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Donnelly-Wiltshire fire a salvo – but will Minister Pyne follow up?

Stephens, David

‘Donnelly-Wiltshire gunners fire a civilised salvo – but will Minister Pyne follow up?’ Honest History, 15 October 2014 and updated

If history was as predictable as the history curriculum recommendations of the Donnelly-Wiltshire report we would have no need of the discipline at all. This is what the reviewers came up with as their recommendations under the heading ‘History’.

Australian Curriculum: History should be revised in order to properly recognise the impact and significance of Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs.

Attention should also be given to developing an overall conceptual narrative that underpins what otherwise are disconnected, episodic historical developments, movements, epochs and events.

A revision of the choice available throughout this curriculum should be conducted to ensure that students are covering all the key periods of Australian history, especially that of the 19th century.

The curriculum needs to better acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses and the positives and negatives of both Western and Indigenous cultures and histories. Especially during the primary years of schooling, the emphasis should be on imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers. (p. 181 of pdf)

The report was delayed, much anticipated and, at last, released and reported in detail in, for example, The Australian and The Age – after it was earlier leaked to the Sunday Telegraph – and on the ABC. The coverage in The Age was less comprehensive than that in The Australian, where the phrase ‘back to basics’ (also used by the prime minister) bulked large and the presentation, reflecting the paper’s long-standing interest in the issue, had an air of ‘we deliver’, in contrast with The Age‘s rather downbeat tone.

There was also thoughtful commentary in The Conversation (180 comments), on RN Breakfast, in the Australian Independent Media Network (103 comments), again in The Conversation, in Inside Story and Tony Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian Australia got in early, then went again about the lack of evidence in the report for the failings claimed. In his initial press conference about the report Minister Pyne resisted challenging ‘the Left’ to a stoush in the way he did when all of this began more than 12 months ago (history) and, indeed, he made a point of playing down ideological issues. The Minister also appeared on Lateline.

There is, of course, much, much more in the 300 page report than the parts dealing explicitly with the teaching of history. Other commentators will examine the validity of the proposals regarding curriculum overcrowding, the importance of phonetics, getting back to basics, cross-curriculum priorities – especially whether the approach proposed will raise or reduce their profile – the future role of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and so on, but this note focuses on the teaching of history.

The key pages in the report regarding history are pages 176-181, though there is a bit more in chapter 6, too. (We hope to look in depth later at the supplementary material and the material on civics education.) There is precious little evidence in pages 176-181 which comes from the reviewers’ assessments of the existing curriculum or from relevant literature. Instead, there is a brief selection of extracts from submissions received. These extracts are basically a shoot-out between, on the one hand, people who want more Christian values taught and, on the other, history teachers’ associations who reckon things in the curriculum are pretty much OK as they are.

The reviewers support the view, expressed particularly by University of Wollongong historian Gregory Melleuish, that there is a body of ‘essential historical knowledge’ that students need to absorb. This approach to history has interesting implications, especially when read together with the concluding phrase in the recommendations above about not expecting children – particularly at the primary level – to be historiographers. The American educator, David Turnoy, has noted the importance of a child’s initial introduction to history: the first view strongly influences later encounters with the subject. Turnoy’s remarks are particularly relevant to how children are taught about war – a sanitised introduction colours later impressions – but they have broader relevance. It may be that a ‘just the facts’ start in history permanently blunts the capacity for ‘historiography’ – which we take to be asking questions, sifting evidence and weighing alternative interpretations.

Moving on, the reviewers come down on the side of the submitters who believed the cross-curriculum priorities (sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures) in the curriculum tend to drive out the adequate consideration of Western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage and values and beliefs. The reviewers feel that the current curriculum gives the latter a bad wrap but deals too fully with the cross-curriculum material, particularly with Indigenous history and culture.

After continuing a little further with this argument about the effect of the cross-curriculum priorities and how this subject matter could be better dealt with, the reviewers conclude with an endorsement of Associate Professor Melleuish’s views about narrative history. Melleuish wants ‘a more structured historical narrative to underpin what, at times, appears to be disconnected “things to know about the past”‘. It is not spelled out explicitly but one gets the impression that ‘Western civilisation’ is intended to fit the bill as the underpinning narrative.

Churchill during air raid, January 1940 (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)

We have already noted that there is in the report an aversion to historiography, especially for younger children but generally also. This apparent wariness about asking historical questions can be read in conjunction with the trope about Western civilisation. Is there a yearning to use history classes to bolster a particular way of looking at what got us to where we are today? If so, why?

To get at the answer to that question, we need to look more closely at this concept of Western civilisation, which is given such prominence and which, the reviewers tell us, should get more of a run in the curriculum. Western civilisation is an elusive concept. In some respects it seems pretty much a one-track phenomenon. The present writer sometimes characterises it in public presentations as a continuous single thread from Moses in the bulrushes through Jesus Christ to William the Conqueror, William Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Queen Victoria, ANZAC (always in upper case), Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, Don Bradman, Winston Churchill, Robert Menzies and John Howard to the present day.

This is perhaps a little unfair but it conveys the general idea that there is a single, received version of history, linked with a set of facts that need to be learnt to ensure patriotic soundness and an understanding of what it means to be Australian. In Melleuish’s terms, if we read him correctly, Western civilisation is the glue which holds the facts together. This version of history is presented as an essential part of the civic education of young Australians, which will help ensure that we continue in future generations much as we are seen to have been in the past. Put another way, to ensure that those who come across the seas join us but do not try to change us. Western civilisation offers a template for the Australia of the future, as our activities generate new facts for future students to absorb.

Where does this Western civilisation concept come from? It may be in the DNA of some of us by birth or persuasion but it is also cut from the whole cloth of the Institute of Public Affairs. Christopher Pyne has been closely associated with the IPA’s program Foundations of Western Civilisation since at least 2011 and has clearly seen the national curriculum as a crucial battleground. The IPA’s Western civilisation program ‘prospectus’ is a paean of praise for this concept and a lament for what we are seen to have lost.

The Australian nation has benefitted enormously from the Western legacy. However, this legacy is largely absent from our understanding of our history. Australian history is taught to students as a series of episodes, from the arrival of the Aboriginal peoples, to white settlement, and then to a disconnected series of social movements.

Our history is taught as the history of the Australian continent, rather than of the Australian nation and society. Modern Australia is founded on principles established in Europe over centuries, but democracy, civil society, economic freedom, and religious pluralism are presented as if they suddenly emerged at Botany Bay.

Australia has not always been so culturally forgetful. In 1871, the historian and biographer John Morley wrote that there were three books on every Australian squatter’s shelf – the Bible, Shakespeare, and Macaulay’s Essays. The difference with today is stark. Australians now have limited historical knowledge, particularly of British and European history. This lack of understanding undermines the legacy of Western Civilisation, and, ultimately, impoverishes the nation.

There are a couple of comments that can be made on these paragraphs. First, of course, Western civilisation is an important part of Australia’s historical heritage, just as Anzac is. (Honest History’s unofficial motto, Not only Anzac but also …., makes the latter point clear.) When broadened out from a single thread to a canon of literature – as the IPA publication 100 Great Books of Liberty does – it gathers considerable ballast and lots of reading matter. The values of Western civilisation are for the most part admirable and not confined to the West: some of them are universal, others nicely complement the values that come from other, non-Western, traditions.

It diminishes us, however, to bulk up one strand of our history at the expense of others, whether the bulked-up strand is Western civilisation writ large or Anzac on steroids. Just as we are a more interesting civilisation than one that deifies bronzed larrikin soldiers we are a more vital community than one that yearns for well-thumbed copies of Macaulay. There are more diverse and imaginative ways of bolstering Australians’ lack of historical knowledge than by administering a stiff dose of ‘Western civilisation’. Moving us in more imaginative directions is what Honest History, in a modest way, is attempting to do.

Secondly, values, whether democracy, civil society, economic freedom, religious pluralism – the IPA’s list – or any others are best imparted mostly as civics education rather than in history classes. History classes might note the importance of these values and point to examples of them being practised or threatened but these classes should not be the main place for inculcating them. We have written separately about the welcome change in the Simpson Prize (the essay competition for Year 9 and 10 students) from civics education to asking proper history questions, which require the collection of evidence and the consideration of causes. We concluded that study with these words:

[C]ivics education should be separated from the teaching of history. History is – or should be – about contesting, evidence-based interpretations. Civics education is about inculcating particular behaviours. Civics education and history do not belong in the same timetable slot.

What has the Minister said in response to the Donnelly-Wiltshire review? His initial press conference remarks touched on the overcrowding of the primary curriculum and the practicalities of ‘fitting in’ cross-curriculum priorities but hardly mentioned Western civilisation. He continued in this vein. He made a point of saying the national curriculum was generally sound. He did not repeat his earlier complaints that Anzac Day got insufficient weight in the curriculum compared with other ‘days’ – perhaps because he had been briefed that the evidence for such complaints is lacking. The interim government response was similarly bland and general and suggested more work was needed by ‘educational experts’ on ‘rebalancing’ the curriculum.

So, there is a strong hint of ‘hasten slowly’ – at the ministerial level, at least. To use an apposite metaphor, the wheels on the school bus will continue to go round and round. While ministers are to meet in December, the Minister said on ABC radio that any changes would not be in place till 2016 and that implementation was essentially a matter for the states and territories. Some commentators felt the review report was more balanced than expected while others thought it was a fizzer, after all the hype and foreboding.

There is plenty apart from the explicitly history parts of the agenda to keep the minister and his colleagues occupied. Western civilisation has been around for a while (see above regarding bulrushes); perhaps there is a feeling that it can afford to bide its time. There may be, however, some grenades lurking in the Melleuish obiter dicta and the supplementary material.

Meanwhile, the IPA media release claimed the report marked the beginning of the end of the ‘biased and sub-standard’ national curriculum. The release gave prominence to the material in the report about the curriculum’s failings in regard to Western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage. ‘This confirms IPA findings that the National Curriculum distorts the past for ideological purposes. The Review exposes the National Curriculum for what it really is: politically biased, superficial and lacking in academic rigour …’. This is a rather more feisty view than the report takes but it suggests that the history curriculum bus ride is far from over; the IPA passengers are still looking for value for their ticket. (A longer response from the IPA canvasses other issues, as well.) Honest History will be observing the journey with interest.

Update 18 January 2015: readers may wish to refer to Dr Donnelly’s article from October 2014 on how a common curriculum generates common values and an earlier article from Professor Tony Taylor comparing history curriculum battles in a number of countries.