SCHOOLS: by James GilchristNews Weekly
Can we interest students in Australian history?
, September 16, 2006
A secondary school teacher James Gilchrist outlines his successful teaching approach.In 1988, at St Patrick's College, Ballarat, Victoria, my VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) Australian History teacher spoke with an imposing gravitas that demanded one's respect and attention.
In his custody, historians like Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark resonated like Old Testament prophets, giving a kind of epic sweep to the stories of our nation's past. He captured our imagination with his sense of drama, empathy and humour. Without realising it, he became an inspirational template for my own story.
When I began teaching Australian history in 1993, Peter Ryan had just published his scathing reflection upon the sixth volume of Manning Clark's A Complete History of Australia
. Ryan's article compelled me to perform a kind of maverick ritual before my bemused VCE Class - the burial of Volume Six in a shoebox coffin accompanied by prayers, consigning it to "history".Dynamic
I suppose I wanted to make a statement to the students, early, that Australian history was important, dynamic and filled with uncertainties.
The element of doubt has always captured my imagination about the past - the "history mysteries", those darkened dusty tombs and corridors of knowledge that remain open to question. It's the same for all of us, I suppose, which is why so many people have read The Da Vinci Code
with such apostolic fervour.
But further to this, it struck me as significant that if Clark, the revered Australian Herodotus, could in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, "deal lightly with the truth", then what other great mysteries lay before us unconfirmed? So it was not just a case of blithely accepting the chapter and verse of historians. We, teacher and students, had an active role to play in uncovering the truth about the past.
But what is historical truth? The perennial mantra of the postmodernist continues to hover over the study at every level. As important as this question is to the examination of history, it is not the one we should be agonising over. I would assert that a more important question for students right now is: "What is interesting?"
The history wars that periodically rage across our newspaper columns seem a little like clerics debating the finer points of Scripture while around them the flocks disappear.Is history dying?
Australian history is dying. Its numbers are down across the country; hence the recent efforts of the Prime Minister John Howard and the Education Minister Julie Bishop to resuscitate the study along with the recent summit of relevant authorities to debate what shape any mandated course should take.
What some of these well-qualified thinkers may not consider is that most secondary schools have had Australian history students as captive audiences for decades and, more often than not, like the aforementioned clerics, we have failed to capture the hearts and minds of our "parishioners".
Let us consider the Prime Minister's claim that our history has become a postmodern "stew".
On the one hand, post-modernism, deriving from our universities, has led to some valuable historiographical skill acquisition within the classroom. On the other, a tendency toward over-analysis has sometimes sterilised the narrative flow of our stories, a criticism now being levelled at VCE English.
Humanities teachers, often products of the liberal thinking of the post-1960s education system, can at times behave selectively and with little respect for traditional narratives. However, the earlier approach to our nation's history, with its European, imperialist and patriarchal emphasis, supported with lashings of facts and dates, was unduly narrow and deservedly criticised.
As with any reactionary trend, however, problems occur when the new order lacks balance of its own. Postmodernism encourages "counter-narratives" that at times lack appropriate reserve or discretion, supported by curriculum, textbook and teachers. Is this stew a more balanced diet for our students?
When post-1960s trained teachers discuss the 1975 Whitlam Dismissal or the 1954 Petrov Affair, are they giving students a broad spectrum of views or are they preaching an ideological narrative in the fashion of say, Manning Clark?
When teachers present the dreadful acts committed against indigenous peoples, do they acknowledge the efforts of British humanitarian groups or Australian protectorates at that time? Are the evils of British colonialism discussed in combination with the genius of British trade, governance and compromise?
Students of Generation X and Y frequently get bored listening to a fundamentalist-style rendering of the past, whether from a liberal or conservative source. But when presented with many sides of an issue or event and made to feel they are free to enter an open door of inquiry, guided by the teacher, their interest levels often increase.
The teacher's role is not to support unreservedly either Lyndall Ryan or Keith Windschuttle's angle on the alleged Tasmanian genocide, but to inform them that both views exist and that the evidence, like the truth, is out there - like the X-Files'
Mulder and Scully, as it were.
The other common criticism levelled at Australian history is that it is boring. Decades of teaching students both the chronological tree and root of Mr Howard's advocacy, followed by the cafeteria stew of topics and themes have generally failed to capture the imagination of students.
Ask most Year 9 students today what they think of the subject and they will use the word "boring". Many of their parents offer the same response, when reflecting upon their experience of it a generation earlier.
The typical journey of a Year 8 or 9 student begins with the drama and fascination of Egyptian mummies and Viking longships.
Then, just when their tolerance for book learning is beginning to wane, they are presented with a series of bloodless narratives concerning prison hulks, Macarthur's sheep and the various activities of men in periwigs, stockings and beards. Their interest levels may rise marginally with the raising of the Eureka Flag or the charge on The Nek; but often by then the battle is already lost.
However, one revelation that 13 years of teaching has given me is that, despite the relentless acceleration of technology, students still love good stories. They literally beg for them. Like us adults, they love intrigue and mystery. But in the study of our past, we bury our treasures like Portuguese caravels.Narrative treasures
Do the thousands of students who left school thinking our history is boring know anything about the race between Flinders and Baudin to chart the Australian coastline, Batman's spectacularly bold and probably fraudulent attempt to buy Victoria, the heart-breaking tragedy of the life of Les Darcy, or of William Buckley, or Charles Never, or the unambiguous heroism of Ralph Honner at Kokoda - or dozens of other narrative treasures?
When students become engaged through inspiring narratives, good things often follow: skill development, research, questions and perhaps even the cultivation of desirable values such as tolerance, pluralism, courage, social responsibility and an appreciation of the value of democracy - the kind of qualities these times require as much as ever.
Australian history, like any good story, needs anecdotes, asides and even the occasional soliloquy - the kinds of diversions my fondly remembered Australian history teacher was, himself, not afraid to risk.
When I have been successful in the classroom, I feel certain it has been owing to the achievement of such balance, in the face of a busy curriculum. Balance in presenting key issues, balance between structure, chronology, course requirements and engaging narratives.
So the question for me isn't about whether we should have a tree or a stew but whether we are engaging our students and making them genuinely part of the learning process in what should be their favourite subject.