What happens when historians forget that history is about inquiry and instead see themselves as founts of wisdom which is not open to challenge? When two of my colleagues at Wollongong University took exception to my argument, I learnt all about their methods
In 2003 the Howard government was in power in Australia and Howard hating was at its height. It was what passed for political analysis on the Left, with Robert Manne leading the way. That year a new book, The History Wars, appeared written by Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark. Browsing in the university shop, I came across a copy of the book, bought it and began to read it. I was puzzled that a man like Macintyre, who enjoyed quite a bit of government patronage, was attacking the Howard government for its hostility to history and the history profession.
I noticed that Macintyre had spelled the name of my friend Imre Salusinszky incorrectly and contacted him to tell him. I also noticed that Macintyre had made a mistake in his account of the origins of the word history. In The History Wars Macintyre states: “The word ‘history’ comes from the classical Greek word ‘to know’, with connotations of learning wisdom and judgement.”
In my article in the Australian of September 3, 2003, I pointed out that the Greek word for “to know” was gignosco and that the Greek word historeo means “to inquire in or about a thing” (Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon).
To inquire is clearly not the same thing as to know. After all there are a variety of ways of knowing. The Greeks themselves wanted knowledge that was certain; the sort of knowledge that mathematics can supply but historical inquiry cannot. The only historical knowledge that inquiry or research can establish is provisional in nature; historians rely on empirical data that may turn out to be wrong and is always open to new interpretations.
This is not to say that there are no facts; these form the bedrock of historical inquiry. For example, John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007 and he was instrumental in bringing into being a number of policies. The reasons for those policies and their effects are open to interpretation. The historian can inquire into such matters but their conclusions will be open to challenge, and hence provisional.
Gignosco, of course, is where our word gnosticism comes from. The gnostic knows, and his or her knowledge is not open to challenge. That is the mark of the modern Left intellectual. That is why it is crucial to insist that the origins of history lie in inquiring, not in knowing. The one is a process; the other a finished product. One is open-ended; the other is closed. One inquires into things, which is not the same as knowing something, and the outcome of an inquiry is not necessarily knowledge.
Consider the example above. Historians must inquire into Howard’s actions using the available evidence. It would be illegitimate for them simply to give a judgment on those actions because they “know” what Howard was like (which is, of course, what many of his critics have done). Historians who believe that they possess wisdom may find themselves open to charges of hubris.
Imre Salusinszky e-mailed the opinion page editor of the Australian, Tom Switzer, and the result was an article on the day when the book was launched. The article contained many things and was focused on what seemed to me to be the excessive amount of influence which Macintyre apparently exercised in the Australian historical profession. It discussed the origins of the meaning of history as well as taking issue with some of his account of the famous Blainey episode at the University of Melbourne in 1984 when most of the History Department engaged in what is now termed “virtue signalling” by writing a letter to the Age condemning comments Geoffrey Blainey had made at a rather obscure talk given in Warrnambool regarding the rate of Asian immigration into Australia. I also pointed out that Macintyre seemed to be claiming that the historian Geoffrey Bolton was at a meeting at the University of Melbourne when he was not, as I knew, having been present at that meeting.
But the passage in my article which seemed to cause the greatest impact was the following:
Macintyre claims that history is under threat because the Howard Government has made dubious appointments to the various boards and cultural agencies under its control. Never mind that Macintyre has enjoyed considerable patronage under the incumbent Government. He is a member of the Civics Education Group of the Department of Education, Science and Training that oversees the Discovering Democracy program, and hence civics education in Australia. He is the chairman of the board of management of the National Centre for History Education and a member of the governing committee of the History Educators Network of Australia. The Commonwealth Government funds both bodies.
He is chairman of the humanities and creative arts panel of the Australian Research Council and the only historian on the panel. He became chairman of the panel in 2002. In that year, more than one-quarter of the grants awarded in the area of historical studies went to members of Macintyre’s faculty.
This passage was simply meant to point out that Macintyre had hardly been shut out from being able to have his say as a member of a number of government bodies, including the Australian Research Council. Historians in his department certainly had not suffered at the hands of the Howard government. Perhaps it would have been better if a statement along the following lines, “There is no suggestion that Professor Macintyre acts improperly in his role at the ARC”, had been included. I made a simple factual observation about the allocation of grants but it was one which, I was to discover, would have enormous implications for me.
I am sure that Macintyre did not like being challenged, but he made no attempt to debate any of the points I had made. For example, the discussion about the origins of the word history was carried on by other academics, leading to a lively discussion in the letters pages of the Australian on the etymology of Greek words. I have the good fortune of having a Classicist wife, and together we defended our position, pointing out that the cases where historeo meant truth were of later usage, and arguing that if one wished to know the meaning of Greek words the appropriate reference work was Liddell and Scott, not the Oxford English Dictionary. Macintyre may well have felt humiliated that someone from the provinces outside of Melbourne had challenged his wisdom, but there was not a word out of the Great Man, until twelve months later when he attempted a rebuttal of my arguments in the afterword to the second edition of the book.
However, on September 5 I received an e-mail from Sue Rowley, who was the Executive Director of the Humanities section of the ARC. It was also sent to all of the academics who comprised the Humanities panel and to my vice-chancellor. Coming from a government employee, this e-mail was completely improper, and the fact that it was circulated to so many other people, including my vice-chancellor, is an indication that it was intended to bully and intimidate me.
In the e-mail Rowley stated a number of things, including:
I was disappointed that you would make the unfair and untrue implication that Professor Macintyre’s chairing of the Humanities and Creative Expert Advisory Committee (HCA EAC) had resulted improperly in a disproportionate number of grants being awarded to historians at the University of Melbourne.
I regret your intemperate and ungenerous comments about your colleagues and the ARC.
Now I did not make any statement that Macintyre had engaged in improper behaviour. I drew no implications from the statement which I made, which needed to be placed in the context of the preceding sentences. Equally my comments were hardly made in an “intemperate” way.
If she had concerns about what was in the article she should have written to me in a private capacity and asked what I meant in that sentence. That would be how a civilised human being would behave. Instead I received an e-mail which was designed to threaten me from a government employee who had no right to engage in such things. It was essentially rogue behaviour. If a government employee behaved in such a fashion today he or she would be sacked. Interestingly, the University of Wollongong made no attempt to do anything about my article. I was not summoned to explain it and there was no threat of disciplinary action. However, the vice-chancellor decided to issue an apology to Macintyre without ever discussing the matter with me. Macintyre says, in his afterword, that he “was touched by a phone call from the Vice-Chancellor of Wollongong University who regretted the aspersions cast on my role in the ARC”. Other people told me that the university was frightened that the ARC would take punitive action against it. Macintyre’s afterword says nothing about Sue Rowley’s e-mail.
A year later in 2004, when the second edition of The History Wars came out, I wrote another article for the Australian, in which I bemoaned the fact that there were problems with Australian history and that students too often found it somewhat boring:
This may help explain why, for many of them—in fact, far too many—Australian history is a giant turn-off. In conversation with many of these students the word “boring” often crops up. In many cases the experience of the compulsory civics-Australian history subject in Year 10 in NSW is the cause of their disenchantment. The problem, I suspect, is that Australian history has become just another excuse for preaching politically correct ideology at students.
A significant issue is that too many members of the history profession in Australia have an attitude problem. Instead of whingeing about how awful everything is, they should view the present situation as an opportunity and a challenge. Their particular challenge is to teach the type of history appropriate for the internationalised world of their students.
Two of my colleagues at Wollongong took exception to my arguments and, being academics, assumed that I was referring to them, which I was not. It was a general argument, and I had not even thought of them when I wrote it. They sent around an e-mail to everyone in the School of History and Politics, claiming that I had “impugned” their “capacities and professionalism” and that I had abused my role as Head of School. Unfortunately for them, I was not identified as Head of School in the article, so it was clear that this was not an “official” position of any kind. The e-mail included a letter drafted to the vice-chancellor demanding that action be taken against me and for which they sought additional signatures. They claimed that they could not respond in the Australian to my arguments because they somehow knew, in advance, that they would be denied “right of reply”. But there are lots of other fora where they could have placed their arguments should they have wished. If they had a case to argue they could easily have found somewhere to put it.
Note the tactics: We do not want to discuss the matter with you, we do not want public debate. We do not like what you say and we will seek to discipline and punish you for what you have said. Best to keep everything behind a wall of silence. Don’t seek clarification, just send out a defamatory e-mail that combines condemnation and threats. The response for the gnostic who possesses wisdom is not to engage in calm, rational and civilised discussion but to look at ways of punishing the deviant.
Needless to say, the proposed letter to the vice-chancellor went nowhere. It may have been sent but it had no consequences.
One might say that I escaped unscathed from these nasty incidents; maybe and maybe not. They may have had ramifications which continue to the present day.
In any case, it is worth recounting what those of us who lived through the History Wars when Howard hating was at its peak, and who were not members of the Howard-hating pack, had to endure. It was not pretty. It was ugly at the meeting of the Australian History Association held in Newcastle in 2004 when there was a discussion about how they were going to “get Windschuttle”. Sitting in the room during that discussion was to experience the fury of the mob. And it was more than just unpleasant for those of us who had to endure the Howard haters every day.
To be fair, my university has the right “to express opinions, including unpopular or controversial opinions about issues and ideas” written into its Academic Enterprise Agreement. The framework for free speech is still there. The problem is with those academics who seek to discipline and punish those who express views they do not agree with, who go on the attack without first seeking clarification, and who do not appear to appreciate the importance of conducting debate in a calm and civilised fashion. This is what happens when historians forget that history is about inquiry and instead see themselves as gnostics who believe that they possess wisdom which is not open to challenge.
Gregory Melleuish is Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. His most recent book is Despotic State or Free Individual? Two Traditions of Democracy in Australia (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014).