History Summit in cloud-cuckoo land

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?

8 thoughts on “History Summit in cloud-cuckoo land

  1. Cath, I for one agree with you and that is evident on our website here at the Memorial. At last count I think we now provide free access to about 1.8 million pages from our archives giving everyone access to primary sources such as war diaries from several major conflicts (we have not covered them all yet, but give us a chance!), bio data from sources such as the Red Cross, service nominal rolls, honours & awards recommendations, and even a few digitised private records. As well as this there are over 200,000 images that can be viewed. If someone needs some context for something they’ve found we try to provide that as well and have digitised about 30,000 pages of the official histories of the First & Second World War. Last year, at the ASA Conference in Wellington I heard the Librarian and Archivist of Canada Ian E. Wilson speak about the value of doing this. He said that it allows for the public to search for and discover or uncover or re-interpret new things about our history. Some of this may previously have been locked away and only findable to a select few with the training or access that came with membership of elite academic institutions. Broader public access to the primary sources we all hold in archives, libraries and museums can only help us understand our past better.

  2. PS. Cath, there is sometimes a problem getting your anti-spam thing to understand your answer. Most times I can actually add 7+0 and get 7, but the system seems to need several attempts before it accepts your answer.

    [Sorry for that… hm… it may be time to restrict comments to registered and logged in people… Cath]

  3. Thanks for your comments Cath – im up there with you in cloud-cuckoo land with you!

    Primary source documants provide students with a rich resource which allows them to research and investigate particular aspects of history – they become the historians. But is that in fact the problem? Is that why some on the panel dissmiss the idea of students using primary sources? Do they believe that this should be left to the experts, or that students do not have or need the skills of research, investigation, problem solving and formulating opinions?

    Students often think that history is irrelevant to them – its in tha past so why should they care? But when students visit us at the National Archives and we tell them that we probably have records about their family in our collection, such as immigration and defence records, their next question is ‘how can we find them?’ By making history relavent to students and primary source material accessable we can encourage and develop their interest with history, but also, importantly, provide them with essential skills and equip them for the future.

  4. So what do we do?
    Perhaps those of us with extensive primary source material online need to email Inga Clendinnen (to give her ammunition to support her stance) and to Gregory Melleuish (to show the error of his ways). Talking amongst ourselves, while interesting, does not change the views of those at the conference.

    I will be seeking their email addresses to send them information about our archive loan boxes. Does anyone have their contact details?

  5. Simon, I’m happy to be involved in at least emailing Inga (if you can find her address), but I don’t have much time to join in long esoteric arguments. We are really busy taking action, like our recent exhibition blog here
    to help reveal and promote our online content and to give it a contemporary feel and some readable context.
    We are also looking at some other Web 2.0 features and hopefully will manage to use them to overcome some of horrific views highlighted above by being out there as authoritative providers of genuine and interesting online content about our history.

  6. I’ve spoken to a few historians and educators since writing this post, and found that there is a general consensus out there that students’ inquiry – their consideration of evidence (and therefore access to primary sources) – is important over and above whatever narrative introduction they are given.

    I wrote the post because I couldn’t find anyone else (in the blogosphere) making this point in relation to the summit. So I’m reassured.

    And the Communique did say: “Such a curriculum needs to be supported by quality curriculum resources”. To the extent that “resources” there means access to primary sources, the Communique implies (or perhaps I’m inferring?) that support (can we be so bold as to imagine funding?) will come forth for archives and other cultural institutions to provide access to primary sources.

    I also thought, later, that it’s good, and a bit amazing, that the transcript of proceedings was made available in the first place. It compensates, somewhat, for the fact that most historians and educators were excluded from the formal discussion.

  7. In this contect I was interested to note that Gregory Melleuish at http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/staff/gmelleuish/profmac.pdf says

    …”That is why it is crucial to insist that the origins of History lie in
    enquiring, not in knowing. The one is a process; the other a finished product.
    One is open ended; the other is closed. One enquires into things, that is not
    the same as knowing something and the outcome of an enquiry is not
    necessarily knowledge.”

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