‘Attempted Tudging of school history curriculum is but the most recent in a long line’, Honest History, 11 October 2021 updated
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’.
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.
- John Howard as Prime Minister in 1996 famously complained about what he called the ‘black armband view of our history which ‘reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination’. (Howard in this speech went on to look at both the good and the bad in our past.)
- The then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, visited the United States in 1996 and declined to present the Georgetown University library with a collection of Manning Clark’s six volume history of Australia, a work full of angst and questioning. Instead, he gave them a biography of champion soldier, Sir John Monash.
- Brendan Nelson as Federal Minister for Education in 2005 thought the story of Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli was a shining example of Australian values: ‘if we lose sight of what Simpson and his donkey represents, then we will lose our direction as a country’. People who did not subscribe to Australian values, including as expressed in the Simpson story, ‘can basically clear off’.
- Christopher Pyne as Education Minister in the early days of the Abbott Government (2013-14) brought on a full-blown stoush on what he saw as the need to restore ‘balance’ to the history curriculum. Honest History suggested ‘the Minister yearns for a single, received “true” view of history … which lends itself well to a civic education style of history course (“these are the facts that you need to know to be a real Australian”) rather than a course which develops analytical and thinking abilities’.
- Senator Michael Ronaldson as Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, insisted in 2014 that when younger Australians ‘hop on a school bus, or they walk home, or they go shopping, or they go out at night with relative freedom – that they realise in many instances that freedom has been paid for in blood’. Honest History wondered why the Minister was doing this, other than to prepare today’s youth for their own bloody 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.