Stephens, David: Attempted Tudging of school history curriculum is but the most recent in a long line

David Stephens*

‘Attempted Tudging of school history curriculum is but the most recent in a long line’, Honest History, 11 October 2021 updated

Update 18 November 2021: Cian Hussey of the Institute for Public Affairs on the need to defend ‘Australian values’

Update 17 November 2021: Guy Rundle in Crikey anticipates culture wars about the curriculum in the lead up to the election, along with another stoush about defence

As ever, such a stoush will have the benefit of telling us who we are; just how great the cultural divide is, in a country more suburbanised, and more perfunctory in its historical observances than just about anywhere in the world. 

Update 16 November 2021: Allan Patience in Pearls & Irritations on the need for curriculum to take more notice of Asia.

It’s time for Australia to find its way intelligently in Asia. To remain “the odd man out” in the region — as we are at present — is a threat to our country’s immediate and long-term future, economically, culturally, and strategically.

Update 11 November 2021: Douglas Newton in Pearls & Irritations for Remembrance Day

The author provides ample evidence that Australians at the time were quite prepared to be sceptical about Anzac, that they continued to be so after the Great War, and that they had every right to be. Why should not the same democratic privilege be afforded today’s school children?

Update 6 November 2021: ANU History professor Frank Bongiorno in the SMH

The Minister is corrected on some points of fact.

Update 5 November 2021: Preview of Education Ministers’ meeting next week

Lisa Visentin in SMH with quotes from Ministers. Not much support for Tudge.

Update 3 November 2021: History teacher Jonathan Dallimore writes in Education HQ News:

History is the subject in which our national story is taught. Given the time constraints within a crowded curriculum, however, it is impossible to include everything in the national story. So, what do we include and exclude? What events or issues do we foreground? Whose stories make the cut and whose do not? What criteria do we use to make these decisions?

These are tricky questions and whenever a syllabus is proposed or implemented there will inevitably be people who claim that the emphasis is wrong or the ‘balance’ is not right.

Update 27 October 2021: Historian Anna Clark and journalist Paul Daley join the fray – and Tudge does not come out of it well

Anna Clark in The Conversation has ’10 things every politician should know about history’: 1. “History” is not the same as “the past”; 2. Not all historians agree; 3. History is contested (see above); 4. History teachers are trained professionals; 5. Practising critical history doesn’t mean you “hate” Australia; 6. The current history curriculum draft does not diminish the legacy of Western civilisation; 7. Historical views change over time; 8. Historical revision is not a dirty word; 9. School students are not “blank slates”; 10. The national benefit of history education comes from students learning to be active, questioning, thoughtful citizens.

Paul Daley in Guardian Australia focusses sharply on Anzac and says it should be contested, and always has been. ‘More than a century’s hyperbole has been attached to Anzac and its memorial day since it was first observed in 1916 … Is Anzac really sacred? Of course it is not, even though it has tended to be treated as such in Australian politics where, until recently when some have hit back at Tudge’s ham-fisted claims, in the words of the historian Peter Cochrane, “drape ‘Anzac’ over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct”.

Update 23 October 2021: Tudging hits the front page; follow up not universally on the side of the Min. The speech in full; there was a lot in it apart from the history-related material. Charlie Lewis in Crikey. Couple of historians and others quoted in the SMH. Some State Ministers get stuck in (Guardian Australia.) Historian Greg Melluish in The Australian.

Update 22 October 2021: Tudge speech to Centre for Independent Studies today will say, among other things, that the next generation of Australians will be unwilling to defend their country in a military crisis, because schools are feeding students a negative view of its history and undermining confidence in liberal democracy. This was front page news in The Australian, which also gave it an editorial and an excerpt.

Update 14 October 2021: Jenna Price in the Canberra Times quotes historians Alistair Thomson and Michelle Arrow. Thomson says, among other things, ‘if you say this is sacrosanct and cannot be questioned, that’s not too far removed from what happens in China today where the government insists on one story’.

Update 13 October 2021: US historian, Heather Cox Richardson, on history and how to study and use it.


Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, became agitated about Anzac Day recently.

Instead of ANZAC Day being presented as the most sacred of all days in Australia, where we stop, we reflect, we commemorate the 100,000 people who have died for our freedoms. Instead it’s presented [in the draft history curriculum for Years 7 to 10] as a contested idea, right? ANZAC Day is not a contested idea, apart from an absolute fringe element in our society.

Tudge’s outburst got a lot of coverage, favourable and unfavourable. Honest History noted particularly the thoughtful comments by Lucas Walsh in The Conversation and Paul Taucher and Dean Aszkielowicz in Independent Australia.

There was a lot of déjà vu, however. ANU History Professor, Frank Bongiorno, commented on Twitter along the lines that ‘these people’ (conservative history urgers) can’t help themselves. What did he mean? Essentially, that there is a knee-jerk element in conservative psyches that gets upset about perceived threats to the Anzac legend or, indeed, to anything that smacks of ‘rewriting history’ – as if history was just a list of events running uninterrupted from William the Conqueror to Robert Menzies.

Here are a few examples from ‘these people’. Some of them apply more broadly than the school history curriculum, extending to a general perception of Australia’s past, present and future.

Minister Tudge, the latest in this line, was critical of the draft history curriculum. Yet, ultimately what is taught and how it is taught depends on dedicated women and men in the classroom – and, these days, online – not on the frothing of Ministers and Prime Ministers. Honest History wishes those teachers well; there are lots of resources they can use other than those put together by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, its state equivalents, and the Australian War Memorial. There is, for example, Honest History’s Alternative Guide to the Memorial, in two editions, 2016 and 2017, which has been downloaded more than 3000 times by teachers, students and others.

In all of this it is worth remembering that myth is not the same as history. History – the discipline – is interpretation, not a list of facts. It is honest history if the interpretation is robustly supported by evidence. Myth, on the other hand, derives from wishful thinking, superstition or worse, and it is often tweaked and manipulated for political or emotional purposes.

History, wrote Professor Larissa Behrendt in The Honest History Book (2017) ‘is competing
narratives, brought to life by different groups whose experiences are diverse and often challenge the dominant story a country seeks to tell itself. There are no absolute truths in history. It is a process, a conversation, a constantly altering story (p. 291).’ Anzac and Anzac Day need to take their chances in that changing, contested story.

As for Tudge’s idea of Anzac and Anzac Day as sacred, here’s another extract from The Honest History Book, this time from the conclusion written by Alison Broinowski and David Stephens.

Anzac may still be a secular religion for some Australians, but it is not the established church; other Australians have the right to be atheist or agnostic about it. In turn, Anzac atheists and agnostics should respect the adherents of the Anzac religion, but they should not in a democracy be required to worship at its altars (p. 288).

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book. More about the book.


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