Over the weekend, I read the transcript of the Australian History Summit that Education Minister Julie Bishop convened after Prime Minister John Howard criticised school history as ‘fragmented stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’. The summit agenda was to revive the narrative approach to teaching history, and to agree on the main currents and big themes in Australia’s national story.
For me, whether a historical narrative is necessary – and even what gets into the narrative – is less critical than the issue of historical enquiry. If students are encouraged (as they have been since the enquiry-driven approach of the latest curriculum), to come to their own conclusions by researching, reading and evaluating a range of sources, then it matters far less what picture their teacher paints about the past. The narrative is a starting point. But the work of history students happens after that, as students examine the evidence and begin to form their own narrative.
Interestingly, some participants looked down their noses at the ‘Wikipedia generation’ of students, as if Wikipedia is not a great place to go for an introduction to most historical events or topics – check out the History of Australia page. If history students are seeing that as the be all and end all of their research, then that’s clearly a problem: whatever narrative they produce, it will not be informed by research or analysis. But the principle of starting with a coherent narrative overview is fine. (Hang on, wasn’t that the point of the whole summit?) So why be so condescending toward students?
Anyway, so I was keen to find out how the summit dealt with the issue of historical enquiry. Was the discussion of narrative content framed by recognition that students need to develop skills, and use primary sources?
Despite many mentions of historical skills, and clear recognition of the need for rich teaching resources, there was only one mention of primary sources. In the last session of the day – ten pages after afternoon tea – Inga Clendinnen said:
I want to be sure we have moved well away from the notion of learning history to doing history. We need analysis of some primary material, because you learn from doing history, not by being taught it. It is a critical discipline.
If I had been invited to the summit, I reckon I’d have uttered a hearty cheer at that point. Maybe that just confirms my position outside the ‘sensible centre’. The point is, she was immediately chastened by Gregory Melleuish:
I think what Inga said is fine if you are training a postgraduate historian who will become a professional historian. But when I look at my daughter and her friends, quite frankly, that is up in cloud-cuckoo land.
Well, if Inga is in cloud-cuckoo land, I’m right there with her. And so is Jenny Gregory, who pointed out (Inga Clendinnen persisted for a while but Gregory Melleuish was adamant):
it is very easy to present students with a set of documents about a particular event which gives different viewpoints and then give them the opportunity to analyse, to look at the evidence and come to a conclusion.
I could go on here. I could list a bunch of links to primary sources on the web. Or I could speculate on whether the lobbying by the museums sector and the Australian Society of Archivists (to which Geoffrey Bolton referred) had any effect. But I’d rather hear some other views. Comment, anyone?