Ned Kelly's Last Stand… Ned who?

As first generation Australians, my siblings and I relied first and foremost on our schools to teach us about Australian History. Being children of immigrant parents, who moved to Australia in the 1980s, meant there was a massive chunk of knowledge and lived experience connected to this country’s past that could not be passed down to us.  

Throughout our primary and secondary education we had several opportunities to relay to our parents interesting facts about Australia’s past that they didn’t know; that felt empowering to us as children. 

Caroline Chisholm always struck me as an incredible woman (I’m sure having her face on every $5 note helped me to never forget her!). She was a woman of vision, action and inspiring generosity who helped thousands of men, women and children in the new colony. The only way I could have known about this pioneering woman philanthropist was through my primary and secondary education.

Education is empowering. But if I were to further my Australian History studies at a university level, what would I actually learn?

What history teachers love: race, class, gender and war

According to Dr Bella A’brera, Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), Australian History courses are more preoccupied with the present than the past, with current affairs rather than actual history.

That is the conclusion IPA came to after reviewing 147 Australian History subjects offered at 35 universities in 2018. Their report, Australian History’s Last Stand: An Audit of Australian History Teaching at Universities found that courses are centred on modern-day concepts rather than concrete chronological events or people.

The report reveals that the three most common themes covered in 147 Australian History courses offered to students in 2018 were the following:

Identity Politics: Class, Race, and Gender (102 subjects)

Indigenous History and Studies (57 subjects)

War and Conflict (53 subjects)

By limiting the study of Australian history to mere paradigms and concepts, are universities really encouraging students to exercise critical thinking or freedom of thought? When secondary sources, in the form of social and political commentary by today’s historians, trump primary sources, aren’t students being deprived of significant resources for understanding and assessing the past?

No country for individuals

The second key finding in the report was that the role of the individual is absent due to heavy emphasis on collective and group identities.

According to the report only three individuals are mentioned in the 147 Australian History subjects offered to university students: Charles Wentworth, an early explorer and statesman (1 subject); Henry Lawson, a 19th century balladist (1 subject); and Pauline Hanson, a highly controversial current politician (3 subjects).

People shape history. So how is it possible that only three out of hundreds of prominent Australian men and women are given special mention?

It is impossible that Australia has become the nation that it is today because of vague concepts about group identity, rather than the contributions of individual people.

The Australian wing of The Conversation, an online project that aims to popularise academic work, is currently publishing a series on “Hidden women of history.” These are welcome introductions to under-acknowledged individual women who are not simply representatives of a collective or group identity. But nowhere are the heroes and heroines of the past so well hidden as in today’s academy.

Is “liberal” a banned word?

The third key research finding from Last Stand is that not a single Australian History subject mentioned “liberal” or “liberalism”. Perhaps this is because the Liberal Party, one of two main parties, is, sort-of, conservative, and that is a word that should not reach the tender ears of adolescent.

In reality, Australia is currently one of the world’s most successful democracies built on liberal principles and ideals, though you would never know it if you took a history paper at a university near you. This is turning a blind eye to the reality that Australia is, in fact, one of the freest countries in the world.

“Australians are not being taught that the modern nation of Australia was founded on liberal principles, and that our nation’s story is a success story,” says Dr d’Abrera.

Goodbye Caroline Chisholm?

So, in the light of these three key findings from Australian History’s Last Stand, I expect my favourite Australian heroine, Caroline Chisholm, is well and truly hidden in depersonalised amalgamation of concepts (race, class, gender), her unique character, drive and actions having, after all, little to no real impact in creating the foundations for a free and egalitarian society.

This is just not in tune with truth or reality. Chisholm was a real woman from the past whose actions helped shape present-day Australia. This is a fact.

Though the notion of historical fact may be debated among academics, this obliteration of the past taking place in history departments across our universities really must come to an end. Historians need a reality check and someone should put an end to their pre-occupation with rewriting the past and reducing Australian history to the confines of pure intellectual thought.

Education is empowering but how Australian history is currently being taught in our universities does little to inspire or educate students to develop a well-rounded understanding and appreciation of this country’s past and identity.

“We have lost the ability to understand who we are and where we came from. We are not passing this information onto future generations,” says Dr A’brera.

The historians and academics responsible for writing up the Australian History university curriculum need to humbly acknowledge that the past and all its complexities will never neatly fit within narrow conceptual frameworks, political ideologies or our own personal tastes and agendas.

University students should not be limited but empowered to exercise historical inquiry and critical thinking. Regurgitating modern historians’ analyses, referencing key concepts (as outlined by the current Australian History curriculum) and doing away with a chronological record of past events and people should not be the way Australian History is taught and passed down the generations.

Kristina Millare is a freelance writer and communications specialist with a background in news journalism, government and public relations, digital communications and marketing in the not-for-profit space. She writes from Sydney.