- by B Curphey
- The Guardian
- Issue #1995
Federal Education Minister Stuart Robert has gone public with his belief that school curriculums should be teaching our kids “what it means to be Australian.” This comes as the federal government is lobbying states to rework the national curriculum, with less of a focus on history overall and an increased focus on “Australian values.”
While most states claim not to share this belief, Western Australia has voiced its approval for the changes. The new curriculum would restore references to Christianity as the ideological foundation of Australian society, cut references to key activist figures, and gloss over the contested nature of ANZAC history.
This shift towards a nationalist historiography in our schools is an overt political move. It seeks to centre the white Anglo-European experience of Australian identity, ignoring the bloody reality of Australia’s colonial past and the diversity of historical experiences represented in Australian society.
To quote Professor Bronwyn Carson of Macquarie University: “removing any contested ideas is to teach a new generation of people who do not question the national narrative of peaceful settlement.”
THE ROLE OF HISTORICAL EDUCATION
Lenin knew that education was foundational to building a communist society. What students are taught from a young age shapes not only what they believe about the world, but how they think about it. Put another way, early education is crucial in building the critical and analytical skills to recognise the errors of the past and work towards practical solutions in the future.
Elaborating on this theme, Lenin stated, in a speech to the First All-Russian Congress on Education in 1918, that the primary job of communists in educating the masses is to “counter hypocrisy and lies with the complete and honest truth.”
Practical skills and experience are crucial to this task. Students need to be taught the skills of historical literacy and critical thinking, rather than be spoonfed an uncritical and historically flawed narrative. They need to be taught to ask hard questions about the past – and formulate answers based on sound historical data.
History is not entertainment. Good historical education is not supposed to make us comfortable or instil a false sense of national pride. It means looking at the past as a toolbox from which we can draw practical lessons from it and apply them to the present. It means teaching students to appreciate that the best and most interesting historiography happens at the margins.
To this end, Lenin wrote:
“The touchstone of a Communist’s work in education (and educational institutions) should be his efforts in organising the enlistment of specialists, his ability to find them, utilise their knowledge, secure the cooperation of expert teachers with the Communist leadership, and verify what and how much is being done. He must show ability to make progress – even if very slowly and on a very small scale – so long as it is achieved in practical matters, on the basis of practical experience”
The Commonwealth government showed its hand when it voiced concerns that the curriculum produced a “miserable” account of Australia’s past which students would not want to defend. Perhaps this is because of the simple reality that a lot of Australia’s history really is indefensible and it is only by coming to terms with it that we can ensure that history is not repeated.
In speaking of the proposed curriculum, Robert said, “[w]estern civilisation is something we should be proud of, and what it means to be Australian […] is well and truly back into the curriculum.”
It is important to recognise what this “great white man” view of history leaves out. It ignores the non-Western civilisation that was already here when the British invaded in 1788 – the oldest continuous civilisation in the world. Its references to Christianity ignore the way that the Church was used as a mechanism to perpetrate violence against Indigenous peoples.
It asks us to believe that Australians unanimously put aside their differences and went off to fight in World War I for a cause they all believed in. This is far from the truth. Communists were at the forefront of the anti-conscription movement.
What it “really means to be Australian” is to encounter a violent past – one that, in many ways, we should not be proud of. It means to recognise that the “Australian values” view of history that the Commonwealth is pushing is deeply contested. We must resist the Commonwealth’s attempts to sanitise our history, lest it be repeated.