From some perspectives, history in Australia has never been healthier. Individuals and institutions alike are clearly engaged with examining the past and working through its multiple and complex meanings to inform present day and future life. The dynamic of history in public discourse is strong for a number of reasons.
One is that contested understandings of history have largely defined some of Australia's liveliest political controversies in recent years, with two particular issues standing out. The relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and how governments ought to respond to Indigenous political claims rests, to a great degree, on rival interpretations of past events and experiences. Similarly the republic debate gave rise to an enormous interest in the historical origins of the Australian constitution, and reflection on the extent to which the values and principles it enshrined had retained their force over the course of the past century.
Other evidence can be found in the robust state of Australian documentary film making on historical subjects. Likewise, the revival of interest and attendance at Anzac Day commemorations, and, in particular, the phenomenon of ever growing numbers of young people visiting Gallipoli, are other pointers.
Innovations in museum practice, such as the development of the theme galleries at the National Museum of Australia, have also stimulated debates about what the study of history should or shouldn't be and how it might be presented. The proliferation of local histories and commemorative events, and the widespread enthusiasm for genealogy and family history are further evidence that history is something that people will come back to throughout their lives, as they discover new significance in understanding the past.
At the same time, there has been a great deal of reflection on the teaching of history in Australian schools. There has long been a diversity of approaches and practices, not only between States and Territories but even within schools, and this is likely to remain the case.
Over the past few years national initiatives have addressed some of the issues involved in history teaching. In 2000, the results of the National Inquiry into School History, conducted by Associate Professor Tony Taylor of Monash University, was published as The Future of the Past. This landmark study investigated issues of content, methodology and context, reviewed international practice, and provided a descriptive survey of teaching and learning experiences. The study took into account the significance of cognitive approaches to school history, including metacognition, multiple intelligences and constructivism.
Consistent with recent research, a key finding of the report suggested that historical understanding involves more specific and intricate processes than had previously been thought. These processes include locating resources, gathering and analysing evidence, establishing causality and placing events in historical contexts, proposing hypotheses and drawing conclusions. Empathy, the ability to understand historical events from the point of view of participants, was also considered significant.
These insights have informed the broader concept of historical literacy. Historical literacy refers to key abilities and concepts ranging from knowing and understanding historical events and applying prior knowledge, to research skills, dealing with historical language, understanding contention and contestability and recognising moral and ethical issues in history. In addtion, understanding the use of applied science and technology in historical discovery and the use of historical reasoning, synthesis and interpretation are also important components of this concept.
This expanded view of the scope of historical understanding is entirely complementary to the traditional and intuitive view that history is the most promising tool for making sense of current developments and dilemmas. For example, study of the debate over the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in the 1950s can give rise to a general consideration of the tensions in a democracy between liberty and the perceived need to defend national security. Such consideration is likely to be very helpful in equipping young people to comprehend and engage with current debates about how best to deal with organisations considered to be linked with terrorism. Similarly, understanding of the experience of postwar refugees from Eastern Europe or the Southeast Asian refugees of the 1970s and 1980s may have great relevance for current debates about asylum seekers.
The inquiry recommended several initiatives to promote and support the teaching of history in schools. Over the past two years, the National History Project, funded by the Commonwealth Government, has seen a number of positive developments, including:
Those seeking more information about these initiatives, or wanting to access the online resources mentioned above, should visit the National Centre for History Education (NCHE) website.
Key Learning AreasStudies of Society and Environment