'Challenging Australian History: Discovering New Narratives'.
A Report on the National Library of Australia Conference, Canberra, 14-15 April 2000.
By Ian Simpson, University of Western Sydney
Recent debates over history education in schools have concentrated almost entirely on the issues of content and skills, presenting the relationship between the two more often in terms of a conflict than as a dialogue. Questions about the purpose of history, which have increasingly come to concern historians, tend to have been neglected in the course of this debate.
Over two hundred historians, academics, teachers, students, writers, librarians, publishers and others gathered at the National Library in April this year to consider the current state of history in Australia and to speculate on its future. The conference was fully subscribed weeks ahead; officers from the Library suggested that the event could have been sold out many times over, such was the response. This in itself would seem to indicate that the history business is in a very healthy state indeed.
Popular interest in history seems to be on the rise; the demand for information on family history accelerates, mini-series and films with historical themes and settings abound and history as an issue dominates the media almost daily. Witness Mabo, the Republic and the Stolen Generations debates. At the time of writing, record crowds had turned out to observe Anzac ceremonies and politicians were falling over each other in their efforts to identify themselves with the 'Anzac legend'. But in the institutions of history, in the schools and universities particularly, there appears a sickness. Professor Jill Roe of Macquarie University referred to the decline in numbers of full-time academic staff in her department from twenty five in 1994 to just eight this year. Professor Stuart Macintyre of Melbourne University lamented that a mere six per cent of Victorian HSC students studied history courses (and congratulated New South Wales in passing for being the only state in Australia to preserve history as a separate subject in the senior school and for having a 'history-loving premier'). This paradox between popular enthusiasm and perceptions of academic malaise developed as one of the major themes of debate at the conference and a series of speakers suggested ways in which it might be resolved.
Two current issues appeared of the most concern. The first related to the challenges, particularly those made by politicians of the right, to the impartiality and motivation of historians and consequently to their right to speak on public issues. This has been seen most recently in the controversy over the existence of the Stolen Generations. I will return to this issue below. The second was the one thrown out to historians by recent developments in theory, particularly deconstruction and postmodernism, questioning the existence of any kind of historical truth and the ability of historians to uncover it. Eric Hobsbawm has recently commented on this:
Theoreticians of all kinds circle the peaceful herds of historians as they graze on the rich pastures of their primary sources or chew the cud of each other's publications. Sometimes even the least combative feel impelled to face their attackers. (On History. 1997: vii.)
Of the speakers, Jill Roe and Henry Reynolds seemed most inclined to resist the challenge. Roe argued that only historical knowledge, not the relativism of the recent theorists, was capable of answering the 'big questions', such as the holocaust, with which history was properly concerned. This 'knowledge', she hastened to explain, involved understanding rather than merely uncovering more facts. The challenge of history, she affirmed in her keynote address, was 'to get it right'; the alternative, of getting it 'wrong', resulted in 'dire consequences'. Attempts to question the existence of the Stolen Generations were examples of this. Henry Reynolds similarly insisted on the existence of a 'bedrock of basic facts'. He argued that his was what people outside the academy were interested in learning, as has been shown for example in the truth and justice inquiry in South Africa and in the attempts to recover and rewrite national histories in Eastern Europe and Central and South America. These examples served as a reminder of the way people continue to believe in the 'moral potency' and power of history to uncover the truth.
Ann Curthoys questioned Roe's cry for historians to 'get it right', suggesting that a more reasonable approach might be to allow there to be 'many ways of getting it right'. Other speakers gave examples of what this might involve. Marilyn Lake reminded the audience that one of the effects of the wave of feminist writings from the 1960s had been to open up new areas of content, in particular, the private world of emotions and relationships, which had been repressed to date. Katie Holmes spoke of her research using women's diaries from the 1920s and 1930s and how this had uncovered new perspectives on women's identities. New narratives, Lake suggested, might involve not merely pursuing these private histories but investigating the relationship between the private and the public. Tony Birch demonstrated how the Museum of Victoria had used everyday domestic items such as sewing machines and bags of sweets to show how they might represent themes of control and persecution when viewed from a Koori perspective. Jennifer Craik argued that the 'trinity' of class, race and gender with which historians had traditionally been concerned had been replaced by a 'new orthodoxy of proliferation' in which themes such as the environment, identity and the contest between the local and the global had become potential areas for research. Clearly, the subject matter that is considered appropriate for research is changing. Historians are engaged in debating not simply what this content should be, but also how this is decided and by whom.
Just as arguments about content provided one of the consistent themes of the conference, so too did discussions over the historian's methods. Henry Reynolds asserted that there is a 'residual positivist' in all historians, concerned with uncovering the 'facts' in order to get at the truth. It is difficult to think of any historian who would concede that they are not somehow interested in this process. Novelists Nicholas Hasluck and Nicholas Jose, both of whom have incorporated historical material in their recent work, conceded that creative writers needed to stay within the bounds of the 'agreed facts' in order to be plausible and to pay close attention to 'the little things'. However, both raised the issue of whether there were some aspects of the past which might only be understood by way of speculation, exaggeration and so on. In a way, Hasluck admitted, this could open historical fiction to the charge of being 'anti-history', yet this kind of 'informed speculation' might prove valuable in challenging the accepted ways of seeing the past. The work of Gore Vidal was referred to here. Greg Dening described a recent doctoral thesis which interwove an investigation of a massacre of aborigines in rural New South Wales with the popular memories of the event held by local townsfolk and the author's own journey of discovery and search for identity. Iain McCalman spoke about another study of relations between aborigines, miners and police on the Roper River conducted by researchers from the field of cultural studies. This used a sketch book belonging to an aboriginal boy as its principal piece of evidence. McCalman admitted that, as an historian, his instincts would have directed him to search for the written sources, a method which he suggested would have resulted in a much different and probably inferior outcome to that gained by the researchers through their deconstruction of the boy's drawings.
Finally, it was noticeable that practically every speaker related their study of history to some current social or political issue. History was shown to be about much more than merely acquiring valuable information about the past or developing a set of critical thinking skills. The value of researching, writing about, teaching and learning history lay in the ways in which these could contribute something to society. For Jill Roe, the function of history lay in its ability to answer 'the big questions'. For Henry Reynolds, history provided an opportunity to help make society more equitable and democratic. For Tony Birch, it empowered people with a voice and a means to articulate their identity. The historians participating in the conference were as much concerned with the purpose of history as they were with the product and the process. As Keith Jenkins has commented, the question of 'what (or who) is history for?' should be at least as important as 'what is history?' (Re-thinking History. 1991:16).
The success of the conference has encouraged staff of the National Library to organise a second venture. Interested readers should watch for advertisements in major newspapers early next year. The Library has posted transcriptions of this year's presentations on its excellent website at www.nla.gov.au.
University of Western Sydney Nepean
Ian Simpson has taught history in secondary schools in western Sydney for twenty years and is currently conducting research towards a Ph.D degree on the nature and purpose of school history in New South Wales.