Who controls the past now…

August 4, 2006

Last weekend, Hindsight broadcasted the Whose History Forum which allowed a number of history teachers and academics (two of which I have been taught by at university) the chance to respond to John Howard’s assertion back in January that “Too often being taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues…history…has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.” Mark over at Larvatus Prodeo commented on Howard’s bold new vision last week.

I don’t really think that Howard’s view of how history should be taught in Australia is practical. Besides, in NSW at least, if he reads the stage 5 syllabus, he would see that it is entirely geard around Australian history and can most definitely be taught in a chronological manner and can be introduced in a structured narrative way if that’s what floats your boat. But does Howard want us to stop there? What to do after the basic narrative? Then we interpret, fragment, categorise and find themes, problems and issues. That is what the nature of doing history is all about Johnny – enquiring, probing, interpreting, categorising and looking for thematic problems and issues so as to interpret the present and future as well.

The power of history is enormous and George Orwell’s famous saying most certainly is true. That is why it is important for history teachers to present all different interpretations, themes and issues in relation to historical analysis and allow students a maximum amount of room to move to encourage their own unique interpretation of what they are studying and what it means for us as a species. When politicians want to use history to try to create a “standard”, one-size-fits-all narrative for certain political ends, then I’m not really worried about what that will do to Australian students because it will fail simply through students not paying attention in class because of how boring and unimaginative it will be for them. History is dynamic and therefore requires a dynamic classroom. Narrative is important, but only to establish a base from which to conduct historical analysis. John Howard should keep this in mind.



  1. Indeed – kids need to be taught now what history is (or was) but how to form their own conclusions about history, based on the evidence available.

  2. Bob Carr on the ABC’s Sunday Profile recently (downloadable MP3).


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