History that looks forward

The Australian National Curriculum Board was set up by the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, in January this year. A ‘Proposal for Discussion’ on ‘The shape of the National Curriculum’ has been developed by the board for public discussion. There are separate discussion proposals (called ‘Initial Advice’) relating to English, Science, and History. The Advice can be checked out at the NCB’s site: http://www.ncb.org.au/verve/_resources/History_Initial_Advice_Paper.pdf I have only considered the Advice relating to History, as that is my field.

As with so many of Rudd’s ‘innovations’, the board essentially continues the push by the former Prime Minister, John Howard, for the ‘proper’ teaching of Australian history in our schools. Personally, I welcome this, as a necessary rescuing of the discipline of history from the post-modern glad-bag known as ‘Studies of Society and Environment’ which replaced it in some Australian States. A positive feature of the Advice is that no-one is arguing for a narrow nationalistic Australian history but rather it is accepted that Australia’s story can only be understood in terms of the relationship between Australia and the rest of the world.

There was some controversy over Rudd’s appointment of Professor Stuart Macintyre as head of the History group, as Macintyre is a former communist and many interested parties see the board’s work in terms of the ‘culture wars’. Those on the right who expressed concern about Macintyre’s appointment should find nothing terribly disturbing in the History Advice. It is fairly standard fare – the topics suggested for study are essentially what I was taught as a high school student more than 40 years ago.

The Advice’s bias is not of the left wing variety but rather of the conservative and reactionary kind. It’s not just in what is missing – such as a celebration of progress and recognition of the fact that consideration of the future is also a legitimate part of historical enquiry – but in what is advocated, such as (at point 11) the desire to teach students about the “ecological limits of our current practices”.

Here are some notes. I haven’t had time to develop them, but they’re an initial response. I’d like to improve on them and send a submission to the board. Please, let me have some feed-back at this site.

The most conservative and reactionary aspect of the Advice is found in the concepts that are absent. Missing are ‘progress’ and ‘reaction’. Far from recognizing that human beings in general have never been so well off (i.e., that things have never been so good for such a large proportion of the world population), and that history shows how we have reached our current level, the Advice talks at point 11 about how students will be taught to “grasp” how “our current practices” have “environmental limits”. This is preceded by reference, at point 9, to how the growth of globalization and industrialization “has placed severe strains on the environment”.

The problem with this, as with all conservatism, is that it suggests we have reached a limit, that we must face the future with great caution rather than with great enthusiasm and optimism. This ‘green’ point of view is highly contentious yet expressed glibly in the Advice. It is not the lesson History has taught us, nor is it one that should be taught in that way. It reflects the view that sees nature, the environment, as static, as a thing rather than a process. Industrialization means that humans came up with new means of utilizing nature as a resource. To speak of a ’strain’ on nature implies that we are limited in our ways of coming up with yet newer things. I want to recommend that the board delete the sentence at point 11 (“that the ecological limits of our current practices will be grasped” and replace it with a paragraph along the following lines:

History can inspire with the understanding that human beings can continue to change things for the better, that no system of social relations is set in concrete, and that we have progressed precisely through our mastery of the natural world, a process that is continuing throughout the world. New modes of production and new scientific knowledge, backed by political will, have always shown that reactionaries are wrong in telling everyone else that they must live within their limits, especially those of the non-synthetic natural environment. History shows that human beings are wonderfully creative and ingenious problem-solvers. Human history is a story of progress, from people who lived more or less in harmony with the natural environment to people who have more or less mastered it. The result has been a steady improvement in the quality of human life, in the ways in which societies are organised, in the range of choices available to individuals, in standards of living, life expectancy, and human rights, especially for women and children, in greater understanding and awareness of the natural environment and in legislation conserving that environment. This has happened because humans moved beyond hunter-gathering, and in this sense, history is also about the future. History is not just about the past. Historians frequently say that the past lives on in the present but the future also lives in the past, and the present. History teaches that progress has not ended but is only beginning – if we want it to.

Following from the above, I would also recommend that the sentence “In helping us understand the sources of change, its processes and patterns, history can strengthen our capacity for bringing about further change” be added to point 6 (6. “History stretches from the distant past to the present, and provides a deeper understanding of contemporary events as well as the enduring significance of earlier ones. It introduces us to a variety of human experience, enables us to see the world through the eyes of others, and enriches our appreciation of the contingent nature of change”.)

The missing historical periods. There are two very significant omissions among the periods recommended for study. The economic integration of Australia into the world economy from the mid-1970s was a radical departure from the previous federation story, rejecting the ‘Mothers Milk’ of protectionism and strict state regulation in favour of global competition and deregulation. Students should be taught about this great period of change, and credit paid to Whitlam and Keating in particular for ushering it in.

The importance of the English revolution and the ‘British heritage’. There is, rightly, mention of the French and American revolutions but not the English one, yet it was this act of regime change that, for the first time, destroyed the notion of the divine right of kings and influenced the later European revolutions while also shaping Australia’s democracy and society via the commitment to parliamentary democracy on the part of the early settlers. If there is any pre-1788 world event that shaped Australia it is the English revolution, whose influence was brought to our shores by convicts, officers and immigrants. Chartism, which shaped our political culture, should be seen as an extension of the democratic promise of mid-to-late seventeenth century England. I find it very strange that the French and American revolutions are mentioned specifically but the English revolution, which to an extent inspired them, is not. The claim, at point 45, that Australia’s “core institutions and vales” derived from “western Europe” strikes me as obscuring their English origins.

Teaching the controversies. At point 15, the Advice speaks of the importance of developing a “critical perspective on received versions of the past” and of learning how “to compare conflicting accounts”. Point 20 identifies the need to master the “methods, procedures and tools” of the history discipline while point 21 (2) cites Peter Seixas on the importance of evidence and how to find, select and interpret it. I would say that one of the best ways of achieving all the above is through teaching the most significant controversies. At the more senior levels, the controversies among historians should be taught where these have significant impact over how history is done and understood. In Australia, we are fortunate to have the vigorous debates between Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle and these should be used to foster critical perspectives and as an example of the importance of evidence and reasonable interpretation and use of primary source material. I don’t think it is being too prescriptive to mention this debate by name in the curriculum, as it is of high quality, and will remain significant in the future as an example of how historical knowledge and interpretation is contested.

Comments please!


17 Responses to “History that looks forward”

  1. 1 Dalec

    Barry, I find it interesting that you talk lots about change; about humans having the power to change things for the better etc. However in other posts you absolutely deny the possibility that there is such a phenomena as human caused climate change . This view seems to come from a statist perspective; the view that regards man as the center of all creation and that the world was made for him. The enlightenment took God out of the centre of the world and for many replaced him with man. Barry there is no-one at the center of the world there is just a continuum of creatures. We happen to be a tiny bit smarter than the other creatures – on average. So far this has given us an evolutionary advantage. That’s all there is I’m afraid. If you think that we occupy a God given place in a world made specially for us then you are sadly mistaken.

  2. 2 byork

    Wrong. I have not denied the possibility that humans might cause climate change. As a skeptic, I’m open to that possibility. What I oppose is the irrational alarmism that promotes reactionary green policies.

  3. 3 Dalec

    You might not deny the possibility ( but your denial is certainly sotto voce) but you have made a meal of your opposition. I recollect endless arguments about temperature charts etc. It’s OK Barry, your tactic of leaving open a debating escape hatch has not escaped observation. One thing I will say about your right wing allies in the climate change debate is that many of them are sufficiently convinced of their arguments that they have closed this particular door…

    Do you suppose there is such a thing as rational alarmism? 
    Certainly there are reactionary green policies, almost all of them are either reactionary or profoundly mistaken. Their most egregious error is to suppose that they can limit the standard of living of “others” by enforcing some green code.
    Your error is to think that humankind can thrive without any reference to our biology and environment. In essence you guys are different sides of the same coin.


  4. 4 byork

    Dalec, it would be quicker just to say you were wrong to misrepresent my position. I have no interest in ‘debating’ other misrepresentations (readers may like to refer to the lastsuperpower site to see my actual position and to follow the past debates about global warming there). Can readers offer some comments of relevance to the National Curriculum Board’s proposals?!

  5. 5 Arthur

    I haven’t read the “initial advice”, but your response looks great!They probably won’t accept your suggestions. So we’re going to need to develop a history curriculum ourselves (including revolutionary history, not just in Europe). Then we are going to have to both learn it and teach it…Perhaps the times call for some (internet based) adult education classes? In a sense this is happening spontaneously. But an organized left trend is absent there, as elsewhere. Mass education by the bourgeoisie partly arose in response to the mass education by socialists in the mechanics institutes, workers education associations etc. We no longer need to teach reading etc but subjects such as history are primarily taught from bourgeois (including pseudo-left) viewpoints so we still have to learn and teach it ourselves.

  6. 6 byork

    Thanks, Arthur, for commenting. Anyone else ‘out there’ have any thoughts, constructively critical or otherwise? I need to polish it and send it in.

  7. 7 Dave Bath

    There are quite a few things I agree with in your notes, but to me, your notes on “progress” seem remarkably akin to the Victorian “Chain of Being” worldview. Progress is neither constant, nor assured.  That’s why (apart from the beautiful prose, and the wicked sense of humor) my favorite historical reading is Gibbon. Nothing like “the Big Picture”.  (Actually, H.G. Well’s idiot’s guide to world history wasn’t bad either, and his predictions about middle of C20 weren’t entirely off the mark, if you want to talk about the future).

    So… to a couple of specifics.Byork said: “It reflects the view that sees nature, the environment, as static, as a thing rather than a process.” Actually, apart from incoming solar energy and asteroids, the resources are fixed. Yes, we are continuing to find ways to be more aggressively extractive, but when I read historical documents, or indeed pre-historic information, there is a big lesson about environmental degradation and over-extraction.

    Hmmm.  Let’s think of a couple* How fast did humans expand down North America?  At the speed they could make local megafauna extinct.* How are the fabled cedars of Lebanon going?  Or indeed the fertility of Iraq?  Bit empty and dry compared to the descriptions in the Gilgamesh.

    Byork said: “Humans have never been so well off”. Hmmmm.  Water availability?  I won’t add a cheap shot about number of miserable humans being so high, but “so well off” doesn’t sound quite right.  From memory, I think the average hunter-gatherer spent about 4 thru 6 hours a day ensuring food, water and shelter. Even an old gossip like Plutarch, when Rome was apparently supreme, wrote pessimistically about infrastructure not being able to serve the population the way it had, newfangled touchy-feely religious belief, things going downhill. Being only slightly tongue-in-cheek, give the kiddywinks Herodotus: entertaining, controversial, broad in scope, yet deep: he DID posit environment/geography as a key determinant of the character of societies and thus of history after all.  And there’s lots to be discussed about how he treated his sources… uncritically or not.  (The story of the Persian sailing around the bottom of “Libya” with the Sun to the north is a great example).

  8. 8 John Greenfield

    Where has this blog been? Lefties with brains and education. Fucking heaven. such as a celebration of progress.And whence this progress?There is, rightly, mention of the French and American revolutions but not the English one.Amen to that brother! Nobody can claim to have a grasp of liberal democracy or capitalism, let alone Australian history unless they start with the English (bourgeois) revolution.So very, very true! Currently, all teaching of Australian bistory – indeed teaching of history fullstop – is a vale of tears. You can’t sit through a history lecture without reaching for the Kleenex as “power” is breathlessly revealed as a laughing gas permeating every nook and cranny, but disguised by clever and cunning whitey as he (always ‘he’ even whitey chicks are screwed by tEh patriarchy) puts it over all the subalterns with his evil discourses which create not-existent structures.It is only when the Luvvie academic deconstructs all this that revolution will ignite! Abandon faith all ye indigenous persons and gender-performers who enter! Ye have nothing to lose but your reified discourses!FFS, puhlezz bring back the concentration and centralisation of capital. Reveal to us that socio-spatial dialectic as capital flees spatially to reverse the tendency of the average rate of profit to fall! And so on and so forth.Great blog dude!

  9. 9 keza

    I forced myself to read “the Advice”. As usual, when reading an official outline of “a curriculum”, my eyes glazed over and I needed to exert immense self-discipline in order to get through all 70 points.  So much waffle, and so little real content.  Although I read it only about 14 hours ago, not much has remained in my brain. 

    It certainly didn’t come across as a document written by people who are excited about history (or would be capable of exciting kids about it!).

    The ‘suggestion’  that the history of globalization needs to be taught against the backdrop of the supposed fact that “The growth of the global economy, and the transformation of the newly industrialised countries, has placed severe strains on the environment” is outrageous.  This should be treated as a controversy to be (seriously) debated in history classes.

    I’m going to take the heretical view that the teaching of history would benefit by taking a frankly teleological approach.  Before anyone jumps on me, I’m not using the word teleological in the narrow sense of seeing history (and biological procecess )as being “directed” and unfolding according to a plan. My view is that it is the ‘natural’ tendency for things to get better over the long term.  Despite a large degree of randomness and “accident”,  both natural selection and the historical process have gone in a “good” direction over time. 

    Contrary to  Dalec (above) I’m quite happy to say that humans are “at the centre” and that the arrival on the planet of high level intelligence and intentional action  is something which (a) was almost certainly “bound” to occur (in one form or another)  and (b)  is of value.  Humans just are more valuable than other species in virtue of their intelligence and  increasing capacity to act intentionally on both nature and their social/cultural environment.

    At the very least, the teleological view of history should be presented to students as a controversy.

    I think that the politically correct style of presenting history to students bores them.  It’s very difficult to engage with the historical process when teachers feel forced to avoid offending supposed cultural sensitivities. In the end it all turns into a difficult to remember mush,  (like “the Advice” itself). 

    I agree with Barry that history looks forward, as well as back and that unless it is taught in such a way that students can see that, and get excited about what may happen next (and their capacity to influence these historically possible future events !), it will remain a subject which mainly interests the more academic and capable students.

    I’m not suggesting the teaching of “a line”, my remarks are about the spirit in which history could be taught.  Controversy must be an essential part of it.  Students should be taught in a way which incites them to want to take sides and do battle with opposing views. That is the thing which would stimulate them to take a real interest.

    I also think that the teaching of history should be an integral part of the teaching of science subjects.  The history of science and the struggle for knowledge is currently largely absent from the curriculum in physics, biology and chemistry (also maths). Students are taught it as though we have always known what we know now, and also as if what we know now is the end of it. And of course that can’t be the case.

  10. 10 John Greenfield

    kezaActually, I would argue that the whole “climate change” thing has no place in a History curriculum, as it is Current Affairs. There’s more than enough to stimulate, stun, and delight students of History over the past few million years, without ever getting to the fricking Kyoto Protocol! Every class spent on John Howard’s stubborn – but wise – refusal to sign on to Kyoto is a class denied to what might have been had the Germans denied Lenin access to the Finland Station!

  11. 11 John Greenfield

    p.s. How do you form paragraphs?

  12. 12 John Greenfield

    Spot on about history of science. One of the most rewarding essays I ever wrote at uni was on the role of ‘Islamic astronomy’ in the ‘Copernican Revolution’. Fascinating and challenging from historiographic, empirical, and mathematical perspectives.

  13. 13 byork

    I’d like to reply to Dave Bath (a few comments above). While agreeing that progress isn’t “assured”, I don’t think that excuses the authors of the ‘Advice’ of the Australian National Curriculum Board from ignoring progress altogether. It really is an outrageous omission. Is progress “constant”? I would argue that history shows that there are set-backs, including serious ones like ‘dark ages’ and fascism, but by any measurable criteria, human beings are better off now than they have ever been before, especially in the industrial and post-industrial countries. Water availability is hardly a major issue in these countries, though management and development of water resources is a big problem in Australia, where I live.

    I said by any “measurable” criterion because Dave’s point about more people being “miserable” cannot be proven by any objective measure. Was my grandmother, who was born in the late nineteenth century, happier back then than she would have been today? She had twelve children – that was woman’s role in a Catholic country back then – and ran the household while my grandfather was away on the merchant ships. The pay packet only arrived every so often by mail – in between time, ‘the groceries’ were very scarce and she even took in an “uncle” at one point to help get the family through while her husband was at sea. Sounds extremely tough to me, by today’s standards. But, who knows, she may have been happy – there’s no way of telling, no way of measuring that, and defintely no way of comparing it to levels of happiness today.

    Oh, and by the way, yes, back then they could leave the doors open day and night and not worry about theft – after all, who wants to steal bambinos?! Her story (save for the “uncle”) was typical of most women back then.

    As for the resources of nature being fixed, I think Dave is more to the point when he says, albeit negatively, that humans are always coming up with ways of more aggressively extracting them. It’s not just the extraction that matters but the new technologies that enable greater efficiency in their utilization. The speed with which humans transformed the natural environment is something to celebrate. Without it, we would not have the United States of America today. And please substitute any other modern nation or city for the USA. Give me New York (or Paris, or Berlin, or Moscow, or Sydney, or Tokyo, London, etc., etc.) over the mammoths and mastodom any day.

    The notion that we have reached the natural limit, or gone beyond our means, may one day be seen by historians as a brief late-twentieth century and early twenty-first century ‘dark age’. It requires political will and effort to overturn it – all part of the struggle for progress.

  14. 14 Barry

    The final reports have been issued by the National Curriculum Board in Australia and the new History curriculum is one of them. As with the draft that provoked this thread, the final curriculum statement for History is still basically conservative and reactionary. My submission didn’t make a dent – still no mention of the English revolution, plus the same (though re-worded) nonsense about teaching “ecological limits”.

    In the new History curriculum “the ecological limits of our current practices will be seen in their historical context”. How much more reactionary can one get? There is no sense here in which it is acknowledged as possible let alone highly probable that humanity will work out ways of mastering Nature even more effectively and efficiently thna in the past. They actually want to fix the ecological limits in terms of the past. Unbelievable.

    This, mind you, in a curriculum statement that also claims to be committed to a “futures orientation”. As this future has to be based on “sustainability”, in the view of the new curriculum’s framers, I think it can only be a conservative view.

    The curriculum statement’s conclusion repeats the usual conservative mantra about how history “links the past to the present”. When, oh when, will my fellow-historians start thinking about how the study of history can link us to the future as well as the present?!

    The document can be read in full here: http://www.ncb.org.au/verve/_resources/Australian_Curriculum_-_History.pdf

    The best I can say about it is that at least it is a move away from the formerly ascendant post-modern mish-mash back to a more structured content-based approach. But that’s not really saying much, given the nature of the content.

  15. 15 Arthur

    On a (rather tangentially) related issue (for which I haven’t noticed a closer topic):

    The promotion of Aussie “patriotism” has continued to get more sickening, especially as regards “Anzac traditions” (and also various phony “debates” around that).

    This ANZAC day I had an uncharaceristic “proud to be Aussie” moment while having dinner at a very Aussie (somewhat ocker) pub with an Anzac day football match or some such blaring on the TV. It was a really noisy pub with lots of general conversation.

    Then the “last post” was sounded and the TV broadcast a request for the audience to observe a minutes silence. The pub staff called out “silence please” and within seconds, everyone was completely silent until the words “Lest We Forget” were solemnly pronounced from the TV. The TV announcer then asked the football crowd to remain standing for Australia’s national anathem.

    Instantly the conversational buzz returned to its normal noisy level with “Advance Australia Fair” completely ignored in the background.

    There was no coordination or division. A mark of respectful rembembrance was one thing, but it was simply inconceivable for a large pub full of typical Aussies to even contemplate listening to, let alone standing for, or singing along with, a “national anthem”.

  16. 16 tomb

    yes the beauty of the australian national anthem is no one knows it and even less understand it.

  17. 17 keza

    The words are very confusing ….

    Australians all love ostriches,
    For we are young at three;
    We’ve got it all and dah, dah dee
    Our home is dirt by sea;
    Our land abounds in nature strips
    Of beauty rich and bare;
    In history’s page let every phrase
    Advance Australia’s hair!
    In joyful trains our lettuce sing
    Advance blah, blah, blah blah!

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