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Daily Media Quotation

Howard's Plan To Rewrite History

January 29, 2006

Editorial - Canberra Times

History, it's often said, is written by the victors. Which would perhaps help to explain why the most successful prime minister since Sir Robert Menzies, thinks that the history that's taught in Australian schools is bunk - "a fragmented stew of themes and issues". It's time, says John Howard, that children were taught history that has a chronological, structured narrative, and that the only way to ensure this happens is for a "root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in our schools".

It's not the first time Mr Howard has sallied forth on Australian history. In his campaign to end the "divisive, phoney debate about our national identity", Mr Howard has consistently decried what he sees as the "black armband" view of the early settlement of Australia by our British forebears, and has railed about the excesses of multiculturalism. In addition to sparking fierce public debates about the merits or otherwise of his views, Mr Howard has worked assiduously to influence the way Australians are presented with their history in public collecting institutions - the controversy over appointments to the board and staff of the National Museum of Australia being one such example.

After a campaign lasting 10 years, he believes he's won the culture wars, immodestly claiming victory in an Australia Day eve speech on Wednesday.

In this case, however, it might be that Mr Howard has a victor's hubris and has not done his homework. His comments, especially those decrying the move away from rote learning and of the importance of recalling dates such as the Battle of Hastings, seem more like fond reminiscences of his own education many decades ago than well-informed comments stemming from a proper analysis of the current content of school curricula and history syllabi.

Mr Howard is correct to note with concern the apparent lack of knowledge among younger Australians about, say, the events leading up to Federation. This probably stems, in part, from students opting out of history because of a crowded curriculum. It has been noted in the NSW education system, and steps have been taken to correct it.

Mr Howard's musings about history as it is taught in our schools, for all of their undoubted appeal to voters of a certain age who view with nostalgia their own school days, seem blithely unaware about the changes that inexorably alter our lives. Of course, a knowledge of British history and the institutions we inherited from them is important, but not as important as it once was when pedagogy was characterised by rote learning, and when the atlas was a mostly comforting shade of British Empire pink.

Mr Howard is a social conservative and proud of it. "Too often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a post-modern culture of relativism, where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated," he said in his Wednesday address. Exploring human beliefs and behaviour with no absolute reference to historical and cultural context is anathema for him.

Whatever the deficiencies of post-modern relativism and the influence it exerts on the study of history, it encourages students to inquire into and question at length the values and truths of stories, beliefs and historical narratives. And this is possibly what discomfits Mr Howard most of all - that Australians influenced by post-modern relativism might pause to query the way this country is governed, how the Liberal Party trades on fear and racial intolerance to retain power, how it rushes us to war on the basis that a great and powerful friend should not be questioned, and how it is prepared to lie by dissembling and traducing those it considers is enemies.

Just as he probably never questioned the wisdom of his history teacher, or examined too closely the truth or the motives of the messages being imparted, so Mr Howard would prefer that Australians just accepted his political narrative on face value. Relaxed and comfortable, but hardly enlightened.

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