It would even be very difficult to make a rational case that the version of Australian history contained in the draft is ‘miserable’.
Unfortunately, as I have argued elsewhere, many dubious claims such as this have been made about the draft released by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in April 2021.
In a selective and misleading representation of the document, the Federal Education Minister has, for example, claimed that there were 19 references to ‘contestability’ in the draft update for history implying that this was negative.
A basic keyword search of the document reveals that the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ are referred to collectively over 100 times, the term ‘sources’ is referred to well over 100 times, the term ‘evidence’ 79 times and the term ‘change’ more than 160 times. His apparent fixation on contesting (which is after all what he is doing) the use of that term ‘contestable’ is, frankly, odd.
While many expert history teachers have offered more informed and constructive criticisms of the proposed update – including the nature and sequence of particular content and the messy structure of post-1945 Australian history – much public commentary has so far failed to praise the draft for its most important achievement: the attempt to retain a disciplinary foundation for school history.
Why is history education so contested?
In democratic societies history education seems to inspire intense public debate, perhaps more than any other subject. In fact, entire books have been written about the contested nature of school history in Australia. There are some obvious reasons that explain the controversy.
History is the subject in which our national story is taught. Given the time constraints within a crowded curriculum, however, it is impossible to include everything in the national story. So, what do we include and exclude? What events or issues do we foreground? Whose stories make the cut and whose do not? What criteria do we use to make these decisions?
These are tricky questions and whenever a syllabus is proposed or implemented there will inevitably be people who claim that the emphasis is wrong or the ‘balance’ is not right.
Add to that the uncomfortable fact that history sometimes forces us to confront issues that are difficult and controversial – after all, much that happened in the past remains controversial. I do not, for example, know any history teachers who find it easy or fun to teach about the Holocaust or aspects of colonial history.
The reason we teach about these issues, however, is because it is important that students have some awareness of these aspects of our global and national past. But what challenging issues should students be required to engage with? At what age should students begin to explore these kinds of issues? In what ways should they be taught? Again, answers to these questions vary and they inspire passionate debate.
This all raises another question: what is school history for? Why have so many public leaders claimed that history should be a central part of the school curriculum taught as a distinct and separate subject?
For some, like Alan Tudge, one reason is that it should instil patriotic pride in our nation and a sense of optimism about the future. For others, one reason might be that history can contribute to a young person’s sense of where they fit into the wider world and their nation – it helps form a sense of identity and community cohesion.
Others claim that history helps students develop skills of critical analysis and independent thinking that might benefit them as active citizens beyond the classroom.
Though these aims do not necessarily need to be exclusive, placing emphasis in one set of aims is likely to draw criticism from those who place emphasis on another.
Disciplinary foundations of high school history
I would argue that school history is most broadly valuable in a democracy such as Australia when it is set upon a disciplinary foundation. That is, when it draws on the evolving academic discipline of history that requires students to learn about key facts, events, people and periods but also requires them to learn to think rigorously and judiciously about these facts.
ACARA’s draft 7-10 History document framed history as an: ‘[academic] discipline, [that] has its own methods and procedures that make it different from other ways of understanding human experience’.
In other words, history is seen as a distinct intellectual discipline with a unique and evolving tradition and its own methods for seeking truth and testing claims about the past; history is not geography, it is not English and it is not physics.
In practical terms, this means that students are firstly required to develop deep knowledge about the aspects of the past that they study, for example Ancient Greece or the Second World War.
They need to understand the chronology, the significant events and the key personalities and groups within those topics. This is often referred to as ‘substantive knowledge’.
At the same time, students are required to develop deep knowledge about the way good historians operate – something that is ultimately contestable in and of itself. They need to become familiar with the ways in which historians periodise the past, how they produce their narratives and arguments, how they reach conclusions about the significance of events, what causes change over time and how to determine the extent of change that took place across important periods.
Students are also required to develop rich knowledge about how and why perspectives and interpretations of the past differ and how to adjudicate between those interpretations when required. This is often referred to as ‘disciplinary knowledge’.
Both kinds of knowledge (substantive and disciplinary) are crucial in helping students develop a rigorous and mature understanding of the past and their nation. The aim, in my view, is not to make all young Australians ‘mini-historians’, but to help them begin a long journey into thinking about the past and its relationship to the present in more complex ways than they might naturally do.
In an age of prolific fake news, disinformation and a growing ‘post-truth’ attitude to the past, the importance of both kinds of knowledge would be hard to overstate. It just so happens that this kind of education also helps to make young people highly employable.
Disciplinary foundations are not new
Attempts to establish and refine a disciplinary foundation for school History have been common in many parts of the world since at least the 1970s. The Schools History Project founded in 1972 in England is often seen to have marked a significant milestone in this direction in both the United Kingdom and Australia but the roots of disciplinary history in schools are much older.
Previous history syllabuses from New South Wales and other states clearly show that disciplinary history has also been a key aspiration in Australia for many decades – though the language expressing this has evolved.
As a small taste, the NSW 7-10 syllabus from 1972 claimed that studying history should: 'lead students to an awareness of some of the problems and techniques of the historian’. The update in 1982 stated that: ‘History is a systematic study of the past … [it is] not a fixed body of knowledge. It is subject to differing views’. The 1992 version claimed that school history: ‘Introduces students to the unique methodology of the historian’.
The current version of the NSW 7-10 History syllabus published in 2012 begins by asserting that: ‘History is a disciplined process of inquiry into the past that helps to explain how people, events and forces from the past have shaped our world’.
For many years the work of expert teachers, historians and education researchers such as Sam Wineburg has continued to refine how the academic discipline of history can inform and shape school history.
Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that this is an argument attached to a specific political outlook, the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s Guide to the Teaching of Australian History [Years 9-10’ published in 2007 called history a ‘separate discipline-based subject’ with ‘unique attributes’.
Though the content his guide proposed to be taught was unworkable, it called on school history to help students ‘know, understand and evaluate the development of the nation in which they live’ and explore this, where relevant, through ‘Indigenous, gender, and beliefs and values perspectives’. The former Labor Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, shared many similar views.
Disciplinary history in a global perspective
There is good evidence that the disciplinary approach to school history is powerful – it is academically rigorous, and many students genuinely enjoy it.
The ‘Research Review Series’ for history published by Ofsted in England this year, for example, has affirmed what has been known by practicing teachers for many years: that disciplinary history in schools is powerful and achievable when in the hands of well-trained experts.
The disciplinary approach to school history has strong roots in other parts of the world including England, Canada, many parts of northern Europe and Singapore. There is also evidence that this has become more popular in countries such as the Republic of Korea. It is equally important to recognise that the history taught in many of these countries includes a focus on the national story. There is no reason we need choose between disciplinary history and national history.
More concerning is the evidence suggesting that contemporary authoritarian states such as Russia and China have pushed against disciplinary history in favour of patriotic national narratives.
These regimes attempt to frame public and school history around celebratory stories that often lack genuine academic rigour and encourage conformity to a preferred version of the national past.
We should be alert to the potential dangers of making any changes to our national history curriculum that make important aspects of our past off limits to debate and contest in schools.
We need more history, not less
Debates about school history will never be settled and nor should they be. As time moves on curriculums need to evolve and what we as a society decide to emphasise in our national story will change (as it always has). I can imagine that in the coming decade, for example, we will see more debates around whether to include greater treatment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the COVID-19 pandemic in our curriculum.
If, however, we are aspiring to high educational standards as Alan Tudge claims, this will not be helped by dumbing down school history to a set of patriotic stories that are not open for debate.
For all its possible faults, the attempt to retain a disciplinary foundation for school history in the draft update to the Australian Curriculum was fundamentally right and we should be on the lookout for opportunities to strengthen and refine it.