Teaching and Learning Difficult Histories: Australia

Routledge Research in International and Comparative Education
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Teaching and Learning Difficult Histories in International Contexts A Critical Sociocultural Approach, 2018, pp. 81 - 94
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Like many settler societies, the pressing challenge facing Australian history and history education concerns the colonisation of its Indigenous people: how do we collectively remember a national “birth” that was also characterized by violent confrontation, dispossession and Indigenous dispersal? And how do we teach that troubling and contested past in school? Such questions have spawned heated, highly politicized debates over the ways that colonisation should be recognized and collectively remembered in Australia’s national narrative in recent decades. These “History wars”, as they’ve come to be known, play out over the representation of Australia’s colonial history in museum exhibits, national anniversaries and public monuments: should “Australia Day” fall on 26 January – the day Governor Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of convicts landed in what is now Sydney – in 1788? Should the Australian War Memorial commemorate Indigenous victims of the Frontier Wars? They are questions that go to the heart of this difficult history (Attwood, 2005; Macintyre and Clark, 2003; Manne, 2003). School history has been a particularly heated site of dispute. Successive State and federal governments have fought significant public battles over the terminology of Australia’s colonial memory, inserting and deleting words like “settlement” and “invasion” in turn; “discover”, “pioneer”, and “genocide” have been similarly fraught—yes, disagreement over teaching Australia’s “difficult history” has literally been as a crude as that (Clark, 2006; 2008). Only recently, the federal Education Minister ordered a review of the new national history curriculum because of its supposed ideological bias. “We think that of course we should recognize the mistakes that have been made in the past,” Christopher Pyne acknowledged. “But we don’t want to beat ourselves up every day” (Kids should learn about Anzac Day: Pyne, 2013). And yet, at a time when debates about the subject reached their crescendo, it seemed that the very people over whom these contests were being waged were missing from public discourse: where were the voices of students and teachers? While pedagogical questions about how to teach history were taking place among professional circles of teachers and history educationists, classroom perspectives have been largely overshadowed by the public and political context of the school history wars. This chapter is a response of sorts, and is based on a qualitative project I conducted a few years ago into Australian history education. It was never intended to be a statistical survey of students’ historical knowledge. Instead, I wanted to ask how students connect with the past. What do they find interesting about Australian history? What don’t they enjoy? Do they think it should be a compulsory subject? If so, how should it be taught? Despite the increasing political traction and contestation of Australian history, such questions were largely absent from public debates over the subject.
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