Clark, Anna: History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom

Anna Clark

History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom, NewSouth, Sydney, 2008

‘The classroom has become the battleground of the “history wars”, yet no-one ever asks the children what they think about Australian history and what they like – or don’t about learning it. Through interviews with around 250 Australian students [as well as teachers] from a wide variety of schools, Anna Clark asks how teachers and students teach and learn Australian history.’ (blurb)  The author discusses the book here.

The book shows that, among topics in Australian history, Federation and Indigenous history were regarded as worthy but dull, while war history was consistently seen as exciting. Overall, Australian history came across to students as boring, with much depending on the skills of teachers and the innovation shown in teaching. (‘Kids enjoy history best when it comes alive in the classroom…’ (p. 139)) Overemphasis on learning of facts was a turn-off but consideration of why events occurred, and of issues generally, aroused more interest. ‘Far from learning a “safe, tired narrative”, Annie and her Canberra classmates’, for example, ‘reckon it’s the complexity of Indigenous history that has helped them understand its importance’ (p.86).

While there has been ‘widespread anxiety’ that students are deficient in the sort of historical knowledge (‘learning core national facts’) that would make them better citizens,

students themselves don’t have a clear sense that being taught more content in a firm national narrative is the answer … Teachers have to constantly juggle public pressures to teach “our nation’s” history with the particular demands of their classes and their students … [E]ngaging students with the complexity of the subject is precisely what generates its interest and appeal … [Students] acknowledge the importance of knowing the facts about Australian history, but they also want historical narratives, discussions and debates, and imagination in the classroom (pp. 93, 111, 142).

In a chapter headed, ‘The allure of Anzac’, the author finds great enthusiasm among students for Australia’s war history because of its colour and movement and a feeling that Australian values like mateship were nurtured at Gallipoli and on other battlefields. She wonders, however, ‘whether their belief in Anzac was more like a form of national spiritualism than historical understanding’ (p. 46) and refers also to the concerns of historians, teachers and some students ‘about cultivating a pride in our national past that’s automatic rather than analysed’ (p. 62). She is surprised also by the number of students who assumed a ‘militarised national identity’ was ‘intrinsically Australian’ (p. 46).

Teachers noted the extent of resources flowing from government to teach military history and a few teachers speculated about political motivations for this largesse. But the author believes it would be naive to blame the empathy with Anzac on conservative political strategy. She returns to the issue of teaching national values and warns about shutting off discussion.

Legends such as Simpson and his donkey may have helped galvanise public interest in the Anzac story. But unless there is space for these figures to be critically analysed in class, there’s a risk they will come to represent a very narrow interpretation of Australia’s past … I don’t see a problem with students’ veneration of the [Anzac legend], so long as it doesn’t exclude other points of view … As kids flock to honour Australia’s wartime history, their growing commemoration of the Anzac Legend in the classroom needs to be accommodated – but it needs to be done so that their historical understanding is expanded rather than limited to any simplistic or uncontested national narrative, especially when so many students are interested in Australia’s place in the world. This doesn’t mean we should reject icons such as the Anzacs, for they are powerful markers in Australia’s past. But we do require space for these national narratives to be discussed critically in class (pp. 57-58, 62).

3 September 2013

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