SCHOOLS: by Mark LopezNews Weekly
The history summit: what really happened
, September 2, 2006
Historian Mark Lopez took part in the Federal Government's recent summit to promote the teaching of Australian history in schools.The press reports in The Australian, The Age and the Herald Sun that coincided with or followed the recent Australian history summit (August 17, 2006) suggested that it had been an unqualified endorsement of Prime Minister John Howard's call for a "root and branch renewal of Australian history in schools" (January 25, 2006).
Well, I'm not so sure that it was. Interestingly, I noticed that the Herald Sun
loudly supported the summit while The Age
sniped at it. They might have reversed the angles of their stories had they witnessed it. I did not see the press until the morning following my return to Melbourne from Canberra. I was surprised. Were they talking about the event that I had experienced?Educational problems
I had been invited to attend the history summit by the federal minister for education, science and training, Julie Bishop, presumably because of my contribution as a historian, having written The Origins of Multi-culturalism in Australian Politics
(2000). However, since I also have my own private tutoring business, I felt I could bring to the proceedings extensive practical experience in dealing with precisely the educational problems that the summit was intended to address.
The 23 summiteers, as we became called, included many notable individuals. There were many professional historians including Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey, the secretary of the federal Department of Education, educationalists from the tertiary, secondary and primary schooling sectors, two Aboriginal academics, and several leading columnists with historical expertise.
Also present was former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, whose passion for history had led him to reform history-teaching in his state, therefore establishing a precedent for the Howard Government's intended reforms, as well as a welcome bipartisan presence that was highly valued by the education minister.
Before the summit, each of us was sent several documents to study that would constitute the framework for the discussion. First, there was a paper by Associate Professor Tony Taylor (department of education, Monash University). It was an overview of the teaching and learning of Australian history in schools that described a subject in alarming disrepair.
Supplementing his paper was a hefty (three-and-a-half centimetres thick!) compilation of the relevant curriculum documents from each of the state and territory education systems. With the exception of NSW and Victoria, they made sobering reading. The documents from the ACT, NT, Tasmania, SA, Queensland, and WA (the minister's state) were so left-wing in their content that at times they read like party platforms as they stressed the importance of promoting social justice and environmental awareness.
Associate Professor Gregory Melleuish (Wollongong University) had been assigned the more challenging task of devising a solution. His paper warned that "history is distorted when it becomes a conscious vehicle for the purpose of advocating political causes rather than being driven by its own intrinsic concerns". Then, heeding his own advice, he provided an exquisitely fair and balanced list of curriculum topics that provided for both left- and right-wing historical interests. Bravo!
Consequently, I set off to the summit intending to endorse wholeheartedly the content and direction of both of the papers that were to be the focus of our deliberations.
The summit was preceded by a grand dinner at the Hyatt hotel, attended by many academics and other dignitaries in addition to the summiteers. It was an opportunity to meet, mingle and discuss the key issues in an informal setting. This event left me uplifted by the prevailing mood of mutual goodwill that favoured reform.
However, when the summit commenced the following morning, the left-leaning representatives from the educational establishment dominated the proceedings from the outset, often expressing a "can't do" rather than a "can do" attitude. The proposed changes would take "500 hours" to teach, was one of the criticisms.
Although I respected their professional expertise, I wondered quietly whether they would be offering so many objections if the policy papers had recommended an additional emphasis on topics like the Vietnam War or the Whitlam Government or Aboriginal reconciliation, topics favoured by the left.
There seemed to be enough teaching hours available for those topics but not to teach the values of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution that motivated Captain Cook's voyage of discovery. However, these experts did have a point about practicality, and some refinement to the proposed curriculum was probably required.
Much of the first session became frustratingly bogged down in a long (very long) debate over whether the recommended compulsory curriculum changes should be described as "core" or as "mandatory", with the tactical point being put forward that core changes would meet less teacher resistance than mandatory ones.
With Melleuish's paper already criticised for covering too much material, surprisingly many historians tried to get their special interests added to this already long list, such as the need to cover the "banking industry" or the "rabbit plague".
"What about the 1960s?" one historian suggested. As the discussion continued, more and more of the politically-correct agenda was put forward as topics.Vague and open-ended
In addition, many of the summiteers were content to wander from their brief - which was to closely consider the two discussion papers - to instead devise a list of rather vague open-ended questions about Australian history that were supposed to replace (or perhaps complement?) Melleuish's list of topics.
The longer this discussion continued, the more the original papers were marginalised and the more the summit seemed to veer from what I perceived to be its intended purpose. Most of the summiteers were happy with this direction. Their banter was jovial. However, those who wanted more substantial reform slumped disappointedly into their seats.
When I, and later several others, tried to raise issues like the ideological bias in the curricula and teacher quality, it was not well received, to say the least. My popularity did not improve when I tried to steer the proceedings back to the two discussion papers. It was to no avail. Such was my contribution to the summit.
Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey, who is an old hand at these types of events, and who had observed the proceedings with a wry smile, made a major contribution by offering the basis of a practical statement that the minister could use in her communiqué.
Bob Carr, another old hand at these types of events, helped to fashion the communiqué that was rushed through towards the close of the event. The spirits of some of those who wanted more substantial change rose a little, since the non-specificity of the rushed document seemed to include a little more of what they had wanted from the summit.
What had initially appeared to be one unified history summit had, by the afternoon, peeled apart to become two history summit factions. The minority of radical reformers (who could be labelled the "right", or independents) saw some of the problems in history education in somewhat Orwellian terms, seeking to promote greater freedom of thought and intellectual inquiry, and criticising the tendency to use history to promote current (left-wing) causes.
They also wanted to resuscitate this intellectual discipline, partly by stripping it of much of the post-modern and other fashionable theory that has influenced history and other school subjects in recent decades.
Meanwhile, the majority - the moderate reformers (who could be labelled the left establishment) - also valued history as an intellectual discipline. They focused more on making history a more prestigious stand-alone compulsory subject rather than one diluted into the amorphous category of Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE).
They also wanted a narrative approach, rather than a patchy bite-sized presentation, along the lines of Carr's NSW model. However, the perceptions of ideological bias in the curriculum did not seem to bother them, and, astonishingly, some gave the impression that they believed that this bias did not exist.
The minister's speech at the dinner preceding the summit had asserted: "History is not peace studies. History is not social justice awareness week. Or conscious-raising about ecological sustainability." She also warned: "We should seriously question, for example, the experiment of mushing up history into Studies of Society and the Environment."
These strands of thought, however, had separated dramatically on the day of the summit, with the left establishment view prevailing, since there were more of their representatives present. They won, demonstrating an iron law of politics made famous by the legendary Labor Party stalwart, Fred Daley: "You can have the arguments; give me the numbers."- Dr Mark Lopez is an educational consultant, historian and author of The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics (Melbourne University Press, 2000).