A BROAD HISTORICAL OVERVIEW HELPS EXPLAIN TODAY'S WORLD

The Australian
July 11, 2008 Friday
1 - All-round Country Edition

ILLUMINATING THE PAST

AS fascinating a film as it is, school students need more than
Rabbit-Proof Fence to inform them as to whether the treatment of
Australia's Stolen Generations constituted genocide. An understanding
of the Holocaust is vital, as well as an overview of the Armenian
genocide. That is in addition, of course, to a broad, factual
understanding of the removal of the children from their families. This
is just one good reason, among many, why NSW Education Department head
Michael Coutts-Trotter is right to be concerned about the omission
of the Holocaust from the compulsory NSW history course. It is also
impossible to understand the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict
without knowing about the destruction of six million Jews in Europe
at the hands of the Nazis. Unfortunately, however, history and social
studies courses in the other states also neglect the Holocaust.

This is not to argue against the emphasis on Australian history, where
the subject is taught properly. The essential reforms of the 1960s
and 70s that made the curriculum more relevant signalled a healthy,
emerging nationalism and independent spirit. Earlier generations
had long been bored learning lists of Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart
kings. That earlier, British-centric approach meant many Australians
now in their 50s and older grew up knowing more about the Corn Laws,
Oliver Cromwell and the Battle of Waterloo than Federation and the
Australian Constitution.

By the 1990s, unfortunately, many university and school courses had
been captured by the Left and geared to pump out ideology rather
than an objective, historical narrative. Australian history gave
way to thematic subjects such as SOSE -- Study of Society and the
Environment -- which meant issues such as the "invasion" of Australia
in 1788 tended to be cherry-picked and presented out of context.

Many students' introduction to communism, for example, was through
a narrow anti-US prism of the Vietnam War protest movement. Without
knowledge of colonialism, the Cold War, the domino theory or the 100
million people slain by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, many were at a loss
to assess whether Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara were heroes or villains.

At least NSW benefited from the wisdom and erudition of former premier
Bob Carr and retained compulsory history. Many other states, however,
opted for SOSE. But even many of those able to press on with History
were given such wide, thematic parametres for assignments that topics
such as Helen Reddy's song I am Woman, the history of Melbourne fashion
boutiques or the history of a Hobart cinema were afforded equal weight
with the Industrial Revolution or the World Wars. Teachers tended to
devote weeks of classroom time to supervising students' research.

In ushering in the national history curriculum, it is vital that
Kevin Rudd be at his most assertive. A stickler for rigour, the Prime
Minister was rightly appalled at the sloppy SOSE curriculum dished
up to students in his home state in the 1990s. His Government and
professor Barry McGaw, overseeing the project, need to ensure students
are well grounded in major historical issues such as Australia's
indigenous background, the coming of white settlement, explorers
and others opening up and developing the nation, Federation and the
Constitution, social and economic history, and the major events of
the 20th century. To understand the wider world and Australia's place
in it, students should receive a good international overview of the
20th century, including the World Wars, the Holocaust, communism and
the Cold War.

Probing deeper, senior students should be encouraged to piece together
a larger, more complex historical jigsaw. They could investigate,
for instance, why Mao Zedong regarded the Taiping rebels, who killed
more than 20 million fellow citizens in the mid-19th century, as
revolutionary heroes. And far from finding Vladimir Lenin "Christ-like
in his compassion", as historian Manning Clark claimed in his 1960
work Meeting Soviet Man, advanced students would find he was inspired
by Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jacobins' slaughter of 40,000 of
their fellow citizens. A knowledge of French Revolutionary thinking
could also be useful in analysing Cambodia's Pol Pot and Zimbabwe's
Robert Mugabe. Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote a major history of the
French Revolution, understood why the past illuminates the present:
"History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals
and many copies."