by Anna Clark
Presented at the Perth Day of Ideas, Saturday 2nd August 2003
Perhaps we can begin with a few moments of fear.
There is quite a well-known image of John Howard after the Wik decision in 1996 holding up a map of Australia on the 7.30 Report.  Looking grave, the Prime Minister warned of the unending disputes the High Court had just invited. Showing in bright red great swathes of the continent that were under 'threat' from potential Aboriginal land claims, the map was a graphic image of division.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey was equally fearful of the consequences of the Mabo and Wik decisions. The Native Title Act 'embodies a crusade against racial discrimination and yet it sets up a new form of racial discrimination', he considered. The High Court judges responsible were 'gripped by their black armbands', Blainey held, intent on 'permanently dividing Australia on the basis of race'. He concluded that 'Australia's future as a legitimate nation and even as one nation is in doubt'.
(I probably don't need to go into the fear behind the formation of One Nation.)
Then there was the Twister commercial. Funded by the National Farmers Federation the ads depicted a spiteful game literally in black and white between two children. Their game (or struggle) of Twister reflected the struggle for land. The message was simple: land rights were muddying the natural order of land tenure.
Pointing to a divided Australia'moreover, an Australia unfairly divided'these responses to Indigenous land rights reveal just as much about readings of the past as they do land ownership. Howard and Blainey's history is one of discontinuity, where colonisation was and Australia is, where dispossession had undeniably negative consequences for Aboriginal people, but any restitution now would be both dangerous and harmful.
Moreover, they warned, this Australian History, this heritage, was being denigrated by readings of the past that were overly negative, or to use Blainey's metaphor, 'Black Armband'. Such approaches, with their revisionist ideology of inclusiveness, overlooked positive aspects of the past in favour of its dark side. With contemporary lenses they read into the past rather than making a balanced assessment of it.
My own particular interest is in the area of school history. Here too we find this anxious protectiveness over Australia's past: 'our history' is being misrepresented in schools; 'our children' are under threat. There is a very real anxiety about what students should learn. A history that is na'vely negative, some warn, will only teach them to be ashamed of Australia. 'We hear', claimed Melbourne journalist Andrew Bolt earlier this year, 'how 'generations' of Aboriginal children were 'stolen'. But if anything has been stolen it's our children's pride in their country'.
In Queensland in 2000, the Courier-Mail exposed a new syllabus for supposed political and historical bias. 'Captain Cook and Sir Robert Menzies do not feature in a new Queensland schools syllabus booklet', wrote Martin Thomas, 'but Eddie Mabo and Ho Chi Minh do'. Opposition to the new syllabus, Thomas continued, objected to the way it advocated 'environmental zealotry and communist heroes while dismissing white settlement as an invasion'.
Letters to the editor were similarly vocal. Ted Wilson wrote in and complained that the syllabus was profoundly inaccurate:
To omit people such as Captain Cook, Robert Menzies and many others from the teaching of history is ludicrous. We are trying to instill national pride and feelings of self-worth in our youth but are denying them the most important part of their heritage. The settlement of Australia was not an invasion but an extension of man's eternal quest for expansion. This is part of our history and should be taught to all, without political or religious bias.
Elsewhere, too, response to perceived bias in history teaching has been pronounced. Tim Highland's letter to the Melbourne Herald-Sun last year angrily announced that history had been overrun by left-wing intellectuals. 'Vocal minorities have hijacked the young and impressionable,' he maintained, 'using the Australian history curriculum being taught in our schools as a vehicle to spread their socialist propaganda'.
Some teachers, too, are concerned that syllabuses emphasise an overly negative past, and warn of the consequences. Robin Saville from Goulburn in NSW wrote into the Sydney Daily Telegraph and complained that the curriculum was unrepresentative and untrue:
I have taught the history syllabus for Year 10 students this year [she began]. It is a politically correct shambles as we have had to deal with content such as feminism, Aboriginal land rights and the stolen generations (yes, that is what the textbooks call it). Is it any wonder students are failing the course in greater numbers than, say, English? Students are not interested in the politically correct agenda of course designers.
N.J. Clark was similarly concerned about the language he felt had come to dominate history syllabuses and textbooks.
In my own history teaching, [he wrote] I employ words such as 'invasion', 'genocide', and 'stolen generation' to Nazi Germany, which executed a military assault on Poland, tried to kill an entire race of people and stole a generation to create the Hitler Youth. Are 'invasion', 'genocide' and 'stolen generation' really the words that apply to our history?
Such anxiety over the representation of Australian history is a paradoxical plea to unity and collectivity using rhetoric of division. 'Our children' deserve better, such views hold, 'our history' should be a source of pride. Meanwhile it is the unnamed 'they' who are misrepresenting the past: their history is too negative; they are promoting untruths.
This anxiety over school history moreover repeats the division of wider debates over Australia's past. The concern over whether to use 'invasion' or 'settlement' to describe European colonisation in syllabuses reflects the similarly stark divisions implied by terms such as 'Black Armband' or 'History Wars'. I suggest that overcoming this polarisation must be at the start of overcoming the fear implicit within them.
To be sure, Blainey and Howard's fear that history is being approached too bleakly extends to concern over how the past should be represented in schools. Blainey warned in his 1993 Latham Lecture that the 'Black Armband' view of history was moving beyond the confines of the academy. 'Now schoolchildren are often the target for these views', he cautioned. Speaking with the Sydney talkback radio host John Laws after his election in 1996, Prime Minister Howard also denounced the history curriculum: 'To tell children whose parents were not part of that maltreatment', he suggested, 'to tell children who themselves have been no part of it, that we're all part of it, that we're part of a sort of racist and bigoted history is something that Australians reject'.
In a sense the school history debate reflects different ideas about the potential and function of the past. The child represents a vulnerable image of the future in this instance'but it might be any symbol in any contest over Australian history or identity today: we saw the same debates over land rights, over refugees, over the republic. We see it also in language such as the 'mainstream', or 'unAustralian', or 'One Nation'.
On one level it is conservative polemic. The historical discontinuity inherent in the critiques of historical revision I mentioned earlier, the separation of actions in the past from the present, is markedly absent in certain histories. Think for instance of the heroic legacy of the Anzac legend dominating official Howard histories and celebrations today. Aboriginal people ('they') need to move on from their sad stories. 'We' on the other hand are allowed to commemorate ours'indeed instructed to on the flanks of our war memorials ('We Will Remember Them', 'Lest We Forget'). This selective approach to history reveals a tactic of using the past for political gain.
Such approaches are not confined to one side of politics of course. And so overcoming this conservative political push may also lie in political strategy, in reclaiming the 'discourse of division' if you like. It may lie in reclaiming the 'Black Armband' label itself, as historians such as Henry Reynolds have done, from a symbol of mourning or shame to a symbol of respect.
But by continuing to use this language, are we simply repeating ideas that at their heart are simplistic and divisive? How should we respond to such fear tactics when they seem inseparable from a deeper fear of history, especially Australian identity and heritage.
At the core of this debate over the past are contrasting understandings of the role and meaning of history: whether history in the public, or in schools or museums should uphold the nation; whether it should foster a sense of belonging and national memory, of commemoration and celebration. There is also an argument that students, at a vulnerable time of their lives, shouldn't be confronted by too much controversy or negative images of their country's history.
By contrast, others suggest that students are most able at understanding different perspectives and approaches, that controversy is engaging rather than unsettling. We might think here of studying the shift in official histories following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or in countries formerly administered by the Soviet Union following the collapse of communism. In other words, history which fosters critical thinking is good history.
And I think this is where I see some of the discussion going a little later. We emphasise history as a collective story that embodies the essence of the nation'it is the nation'and so endlessly contest it in an attempt to get it right. The intractable problem is that collectively, we all have an investment in this thing called history. We all have our own histories. That's why it is fought so passionately.
Look at the recent Windschuttle debate. (A lot is going on there.) Windschuttle's claims of scholarly inaccuracy, of academic fabrication even, are serious charges. But I think that behind them lies a disbelief in the movement that Australian history has taken over the last thirty or forty years: the inclusion of Aboriginal oral testimony for instance, the attempt to redress the exclusiveness of traditional approaches, or the idea that conceptions of history itself may need to be radically changed if the discipline is to be truly representative and accessible.
Ultimately, Windschuttle has a narrow view of history, one that cannot encompass oral histories (from anyone), one focussed on a limited interpretation of 'the truth', where contrasting perspectives of any sort simply cannot be accommodated. Somewhat notoriously, Windschuttle responded to assertions that the history of Tasmanian Aborigines was a tragic one by arguing that 'I'm not trying to write tragedy, I'm trying to criticise the orthodox view'. In the firing line, historians Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, as well as others such as Pat Grimshaw and Stuart Macintyre, have challenged Windschuttle's interpretation of 'history'. Fundamentally their debate is a contest over how to approach the past.
So what do we teach 'our children'. I leave you with the suggestion that students should be thinking about why some people believe 'settlement' accurately describes the colonisation of Australia, while others see it as an 'invasion'. Indeed shifting the current emphasis from divergent historical views to an understanding of the past that accommodates contrasting perspectives is probably an approach that the wider historical debate would also benefit from.
 Weekend Australian, 22-23 November 1997, p23.
 Geoffrey Blainey, 'Black Future', Bulletin, April 8 1997, pp22-3.
 Andrew Bolt, 'Evil slur on our history', Herald Sun, 30 June 2003.
 Ted Wilson, 'Letter', Courier Mail, 13 June 2000, p14.
 Tim Highland, 'Letter: History being hi-jacked', Herald Sun, 14 December, p80.
 Robin Saville, 'Letter: Draining life out of history', Daily Telegraph, 11 December 2002, p36.
 N. J. Clark, 'Letter: Balancing the debate', Herald Sun, 3 March 2001, p.28.
 Geoffrey Blainey, 'Drawing Up A Balance Sheet of Our History', Quadrant, 37(7-8), July-August 1993, pp10-15.
 Judith Brett, 'Opinion', Age, 8 November 1996, pA15.
 For instance, Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby, 'Progression in Historical Understanding among Students Ages 7-14', in Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg [eds], Knowing Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York University Press: New York, London) 2000, pp199-222.
 [Lane, 2002 #557]