Who Killed Australian History?

When the University of Melbourne’s undergraduate course in Australian literature was not offered last year, there was an uproar – not just from the literary community, but from the students themselves, who organised their own Australian literature study group. The university was quick to reassure appalled onlookers that the subject was only resting; it is back on the syllabus this year.

This year, the university is dismantling its Australian history undergraduate program – and dramatically cutting back its Australian studies program overall. The Sunday Age recently reported that the teaching staff for the university’s Australian Centre will be cut back from 4.9 to one full-time position, a director. It ‘will effectively become a research-only centre, with postgraduate students and no undergraduate students’.

The student response has been noticeably non-existent. Which surprises no one: undergraduate Australian history has recently had the lowest enrolment of all subjects at the University of Melbourne.

La Trobe University has no undergraduate Australian history program either. Sydney University is also struggling to get numbers in first-year Australian history, compared with strong interest in American and European history subjects.

Schools make Australian history ‘brain-deadening’

‘Schools killed Australian history,’ wrote Christopher Bantick (former head of history at Trinity Grammar in Kew) in the Age yesterday. He said it has been reduced to ‘a brain-deadening subject where nothing happens.’

Anna Clark, who interviewed 250 history teachers, students and curriculum officials from around Australia for her book History’s Children, agrees. ‘‘There is a real turn-off that comes out of school education when it comes to national history … It didn’t matter what school they went to or what region they grew up in, kids I spoke with said Australian history was often dull and repetitive,’ she told the Australian.

‘In Grade 6 you sort of study the same things as Year 10 … It’s just like you do the same thing over and over and over again,’ said one typical Year 12 boy.

Military focus normalises war

Marilyn Lake, president of the Australian Historical Association, agrees that kids are put off the subject by learning it at school. She is critical of the way history has been taught, particularly the increased focus on military history over the past 15 years. More money has been spent on educating children in military history than any other field of history in Australia, she says.

She believes this was a deliberative initiative by the Howard government to ‘literally … change the subject’, moving away from the much-debated history wars and 19th-century massacres of indigenous people to the 20th-century wars fought by the Anzacs and their descendants.

‘The line run about Australia having proved its values and identity in war is related to the fact that we now seem to be always at war. In other words, this [has] normalised war.’

But while Lake is concerned that the dominance of military history in our schools is putting students off the subject, Clark found in her research that the Anzac legend is the one area of Australian history kids warm to. The most hated topics were indigenous history, because of the repetitive the way it is taught, and Federation, which even one teacher confessed was ‘sort of mind-blowingly dull’.

National history curriculum ‘progressive and exciting’

The future for teaching Australian history, Lake told ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra last week, is folding it into global history rather than teaching it as a stand-alone subject. At La Trobe University, where she is chair of the School of Historical and European Studies, one undergraduate subject that has gained rather than lost enrolments in 2012 is Global Migration Stories, which incorporates a good deal of Australian history. The subject, which is four years old, is an example, she says, of the need to think in new ways when it comes to teaching Australian history.

Trevor Burnard, head of the school of historical and philosophical studies at the University of Melbourne, concurs that students are ‘less interested in exploring Australian identity and more interested in exploring Australia in the wider world’.

Lake is hopeful about the future of teaching Australian history in schools, and the new national history curriculum, currently in development. ‘From what I’ve seen of it, I think it looks very progressive and exciting to me.’

And as for Australian history in universities, she says students do come back to it later, after an undergraduate gap year – in second and third years, and when they’re doing their honours.

The Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series launches this Thursday, with Ramona Koval talking to Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams about Watkin Tench: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay. This free event will be at the Wheeler Centre from 5.30pm. Bookings are recommended.

Watkin Tench was one of the texts featured in last year’s popular Must-Read Histories event, which you can now watch online.

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