The Tory war on objective narrative history
On August 17-18 in Canberra there will be a much ballyhooed history summit organised by the Tory federal government. This event is being presented as an attempt to exert pressure on Labor state governments to reinstate narrative history in secondary school curricula in place of the confusing, rather postmodern curricula that absorb history as part of a kind of social studies in seven of the eight states and territories governed by Labor.
The exception is NSW, where the recently retired Labor premier Bob Carr was instrumental in reinstating narrative history as a separate subject in high schools.
Carr is a delegate to the history summit, but the other participants are a carefully selected mix of what one might call high school history technicians and extremely right-wing Tory supporting historians, well known for their conservative views. These people are in a distinct minority among Australian historians.
A couple of token practitioners of high theory are thrown in for good measure.
One of the history technicians has produced a long paper suggesting in detail how narrative history might be restored in the syllabus in the seven states and territories governed by Labor, and his technical paper isn’t an unreasonable overview of the teaching problems involved.
The devil is, of course, as in all things that are so loaded ideologically, in the detail. The detail in this case is a lengthy paper by Greg Melleuish, a right-wing history academic at Wollongong University who is a frequent contributor to Paddy McGuinness’s Quadrant.
Melleuish’s paper is clearly the keynote publication for the conference. It’s shrewdly constructed. Melleuish avoids taking up the crudest positions of his fellow Quadrant contributor, Keith Windschuttle, about Aboriginal history, and the Tory Menzies thinktank, which has played a big role in organising the conference, has carefully not invited Windschuttle.
Melluish’s paper won’t please Windschuttle too much, because Melleuish wisely asserts that Australian history has to start with Aboriginal society and a narrative about Aboriginal dispossession. Melleuish uses this concession to genuine narrative Australian history to bolster his main preoccupation: his desire to rewrite Australian narrative history lies in other, more directly political, directions.
Melleuish’s narrative would celebrate Anzac and the military aspects of World War I, which he claims are neglected, but he ignores the mass mobilisation that defeated the conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917.
He also ignores the NSW general strike of 1917 and the social upheavals that followed World War I.
He asserts in passing that not much happened in Australian history, unlike, he says, the US Revolution or the French Revolution, and the that the real characteristic of Australian society as it developed was its stability. Melleuish can only uphold this position by playing down all the colourful and contradictory developments in Australian society, particularly aspects of Australian history that relate to class struggle and to past, major religious conflicts.
In this Tory narrative of Australian history, Melleuish is not really arguing with the postmodernists. He is trying to replace the more robust narratives which, among other things, celebrate class struggle, written by historians such as Manning Clark, Russel Ward and even Robert Murray.
Towards the end of his paper Melleuish is quite explicit about this, and he indicts the history taught in schools as too pro-Labor in its concentration on the Vietnam period and Labor governments.
Over the past few years I’ve conducted a fairly determined polemic against the dumbing down of Australian history, which reached its culmination in Stuart Macintyre’s Concise History of Australia.
It’s actually this dumbing down that has opened the possibility for the conservatives, Howard and company, to use Melleuish’s High Tory history of Australia as a kind of battering ram to try to force state Labor governments to make concessions to the Tory version of Australian history in revisions of the syllabus.
A striking feature of Melleuish’s paper is an attack on the emphasis on multiculturalism in most state school syllabuses. It’s hardly accidental that one of the conservative delegates to this gathering is one Mark Lopez, the conservative historian whose book The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics (MUP 2000) is the the bible of intellectual opponents of multiculturalism, and its teaching in schools in a historical framework.
In my view, Labor state ministers of education should be very cautious in the face of this push by the conservatives to restore god-queen-country Tory history in schools.
Narrative history as a standalone subject should be restored in the curricula of the seven states and territories, but no concessions at all should be made to the outdated Tory historical narrative expressed in Melleuish’s paper.
The Labor state ministers of education should not allow themselves to be stampeded, and should hold a history summit of their own, with a wide variety of historical views represented and input from history teachers at secondary and tertiary levels, and their unions.
Bob Carr would be well advised at this history summit to put this kind of view to those present, and he should be very careful not to allow himself to be converted into a kind of Labor or left face for the restoration of the essentially Tory god-queen-country narrative desired by Howard, Melleuish, Lopez and others.
This is particularly important in current conditions, as the political logjam begins to break and the Liberals everywhere are in strife because of the bankruptcy of their political approach in all spheres.
The state ministers for education would be well advised to consider an updated version of the late Russel Ward’s Concise History of Australia as a basic text in a restored history curriculum.
My more rounded views on Australian narrative history are available in my polemic against Stuart Macintyre.