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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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History, wars and history wars

Lindsay Rae
Manager, Professional Support Initiatives, Curriculum Corporation

Public debates about Australian history profoundly challenge not just the way that we construct history as part of school curriculum, but more broadly how we conceive the purpose of social education.

Over the past ten years or so Australia has witnessed a series of lively, complicated and sometimes bitter public debates about aspects of our national history. Nothing has been more central to these debates or more controversial than the history of the "frontier", the times and places where European colonists and Indigenous people came into conflict, with ruinous results.

Historians such as Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds have produced works that delve deeply into the history of the "frontier", and present an interpretation of that history which is at once richer, more complex and more deeply confronting than earlier renderings. In doing so these works have transformed the way that academic historians and the broader interested public view the history of Australia's colonisation. The widely received imagery of discovery, settlement and heroic pioneering that had characterised popular historical understandings has been challenged by a contrary set of representations of Indigenous experiences as active participants in a war of resistance against invasion.

This has not been a development confined to academic circles and discussions. It has coincided, and been intimately connected, with political controversy that relates not only to the understanding of history but to the contemporary relationships between Indigenous and other Australians, and to the legal and moral assumptions underpinning European land tenure. Concepts such as reconciliation, land rights and Indigenous sovereignty, as well as the wide range of responses that they attract, are keenly influenced by public debate about this history.

Most recently these issues have received renewed attention following the publication of Keith Windschuttle's book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Windschuttle's book relates to Tasmania in the period between 1803 and 1830, but it is sub-titled 'Volume 1, Van Diemen's Land', suggesting that he intends to turn his attention to other parts of the country, and other periods of history, in the future.

Windschuttle's immediate purpose is to contest the claims by 'revisionist' historians such as Ryan and Reynolds that the British colonists of Tasmania sought to destroy the Tasmanian Aborigines. Windschuttle argues that relatively few Tasmanians were killed deliberately by colonists and that 'maladaptation' to their environment was the principal underlying cause of their demise. His broader purpose is to contest what he sees as the demonisation of white Australia's history. In this, Windschuttle is following in the path of the revisionist anthropologist, Ron Brunton, who has contested the story of the stolen generation.

Given that archaeological evidence suggests the Tasmanians had survived in their environment for close to 35,000 years, only to suffer devastation in less than 30 years, Windschuttle's approach is bound to excite passionate responses. As Tasmania looks towards the 200th anniversary of its proclamation as a colony next year, a celebration that is certain to be marked by Indigenous protest, Windschuttle's intervention and the reactions to it cannot be ignored, as the debate is intimately connected to the contemporary living experience of Indigenous Tasmanians.

This was powerfully symbolised this week, when, Windschuttle and his principal critic, Robert Manne, presented their sides of the argument to the Melbourne Writers Festival, just one day after Indigenous Tasmanians erected a plaque in central Hobart commemorating the slaughter of 300 men, women and children on a single day - an act described by The Mercury as 'provocative'.

Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University, has led the response to Windschuttle, editing a collection of essays refuting his claims, entitled Whitewash: Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Manne, a former editor of the conservative monthly Quadrant, has in recent years become well-known as one of the most articulate proponents of liberal-ethical positions among Australia's public intellectuals. Manne has taken a particular interest in issues surrounding Indigenous history.

In Whitewash, Manne and his colleagues have opted to confront Windschuttle mainly on the empirical ground of the documented historical record of the times. This approach reflects Manne's considered view that Windschuttle's historical methodology is deeply flawed, and seeks to influence the enduring historical record to which future generations will turn. But it also reflects Manne's desire to speak not just to the 'converted', but also to conservative Australians about the necessity of public acknowledgement of past atrocities as a precondition for meaningful reconciliation.

These debates ought to give rise to profound thinking, not only among teachers of history, but among all educators and those who seek to lead educators.

Education generally, as well as education about society, has as one of its key purposes the transmission of positive values that promote mutual esteem and respect. In an immediate sense, this may translate into prescriptions for ethical and respectful interpersonal interactions with others in the student's immediate circle.

Equally important, however, is the purpose of sparking the imagination of students to consider deeply, and to value highly, the concepts of society, culture and identity. Students ought to be enabled to connect individual awareness of who they are with an understanding of who and what a community is, considered collectively. This implies much more than basic civic knowledge, and suggests the contribution to a comprehensive education that only an engaging and inspiring study of history can make. Students must have the opportunity to investigate and unpack the shared values and the shared experiences that bind human beings into communities that are somehow greater than the sum of their parts.

It is difficult to imagine issues more weighty and disturbing than genocide or the ruination of a people and culture. But these issues must be confronted if young people are to truly belong to a reconciled community. As reconciliation experiences in places as diverse as Germany, South Africa and Bosnia have demonstrated, common consciousness depends on mutual empathy and the acknowledgement of atrocities and suffering.

The current public debate also points to something much more mundane but significant for educators - the need to recognise that human knowledge and understanding is constantly growing and shifting, and that no pedagogy or set of curriculum content is a permanent embodiment of truth. In the specific case of Australian history, it is worth pondering how well our current prescriptions serve our students. We need to ask ourselves if we are giving history its due - are we presenting it as the story of everyone's shared life? We need to question whether too much emphasis on extensive content and difficult concepts is getting in the way of what ought to be one of the most immediately engaging parts of schooling. And we need to remember that the past is the only laboratory we have for gaining the understanding that will build better shared futures.

Lindsay Rae is a former Lecturer in Australian Politics at La Trobe University.


Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples