Australia’s History Wars

“The national curriculum appears quite unbalanced as it stands at the moment,’ complained Opposition Education spokesman Christopher Pyne to gathered members of the press (March 1, Herald Sun). The Australian Coalition is getting hot and bothered about the slant taken in the draft curriculum in maths, science, history and English, applicable from kindergarten to year 10.  It sees a dark band threatening to smother the teaching of good Anglicised history, a history that rejoices rather than grieves.  There was, suggested Pyne, an ‘over-emphasis on indigenous culture and history and almost an entire blotting out of our British traditions and British heritage.’  Patriotic bellicosity is preferable to such spokesmen, and here, we have less a matter of bands than high pitched registers of historical nonsense in the name of ‘proper’ history that belongs to some and not others.

It is probable that Pyne might find much to agree with were he ever to read the formulation of anthropologist V. Gordon Childe on civilization’s components.  Those were, in Childe’s prescription from 1936, such things as ships, smelting techniques, calendars, writing, standardised measurements, and food supplies for those not engaged in agriculture.  There is nothing inconsistent in this with the other side of such a system: slave labour, immoveable hierarchies protected by law, and regimes of population control.  As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put so strikingly at the end of the 1980s, ‘Without modern civilization, there would be no Holocaust’.  Modernity continued the trend of segregating the undesirable from more desirable elements of society, much as, to use Bauman’s analogy, a gardening state.  The weeds were never allowed to be the first in the lottery of life.

High civilization comes with an accompaniment of cruelty and barbarism.  It is hard to escape the fact that the most forms of organised society, whether they be in taming nature and populations, came at the expense of freedoms for some.  Something has to give in the effort to satisfy a society’s edifice complex.  Australia, in that regard, partook in this project.

The Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his band of white-banded warriors would seem to believe in a baggage of historical values that should have been discarded decades ago: that Australian freedoms and achievements were tied up with the wonders of British civilization, its colonial projects manifestations of a peculiar sort of genius that did more good than harm.  Few would deny that the Magna Carta of 1215 was relevant to British history, but that document means about as much to the school of Coalition history as to the indigenous citizens who derived little from its protections. The national curriculum is not a creation that unbalances the ledger.  It goes someway to righting it, even if some tinkering will be required.

There is little reason why students should not be given a complete historical record for them to digest.  Censorship, notably of the historical variety, is an indication of society in ill health and self-denial.  A practice that excises the brutal from the progressive, the vicious from the constructive, will do little to educate and everything to delude.

Education Minister Julia Gillard is rightly concerned, worried about the battle ahead over the draft document.  The wars over historical ownership is set to continue, as is the weeding project against the garden’s undesirables.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: