Experiments in the telling of history enriched by struggle to make history

(originally published Feb 2006 in now abandoned LiveJournal blog)

Stephen Muecke challenged John Howard’s demand for a more conservative approach to teaching history in schools.
(SMH January 31, 2006).

Howard is critical of “post modern relativism”, and I am happy to read Stepehn Muecke declare postmodernism dead – although I am not convinced that he is right there. More later.

Stephen defends the usefulness of what Howard denigrates as “relativism” in history – there are many stories to be told, from many points of view. Howard’s preference for the “absolute” in history is stifling of innovation.

I concur with Stephen Muecke when he writes “Innovative thinking asks the big ‘what if’ questions. The freedom to experiment with thought is a precious legacy, which is why we should not listen to Howard when he is trying to shut down thinking in this way…This thinking opens up new domains of facts. “What if there were such a thing as women’s history,” someone once asked – and a new subject was born. It is a question of adopting a new perspective, as Henry Reynolds said, as he, too, opened up the new field of Aboriginal history, making him one of the most influential public intellectuals of the last couple of decades.”

These questions about women’s history and aboriginal history did not emerge simply as experiments in the telling of history because there were innovative historians. These questions about history arose with particular force in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s because there were campaigns, movements, struggles by women and by aborigines for their rights, for liberation even, a term we hear rarely this decade. The experiments in the telling of history were demanded by those who had been oppressed, marginalised and omitted from history, because they were struggling to make history themselves.

Stephen places the era of intellectual postmoderism as the 1980s and the 1990s. I think its influence has been far wider than in the disciplines of literature and aesthetics, it permeated all the social science and humanities disciplines that I have come into contact with (as a librarian, I am acquainted with many). Indeed postmodernism is now less energetic and influential. It is not surprising that the postmodern decades followed the liberation decades – the women’s movement made many achievements within the structures of Australian society, some recognition had been won by aborigines. But the post-war boom was over, and all over the OECD world, governments began to “manage the economy” with curtailment of union rights and other policies for restoration of profit growth, i.e. increasing the wealth of the wealthy. This weakened and set back all the liberation movements. What was to be salvaged from the liberation movements by many in the academy … stories, perspectives, the telling.. all valid, all in parallel. But for the post-modernists this was no longer in service of actual movements to change history. Many identities could be accommodated in parallel, carving out their own spaces within the system.

But the curriculum in school still reflects this – I referred in an earlier post to the teaching of history in my daughter’s school. She is frustrated that all the “stories” and all the points of view are treated as “valid” – rather than representations of different possibilities for society, to be examined and chosen between by a youthful citizenry which is anticipating its own future role in making history. But – Australian citizens are not expected to make history, just vote every few years, and that’ll do. The telling of history from various perspectives helps to expand an appreciation of humanity, but unless students are also learning to be critical of perspectives and to adopt their own perspective on the past, and therefore on future possibilities, they are not really learning to make history themselves, only to be sceptical of how John Howard wants it to be told. The “history wars” of the conservatives make sense as a culmination of their war on unions, aborigines, migrants. The post-modern fantasy was that capitalism would have to accommodate multiple identities and this would be the best sort of human liberation we could hope for.

Actually, I’m with Karl Marx – “the history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggle” – it’s no accident that the struggle to remake history for women and aborigines was set-back by the decline of unionism, and the ALP as forces for industrial, political and social change.

No school curriculum is going to teach our children to believe that they could make history themselves, unless there are grown-ups out there organising to challenge the status quo, whether it is the power of Howard and his supporters, or his successors. But I’d like to see a history curriculum that tells the bigger narratives of struggles to make history, as participated in by leaders, citizens and the marginalised.


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