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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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.
- 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 pā 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.
- 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.