States told to rewrite history

The Australian
August 18, 2006
By Imre Salusinszky and Justine Ferrari

THREE state governments risk losing billions in schools funding after dismissing the finding of a summit of historians that recommended postmodern subjects be replaced with a traditional history course. The history summit communique foreshadowed a massive shift in the teaching of history, as well as a new level of commonwealth interference in state and territory education systems.

But the Queensland, South Australian and West Australian education ministers yesterday dismissed the need for a stand-alone subject.

Apart from NSW and Victoria, the states and territories have replaced stand-alone history offerings with cross-disciplinary, outcomes-based subjects with titles such as Studies of Society and its Environment.

Queensland Education Minister Rod Welford said it would be "educational vandalism" for the federal Government to force on the states the separate study of history.

"To talk about history as a stand-alone subject, as a list of events, is an educational absurdity," Mr Welford said.

"It will do absolutely nothing to students' understanding or interpretation of their place in the world."

Speaking on behalf of the 23 participants in the event, held in Canberra yesterday, former NSW premier Bob Carr said: "History should be taught in our schools, in Year 9 and 10 especially, as a stand-alone discipline.

"It shouldn't be absorbed in other subjects. It should be taught as history."

Urging state and territory governments to join in "a nationwide revival in the teaching of Australian history", the summit communique said that "the study of Australian history should be sequentially planned through primary and secondary schooling and should be a distinct subject in years 9 and 10. This would be an essential and required core part of all students' learning experience to prepare them for the 21st century".

The summit, also attended by historian Geoffrey Blainey and the co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, Jackie Huggins, formed a five-member working group to develop a standard Australian history curriculum, including a chronology and set of "open-ended questions", which federal Education Minister Julie Bishop will urge the states and territories to adopt.

If they do not co-operate, Ms Bishop has refused to rule out using the upcoming quadrennial funding agreement, worth about $13 billion in commonwealth money for state schools, to force their hands.

The Australian understands the meeting was anything but a rubber stamp, with vigorous debate over a range of issues, including whether the word "mandatory" should be used to describe the place of history in curriculums.

While the communique does not go that far, Mr Carr said if he was still a state leader he would understand the summit statement as stipulating compulsory, stand-alone Australian history subjects in years 9 and 10.

The motion passed at the summit stressing the centrality of history was drafted by Professor Blainey.

He rejected yesterday the view expressed on Tuesday by left-wing University of Melbourne historian Stuart McIntyre that the summit reflected John Howard's insistence that "only one story can be told and that it should be drilled into all young Australians".

"I'm surprised that he said that so strongly," Professor Blainey told The Australian.

"If a set syllabus were prescribed, in different states and different schools, it would be interpreted in different ways."

Ms Huggins said the summit had proved "there is much goodwill out there in terms of doing our national story and allowing students to actually like history, instead of finding it very boring".

"We're all in agreement that Australian history must be taught and that various milestones throughout our history have to be communicated in such a way that it is enabling, but also allows students to appreciate what history is all about and how it absolutely marks this great nation we live in."

Launching the summit, the Prime Minister threw down the gauntlet to the states and territories, announcing he wanted them to reinstate history as "astand-alone subject in our school system".

"We want to bring about a renaissance of interest in and understanding of Australian history," Mr Howard said.

Yesterday's summit was called following concerns raised by Mr Howard in January that the orderly teaching of Australian history had been "replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues". Rejecting the current approach, the summit said "development of history study needs to be firmly based on a clear chronological sequence of key events spanning indigenous presence to recent decades".

Responding to the argument that he wanted to impose his own views on students, Mr Howard stressed he was not seeking "some kind of official version of Australian history."

But he said "different opinions" about Australian history would make no sense to students unless they were given "some narrative and some method" and had "a proper orthodox understanding" of the facts.

Mr Howard also announced at the summit an annual Prime Minister's Prize for History, worth $100,000, that would be presented for an outstanding historical book or film.

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