Dumping down Australian history

As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national traditions.

Dumping down Australian history

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Dumbing down Australian history and its teaching

(essay)

 

The eminent person in current academic Australian history, Stuart Macintyre, is the keynote speaker at this Labor History Conference (held in June 2000), about Labor and Federation.

Stuart Macintyre is emerging as the major figure in the current counter-revolution in Australian history, which seems to be directed at restoring a kind of Anglophile official history, modified by a few gestures towards the currently fashionable high theory, as the dominant discourse in teaching the subject.

As this happens to coincide in time with the dramatic collapse in student numbers taking Australian history in schools and universities, it seems to me necessary to make a comprehensive critique of this process.

Macintyre is the Ernest Scott Professor of History at Melbourne University. Ernest Scott was the practitioner of a Whig, British-oriented, official Australian history, which was the first major academic school of Australian history writing, and commenced late in the 19th century during the imperial heyday of ruling-class British Australia. This general approach was dominant in history teaching in high schools and universities until well into the 1960s.

There were some early dissenters from this bourgeois British-Australian history. These dissenters existed in two streams. Amongst secular socialist groups, J. N. Rawling, Lloyd Ross and Brian Fitzpatrick challenged this ruling-class orthodoxy with a more populist, Marxian and nationalist version of Australian history.

People like James M. Murtagh and Archbishop Eris O'Brien wrote texts that embodied a critical anti-British-imperialist narrative, which were the basis of an alternative version taught widely in the Catholic school system as an antidote to the official British history, necessarily studied in the same schools for the external exams.

The clandestine tradition in Australian historiography

 

In the 1940s and the 1950s these two streams converged to some extent in the mature work of Eris O'Brien, Ian Turner, D.A. Baker, Russel Ward, Vance Palmer, Brian Fitzpatrick and ultimately, Manning Clark.

From the 1950s on, this alternative, previously clandestine version of Australian history got a bit of a toehold in universities and high school history teaching. Texts such as Russel Ward's the Australian Legend, Eris O'Brien's 1937 book The Foundation Of Australia, 1786-1800, Vance Palmer's Legend of the Nineties, a number of the works of Brian Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark's major six-volume history, and his Short History of Australia, became a major school of Australian historiography with an emphasis on social, class and religious conflicts in the 19th century, popular opposition to British imperial hegemony and a recognition of the emergence in the 19th century of insurgent democratic trends and a labor movement in opposition to the British Australian ruling class.

In the 1970s this left democratic, populist narrative was disputed by Humphrey McQueen and Stuart Macintyre in what came to be called "the debate on class". McQueen and Macintyre accused the practitioners of the populist Australian historical school of exaggerating the democratic and popular trends in 19th century history and failing to sufficiently describe the sexism and racism present in the labour movement at that time.

In particular, Russel Ward, who remained a very active Australian historian into the 1990s, incorporated part of this critique into a broadened and improved populist narrative. The more developed radical version of Australian history practiced by Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark and others had a real battle to become established in schools and universities.

The Sydney University History Department remained, until very recently, a stronghold of British-Australia ruling-class history. Fitzpatrick never got a university appointment.russel Ward was blacklisted for a history teaching job at the University of NSW because of his long-past membership of the Communist Party, but managed eventually to become a university teacher at the University of New England at Armidale, northern NSW.

Manning Clark, who was similarly banished from Melbourne to the ANU when the ANU was still a backwater, only began to have a major influence on mainstream history teaching in the course of the widespread cultural revolution in Australia in the 1960s.

 

Russel Ward's Concise History of Australia

 

At the popular teaching level one of the best examples, and the highest point of the radical populist stream in Australian history and history teaching, is Russel Ward's A Concise History of Australia, which was reprinted in a large gift edition as Australia Since the Coming of Man.

This book is important because it incorporates that part of the criticism raised by Macintyre and McQueen that was valid. In particular, Ward's narrative in this book entrenched a comprehensive and detailed treatment of Australian origins and Aboriginal history, along with an emphasis on oppositional forces in Australian history including the mid-19th-century struggles against transportation, and for respresentative democracy, continuing with the campaign for free selection of land, and culminating in the 19th century in the formation of the labour movement.

Ward's Concise History also paid attention to the rather instrumental role of Irish Catholics in this democratic struggle. The last version of this many-times-reprinted and set-course book, the 1992 University of Queensland Press reprint, takes the narrative up to the end of Bob Hawke's time as Prime Minister, and is notable for its sceptical, critical and unfawning attitude to the Hawke government and to Paul Keating.russel Ward died soon after publication of the 1992 edition of this useful book.

The emergence of the Russel Ward, Manning Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, Eris O'Brien, populist school of Australian history was a development of considerable cultural importance.

When I was a kid at a Catholic school, the Christian Brothers at Strathfield in the 1950s, we history students were subject to the interesting exercise of being thoroughly persuaded by the Brothers to learn by rote the Stephen Roberts, British establishment version of world and Australian history for the external examiners.

However, we were taught by the same Brothers in religion lessons that this Protestant establishment version was essentially false, and as an appropriate alternative the version we should really believe was the clandestine Catholic, Eris O'Brien, James G. Murtagh, Hilaire Belloc version of Australian and world history.

It heartened me greatly in the 1960s and the 1970s when the modernised, Russel Ward, Manning Clark critical Australian nationalist, somewhat Marxist, populist version of Australian history, which incorporated the useful part of McQueen's critique, replaced the Roberts version in most Australian schools and some universities.

I thought that our side had definitively triumphed in the field of Australian history and its teaching. More fool me! Here comes Stuart Macintyre.

 

Abolishing the Catholics

 

I hope I'm not beginning to sound a bit obsessional about Macintyre. I have written several other critical articles about his historical work, but I'm afraid I can't really escape presenting this critique.

I was first alerted to Macintyre's new book, The Concise History of Australia, by Jim Griffin's review in The Australian.

Griffin pointed out that Macintyre's new history just about abolished the Irish Catholics from the narrative. As Australian Catholic history is one of my interests, my curiosity was immediately aroused. I hurried over and bought the book at Gleebooks, and became immediately fascinated by it in the same way that I am fascinated by Paul Sheehan's chauvinist Amongst the Barbarians, and Miriam Dixson's The Imaginary Australian.

At approximately the same time I heard on the grapevine that Stuart and his conservative mate, John Hirst had recently been appointed by David Kemp, Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs in the Howard Government, as historical advisers to a body known as the Civics Education Group, which then employed Kemp's other educational body, the institution with the amazing economic rationalist name, The Curriculum Corporation, to prepare curriculum materials for history teaching in Australian schools.

In the context of the high politics described above it seems reasonable to look very closely at Stuart Macintyre's new Concise History, because it is obviously written for a high school and introductory university market, and Macintyre and his publishers may well desire to see it emerge as the major university entry-level Australian history textbook for the next period.

Let us, therefore, carefully investigate Stuart Macintyre's version of textbook Australian history, and how it is organised and presented. The first thing is how strikingly similar it is in format, and some aspects of presentation, to Russel Ward's book of the same name.

It is the same physical size, although a bit shorter, and it even has a similar presentation, with both covers being a work of Australian art. Even the periodisation in the book is, in large part, roughly similar.

The two tables of contents are:

RUSSEL WARD 1. Black and white discoverers c.60,000 BC-AD 1770 2. Empire, convicts and cu

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