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Australian History, its teaching, and some other tangents

25 Feb

In The Weekend Australian Magazine last Saturday Richard Guilliatt profiled historian Anna Clark (grand-daughter of Manning), specifically her ideas on the teaching of Australian History. (I referred to an earlier Guilliatt item in Their 1968 and mine on OzPolitics.) The theme of the weekend article (not online) was that school students tend to switch off in droves whenever Australian History or Indigenous Australians get a run.

While the Governor-General, Michael Jeffery, has been urging a national history curriculum that places even more emphasis on the teaching of Aboriginal history, in Clark’s interviews student after student groans about the lessons they have been force-fed since primary school. Kids complain the lessons are shallow, repetitive and fixated on past injustices. Teachers, meanwhile, express discomfort and uncertainty about their role in teaching it. As a supporter of indigenous studies, Clark admits to being “shocked” by the vehemence of the comments. The awful irony suggested by her book is that in trying to correct past neglect — both the neglect of Aborigines themselves and the omission of their culture from school textbooks — educators may be turning an entire generation away from the issue.

Such findings will almost certainly be forged into fresh ammunition in the “history wars”, and Clark — who has already clocked up a few combat hours as an academic in that debate — seems a little nervous about the prospect. Perhaps optimistically, she’s hoping the larger message of her book can prompt a discussion that overrides polemics.

“We’ve had this huge debate in recent years about the teaching of Australian history,” she notes, “but what was really striking from the very first time I went into these schools was the realisation that students themselves aren’t really interested.”

Clark goes on to say that conservative critics saying her findings are evidence that “black armband history” — or, quite crazily in my view, that bete noir “outcomes-based education” — are the culprits will find little comfort.

Alarmed by surveys that showed students were woefully ignorant about key moments in early Australian history, politicians lobbied heavily for every student to learn about the political events that led to Federation. Unfortunately, it has become the eat-your-broccoli moment in every history class. As one teacher tells Clark in a moment of candour: “It’s just sort of mind-blowingly dull.”…

“I was quite shocked by how articulate the students were about how they wanted to learn,” she says. “They actually had some quite sophisticated and thought-out ideas about how they could feel more engaged by it.”

High on their list of complaints is rote textbook learning, followed by teacher-monologues, accompanied by overhead projections. The students craved a more experiential approach, such as excursions that connect them more directly with their subjects. Many said the most stimulating aspect of history was classroom discussion in which real debate takes place.

It’s a while since I taught Australian history, though I have been around people who do teach it. There is a lot in what Clark has found that rings true. In my own experience I tended to teach History like an English teacher, and English like a History teacher. On the matter of Aboriginal history you will see some evidence of that on my Indigenous Australia page, which is a cut-down and updated version of material I used in a Year 12 English class studying Mudrooroo’s Wild Cat Falling in a theme unit called “Aboriginal Experience”. I am happy to say that those students ended up becoming very interested in the whole thing. In junior history one of the more successful things I did was take students for a walk around Surry Hills, asking them to notice things, and in some cases to use their imaginations. Just looking at street layouts and buildings led to speculation about who had been there in the past, how rich or not they might have been, and a walk up Mount Steele to imagining what the whole place might have been like before Europeans were there. We looked closely at everything we saw, and at old maps, trying to date the changes we observed from inscriptions, architectural styles, and so on. Colleagues who organised an archaeological dig in the school grounds also came up with interesting material. The school site had been variously a swamp, an extension of Botany Bay dunes and wetlands, the Sydney Commons, a garbage dump, and the Sydney Zoo. The History Department had the services of some real archaeologists, including Sydney University’s John Clegg at one point.

In another place Anna Clark has written:

The bipolarity of Black Armband discourse reifies historical revision. In doing so, the real meaning of revision is paradoxically erased. As a process, revision is not concerned to delete past interpretations, but to add to them. And the abject failure of the debate to properly accommodate history as inherently revisionist reveals its own narrow conception of historical interpretation.

Arguments against the conservative core of this debate must avoid such simplification. The key here is a more nuanced and discerning approach to the past, where complexity and contradiction can be seen to broaden the possibility of historical approaches rather than hindering their comprehension. The history implied by the Black Armband debate is about contrast rather than complexity; understandings of revision as expansive are reduced by the debate’s simple slogans of division.

I am finding, now that I am half-way through it, that Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land is so nuanced and discerning. It is also brilliantly panoptic: the states and regions are woven into what is essentially a narrative account of the development of our Australian institutions that manages also to incorporate what London was doing, what was happening elsewhere in the Empire and much of the rest of the world, where relevant, and in this process old frames of telling subtly, sometimes not so subtly, shift. The gold rushes shrink in significance, and bushrangers even more. It is not all seen from Sydney or Melbourne. Black armband historians are taken seriously but not deified; their opponents are not ridiculed, but their critiques are sifted and weighed. Behind all this is a bibliography of around one thousand books, which Welsh seems to have read, and even more primary sources and journal articles that emerge in footnotes which are sometimes as interesting as those famous footnotes in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Welsh’s account of the Chinese in Australia and the background to the White Australia policy is quite exemplary, in my opinion, just to take one example. He does mention — something Wikipedia fails to — that the Victorian town of Ararat was founded in 1857 by Chinese miners. Catch-all slogans such as capitalism, imperialism, or racism get short shrift, and “invasion” is deployed judiciously though with nuance about when and how it was the case as distinct from “incursion” or “arrival”. Comparisons with places like Canada or South Africa are frequent, often surprising, always enlightening, and not always to our credit. Mind you, I think he is quite wrong about the highly original Furphy’s Such is Life, finding that quirky late 19th century Australian novel quite unreadable.

Look, this is, the more I read it, one very fine book. But it doesn’t solve the problem of imaginative history teaching, but then neither did our previous Prime Minister’s obsessions either. That is taken up in a series of articles by John Hirst in The Monthly, culminating in one brilliant piece in February 2008.



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Posted by on February 25, 2008 in Australia, Best read of 2008, education, reading

 

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