Liberals pick a fight over history wars again
November 8, 2013 – 7:55AM
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Political meddling with the history curriculum is vandalism that undermines democracy.
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Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
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I see a headline like this, “Report backs Rudd’s bias claim” (The Age, November 7) about News Corp’s political tendencies, it reminds me that Donald Rumsfeld was not so daft after all with his mantra about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
Derided at the time, Rumsfeld knew a thing or two since the known known part clearly comes into play when we think of News Corp and Kevin Rudd, never mind News Corp and Julia Gillard.
We also know something else about one particular News Corp organ.
In recent years The Australian, together with a small number of fellow conservative players, has been pushing an inaccurate and ill-informed campaign on how we understand our past.
This campaign has come in the form of a culture war against the history curriculum, a war blamed on the left but perpetrated by the right.
What we know about this campaign is this. The crusade against the national curriculum is a conservative obsession that started in 2006 with John Howard’s Australia Day speech after the Cronulla riots.
In summary, a few Liberal politicos prosecute a one-sided affair in which they are fighting some kind of 1970s conflict in which curriculum designers are, to use Julie Bishop’s 2006 term, “Maoists”.
Mild-mannered historian Stuart Macintyre features in the narrative as public enemy No. 1 and is described as an ex-communist godfather of history. Macintyre “and his friends” are credited with subversive mind control of 3.5 million school students.
Three conservative marketing and public relations agencies support the Liberals’ campaign against “reds behind the desks”: the Institute of Public Affairs, Quadrant and The Australian, each of which is capable of starting a fight in an empty house.
This alliance blames the History Wars (originally a US term) on a (so far unsighted by anybody else) leftist partnership that stretches from Mao to the Greens and apparently espouses, among other things, feminism, environmentalism, postmodernist relativism, Marxism, pacifism, Asianism and apologism.
Sensibly, the tabloids, the Nationals and the ALP stay well out of this lop-sided and esoteric schoolyard spat.
Indeed, the only recent ALP comment about the history curriculum that I can remember was Gillard’s lawyerly but misguided doorstop remark that having a national curriculum in history was a good idea because the students could all learn from the same textbook.
Meanwhile, the few – but noisy – Liberal figures in the campaign sail across a Bunyanesque Sea of Knowledgable Ignorance crying out “Magna Carta!”, “English Civil War!”, “Judeo-Christian tradition!” and “Western civilisation!”
During their fulminations, they count mentions in the curriculum of Aborigines as well as the names of conservative and ALP prime ministers and demand more emphasis on the heroic bits of Australian history.
As for the known unknowns, they are these.
Will these History Wars continue into 2014? Will overburdened curriculum officials and teachers who support the current curriculum groan as yet another change is forced on them?
Will the mainly Coalition state and territory education ministers pressure Canberra politicians to get a life, get out more and get over it?
Will Christopher Pyne appoint a history curriculum review panel of Geoffrey Blainey, George Pell and Gerard Henderson or will he appoint a credible, all-subject review panel that will probably suggest dumping the (already targeted) three cross-curricular priorities (Asia/indigenous/sustainability) and leave history alone?
If the Coalition does change the history curriculum by injecting Tory facts, will the next ALP government just cancel out its efforts, starting a 20-year cycle of boring and bothersome tit-for-tat revisions, as has been the case in the UK?
As for the unknown unknowns, who knows? But I do know one thing. Political meddling with the history curriculum is an act of vandalism that undermines the very notion of democracy.
We know this because even now there is a politician who publicly supports historians who write “positive history”, who wants the “bright spots” of his country’s past emphasised in the national curriculum, and who carefully checks history textbooks to make sure they are acceptable to his government.
His name is Vladimir Putin.
Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University. From 2001-07 he was director of the Commonwealth’s National Centre for History Education. His two most recent books are (co-edited) History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives and (co-authored) Place and Space: Explorations in Teaching Geography and History