Dumping down Australian history

Dumping down Australian history


Dumbing down Australian history and its teaching


The eminent person in current academic Australian history, Stuart Macintyre, is the keynote speaker at this Labor History Conference (held in June 2000), about Labor and Federation.

Stuart Macintyre is emerging as the major figure in the current counter-revolution in Australian history, which seems to be directed at restoring a kind of Anglophile official history, modified by a few gestures towards the currently fashionable high theory, as the dominant discourse in teaching the subject.

As this happens to coincide in time with the dramatic collapse in student numbers taking Australian history in schools and universities, it seems to me necessary to make a comprehensive critique of this process.

Macintyre is the Ernest Scott Professor of History at Melbourne University. Ernest Scott was the practitioner of a Whig, British-oriented, official Australian history, which was the first major academic school of Australian history writing, and commenced late in the 19th century during the imperial heyday of ruling-class British Australia. This general approach was dominant in history teaching in high schools and universities until well into the 1960s.

There were some early dissenters from this bourgeois British-Australian history. These dissenters existed in two streams. Amongst secular socialist groups, J. N. Rawling, Lloyd Ross and Brian Fitzpatrick challenged this ruling-class orthodoxy with a more populist, Marxian and nationalist version of Australian history.

People like James M. Murtagh and Archbishop Eris O'Brien wrote texts that embodied a critical anti-British-imperialist narrative, which were the basis of an alternative version taught widely in the Catholic school system as an antidote to the official British history, necessarily studied in the same schools for the external exams.

The clandestine tradition in Australian historiography

In the 1940s and the 1950s these two streams converged to some extent in the mature work of Eris O'Brien, Ian Turner, D.A. Baker, Russel Ward, Vance Palmer, Brian Fitzpatrick and ultimately, Manning Clark.

From the 1950s on, this alternative, previously clandestine version of Australian history got a bit of a toehold in universities and high school history teaching. Texts such as Russel Ward's the Australian Legend, Eris O'Brien's 1937 book The Foundation Of Australia, 1786-1800, Vance Palmer's Legend of the Nineties, a number of the works of Brian Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark's major six-volume history, and his Short History of Australia, became a major school of Australian historiography with an emphasis on social, class and religious conflicts in the 19th century, popular opposition to British imperial hegemony and a recognition of the emergence in the 19th century of insurgent democratic trends and a labor movement in opposition to the British Australian ruling class.

In the 1970s this left democratic, populist narrative was disputed by Humphrey McQueen and Stuart Macintyre in what came to be called "the debate on class". McQueen and Macintyre accused the practitioners of the populist Australian historical school of exaggerating the democratic and popular trends in 19th century history and failing to sufficiently describe the sexism and racism present in the labour movement at that time.

In particular, Russel Ward, who remained a very active Australian historian into the 1990s, incorporated part of this critique into a broadened and improved populist narrative. The more developed radical version of Australian history practiced by Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark and others had a real battle to become established in schools and universities.

The Sydney University History Department remained, until very recently, a stronghold of British-Australia ruling-class history. Fitzpatrick never got a university appointment.russel Ward was blacklisted for a history teaching job at the University of NSW because of his long-past membership of the Communist Party, but managed eventually to become a university teacher at the University of New England at Armidale, northern NSW.

Manning Clark, who was similarly banished from Melbourne to the ANU when the ANU was still a backwater, only began to have a major influence on mainstream history teaching in the course of the widespread cultural revolution in Australia in the 1960s.

Russel Ward's Concise History of Australia

At the popular teaching level one of the best examples, and the highest point of the radical populist stream in Australian history and history teaching, is Russel Ward's A Concise History of Australia, which was reprinted in a large gift edition as Australia Since the Coming of Man.

This book is important because it incorporates that part of the criticism raised by Macintyre and McQueen that was valid. In particular, Ward's narrative in this book entrenched a comprehensive and detailed treatment of Australian origins and Aboriginal history, along with an emphasis on oppositional forces in Australian history including the mid-19th-century struggles against transportation, and for respresentative democracy, continuing with the campaign for free selection of land, and culminating in the 19th century in the formation of the labour movement.

Ward's Concise History also paid attention to the rather instrumental role of Irish Catholics in this democratic struggle. The last version of this many-times-reprinted and set-course book, the 1992 University of Queensland Press reprint, takes the narrative up to the end of Bob Hawke's time as Prime Minister, and is notable for its sceptical, critical and unfawning attitude to the Hawke government and to Paul Keating.russel Ward died soon after publication of the 1992 edition of this useful book.

The emergence of the Russel Ward, Manning Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, Eris O'Brien, populist school of Australian history was a development of considerable cultural importance.

When I was a kid at a Catholic school, the Christian Brothers at Strathfield in the 1950s, we history students were subject to the interesting exercise of being thoroughly persuaded by the Brothers to learn by rote the Stephen Roberts, British establishment version of world and Australian history for the external examiners.

However, we were taught by the same Brothers in religion lessons that this Protestant establishment version was essentially false, and as an appropriate alternative the version we should really believe was the clandestine Catholic, Eris O'Brien, James G. Murtagh, Hilaire Belloc version of Australian and world history.

It heartened me greatly in the 1960s and the 1970s when the modernised, Russel Ward, Manning Clark critical Australian nationalist, somewhat Marxist, populist version of Australian history, which incorporated the useful part of McQueen's critique, replaced the Roberts version in most Australian schools and some universities.

I thought that our side had definitively triumphed in the field of Australian history and its teaching. More fool me! Here comes Stuart Macintyre.

Abolishing the Catholics

I hope I'm not beginning to sound a bit obsessional about Macintyre. I have written several other critical articles about his historical work, but I'm afraid I can't really escape presenting this critique.

I was first alerted to Macintyre's new book, The Concise History of Australia, by Jim Griffin's review in The Australian.

Griffin pointed out that Macintyre's new history just about abolished the Irish Catholics from the narrative. As Australian Catholic history is one of my interests, my curiosity was immediately aroused. I hurried over and bought the book at Gleebooks, and became immediately fascinated by it in the same way that I am fascinated by Paul Sheehan's chauvinist Amongst the Barbarians, and Miriam Dixson's The Imaginary Australian.

At approximately the same time I heard on the grapevine that Stuart and his conservative mate, John Hirst had recently been appointed by David Kemp, Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs in the Howard Government, as historical advisers to a body known as the Civics Education Group, which then employed Kemp's other educational body, the institution with the amazing economic rationalist name, The Curriculum Corporation, to prepare curriculum materials for history teaching in Australian schools.

In the context of the high politics described above it seems reasonable to look very closely at Stuart Macintyre's new Concise History, because it is obviously written for a high school and introductory university market, and Macintyre and his publishers may well desire to see it emerge as the major university entry-level Australian history textbook for the next period.

Let us, therefore, carefully investigate Stuart Macintyre's version of textbook Australian history, and how it is organised and presented. The first thing is how strikingly similar it is in format, and some aspects of presentation, to Russel Ward's book of the same name.

It is the same physical size, although a bit shorter, and it even has a similar presentation, with both covers being a work of Australian art. Even the periodisation in the book is, in large part, roughly similar.

The two tables of contents are:

RUSSEL WARD 1. Black and white discoverers c.60,000 BC-AD 1770 2. Empire, convicts and currency c.1771-1820 3. New settlements and new pastures c.1821-50 4. Diggers, democracy and urbanisation c.1851-85 5. Radicals and nationalists c.1886-1913 6. War and depression c. 1914-38 7. War and affluence c. 1939-66 8. Going it alone c. 1967-92

STUART MACINTYRE 1. Beginnings 2. Newcomers c.1600-1792 3. Coercion, 1793-1821 4. Emancipation, 1822-1850 5. In thrall to progress, 1851-1888 6. National reconstruction, 1889-1913 7. Sacrifice, 1914-1945 8. Golden age, 1946-1974 9. Reinventing Australia, 1975-1999 10. What next?

As is clearly indicated by the names of the chapters, the historical approach of the authors is quite different. Ward's approach is left democratic, Marxian and populist. Macintyre's book is a major move in the direction of restoring the official British-Australia history that used to dominate the teaching of Australian history before the 1960s.

Macintyre's is a thoroughgoing counter-revolution compared with Russel Ward's book. Ward celebrates the struggle for democracy and the campaign for free selection. Macintyre adopts a more critical and sceptical view of the significance of these developments in a style reminiscent of the attitude pioneered by his conservative mate Hirst.

? Ward notes and describes the important oppositional role of the Irish Catholics and records the sectarian conflicts of the 19th century. Macintyre's only mention of sectarian religious conflict is in relation to the schools debate.

? Ward celebrates the emergence of the labour movement as an assertion of working class independence. Macintyre treats the emergence of the labour movement in a more sceptical way.

? Ward celebrates and discusses the defeat of conscription during the First World War and the radicalisation in the labour movement that this produced. Macintyre plays down the conscription struggle, omits the 1917 general strike and ignores the radicalisation of the labour movement in the 1920s.

? Ward celebrates the popular labour movement mobilisation of Langism against the Depression and its consequences. In his only mention of Lang, Macintyre succeeds in sounding like the Governor of India deploring "unrest". Macintyre even ascribes the fall of the Lang government to a split in the Labor Party, which is untrue, and thereby airbrushes out of history Lang's removal by Governor Game, the precedent for the later removal of Whitlam by Kerr.

? Ward celebrates the popular upheaval against the Vietnam War, and mentions the initially instrumental role of Arthur Calwell, the Labor opposition leader, in this mobilisation. Macintyre treats the agitation against the Vietnam War in a much more low-key and sceptical way, ignoring Calwell.

? Ward adopts a sharply critical stance towards the Hawke and Keating governments. Macintyre has a more reverent tone towards these governments and treats their deregulation of the economy and turn to economic rationalism as a more or less inevitable response to the global circumstances.

? Ward adopts a generally favourable attitude towards mass migration. Towards the end of his book Macintyre implicitly opposes further mass migration in a rather curious section in which he first spends a lot of time criticising the thrust of government-sponsored multiculturalism, immediately followed by:

After two hundred years of overseas recruitment to build the population of Australia, a new voice called for immigration control, that of environmentalists. Throughout the European occupation of the country there had been efforts to conserve its resources and protect fauna and flora, water and forest, from wanton destruction, but the developmental impulse usually prevailed. The end of the long boom coincided with an enhanced appreciation of the costs of development. The great triumphs of the post-war period turned out to be illusory. The Snowy Mountains Authority had turned back the rivers from the south-east coast to water the Riverina plains, and poisoned the soil with salt; the Ord River on the north-west coast had been dammed, but infestations of insects killed most of the crops; the government's scientific organisation waged biological warfare against the rabbit, but the survivors returned to compete for pasture.

This paragraph is followed by a lengthy celebration of the importance of the conservation movement in modern Australia, and read in context, it is fairly clear that Macintyre now shares some environmentalists' views in favour of reducing immigration, although in his usual magisterial fashion he infers this position from the views of others, leaving himself a possible let-out if challenged on the point.

There are many other differences between the two books. Macintyre's is a good deal duller than Russel Ward's. His illustrations, other than Aboriginal illustrations, are usually of conservative historical figures, and there are fewer of them.

Russel Ward makes extensive use of line drawings and historical cartoons of a radical character. Little of that for Macintyre. And so it goes.

Macintyre's selection of sources

In his important book The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P. Cannon, the pioneer US Communist and Trotskyist leader, prints an exchange of letters between himself and the historian Theodore Draper, who was at that time writing his definitive histories of the origins and early development of the American Communist Party.

Part of one of the letters reads as follows:

Ira Kipnis's book, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912, published in 1952, gives some interesting information about the evolution of the Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with it... From what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis's objectivity. There are some tell-tale expressions in the Stalinist lingo which should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references. They may all be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by selectivity of sources as well as by outright falsification. In skimming through the book for the first time I was torn between my own unconcealed partisanship for the left wing and my concern for the whole truth in historical writing.

It is well to keep in mind Cannon's view on this matter when examining Macintyre's Concise History. At the end of the book, Macintyre has a bibliography for each chapter. What is striking is the books that he leaves out of this list.

For instance, he abolishes the work and books of Rupert Lockwood, Michael Cannon, Allan Grocott, Keith Amos, Colm Kiernan, Tom Keneally, Patrick O'Farrell, Margaret Kiddle, Malcolm Campbell, Geoffrey Serle, Ross Fitzgerald, Cyril Pearl, Bob Murray, Michael Cathcart, Robert Cooksey, Ray Markey, Jack Hutson, Lloyd Ross, Sandy Yarwood, Frank Farrell, Eric Rolls, Portia Robinson, Denis Murphy, and many, many others.

He just about abolishes the discipline of labour history, both from his narrative and from his list of sources. Popular historians such as Ion Idriess, Frank Clune, William Joy, Wendy Lowenstein, etc, are expunged. Public historians and local historians get very little attention. Two local histories are mentioned, Bill Gammage on Narrandera and Janet McCalman on Richmond. Yet Shirley Fitzgerald, our foremost urban historian, and her (and her associates') magnificent oeuvre on Sydney and suburbs, don't get a guernsey.

As with Macintyre's Oxford Companion to Australian History, it appears that the further you are from Melbourne or Adelaide, the harder it is to get recognised. After all his previous discussion of it, Macintyre completely abolishes the debate on class from his new narrative.

The debate on class in Australian labor history is discussed at length by Macintyre himself in the collection, Pastiche 1 (Allen and Unwin 1994), and in his Oxford Companion. It is described thoroughly in Australian Labor History by Greg Patmore. It is discussed in the introduction to the second edition of Ian Turner's Industrial Labor and Politics, in which Turner replies comprehensively and persuasively to McQueen and Macintyre.

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