Australian history: kicking butt or the bottom line?

Nicholson cartoon of History Wars

‘History Wars’ by Nicholson, 23 September 2003

Is Australian history at universities in trouble?  Last week I came across a story about Australian History: neither fad nor fading which sets out to argue that Australian history is alive and kicking butt, at least at La Trobe University.  Or it does until you deconstruct the article, which is a little too defensive to be taken at face value:

While he admits Australian history may no longer be the most popular area with some of today’s students, La Trobe Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tim Murray says: ‘It is important for us as a nation that students have a good grasp of our history’.

Then on Saturday, I heard a discussion on ABC radio with 2 Australian historians, Marilyn Lake and Anna Clark which suggests a grimmer picture.  In the age of the bottom line, university courses with small enrolments don’t get taught, and Australian history courses are struggling to attract enough students to get listed.  If they aren’t taught, the next generation of Australian Arts graduates will be ignorant about their own history.  If undergraduate courses aren’t taught, postgraduates don’t want to research in the area, and Australian history dies as an academic discipline.  It’s a downward spiral.

The problem isn’t limited to the Melbourne universities.  We had the same issue at the University of Queensland, despite artificially boosting our numbers with 2 groups.  Journalism students did a compulsory unit of Australian history to give them background knowledge for their profession – an excellent idea, but later crowded out by other compulsory units in their degree – and American students coming to Australia for a semester took Australian history (and literature and anthropology) to learn about the country they were visiting.  The rising $A and the GFC mean those students don’t come any more.

So – why isn’t Australian history more popular amongst university students?  Here are a few ideas.  What others should be included?

  1. School history.  In History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom (UNSW Press, 2008), Anna Clark looked at this in detail.  She found that children who are taught Australian history during their school years often switch off.  By the time they reach university, they are both bored with the subject, and confident that they know enough to ignore it from now on.  Hubris, perhaps, but understandable.  I felt the same way about explorers.
  2. Mixed motives.  Moving from content to context, school history is usually framed in moral or ethical terms.  We want our children to learn to be good citizens, but if we’re not careful, we can overload them with guilt – settler/Aboriginal conflict, the White Australia policy – or topics that are worthy but dull – federation, women’s suffrage, the labour movement.
  3. Immigrant nation.  Most students are the children of 20th century immigrants to Australia.  How do we persuade them that learning about pre-1945 Australia is relevant to them?  Other immigrant societies such as the United States or Canada share this problem, but America has framed its national identity within a historical context, which is why you don’t have to have ancestors who lived in colonial Boston to join the Tea Party movement.  Australia’s history is less celebratory.
  4. Where are the people?  Australian history tends to be taught by topic – convict era, gold rush, depression – and themes – race relations, search for identity.  Biography is out of fashion in history generally at present, but in British or American publishing houses there is room for biographies, because the market for history is so much larger.  People read about the Duchess of Devonshire or Thomas Jefferson, and they spill over into popular culture.  (It may say something that the 2 examples I’ve given both had secret sex lives – but so did Henry Parkes, and who knows about that these days?)
  5. Popular culture.  Where is Australia’s Downton Abbey?  It’s expensive making historical drama, and hard to justify without the chance of overseas sales, but Australian history would resonate more if we saw it on our screens.  History documentaries are cheaper.  Australia’s version of Who do you think you are? is great, but there is no Australian Simon Schama, and very few academic TV personalities in any discipline.  David Starkey (Monarchy, The Tudors, etc) is loathed by many British historians, but I’m sure he pulls students into British history courses.
  6. Where is the blood?  I had a friend once who apologized to me for avoiding Australian history – but, he said, ‘there’s not enough blood in it.’  He did Russian history instead, and I’m sure found plenty there.  There’s plenty in Australian history too, but it’s anonymous blood – unnamed Aboriginal victims, convicts lashed or hanged, blackbirding in the Pacific, noble Anzacs fighting endless overseas wars.
    And that’s the problem.  We’ve had no pitched battles on Australian soil.  Even New Zealand can point to places where a flagpole was chopped down, or a Maori was destroyed.  Australia’s battles happened a long way away – Gallipoli, Benghazi, Vietnam – or they happened in a diffuse, hit-and-run way – the Black War in Tasmania, the Kalkadoons in western Queensland.
  7. The digital divide.  Once Australian history was an option for postgraduates whose finances or family commitments meant they couldn’t travel overseas to do their research.  Now, anyone with access to a subscribing library can read Early English Books On-Line, which has every book published in English before 1700 in searchable form.  There are comparable databases for many places and periods.  So far Australian historians have access to much less digitized material, though it’s gradually changing.  But the laziness of the long-distance postgraduate means that most will choose a topic that allows them this sort of access.

In Saturday’s discussion of Australian history, Geraldine Doogue implied that there is a disconnect between the history academics write and the history the public wants to read.  It’s true that what the public buys is predictable: military events (Gallipoli, Changi) or biographies of well-known figures.  Portraits of Monash, Shackleton and Weary Dunlop all appear on our currency, for goodness sake!  These bricks of books are cross-promoted, available at Big W or Target, and aimed at the Fathers Day and Christmas market, since we all know how hard it is to find gifts for men.  No disrespect to Peter FitzSimon, who has written many of them, but I wonder how many actually get read from cover to cover?

Now that I’ve been writing this blog for a year, I feel I’ve got a foot in both camps.  It should be possible to write lively, user-friendly prose on many topics, not just tales of derring-do by and for old Anzacs.  But too few academics do so.  Most history research appears in journal articles written for our peers, or theses destined to be read by 2 or 3 examiners only.  There’s not much incentive to write good stories, when the publishing industry is in crisis, but students need good stories to get them going.

But perhaps some of the best history writing has always been done outside the academy.  Much of what M.H.Ellis wrote in his biographies of John Macarthur and Lachlan Macquarie 60 years ago was bullshit – but it was good, readable bullshit.  There’s still a place for that.

This time last year:
The Monstrous Regiment of Women, 2 March 2011
Turtles (and Tortoises) all the way, 5 March 2011

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13 responses to “Australian history: kicking butt or the bottom line?

  1. Rosemary Cameron

    Will the new National Secondary School Curriculum with its compulsory Australian History make a difference?

    • I’m not sure, Rosemary. If Anna Clark is right about school kids being bored by Australian history because of the way it is taught at school, then it could be counterproductive! I guess it depends on the quality of the teaching – as always – and at least it provides an incentive for Arts students to do Australian history, if they plan to become teachers.

  2. Marion, you gave touched on a bugbear of mine in the seeming reluctance of many academic historians to engage in blogging. Too much History is hidden away in peer-directed work, although university departments have been developing a growing number of useful online History resources of late (e.g. Queensland Places). It would be good to see more professionals like yourself establishing a significant online presence.

    It is quite astonishing just how invisible our leading historians are when it comes to mass media. Up here in Brisbane we only seem to get ‘ghost tour’-type people in fancy dress on touristy TV shows, who invariably mangle history to fit a narrative suitable to their commerical needs.

    • It’s true, Chris. One problem is time – I’ve only taken up blogging in retirement – but it’s also hard for academics to get recognition for stuff that’s not peer reviewed. Young scholars, who might be expected to be more techno-savvy, are exactly the ones under most pressure, if they hope to get tenure and promotion. At worst it makes for timid conformists.

  3. I really enjoyed history at school, and Australian History was a favourite subject. However, partially because of a poor history teacher in my last year at school and partially because of the need to go on and earn a living, I opted to study science at university. I have no regrets. History is something that I would like to study at university, but only for fun with no expectations it would lead to anywhere. Happy for my belief to be refuted.

  4. Thanks, Lucy. In all honesty, most people who study history at university won’t become professional historians, though some will use history in their work – teachers, journalists, curators, etc. But you don’t stop enjoying history just because you are not using it professionally – and I do feel we owe it to our children to make them aware of our shared past.

  5. The article was defensive and I think largely a response to an article published in The Age on 26th February highlighting the fact that two Australian history courses were cancelled this year because of low enrolments. The article didn’t make it sound good for Australian History at LaTrobe. Unfortunately the article does not seem to be available online any more.

    I agree with your list of reasons why Australian history might not be so popular now but you are missing an important reason. As Lucy Dawson has pointed out people study at university to get jobs. Unless history departments can clearly demonstrate how a history degree will get a student a full-time job at the end of the course there will be many who will not study it, even if they enjoy it.

    I also agree that Australian historians need to connect more with the public and write good stories to engage people in a deeper understanding of our history. There are a few, like Marion who are doing this through blogs. Please encourage them by following and commenting on their posts. For a list of Australian historian bloggers see the list on the Australian Historical Association website.

    • Thanks for filling in that context, Yvonne. And thanks for the link to the AHA site.

      I don’t know whether this is the article you were thinking of – it’s dated 5 March.

      Regarding Lucy Dawson’s point about history and jobs – I agree, but I was really trying to distinguish between Australian history and other areas of history. If anything, Australian history should offer a bit more opportunity of getting a professional job in history – working in heritage, native title research, etc. Australian archaeology is thriving at the moment, because of the mining boom.

      There will never be a tight fit between studying history and getting a full-time job. The same is true for most humanities subjects, but learning to think might be more useful for the long haul than learning how to use a slide rule, which was once an important skill taught to engineers.

  6. I reckon phyrne fisher might do wonders, with any luck. It’s not exactly downtown abbey, but moving in the right direction….

    Oh, and in light of my ‘work’ email, I think the heritage industry kills a lot of interest. It all gets left to architects and archaeologists.

  7. Oh brilliant post! After hearing the Geraldine Doogue interview on Saturday I was interested in hearing( reading ) your perspective on it.

    The accessibility of resources is not only a determining factor for the lazy post-grad but the equally lazy undergrad as well. Most people will turn to Google (and its American bias) before the library catalogue so if it’s a toss-up between Billy Hughes and Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson wins. Its all well and good that there is an increase of Australian resources being digitalised but if doesn’t rank highly on the Google results page it effectively doesn’t exist.

    We can all lament that Australian history has not permeated our popular culture(and our collective cluelessness) but when documentaries are made they tend to repeat the same stories. If recalled correctly, both Michael Cathcart’s Rewind and Chris Taylor’s Australia’s Heritage – National Treasures covered the story of De Groot opening Sydney Harbour Bridge. There seems to be a timidity in covering new ground.

    Lack of job opportunities at the end is a very valid point as it the importance of graduating from the ‘right’ university. There appears to be the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne dominance. The other thing that struck me about Rewind was how most of the academics interviewed were affiliated with institutions situated in south-east Australia.

    What I am curious to know is to what extent do you think that the history wars (white blindfold/black arm band) has contributed to the paralysis in the teaching of Australian history. To the extent that certain aspects of Australian history have been quarantined (26th January) or marginalised (25th April) as being too controversial or too WASP male.

    It strikes me that ‘migrant nation’ argument however valid (in promoting the multicultural meta-narrative) has the flip side of inferring however inadvertently that if your family origins are pre-1945 that somehow your story is automatically tinged with ‘white guilt’.

    Perhaps the tragedy of Australia history is the lack of confidence to articulate the Australian story on its own terms. There seems to be an obsession in make it ‘fit’ an Anglo-American narrative aka “Where’s the blood?”. From the lay person’s standpoint it seems that an event is only commendable if it there is an American equivalent e.g. Darwin bombing our Pearl Harbor. It automatically positions Australian history as a poor substitute for the ‘ real’ thing i.e European and American history.

    • Thanks so much, Dumbadmin. There are so many interesting points in your response I need to write another post, rather than address them all here.

      Briefly – yes, I think the History Wars had a terribly negative effect on Australian history – teaching it, writing it, and making any public statement about it. It’s hard to be a public intellectual if you fear you’ll have your head shot off every time you venture above the parapet. It’s hard to write lively history if every inference from a primary document has to be backed up beyond reasonable doubt. Historians aren’t lawyers, we can’t work to the same standards of proof – and if we did, we would miss the nuances anyway.

      I agree with you that Australia Day can be difficult to handle because of the foundation/invasion dichotomy. I’m not sure whether Anzac Day has been quarantined in the same way as too male – there’s a big ARC project underway on the history of Anzac Day – how that plays out will be interesting, but I’m sure it will contain a female perspective.

      We aren’t alone in having ‘history wars’, of course. The bicentenary of the French Revolution provoked a great deal of revisionist soul searching.

      I agree entirely about your points about the way popular culture keeps re-playing the same small list of ‘great moments’ – wouldn’t it be great if some film maker would look further afield for once? I can think of a number of colonial figures whose lives read like a soap opera!

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