In the next history war

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

The election of Tony Abbott's Liberal-National Coalition on Saturday night, after six years of Labor majority and minority government, will mean many things for Australia. Whether they are good or bad remains to be seen. For historians, however, there are some troubling omens. A $900 million cut to university research funding (ironically, to help pay for an ambitious reform to secondary education) announced by Labor in May was inevitably criticised by the opposition, but then accepted. Despite some fine words in the months leading up to the election about respecting research autonomy, Julie Bishop, then the shadow foreign minister, announced that a Liberal government would cut funding to any academics who supported boycotts against Israel. And with only two days to go the Liberals revealed that they would 're-prioritise' another $900 million of Australian Research Council grants deemed 'wasteful'. This, again inevitably, means the humanities will be targeted, with any research project not contributing to somebody's bottom line open to ridicule, or worse.

Due to its role in constructing the nation's self-image, history is going to be particularly vulnerable to political interference. As I briefly noted back in April, the then shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, attacked the history component of the new National Curriculum as politically correct and promised that a victorious Coalition would overturn its emphasis on the so-called 'black armband view of history'. This is a phrase which first became prominent in the 1990s during what became known as the history wars, and though it was historian Geoffrey Blainey who introduced it, it remains indelibly associated with John Howard, the last Liberal prime minister before Abbott. Howard used the accusation that historians were painting a far too negative picture of Australia's past, particularly in the invasion, dispossession and genocide of its indigenous people by European settlers, as an excuse to do nothing about Aboriginal reconciliation. So the reappearance of 'black armband history' suggests that the history wars are about to start again.

If so, then both military history and British history -- my areas of expertise -- may turn out to be key battlefields. Pyne claimed that the teaching of history in Australian schools 'must highlight the pivotal role of the political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales'. I agree, in principle; certainly the teaching of British history seems have declined at university level over the last decade or so, which seems odd given the importance of Britain in Australia up until the mid-twentieth century. But I have little faith in the ability of politicians to not be politicians when it comes to history. Gallipoli, as ever in this country, shows why. Pyne further criticised the way that the significance of Anzac Day was being taught alongside other national days and hence diluted:

ANZAC day is very central to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history, and I think it downplays ANZAC day for it not to be a standalone part of the history curriculum – to be taught about Australia’s culture and what we’ve done in the past [...] I think ANZAC day speaks very much about the kind of country we are today and where we’ve come from. It was the birth of a nation – the birth of a nation in the First World War [...]

He's right that Anzac Day has been and continues to be very important to Australians. But that doesn't mean it's unproblematic -- as the (unidentified) ABC journalist who interviewed Pyne at the time pointed out:

Journalist: You think that the Australian nation was born when we stormed Gallipoli?

Pyne: I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

Journalist: It divided the nation – what about the great debates over conscription? It was an incredibly divisive time, Christopher Pyne.

Pyne: Well David, the debate about conscription has nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in Gallipoli.

Journalist: How can you say that the conscription debates had nothing to do with the slaughter which had been going on up until that time? Those conscriptions, that referendum occurred in 16, and again in 1917. Of course they were referring back to what happened in the previous twelve months, eighteen months, two years.

Pyne: Well, I think you’ve massively expanded the debate. I mean yea, the conscription debates are a fascinating part of Australian History, but…

Journalist: You said it was unifying. I’m saying it was a divisive time.

Both have a point here. The extent to which Gallipoli unified the nation in 1915 can't erase the incredibly bitter conscription debates in 1916 and 1917, or vice versa. (And Australians were very jittery in 1918, too.) But Pyne is the one who will be in power.

With the centenaries of the start of the First World War arriving next year and of Gallipoli itself the year after, historians are going to struggle to preserve any sense of nuance in the public historical debate. But we have to try.

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12 thoughts on “In the next history war

  1. I guess what Pyne is saying is: "I want everyone to be taught about ANZAC Day - just not in a manner that's in any way complex, challenging, or otherwise interesting."

  2. Good work by the journalist (not completely anon, seems to be a 'David'). Brett's right that the politicians attempt to set an agenda; it's up to historians and journalists to correct and direct attempts to bowdlerise it as they can and do (plus public inputs - That's a standard government/state vs expert informers situation in democracy), and we are seeing in the UK regarding the approaching Great War centennial.

    There's an unintentional ambivalence in the post, by the way. It was (of course) conservative Howard who was keen to do nothing regarding aboriginal reconciliation (with modern Australia) not the historians.

    Recently reading up on the structure and heritage of the UK, Australian and Canadian upper houses of Parliament illustrates to me why I'm not as keen as Brett on the teaching of British or UK political history (though not as partisan as Pyne, either) - I'm sure Pyne doesn't mean the Irish Catholic diaspora as a key plank in the "...political and legal institutions from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.", and that was very much politics plus potato blight.

    Australia's 'Washminster' system needs to be explained including its origins, but Australia's upper house illustrates how different it is to the UK, and how it could be (but isn't) like Canada's Lords copy. Having learned my school history in England, politically, Australia need to understand its own systems and heritage better, many of which owe nothing to the UK - including our compulsory voting, upper house, preferential voting and ridiculous number 97 'below the line' candidates rather than the UK's single 'X' in a box. I'd put a focus on UK political history for Australia in the same place as the obsolete idea of Latin grammar for learning English.

    Alan A - Not even that, Alan. It's a classic riff on the "just the facts" game. As soon as anyone says that it's certain they mean 'just the facts they think matter', and remove any that don't sit with whatever view they expect. It's notable how it matches the UK (Con) PM's recent asinine attempt to explain how everything good came from his 'little island'. But that's another whole question.

  3. I'm getting an echo of the issues the UK has had recently with Michael Gove, on their history curriculum, including having his original, reactionary approach taken apart by historians and public opinion, with a more appropriate, current syllabus developed.

    I'd submit that it's not so much that their education or knowledge may be narrow (though I noted that British PM Cameron didn't even have his finest hour facts straight, and contradicted his own, preferred 'little nation wot does' narrative, here: http://vintageaeroplanewriter.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/not-british-pms-finest-hour.html ) but that they're clear that there are facts 'that are important and should be taught' i.e. part of their world view; and stuff that isn't, and best ignored, disparaged, written out. Not new, not unique and that can and is dealt with.

    The ministers like to pretend they set the agenda. They drive it, but we have to agree, or enough argument and push-back means they back down. We must be up for the fight in history wars.

  4. Christopher

    Here in Japan we are also seeing a similar process as 'right wingers' try to airbrush out the more unappetizing parts of Japanese history (and not just relating to the war - the massacre of Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake is also being airbrushed in Yokohama). It is very much up to those who know to speak out as much as possible. The 'nice' version of history serves no one and leads to stupidity.

  5. Post author

    JDK:

    Well spotted on the 'David' -- given that it was on 891 ABC (Adelaide), it seems likely that it's David Bevan, one of the breakfast presenters. His Twitter profile lists the American Civil War as one of his interests, so his knowledge may well extend to the First World War.

    Recently reading up on the structure and heritage of the UK, Australian and Canadian upper houses of Parliament illustrates to me why I'm not as keen as Brett on the teaching of British or UK political history (though not as partisan as Pyne, either)

    Sure, there are differences, extremely important differences. (For all that the Senate is 'unrepresentative swill', as Keating put it, I'm glad we have it as an elected chamber of review instead of a hereditary or appointed one like some countries I could name!) And Britain was surely not the only influence. But historians can walk and chew gum at the same time, to use a useful non-Britishism; there's no reason why these differences and influences can't be taught in Australian history (and of course, they are). The key point is that Britain was unquestionably the dominant influence on Australia up until some time in the mid-20th century: there was never much chance that we'd have picked France, say, as the model for our political structures, let alone Russia or China. And I don't just mean that in terms of Pyne's 'political and legal institutions' (though admittedly that is what it looks like from the post, I was a bit lazy there): it's cultural, social, linguistic, literary, musical, military, commercial, and so on, and above all else, human, in the sense that most immigrants came from the British Isles. Australia was saturated with these influences. Again, this is not to say that they were the only influences, and it is not to say that Australia was simply Britain-in-the-Antipodes; they never were and it never was. And, for the record, I'm a republican and I want to sever our last remaining political ties to the British crown as soon as possible; we're our own country now and have been for a long time. But I do think British history deserves a special place in Australian education. (I don't know whether how it is taught at the primary and secondary level, it may well be fine; I think it is underdone at the tertiary level.) I would say that though, wouldn't I!

    The ministers like to pretend they set the agenda. They drive it, but we have to agree, or enough argument and push-back means they back down. We must be up for the fight in history wars.

    Yes, this. I agree with you that's there's a smack of Gove about all this; see also the recent Canadian experience. In advance of the centenary, the British are also having debates about how the First World War should be remembered that we just aren't having here. (For Canadians, the controversy seems to be over 1812 rather than the First World War; but then the centenary of Vimy is still four years away.)

    Heath:

    I suspect you're right about Pyne. And apart from that explicit mention of Gallipoli, according to ACARA 'History students have opportunities to learn about Anzac Day and Australia's experiences in wartime at the following year levels: 3,6, 9 and 10 and in the senior secondary subject Modern History'. I like military history but really, how much more do they need?

    Christopher:

    It is very much up to those who know to speak out as much as possible. The 'nice' version of history serves no one and leads to stupidity.

    This, too. Thanks for the report from Japan; clearly this is an ongoing struggle around the world! I didn't know that about the post-Kanto massacres, and I probably should have, since my PhD supervisor was working on the post-Kanto mobilisation and reconstruction efforts (his book on the subject has just come out; I must read it!)

  6. Broadly, Brett, I agree, but I think there's a tendency to short-cut thinking by drop-in British heritage / history option in Aus. That's also a sliding scale increasing on how far conservative white Howardite the proposer is.

    We also, partly because of this, pay far too little attention to our peers in the Commonwealth heritage, yes, even NZ, let alone our closest peer (in almost anything you care to name) Canada.

    Having lived in the UK for decades and studied history there to A level, I see the differences and irrelevances too much. I'm also very aware real British history, there (as opposed to British history as seen in Aus) has little relevance and was essentially as 'highlights only' on Aus - convicts and, um, well that's it.

    Having studied (in the UK) the revolt in the US colonies, I'm very aware of how loaded and partisan (even 250 years later) what I learned of those events is completely disconnected from the American understanding.

    It needs a debate, and it doesn't need heritage offshoring cringe, 'Anzac, Bradman & Mateship' only from Howardites.

  7. Hmm, last post is a bit disjointed!

    I'm not saying the British history studied in Aus is the same as the UK's, though some assume so. And I drew the UK - US 1777 comparison because I think it's a good contrast of the gulf between two nations versions of their entwined history moments.

  8. Neil Datson

    In my far off undergraduate days there was - in the college library - a book called The Historian's Contribution to Anglo-American Misunderstanding. (Of course I didn't read it as I didn't want my prejudices tampered with.) It is of course historians - of all political persuasions and world views - who provide politicians - of all political persuasions and world views - with the material for their favoured readings of history.

    The study of history has always been influenced by politics and always will be. Politicians have always sought to influence the teaching of history and always will. These are rich and oozing seams that are open for research.

  9. Neil Datson

    Apologies, my link doesn't work. I'll never get the hand of html. I blame my politically motivated education.

  10. Post author

    JDK:

    Broadly, Brett, I agree, but I think there's a tendency to short-cut thinking by drop-in British heritage / history option in Aus. That's also a sliding scale increasing on how far conservative white Howardite the proposer is.

    But that's only because it's Howardites who have been doing the running on this. It's very easy to argue for the influence of Britain for left/progressive history in this country. Just look at the way events in Britain caused a flow of radical people and radical ideas to flow to Australia (and sometimes back the other war): the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, suffragettes, labour unionists. The British response to the Great Famine helped drive Irish emigration to Australia, which had a huge demographic impact and a political one too (e.g. the conscription debates). Progressive organisations in Australia in the interwar period were often British offshoots or at least British-inspired. And ultimately there were good reasons why we turned away from Britain. There's no reason why we have to take a white armband approach to British history; Pyne et al. are deluded if they think Whig history's going to fly.

    We also, partly because of this, pay far too little attention to our peers in the Commonwealth heritage, yes, even NZ, let alone our closest peer (in almost anything you care to name) Canada.

    Sure. We should pay more attention to the other former dominions and colonies. But I would suggest that none of them, not even New Zealand, is remotely as important to Australian history as Britain; conversely, you need British history to understand them too!

    I'm not saying the British history studied in Aus is the same as the UK's, though some assume so. And I drew the UK – US 1777 comparison because I think it's a good contrast of the gulf between two nations versions of their entwined history moments.

    I'm not particularly uncomfortable with this; there's no single objective history to teach; any coherent story you want to tell has to have some form of narrative; and even a chronology makes choices about what to put in and what leave out and hence what is important and what is not. The British will naturally have a different viewpoint of 1776 to the Americans, who themselves can hardly be said to have a holistic view of their own revolution. That's okay; nobody owns the past. As long as we keep talking to each other about it.

    TF:

    No offense, but Pine sounds like an idiot.

    You might well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

    Neil:

    It is of course historians – of all political persuasions and world views – who provide politicians – of all political persuasions and world views – with the material for their favoured readings of history.

    The study of history has always been influenced by politics and always will be. Politicians have always sought to influence the teaching of history and always will. These are rich and oozing seams that are open for research.

    Quite. All we can do is roll with the punches and hope to land a few of our own.

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