A LOT of people have been talking about history in the recent past and a lot of those people have been politicians some of whom clearly don’t know what they are talking about.

However, there were some voices of sanity among all the noisy ones. The South Australian Minister for Education, Jane Lomax-Smith — whom I met some years ago and who is a most impressive lady — observed that “… the necessary facts in a child’s education should be determined by teachers and experts in the field, not politicians.”

I agree with that but with the critically important proviso that teachers and education department administrators and policy advisors be professionals in the best and broadest sense and provided too that the over-arching education policy represents a broad community of view involving both the states and the commonwealth.

According to The Australian of 6 July, 2006, the Federal Education Minister, July Bishop, proposes to restore history as a stand-alone compulsory discipline. I agree with that too. Bob Carr, the former NSW premier and a man of considerable erudition and personal academic achievement, endorses Ms. Bishop’s view and urges her to ensure that “… history is elevated as a discrete, intact discipline and not buried in social studies and cultural studies.” I not only endorse that view — I applaud it.

There are others, including some politicians — Julie Bishop among them — who assert that students should know all the important dates, events and places.  No one has defined what is meant in this context to be “important” but presumably 1066 and the Eureka Stockade would feature. It is indeed useful to know important dates, events and places but such minutiae is not important in itself — and can probably be learned by most parrots as readily as it can by most children — but in filling in the context of an historical period. For my own part, I do not claim to be an historian but I did study history for four years at university, the fourth of which was solely given over to history and entailed achieving an honours degree in Arts.

The engaging passion of history

The sub-title to Proust’s Swann’s Way is “A la recherchÈ du temps perdu” variously translated as “In search of lost time” or “Remembrance of things past.” History is all of that and while history may be seen by most as the written documentation of what happened in the past it also, when looked at in its full sweep, embraces oral history, the depiction of events and social change through photography, music, painting, literature, the media, other branches of the arts and a whole range of other human pursuits. Even so, most of us reach first for the printed word and, as I type this, I can read names on my bookshelves such Alan Bullock, Barbara Tuchman, Robert Caro, Edward Said, Isaiah Berlin, Paul Hasluck, Henry Reynolds and Lloyd Robson. The engaging passion of history is such that I still reach for those names and others to check something or to remind myself of a particular passage.

To me history is the most important of the disciplines not least because, considered in the broad, it is also perhaps the most eclectic of all the disciplines. Much as the Fortunes of Richard Mahoney informs us about the personal tragedy of a man in colonial Australia it also informs us about the social and economic setting of a country in short pants, the much younger Australia of the nineteenth century. I believe too that we better understand the Spanish Civil War if we read some Orwell or some Hemmingway or immerse ourselves in Picasso’s “Guernica”. And so it is with Anthony Powell’s “A Dance To The Music Of Time”, a compelling portrait of one level of one generation of 20th century Britain; or Steinbeck and the west coast of the United States through the depression years; or Afro-American music opening our ears and our hearts to the plight of a noble race, still social outcasts in their own country long after I was born; or our introduction to the blight of nazism through Isherwood’s story “Goodbye To Berlin” which became the film “I Am A Camera” which became the musical “Cabaret”; or from just strolling through Paris, for centuries a refuge for victims of totalitarian regimes and a cauldron of free expression where freedom was hatched by colonial rebels or found by old world dissidents. All of this is also history because it fleshes out the complexity and the humanity and the lure and the excitement of history and of all the many other things that make us what we now are.

So yes, dates and places are important but they should not blind us to what I believe is the essence of history which is not so much the whens and whats but the whys and hows. The raw data of history increases exponentially as each day, year, century passes and so the challenge of the historian is not so much which so-called facts, themes or ideas to include but which to exclude. The task of the historian is to draw on that which he sees as consistent with the proposition he wishes to pursue. In other words, no history is entirely clinically dispassionate because the historian — no matter how tiny the time span and content of the matter he is pursuing — must always intrude himself. He does so by what basic material he amasses because he simply cannot include everything, by what previous texts he consults, with whom he discusses the project and so on. Above all, the historian intrudes himself because he is a unique human being with all sorts of characteristics, views, loves, likes and dislikes that are special to that single person.

Better informed and satisfied

Ultimately, the historian will be judged not so much by the elegance of his text or the diligent listing of his hundreds of references but by the intellectual honesty of the project he has completed. Is it honest or does it seek to head us down some blind alley which represents a particular prejudice or blindness or passion of the author? However, whatever the theme of the project or the style of the author it will be a unique piece of work, like no other, and the author will be judged by his peers and his public by the extent to which we emerge from a reading of the book better informed and satisfied that he has completed the task with integrity, in the best traditions of the practice of his immensely important calling. If, for example, the topic is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade do we — as either generalists or historians expert in that event — emerge better informed, more enlightened by what we have read? What does it add to the Eureka story in terms of better understanding why it happened and what flowed from it? Was it a futile gesture or a potent event in the democratisation of the colony?

Every history relating to the Eureka Stockade will be different even where the same historian has written, say, three accounts of the event. Views change or develop or are refined or rejected on the basis of further research or new insights. And that is one of the great beauties of the study and reading of history. It is art, not science, however many “facts” are included. Indeed, no two people will write identical — or even largely similar — histories of the same topic because they are different human beings with all the idiosyncrasies that flow from that reality.

Perhaps inevitably, Alan Bullock and Hugh Trevor-Roper had somewhat different views on Hitler and Nazi Germany and, oh, aren’t we so fortunate that it should have been so? There may be no definitive conclusions in history be we are informed, stimulated, enlightened and enriched that it should be so.

But — back to the current debate in Australia — I reiterate that, while politicians should keep their noses out of the operational and professional side of education, it is nevertheless quite critical that the teachers, departmental policy advisors and administrators be truly professional in pursuing their immensely important and highly sensitive mandate. Were cabals of ideologues to get hold of history or any other part of education then curriculum development may as well be handed over to the politicians.

If all goes well the politicians will no doubt get plenty of dates and names and if they keep reading the bits in between they might even get enlightenment as well.

Nick Evers

To me history is the most important of the disciplines …