believe their own rhetoric. They know how important content knowledge is, and they betray this in their careful control over what events and periods are studied in secondary school. For instance, in Year 10, students will study the Second World War and the Holocaust, and then move directly into a unit called “Rights and Freedoms”, which examines indigenous struggles during the 1960s among other civil rights movements. This confluence is entirely deliberate. These units are not placed next to one another by mistake, and the conclusion students are invited to draw is obvious. The next “Depth Study” is up to the teacher: either Popular Culture, Migration Experiences, or the Environmental Movement. Students will end up studying Madonna and Kylie Minogue, or boat people and asylum seekers, or hippie activists and climate change. It is hard to understand how ACARA decided these were the signature issues of the second half of the twentieth century. Of notable absence is the Cold War—mentioned only as part of an already crowded “overview study” designed to take up not more than 10 per cent of teaching time. Students may leave secondary school knowing nothing about the Soviet Union, Maoist China, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Nazism—rightly—is condemned, yet communism gets a free pass.
Missing is the entirety of early modern European history, and the growth of the institutions that made the present moment possible. When Europe is taught at all, it is in the context of colonialism, imperialism and bloody-minded conquest: the First World War is taught as the inevitable outgrowth of nationalism, without mention of the collapse of the statesmanship that had kept Europe largely peaceable for a century. Polynesia, Japan and China are taught in tokenistic fashion and, though interesting in their own right, one must wonder at the opportunity cost. The Western historical narrative has been cast into the rubbish bin of history. Ranke’s methodology, which in my view provided the best framework for understanding the past, has been utterly disposed of, with the exception of his interest in sources, which has been retained as the sole objective element in modern history teaching. Everything else has been subverted beneath theory. We are all critical theorists now.
Of note are the “cross-curricular priorities” that are inserted into every course. These are ideological in the extreme: one is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Histories, another is Australia’s Asian Engagement, and the third is Sustainability. When I learned how we hoped to enmesh these into every element of the curriculum, I was reminded of the Soviet Union’s attempt to politicise the entirety of their schooling in 1923. Traditional disciplines were abolished, and replaced by thematic studies on the notion of social organisation of labour, and other Marxist tropes. Even the Soviets were quick to realise how ineffective this model proved, and it was scrapped in 1928. But to expect the framers of our present curriculum to understand this is to expect them to understand history—the very thing they work so hard to prevent.
Why should we care? Because an open society depends on a populace that has some understanding of its collective inheritance. Once robbed of this, the Year Zero types can steer the ship in whatever direction they please. In an age of identity politics, populist politicians and societal threats we appear unable to discuss let alone confront, an informed population is critical. The younger generation understand this, almost instinctively. There is a hunger for solid food that goes unsatisfied by the milk they are so often served. If society is a compact between the dead, the living, and those yet to come, we must honour this and teach the past forthrightly. If not, they will go to the sewer for fresh water, and we should not be surprised at the consequences.
Finally, a humanities education aims to produce a weltanschauung that can resist the slings and arrows of life, that grasps the tragic nature of the world, and ultimately produces better individuals. Our past does not exist purely to justify our present preoccupations. It must be learned for its own sake, and a study of history, properly accomplished, is a moral mission as much as a mental one. As Cicero posited, “to remain ignorant of history is to remain forever a child”, and wilful ignorance, inflicted or embraced, is no conduit to moral accomplishment.
Mark Evans is a secondary school teacher.
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Here are two examples used to teach history to Year 7 students in the ACT high school system.
Ancient Rome Test: Roman Education
During the early years of the Roman Republic, all children were taught at home. Boys were taught to be brave and honourable, and perhaps a craft such as metal work. Girls were taught spinning and weaving and how to look after the household. From about 200 BC, families who could afford it could send their children to small schools. Children learned how to read, write and use Roman numerals. Their textbooks were scrolled parchments and their writing pads, waxed boards. They used pebbles to calculate sums and a stylus to write.
Using the information above, and your own knowledge, write a paragraph (minimum of 4 sentences) describing the difference between ancient Roman education and modern Australian education.
Gender Roles in Ancient China
1. In Mulan’s community, how are women expected to behave? List the skills and characteristics of an ideal woman in ancient China, according to the movie. Discuss as a class.
2. In Mulan’s community, how are men expected to behave? Make a list similar to that in the previous question. Discuss as a class.
3. Are these expectations similar for women and men in your community? What is similar and what is different? Discuss as a class.
4. Do you think these expectations are fair? Should men and women be treated the same, or is it good to treat them differently in some ways? Discuss as a class.