Issue 2, 2006 | Susie Byers

Anna Clark "Teaching the Nation"

On 26th May 2006, Dr Anna Clark of Monash University delivered a lecture entitled “Teaching the Nation”. The lecture preceded a seminar on “History School Textbooks: a comparative and historical perspective on the teaching of history in Australia”, organised by the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies and History Department. The lecture was intended to explore some of the "fundamental paradoxes" that Clark associates with the “politics and pedagogy” taking place in classrooms, newspapers and parliamentary chambers both here and overseas.

Clark opened her lecture with a report of the controversy that surrounded the publication in the US of a book entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me.1 The book claimed that American school students were taught history that was fundamentally wrong, as well as exclusionary and unrepresentative of the diversity of American histories.Her exploration of what she described as an “angry book that demands answers” was used to set the scene for a lecture that itself essentially did little more than ask a series of questions and hint at the importance of the answers.

The lecture explored the extent to which debates over history were really debates over national identity – the extent, that is, to which past, present and future converge in the classroom. Clark suggested that debate over what version of history should be taught to young people has meant that the school becomes an important “site of national memory.”

The lecture tried to explore some of the assumptions underpinning different versions of national memory and history – who is making history and on whose behalf. This she did through illuminating some of the ways that historians, teachers and members of the government and the community use collective pronouns – that is, the way people use terms such as ‘our’ history and, even more problematically, ‘our’ children.

Despite the topical nature of the material, Clark’s analysis of the use of pronouns consisted largely of a series of powerpoint slides of quotes from news headlines and letters to the editor, most of them from conservatives concerned over the way in which ‘our’ children are being taught ‘our’ history. She knew that diatribes such as that of Howard Hutchins in his letter to the editor of the Age would provoke snickers from an audience unlikely to be in tune with his comment that “Surely Australian heritage-destroying political correctness has gone too far? Our children – thus all our futures – are suffering from the non-teaching of our very recent history and distortion of our early history,” or that of Geoffrey Partington, who said that it would be “entirely irresponsible, as well as historically false to adopt the one-sided view of white wickedness, which is the new orthodoxy in teaching about race relations in Australia since 1788.” Even less were they likely to support the comments of P.P. McGuinness, who dissolved into intellectual hysterics with his comments that curriculum designers were using “politically correct buzzwords” – such as “civil rights”, “invasion”, “cultural conflict” and even “racism” to control the future through the past.

An exception to the mainly conservative examples she used came in her mention of historian Henry Reynolds. Faint echoes of Lies My Teacher Told Me were found, Clark argued, in Henry Reynolds’ plaintive cry “why weren’t we told?” – with the emphasis on the ‘we’. Clark asked, who is the ‘we’ who weren’t told? Whose history is implied in the phrase ‘we must teach our history to our children?’ And whose children?

Clark argued that the image of the child is one of the most problematic terms thrown around in what she continued to refer to as the ‘History Wars’. She argued that children are often represented as a symbol of the future, and that in the context of contests over history, the image of the child represents a connection between the past and the future.

The image of the child, she argued, warrants analysis – but that she did not provide, other than to point out that the image is one that is mobilised across the political spectrum, and not restricted to conservative discourse. In asking “who are we, and what is ours?” she noted that the all-important collective pronouns are both “critical and bipartisan”. Perhaps Clark cited this material in order to make a point that both the left and the right can be guilty of intellectual laziness. Indeed, one of the more interesting points in the lecture was her invocation of Reynolds’ use of “we” – unfortunately, other than to use the quote, she did not explore his, or other progressive historical discourse, in the lecture.

Clark identified a series of dichotomies that have characterised recent debates over history, such as black armband/ white blindfold, left/ right, and truth/ lies. She pointed out the extent to which understandings of history have been reduced to polarisation and name calling, with a tendency to speak on behalf of the collective. Clark laments the use of such divisive terminology but does little to deconstruct it. She makes use of such politically loaded but intellectually somewhat lightweight terms such as ‘History Wars’, passing them off with a superficial “so-called” at the beginning of the lecture.

Although acknowledging during the lecture the prolific nature of these battlefield metaphors, she continued to use them both in the lecture and in other writings. Elsewhere she has maintained that “the History Wars have been fought in universities, museums and newspaper opinion pages,” and that now, “The classroom has become another battlefront."2 This imagery of “battlefronts”, “wars” and “fighting” may provide a pleasing simplicity to important historical debates, but it does little to advance intellectual understanding of the questions faced by historians, politicians and members of the community in Australia today.

The lecture, while an interesting exposition of some of the chronology and the themes that have dominated debate over history teaching in Australia in recent years, did not go much further than a synthesis of a range of points that a large number of the audience might already have been aware of. In the end, Clark's talk failed to lift beyond the descriptive to the level of insightful analysis, which was a disappointing outcome from a lecture of such promising subject matter.

  1. James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook got Wrong, New York, 1996
  2. Anna Clark, “What do they Teach our Children?” in Stuart MacIntyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne, 2003, p. 172.