QUARTERLY ESSAY 23 The History Question



Anna Clark

It is a difficult task to write a response to Inga Clendinnen – she is a hard act to follow. Yet her essay The History Question raises important questions about teaching Australian history in schools. And, unlike so much of the history wars in recent years, it has begun a conversation that invites engagement and response.

The Prime Minister is right to be worried about low levels of historical interest among young Australians. When I interviewed a Year 12 student in Darwin earlier this year, she said that she would rather learn any history than her own nation’s: “I remember doing it heaps in primary school and it was really boring, and it still is, and Australian history just makes me want to cry. It’s so boring and I can’t stand it.” Her view is by no means universal, but it’s clear that something needs to be done if the perception that Australian history is boring prevents students from learning it.

Yet the answer cannot be to promote national pride at the expense of critical engagement with the subject. In 2004 the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, insisted that Australian children be taught national values and that schools install a “functioning flagpole” to fly the nation’s flag. In Howard’s Australia Day speech this year, he criticised the failure to teach Australian history as an “objective record of achievement”.

The problem here is not about whether to teach the nation’s past, but how to teach it. History should not be about nation-building, as Clendinnen rightly insists, but if it’s taught well it can help to build a better nation:

I would like students at every level to study Australian history because I believe that one of the best ways to “teach values” is to exercise minds by engaging them in investigation of conflicts between competing values and interests, always with a proper regard for clarity and justice of analysis and the relevance of evidence.

To be sure, students themselves want to engage with the past and examine different readings of it. They don’t want a dry recounting of events – they know that history is much more than that. They also don’t want parochial history; they want to learn about Australia’s place in the world and how Australia’s history compares with the histories of other nations. 

In the lead-up to the centenary of Federation in 2001, for example, significant public anxiety was expressed by politicians, historians and educationists that young Australians were oblivious to their own country’s foundation. Following the massive government-sponsored campaign to increase awareness of Federation, many more students were able to name Australia’s first prime minister. But is that all history is? 

A Year 11 student from Brisbane who recalled the centenary celebrations thought that there should be more to the subject than just being able to remember Edmund Barton: “Like I know the name of the first prime minister, but that’s the only prime minister I really know, Edmund Barton, and I don’t know anything about him, I just know his name. And I don’t know anything about any of the other prime ministers.” 

It is not enough to just learn “the facts”, and students are already telling us this. They understand the importance of studying what it means to be Australian, but only as long as the story they learn is not narrowly simplistic. Another student from Brisbane agreed that Australian history should be compulsory, but if it is, “It shouldn’t be inward-looking like America, and I think it should be the whole investigative sort of history. I don’t like the idea of just learning facts, and then being told what to think.”

Clendinnen writes that “history’s social utility depends on it being cherished as a critical discipline, and not as a tempting source of gratifying tales” – so it is essential that it be taught in all its complexity. As history educationists such as Tony Taylor and Carmel Young have stressed, “History education is about the development of ‘historical literacy’ rather than a simplistic notion that history is about the recall of historical facts or, at best, an entertaining story.” Knowledge of the past is a critical component of historical literacy, they maintain, but so too is the ability to understand multiple perspectives, develop research skills and form arguments. 

That means we need students who can read the past, who can evaluate historical sources, distinguish different voices, and interrogate its stories. And then they need to be able to write the past. The task extends beyond simply transmitting “what happened” to teaching students to engage critically with the subject. (Because doing it badly, as we have seen regarding Japan’s persistent denialism, has terrible moral implications for the way nations face up to their collective past.)

In other words, we need to teach students to do history: to constantly reconcile judging the past from our own present values and empathising with people from another age; to understand how historical interpretations change over time; and to consider different points of view. 

And for that a great deal of professional development and funding is required. If history is to have integrity in schools, it needs to be supported – and by this I don’t mean flagpole subsidies, but actual professional development, for teachers and resources in the classroom

This debate presents a great opportunity to cement the place of Australian history in school, but it’s essential that it be done well. If it is, we can hope that students might learn to practise history as Clendinnen herself has done with such timely consideration.


Anna Clark is a post-doctoral fellow at Monash University currently researching history teaching in Australia and Canada. Her book Teaching the Nation: Politics and Pedagogy in Australian History was published in 2006.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 23, The History Question. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 24, No Fixed Address.


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