Since Christopher Pyne announced the review of the national curriculum in January this year, the national curriculum has been a topic of heated debate, and no area of the curriculum has received more attention than history.
On the one hand, proponents of the history curriculum — many of whom were directly involved in the drafting process — have accused Pyne of “politicising history” and have claimed the existing document is somehow immune to bias and is entirely objective. On the other hand, critics of the national curriculum have maintained that the existing curriculum is biased in many respects, and that it denigrates Australia’s Western heritage and reflects a distinctly socialist and materialist view of history.
While the debate rages on, Labor’s history curriculum has already been rolled out into many Australian classrooms. A number of history textbooks that closely reflect the contents of the curriculum are appearing on booklists everywhere,.
We came across the some of these textbooks while writing our critique of the national curriculum at the Institute of Public Affairs. These books contain so many outrageous statements and factual errors that they were worthy of a critique on their own.
The errors and distortions in these textbooks are not just problematic for their own sake: they reveal the fundamental ideological biases of the national curriculum itself. Most schools across Australia are now using at least one of them for Year 7 to 10 history classes. Especially popular are the Jacaranda History Alive books (or the equivalent Retroactive series in New South Wales), the Oxford Big Ideas—History books, and the Pearson History series.
We took a sample of history textbooks from all the major publishers. The sample included the Year 7 Pearson, the Year 8 Macmillan, the Year 8 Cambridge, the Year 9 Jacaranda, and the Year 10 Nelson/CENGAGE Learning. We also had a look at the Oxford Year 7, 9 and 10, because these books most closely reflect the contents of the national curriculum and were written by some of the academics who were involved in the drafting process.
Not everything about these textbooks is bad. The best of them are glossy, colourful, filled with bright and interesting images, and pleasant to leaf through. Some are much better than others. The content and quality of some sections is also excellent. Usually, they provide very good—if somewhat superficial—introductions to the two world wars, and generally they provide some excellent content on technological advances and economic changes during the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, these history books are notable for their factual errors, controversial statements and unwarranted generalisations.
Just a brief survey of the Pearson Year 7 chapter on “Ancient Rome” reveals some of the fundamental problems that pervade most of the textbooks. My short assessment of this thirty-nine-page chapter found sixty-one obvious factual errors. These errors are not statements that are debatable or contested in scholarship, although there were many of these as well; there are sixty-one factual errors that can be refuted swiftly with easily available evidence.
Some errors were as basic as confusing “BC” and “AD” or citing the wrong dates. For example, the textbook claims that the Romans built the main part of the Appian Way in 32 BC. The correct date is 312 BC, around the time Rome established control over Italy. It also says that Cicero became consul in 63 AD. The correct date is 63 BC, before the Republic collapsed. It also says in a timeline on page 222 that Caesar became consul in 50 BC and invaded “France, then Britain”. In fact, Caesar was consul in 59 BC, and after his consulship ended he led campaigns in Gaul, Germania and Britannia from 58 to 50. He returned to Italy and crossed the Rubicon in 49, thus beginning the Civil War. Once again, the chronology in the textbook is wrong.
These errors are irritating, but not so irritating as to provide a completely warped version of Roman history. Some of the other errors, however, do much more to distort the historical narrative. One example is on page 217, where the following statement appears on the glossy page:
By 212 BC, part-citizens were given full-citizenship. This meant that free-born men living in the Roman Republic now had citizenship, and therefore the right to be involved in politics.
This left me confused, wondering if I had missed something important in my own studies. Why would Rome’s Italian allies (socii) have gone to war largely over citizenship in early first-century BC if they had already been full citizens?
In fact, the textbook had been referring to the Edict made by the emperor Caracalla of 212 AD—more than 400 years later. The Edict did indeed grant full citizenship to all free men in the Roman provinces, but by that stage the circumstances were radically different. The Republic was long gone and the empire was rapidly descending into crisis. In this increasingly turbulent period of Roman history, the only way the average citizen could reasonably expect to “elect” a government was to gain control of an army or stab the existing emperor in the back (indeed, Caracalla himself was assassinated by his bodyguard in 217 while urinating beside a highway). Since there were no longer regular elections and the old Republican offices—including that of “Consul”—were mostly honorary, Roman citizenship may not have meant much to most people by that stage. Caracalla’s motives are contested by modern scholarship, but if Cassius Dio is anything to go by, the Edict was largely for administrative purposes, and not to confer redundant voting rights upon the inhabitants of the empire.
When dealing with Roman history, confusing “AD” and “BC” is an easy enough typing error to make, though an embarrassing one. Unfortunately, the textbook qualifies this error when it says that the citizenship was granted to everyone living in the Roman Republic. Even more unfortunately, the original error—“212 BC”—is repeated on the following page. This was evidently no mere typo. Presumably, the people writing this textbook were confused but couldn’t be bothered checking the facts.
Other examples of the errors scattered through those thirty-nine pages include the repeated confusion of ancient legends with modern scholarship—as when it claims “historians generally agree that 753 BC was the year when Ancient Rome emerged as a town with political power”—and some generalisations so absurd they don’t even need to be refuted—for example, “in small towns the amphitheatre usually provided the only entertainment”, “all Romans went to the public baths”, “most people lived in crowded apartment-style dwellings, up to six storeys high, called insulae”, and “Romans thought of all people living outside the Empire as barbarians or uncivilised savages. They had little regard for barbarians.”
Elsewhere, the diagrams of Roman clothing look as if they have been drawn from a cheap party costume catalogue. They appear vaguely “Classical”, but are certainly not accurate depictions of the standard garments Romans wore throughout most of the empire’s history. The book cites the great historian Livy—who was actually quoting someone else—as evidence of “Rome’s intentions in the Mediterranean region” in the early days of its expansion, many centuries before Livy was writing.
It asserts that “barbarians conquered all parts of the Empire, including the city of Rome” in the fifth century, which suggests that the writers are completely unaware that the eastern half struggled on in some form for another thousand years. It says that “all Roman laws were called the Twelve Tables”—an error roughly akin to saying that all Australian laws are called “The Constitution”. It says that Cicero was the first plebeian consul in 63 AD. Even putting aside the fact that the date is incorrect, this statement is completely wrong: in fact, it had been required by law that one consul each year be of the plebeian order (that is, not a patrician) ever since the Lex Licinia Sextia of 367 BC—just over three centuries before Cicero actually did become consul.
These are not mere errors. Often they betray the authors’ crude Marxist assumptions about class divisions. The textbook erroneously says that “the plebeians in Rome were the social class who were poor, uneducated and low in status”. This might have been the case before 367 BC, but by the late Republic, the plebeians no longer formed a strict “social class”: they are better described as all Roman citizens who were not patricians. Plebeians included the hungry, landless masses of Rome, as well as many smallholders from the countryside, successful equestrian businessmen, and even some nobiles—men from consular families.
During the early empire, the distinction between “patricians” and “plebeians” became largely irrelevant, and wealth was a more important indicator of status. Marcus Licinius Crassus—popularly thought of as one of the wealthiest men of the ancient world—was technically of the plebeian order. Conversely, some patrician families were extremely poor by the dying days of the Republic. The patrician dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla grew up impoverished. The other dictator of that century, Julius Caesar (another patrician), was bankrupt for much of his early career. He relied heavily on financial support from—guess who?—Crassus.
Roman society in the Late Republic may not have been especially mobile, but it was not simply a case of poor and oppressed plebeians being ruled over by wealthy and privileged patricians. Yet the Pearson textbook (just like the Oxford textbook, oddly enough) offers a simplified, highly-stratified, quasi-Marxist depiction of Roman history, in which no plebeian became consul until about a hundred years after the Republic had fallen.
The Pearson textbook is not the only one with significant errors. The Oxford Year 7 equivalent also has its fair share of outrageous statements, such as when it says “one must be born a Hindu to be a Hindu”, insists that Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth, and refers to “a modern artist’s depiction of Professor Binns, Harry Potter’s History of Magic teacher”. I struggle to think of where anyone would find a depiction of Professor Binns that is not “modern”. It also refers to one “Cornelia Gracchus”. “Gracchus” is a masculine form of the name, and therefore it does not agree grammatically with the name “Cornelia” and is very bad Latin above all else. The book also dates the construction of St Peter’s Basilica to 315—which is slightly incorrect itself—and then follows it up immediately with an image of the existing sixteenth-century St Peter’s Basilica, as if to imply that it is the fourth-century building.
The Year 8 Cambridge history is similarly not immune. In one example, it says that “Christianity took hold in parts of the Byzantine Empire” and “by the eighth century Spain, North Africa and areas to the east had largely converted to Islam”. Never mind that the western half had not yet fallen when Theodosius I made Christianity of the Nicene Creed the sole official religion of the Roman empire; and never mind that the regions that had supposedly “converted” to Islam by the eighth century were essentially conquered through military force—and some of them, like Spain, during the eighth century, not before. It appears to be confused when it says that Venice was an important naval power by the eighth century, insists that Turkish baths were an inheritance from Central Asia without mentioning the Greek/Roman/Byzantine influence, and implies that what is now France was divided between Burgundians, Visigoths and Franks when Charlemagne came to power (by which time, in fact, the Burgundian and Visigothic kingdoms had ceased to exist). A large image of the iconic sixth-century Byzantine cathedral, Hagia Sophia, also features on the title page of a chapter on the Ottomans.
It would be a time-consuming and futile exercise to detail every error and strange statement on every page of every textbook (and there are a lot of them). But how could they be so bad? It probably has nothing to do with the fact that the writers are not qualified to write them; seven of the fifteen authors listed in the Cambridge Year 8 textbook, at least, were professional historians. Many of them hold prestigious academic posts at well-known universities, albeit mostly in gender studies and social history. Yet in the internet age, even someone with little background in history could look up these topics online to get a more accurate account and see where these books are wrong.
None of the textbooks surveyed here contained a bibliography, let alone a basic referencing system. Most of them fail even to cite the passage when it quotes primary sources—for example, it might say “Polybius, Greek historian” and this is about as far as it goes towards providing a proper reference.
Equally, they never explain where they found some of their more controversial arguments. When the Pearson Year 7 textbook says that “some historians speculate that the shift from the hunter-gatherer way of life to the settled life of farming was one of the worst mistakes humankind ever made”, it does not provide a reference or a bibliography to explain to which historians it is referring. When the Nelson Year 10 says that “a review of the film [an Inconvenient Truth] by some climate scientists has found it to be factually correct”, it does not indicate exactly which review this was and which “climate scientists” were involved. Not only do the textbooks often include outright errors and controversial statements, they routinely fail to back anything up by citing the sources.
Apart from the factual inaccuracies, it is important to note that the writers and publishers cannot be held entirely responsible for all the shortcomings of these textbooks. The Labor government’s national curriculum claims that Islamic civilisation “invented” the astrolabe, libraries and public hospitals, so any textbook author striving for historical accuracy is starting from behind. The national history curriculum is extremely prescriptive, and does not leave much room to manoeuvre. It is so detailed that, if it were actually enforced, it would essentially prevent teachers in affected schools from teaching much about civilisations and historical periods that are not explicitly covered in it.
All the Year 7 textbooks, for example, include an overview of the early migrations of humans and chapters on “historical skills”, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient China and ancient India. All the Year 8 textbooks include chapters on the Vikings, Medieval Europe, the Ottomans, Renaissance Italy, the Khmer empire, Japan under the Shoguns, the Polynesians, Mongols, the Black Death and the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
All the textbooks also share the same notable omissions. For example, the two centuries between the end of the Renaissance in Italy and the French Revolution are not adequately covered in any of the textbooks, because these years are only scantily covered in the curriculum. There is usually little mention, therefore, of the Reformation, or the English Civil War, or the Glorious Revolution in these textbooks, and the rise of the British Empire is inadequately charted. The curriculum includes “the spread of Christianity and Islam” in the overview content but does not mention the early Islamic conquests. Generally, the textbooks do exactly the same. Often, the writers seem to omit the fact that Islam spread through military conquest, as if to imply that it spread without war through trade networks, as Christianity had centuries earlier—and yet, the spread of Islam was probably the single most important episode of the post-Roman Mediterranean up until Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day in 800 AD.
In most Year 9 textbooks, “liberalism” is omitted from the “key progressive ideas and movements” because the national curriculum also omits it (the Jacaranda History Alive 9 is an exception, but then implies that only those of the “middle class” could hold liberal values). On the other hand, much attention is usually given to socialism and the trade union movement. Most of the national curriculum’s Australian history depth study in Year 9 is about the plight of indigenous people, and this is reflected in the textbooks.
Perhaps the most concerning omission in these textbooks, however, is the most recent parts of our history. In all cases, the historical content in the textbooks essentially cuts off at the end of the unit on the Second World War. One would expect these chapters to be followed by another on the postwar world and the Cold War. Instead, the Second World War chapter is always followed by chapters on protest movements—human rights movements, environment movements, immigration and refugee rights, and “pop culture”—all of which, with the exception of “pop culture” perhaps, regularly provide biased accounts of the events of the last half-century. In none of these chapters does the Cold War feature as an important part of history. In fact, at the most, the entire Cold War period is covered in the space of a few pages at the beginning of each book as part of the “historical overview” content, as prescribed by the curriculum. The very few pages on the Cold War usually include a few basic facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but virtually nothing on the conditions in the Soviet Union or why communism didn’t work. At any rate, a few pages and a few hours of history lessons are not really adequate to explain the Cold War and why it occurred, but the national curriculum and the textbooks based upon it leave very little scope to do more.
Since “Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” is supposed to be one of the cross-curriculum priorities, it is further astounding that the curriculum and the textbooks fail to cover some important parts of Asia’s recent history. Japan’s astonishing recovery after 1945 is left almost unmentioned. And there is only one mention of Mao Zedong in the Nelson Year 10 textbook:
In 1949 China, the largest nation on earth, fell to the communists when Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist Party to victory. Australia viewed communist China as the new threat to Asia. The communists were often called “Reds”, after the red flag that was the colour of revolution. People spoke of “Red China” and of the expanding “red menace”.
This is the extent of the explanation. There is no attempt in the book to explain why communism was a threat or the enormous harm it did. The depth study on “Asia in the modern world” in Year 9 is the only one that is specifically about Asia in the modern era, and yet in some textbooks—especially the extremely popular Jacaranda History Alive—the chapter is almost entirely about the cruelty of the colonists to the Chinese, and how they were mistreated and forced to agree to unfair treaties.
The Jacaranda Year 9 textbook chapter ends with a section titled “Positive outcomes?” In its words, “few historians disagree that during the nineteenth century there were not many positive effects of foreign influence in China”. However, this chapter cuts off when the Communist Party comes into power in 1949. The curriculum and textbooks have very little, if anything, to say about what has happened there since. There is no attempt anywhere to explain that Mao oversaw one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century, or that the Chinese economy is only growing now because it has opened its borders to foreign (capitalist) markets. Though it is supposed to have an “Asia” focus, the history curriculum and all of the textbooks based upon it miss the crucial elements of Asia’s recent history.
These books are often blatantly biased, appearing to cater to an environmentalist, socialist and sometimes almost Marxist agenda. Perhaps the most astounding example is in the Year 7 Pearson textbook, which makes the following comment on page 11 under the heading “A very successful way of life”:
Some historians speculate that the shift from the hunter-gatherer way of life to the settled life of farming was one of the worst mistakes humankind ever made. Studies by anthropologists of the few existing hunter-gatherer societies, such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari in Africa, show that they work far less hard than neighbouring farmers and have a better and more varied diet.
Archaeological evidence provided by Ice Age fossils from Greece and Turkey also shows that early humans were better off as hunter-gatherers. In these places men had an average height of 175 centimetres and were strong and healthy. Studies of later fossils show that by 3000 BC the average height was only 160 centimetres, and there is evidence of malnutrition and disease. There is also some archaeological evidence that average life expectancy fell in the new farming societies.
This is followed by a “learning activity” on page 15:
In a group of three, carefully read the section “A very successful way of life” … Prepare a five-minute debate in the style of a television talk show on the topic: Should modern humans return to the hunter-gatherer way of life?
At first, this looks like a joke, but the textbook appears to be suggesting that humans should never have abandoned the hunter-gatherer way of life and should never have settled or moved into cities, and that modern humans should become hunter-gatherers. It appears to reflect a kind of anti-modernist or extreme environmentalist agenda.
Other examples of a socialist bias abound. While there are usually better sections in the chapter on the industrial revolution that mention something about entrepreneurship, economics and improving living standards, a large part of these chapters is usually spent describing the poor working conditions. Both the Jacaranda History Alive and the Oxford Big Ideas Year 9 books include extensive quotes from Marx and Engels on working conditions. These chapters usually include much on the trade unions, the Luddites, the Chartist movement, and—above all—socialism. The Oxford Year 9 textbook says, “socialist theories became increasingly popular as the realities of an unrestricted capitalist economy saw increasing poverty among those who only had their labour to sell”. They also emphasise the environmental cost of progress. In the words of the Oxford textbook, “the Industrial Revolution left humanity dependent on carbon fuels”.
All of this is followed in the Jacaranda and Oxford books with a chapter on early Australia up to 1914, which concludes with a few pages on the labour movement. The Oxford textbook has much to say about “economic imperialism”, and on one page—in which it praises the work of the International Labour Organisation and World Vision—it implies that working in sweatshops is the same as slavery.
At times, the books seem to reflect radical views. For example, in the chapter on the environment movement, the Nelson Year 10 textbook includes lengthy descriptions of the Franklin Dam and Lake Pedder controversies, and profiles of people such as Jack Mundey, Peter Garrett and groups like Rising Tide Newcastle and Greenpeace. It then insists that the debate over anthropogenic climate change is settled.
The chapter on immigration features a detailed profile and several pages on Arthur Calwell, who was “closely involved in and responsible for some very significant migration history”, and especially his efforts to “overcome Labor’s traditional resistance to large-scale migration”. Later, this is followed by a profile of Al Grassby—referring to his “legacy of tolerance and his work in fighting racial discrimination”—and a discussion of Gough Whitlam’s role in ending the White Australia policy. While it does mention the role that Harold Holt played in ending the White Australia policy and outlines some developments that occurred in the Menzies era, it does not include a similar profile of Holt (or of Menzies, for that matter) and remarkably omits the fact that all of these developments occurred under Liberal governments. It preaches the “multicultural” line by remarking that, after Whitlam and Grassby, “Australia was no longer to be a European outpost in Asia but would increasingly become an ethnically and racially diverse nation in the Asia-Pacific region”, notwithstanding that the overwhelming majority of inhabitants still speak English as their mother tongue and that Australia’s institutions are essentially British. At least the Nelson textbook arranges its narrow and selective version of history into a well-structured chronological narrative.
Australian parents should be deeply concerned about the quality of the mainstream textbooks that are currently being used in classrooms across the country. Yet the confusing structure, omissions and inherent bias throughout these textbooks are all fundamentally due to the prescriptiveness of the national curriculum. It is because of this prescriptiveness that all are largely the same, and even the better fact-checked ones—for example, the Macmillan books—share the same shortcomings.
At least one thing is clear: a good introductory history textbook, aside from including a bibliography at the very least, would need to ignore the constraints of the national curriculum altogether.
Stephanie Forrest is a Research Scholar with the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs.