EDUCATION by Paul McCormackNews Weekly
Taking Australian history out of the curriculum
, May 9, 2015
Most Australians are imbued with a disposition towards conservatism, despite the fact that most would not readily describe themselves using such a term.
A conservative is neither a person who opposes change simply because it is change nor one who supports change merely for the sake of change. Rather, conservatives are people who are inclined to oppose radical or violent change yet support change that is either necessary or an improvement upon the existing condition.
In terms of modern Australian identity, conservatives are patriots rather than nationalists and people who are aware of both the inglorious aspects of our history and the elements for which we can be justly proud.
Most Australians are aware that studying our nation’s history is an important way of learning about the people, events and ideas that have helped to shape us. On the subject of school education and history, Australian conservatives have generally avoided any confrontation with their progressive counterparts, tending to leave it to tertiary institutions and academics to engage in the culture wars. Part of the reason for this has been that the studies of modern Australian history are not and should not generally be about a battle between conservatism and progressivism; they are, to borrow the title from one history textbook, studies of our experience of nationhood.
This experience has been rich and varied and it deserves to be studied by young Australians. Unfortunately, the place of Australian history has been relegated to a less important status at secondary level within the new Australian curriculum.
The NSW History 7-10 Syllabus for the Australian curriculum retains the traditional stage structure of the NSW syllabus while incorporating the single-year level structure of the new national curriculum.
The stage structure is based on two year levels (for example, Stage 4 is Years 7 and 8, Stage 5 is Years 9 and 10) and has the advantage of suiting composite classes such as a combined Year 7-8 class or a Year 9-10 class.
The Stage 4 content for the new curriculum is titled “World History: Ancient, Medieval and Modern”; the Stage 5 content is now titled “Global History: The Modern World and Australia”. To incorporate the single year levels from Years 7 to 10, there is a specific topic for each year level and each topic includes areas of study called “depth studies”, within which there are options of units to study.
The name given for each depth study is a misnomer, which will become evident upon further explanation. The basis for the topics is chronological. The Year 7 topic is “The Ancient World”, the Year 8 topic is “The Ancient to the Modern World”, the Year 9 topic is “The Making of the Modern World” and the Year 10 topic is “The Modern World and Australia”.
The Stage 4 content has many good features, although the “Ancient Past” depth study is clearly focused upon the secularist prejudice that evolution is an undisputed fact for explaining human origins rather than the intellectually refutable theory that it actually is. Nevertheless, the other two depth studies are focused on the ancient Mediterranean world (Egypt, Rome or Greece) and the Asian world (India or China), which provides scope for learning about history in two significant regions of the world for Australia. The fourth depth study for Stage 4 is titled “The Western and Islamic World”. However, it would be more accurately entitled the “Western or Islamic World” as the options include either the study of Medieval Europe or the Ottoman Empire, not both of them.
In the previous Stage 5 history syllabus for NSW, Australian history had been given pride of place. Students were able to study the movement for Federation, including the arguments for and against, the Anzac experience in World War I and the conscription debates, the interwar period including the Great Depression, the Australian experience of World War II, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict, postwar migration to Australia, Indigenous Australian rights campaigns and Australian cultural changes over the 20th century.
These topics covered a breadth of economic, socio-cultural, political and military history. The new syllabus for Stage 5 contains six depth studies and only two of these are compulsory: “Australians at War (World War I and World War II)” and “Rights and Freedoms (1945–present)”. Unless a comparative history is the focus of study, it makes little sense to combine World War I and World War II into a single unit, particularly as the Australian experience of these two wars was markedly different.
The study of Federation is now an optional unit within the depth study titled “Australia and Asia”, for which the two optional study areas are “Making a Nation” or “Asia and the World”. Once again the title of the depth study is a misnomer because it provides the option of studying about either Federation in Australia or an Asian society from around 1750.
Moreover, there is a gaping hole in the syllabus for studies of Australian history in the omission of the interwar period, which is a rich source of national history covering major events including the Great Depression and the economic responses to it. The interwar period was the era of such luminaries as Pharlap, Sir Donald Bradman, Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, Daniel Mannix, John Flynn and Joseph Lyons. It was an era that involved construction of iconic Australian landmarks built such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and (Old) Parliament House in Canberra.
Notwithstanding the pursuit of the “men, money and markets” policy that was largely dependent upon Great Britain, the interwar period was a time when Australia made progress as a strong and independent nation in spite of the economic hardships that were experienced, which arguably helped to forge the national character equally as much as did brave military campaigns before or afterwards.
This was well documented in the series by Chris Masters entitled The Years That Made Us: Australia between the Wars. It is therefore disingenuous to downplay the historical significance of the interwar period and it is a travesty of Australian history studies to completely ignore it in the syllabus.
The NSW syllabus for history had many laudable aspects, although it was not itself a perfect document. However, the new history syllabus for the Australian curriculum is not a change that represents an improvement to that syllabus; hence it should not be endorsed by conservative or other Australians of common sense.
It tends to be light on facts and heavy on fads such as progressive ideas and the environment movement. It downgrades studies of particular times in Australian history that should be core studies to being either mere options alongside studies of Asian nations (in the case of Federation) or it completely overlooks them altogether (in the case of the interwar period).
Perhaps all that is necessary for the triumph of politically correct history studies is for a sufficient number of people neither to know nor care about history. In any case, it is surely a cruel irony that Australian history has clearly been diminished in the new Australian curriculum for the subject.
Paul McCormack is a secondary school history teacher and deputy principal of St Mary MacKillop Colleges in Wagga Wagga, NSW.