Trivia and Historical Memory
Russell Degnan

If anyone was ever looking for a reason for why people in this country have a somewhat lamentable knowledge of history [1], then the inept efforts by its practitioners to defend it may give some clue.

Perhaps it is a persecution complex. That might explain Les Terry's bizarre assertion that "Prime Minister and his Government are waging unilaterally against an imagined enemy of "cosmopolitans", "multiculturalists" and "postmodernists"." If it is so unilateral, and the enemy so imaginary, then what, pray tell is his article, if not a response? Do post-modernists, multi-culturalists and cosmopolitans not exist? Or do they in fact like the Howard Government, and are therefore not its enemy?

Perhaps such a complex is behind the assertions by both Terry and Robert Manne that the Howard Government wants to create a simple, nationalistic and patriotic history. The Prime Minister was quite clear what he intended when he spoke on the matter in January:

"Part of preparing young Australians to be informed and active citizens is to teach them the central currents of our nation's development. The subject matter should include indigenous history as part of the whole national inheritance. It should also cover the great and enduring heritage of Western civilisation, those nations that became the major tributaries of European settlement and in turn a sense of the original ways in which Australians from diverse backgrounds have created our own distinct history."

That is an open invitation to anything, and no doubt, as Melleuish notes, the Prime Minister has his own ideas on what they might be, as would we all. But what he listed is hardly controversial, nor even particularly different to what anyone designing a general course in Australia history would choose.

I find it very hard to believe that there is anyone who genuinely believes there are no central and defining aspects of Australian history. Australia has a distinct climate, biology, and landscape, with an equally distinct pattern of settlement, immigration, political and economic development. It shouldn't be controversial to expect a high school student to become somewhat conversant with those aspects of Australian culture. Given both Howard and Manne mention the importance of learning about indigenous traditions, British legal and political institutions, and Western culture, there is hardly a disagreement here worthy of the name.

Coupled with a non-issue is a farce, made worse by journalists with neither any historical knowledge nor any particular interest in guiding it. The teaching of chronological facts as against competing narratives is not a new debate. But it is an odd one. To listen to it you would almost believe the proponents of one think the other is unnecessary. Clare Wright goes dangerously close to claiming Google is a suitable substitute for remembering historical fact and chronology, before admitting that a student needs to know the Gold Rush occurred in the 1850s. Whereas Les Terry seems to favour the sort of dodgy historical recreation documentary makers use when they don't have sufficient source material, over any actual evidence. Meanwhile, in a piss-poor attempt to make a point, while simultanesouly missing the one at hand, journalists are trying to turn history into a trivia night (hat tip, an excellent discussion at Larvatus Prodeo).

There are two debates here really, one of which is entirely pedagogical, and regarding which I want to quote from Fernand Braudel, speaking of the same in France in 1982.

For some, traditional history, faithful to narrative, and indeed a slave to it, overloads the memory, weighing it down needlessly with dates, with the name of heroes and with the lives and deeds of notabilities. For others, 'the new history', seeking to be 'scientific', dealing with long term and neglecting events, is supposedly responsible for catastrophic didactic failures, involving at the very least unpardonable ignorance of chronology. This dispute between Ancients and Moderns has done a great deal of harm. In a discussion which is about teaching, not scientific theory, it conceals problems and failings instead of shedding light on them.

For Braudel, and I agree, a broad chronological narrative that gave history shape, and allowed them to place figures, events and places in the right context, was the best way to teach children; and an approach that draws on the broader social sciences the best way to teach adults. The reason is quite simple, and it is the same one that compels you to read Dr. Seuss before Samuel Beckett, and learn your times tables before algebra. Abstract thought is hard, and needs a learned mind.

The second debate is over trivia. Trivia is not history of course. You can know a lot of trivia and not know any history. But the question arises over when trivia becomes fact. The crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Wentworh and Lawson in 1813 is mere trivia. The importance of it as an event is, regardless of the narrative, significant. It lies neatly near the beginning of the period where, under Macquarie, Australia changed from a convict settlement into a giant sheep farm, with the subsequent shift in political power to rural squatters, along with a substantial increase in the conflict between the white settlers and the indigenous inhabitants. Placed in context it is not trivia, but a relevant part of Australia's political history.

The elevation to trivia from mere fact to something relevant depends, like the fact itself, on context and use. We need to ask, as several commentators have said, what use we put on history. If it is to be compulsory, is it a civics lesson -- and a no doubt valuable one -- and should it therefore be placed in that context? If it is not compulsory, then we should focus on the neglected side of history in our curricula: the history of the disciplines we are learn. For myself, Melbourne's history is relevant to what I do, and its regular misuse and tendency to drift into well-worn myth a regular problem. But no field is without some sort of history, and practically all fields -- even new ones, of which there are many -- have undergone regular changes within the context of a changing socio-political environment. Instead of bemoaning the fate of the historical discipline in the context of more vocational studies, teachers of history should be demonstrating its value to that endeavour.

That the history taught needs to be relevant should be obvious. That anything taught needs to be relevant in some way -- and I have a very broad definition of relevance -- should be obvious. I find it sad that so few disciplines seem willing to justify themselves to a broader audience, but that is a debate for another post.

Instead, on a final, perhaps ironic note, in the process of writing this, I also went back to the preface to Giles MacDonogh's Frederick the Great. [2] Frederick was a complex figure, but a useful figure-head, whether you were Prussian, German, Protestant, enlightened, militaristic, or artistic. This is not unusual, for a similar phenomenon, try this fascinating article on the many historical faces of Rembrandt. For Frederick though, his rehabilitation from a caricature of Prussian militarism to a complex enlightenment monarch was achieved, according to MacDonogh, "with the return to a punctilious factual approach".

Those historians who believe in the power of google should also consider its remarkable ability to deceive and hide otherwise relevant counter-facts, as myths take hold. Trivia is not always just trivia, it is often the first clue in your mind that the history you are reading is not all it should be, or could be. Competing narratives are a good idea, but no matter how many you have, there will never be a shortage of underdone narratives in Australian history [3].

A mountain of factual knowledge is no bad thing for anyone to have. And history is too important for it to be derailed by haphazard arguments. Braudel, who is always good for a quote, offers more salutary advice.

"Of course, historians have no business fabricating dubious national myths -- or even pursuing humanism, which I myself prefer. But history is a vital element in national self-awareness. And without self-awareness there can be no original culture, no genuine civilisation, in France or anywhere else"

[1] I happen to think that, while historical knowledge is pretty woeful in high school leavers, both of Australia and more generally, that it is not so much worse than their knowledge of mathematics, science, literature, english and the proper use of logic.

[2] I love the preface's of history books. Like the footnotes they are often more interesting than the other pages.

[3] Consider, for instance, the ongoing bias towards an overall Australian, yet particularly Sydney-centric narrative at the expense of other colonial narratives.

Sterner Matters 20th August, 2006 04:21:32   [#] 


Trivia and Historical Memory
The reactions to Howard's history proposals are "overdetermined" - as the proposals themselves also are - by a much broader series of political skirmishes over education and over the presentation of Australian history in public institutions. This makes watching this debate a bit like watching a couple on the verge of divorce: severe fights and intense emotions seem to be erupting over fairly modest proposals - always a good sign that there's a long... er... history of more serious argument fueling the dispute.

In this case, there are several separable issues that are being – understandably, but unfortunately – blurred together in the current debate. One set of issues revolves around a series of pedagogical disputes about the teaching of history that date back to the 1960s-1970s: do we teach traditional political history (often derided as “great man” history), or something more like a social history of “everyday life”? Since the history of everyday life academic movement arose as one of the many movements interested in grass roots empowerment, the divide between social and political history is often inflected as a political divide – with the “left” assumed to be more comfortable with social history, and with political historians assumed to be inevitably sympathetic to the political figures whose lives they chronicle… None of these alignments are intellectually or methodologically intrinsic – but, given that we are talking about history, we can nod to the fact that they are associated historically, and therefore debates about this issue are often ciphers for an underlying political dispute…

Overlaid on this is a pedagogical dispute within the teaching of history, particularly at pre-tertiary levels, over whether to approach the subject in terms of rote memorisation, or interpretation. Again, this dispute has political overtones, with rote memorisation associated in recent history with a “back to basics” vision of a kind of classical education that claims to be able to identify clear and uncontestable facts that provide a bedrock foundation for further knowledge.

Then there is a broader pedagogical dispute about the division of knowledge into distinct disciplinary specialisations, vs. an integrated, thematic approach to teaching. The political valence of this particular debate has flipped several times in the past hundred years or so, but the integration camp at the pre-tertiary level has been recently associated with education reform movements that view themselves as progressive.

And then there is the series of debates over “postmodernism” in the educational system, values in the schools, and the “history wars” and “museum wars” over the portrayal of indigenous history and European colonisation…

Since all of these are “hot” active debates, any intervention into the teaching of history can be counted on to trigger a whole series of associations in anyone involved in the field – and this series of associations can equally be counted on to puzzle anyone looking only at the face-value content of the intervention. This puzzlement has political value, which Howard is surely savvy enough to anticipate. Given the overarching context, I would regard Howard’s intervention as a kind of inverse dog-whistling: intended to invoke intense reactions from people whom Howard hopes will then make themselves look irrational and hysterical to the voting public. As you’ve pointed out, many commentators have evidently been eager to oblige…

This whole mess can of course be put aside for the sake of a debate on how we actually should teach history (and other subjects) at the pre-tertiary level. Personally, for example, I think it’s counter-productive to treat particular pedagogical approaches as though they have some intrinsic political valence – as though students on the left would be ill-served by a knowledge of political history, for example, or as though integrated curricula are intrinsically progressive. Pedagogical approaches tend to be recycled over time, with different political valences – we can use this kind of historical observation to distance our political goals from questions about what “works” pedagogically.

I also happen personally to think that a number of the pedagogical approaches that currently consider themselves “progressive” can, as a practical matter, specifically disadvantage those students who enter the educational system with less family support, fewer financial resources, less social capital, or lower innate academic skill. I’ll admit that I may be over-extrapolating from my own anecdotal experience, but when I consulted for schools, my experience was that integrated curricula and interpretive approaches risked leaving many students behind who might have thrived in a more structured, systematic educational environment. (I realise the counter-argument is that heavily structured environments risk boring capable students, but I think there are other strategies for dealing with this issue – among them individualising the curriculum around student’s particular educational starting points… I also realise that there are ways to design around the problems with integrated curricula, by providing targeted support to disadvantaged students – but this support, while part of the practice in excellent programs, is not part of the “hype” about this approach…)

I tend personally to look on the current debate with a bit of all-around dismay: I think the overreaction in the press was unfortunate, but inevitable and anticipated; I think that many otherwise intelligent people have made terrible mistakes in assuming that particular pedagogical approaches have intrinsic, rather than contingent historical, political valences; and I think the whole configuration of the debate makes it very difficult to have an intelligent conversation about how we ought to improve students’ historical knowledge and ability to think critically about historical events…

But this comment is certainly intruding in length on your post… Best to quit before I get ahead…
N. Pepperell  22nd August, 2006 06:17:46  

Trivia and Historical Memory
Nicole, thankyou for your extended comments. I don't disagree on anything substantive.

Except, I am not sure there is much value in trying to teach high school students how to "think critically about historical events". It is one of those things that you need an in depth knowledge of the topic of, so that you can compare the evidence and ideologies different authors are drawing from. Obviously, at a university level this is an important skill.

Conversely though, I do think there is value in teaching students to think historically. Perhaps it is because I've never actually done any history, but there seems to be too much emphasis on the theoretical aspects of history, at the expense of its application (and its popularity).
Russ  22nd August, 2006 16:41:15  

Trivia and Historical Memory
It probably just betrays my personal theoretical biases, but I tend to equate "thinking historically" with "thinking critically about history"... ;-) In other words, getting students to the point where they can recognise that things can change significantly over time, and giving students some ability to empathise and imagine outside their own immediate historical moment, is more than enough critical thinking about history for my purposes...

I'll admit it's a bit startling to me, the notion that someone might get through school and never take a serious history course here. You aren't the only person who's mentioned this to me: my partner, who now views a knowledge of history as critically important, had never been exposed to it in school either.

History is mandatory in some form in most primary and secondary public schools in the US - it varies from state to state exactly what is taught, and when, but there's a general tendency to cover ancient civilisations in early grades, maybe because the link between the very distant past and fairy tales seems appropriate. Then there's often some kind of US history around the 4th and 5th grades, which will include units on native Americans and the civil war as a matter of course, but will also cover quite conventional political history. Then there will often be some kind of more theoretised "world history" some time in "middle school", and also often a year of state history. The amount of history covered in US high schools varies greatly, but there's generally some US history requirement, and a government and "civics" requirement that covers the constitution and basic governmental institutions... Many high schools will also offer some kind of current events oriented course.

So the issue in the US won't really be quantity, but quality - it's amazing how easy it apparently is to teach a great deal about history, without actually teaching anyone to think historically... Which of course is one of the reasons that people then veer off and try to emphasise historical theory (or, really, not historical theory - at least, not the kind that a "professional" historian would spend much time worrying about - but a kind of simplified and, as you say, inadequately grounded evaluation of historical events). Neither piling on the facts, nor theorising without them, is going to get anyone much of anywhere - as you've noted.

A better option - and I think this can be done at relatively early grades in some form - is to teach history as an interpretive puzzle: why would a certain kind of event, action or trend have *made sense* to someone, even if it might not make sense to us now? First understand; then evaluate, if you must, from the foundation that understanding provides...

[Small disclaimer that, if I sound "lecture-y", it's not directed at you... For various reasons, I'm finding myself pushing the "understand before you judge" barrell around a lot lately - it's becoming sort of my Hippocratic Oath for Academic Work... Which doesn't mean that I have to clutter your blog with the concept...]
N. Pepperell  22nd August, 2006 21:39:40  

Trivia and Historical Memory
There is probably not that big a distinction between "thinking historically" and "critical thinking about history" really. I learnt the former about a decade before the latter though, so I draw one. I can be slow sometimes.

It is relatively easy in high school, or was for me, to take a maths/science, or other track that largely avoids history and other "soft" subjects. Which is not to say we didn't do some history and some civics. Merely that I didn't gain much out of them, and they were very scattershot. I went to a pretty bad school though, your mileage will vary.

If it wasn't for Asterix books I probably wouldn't have read any history at all.
Russ  23rd August, 2006 00:59:19  

Trivia and Historical Memory
Come to think of it, I probably got my introduction to "thinking historically" from sci-fi, rather than from school - at least in the sense of realising that you can think about the present in a contingent, counter-factual way...
N. Pepperell  23rd August, 2006 08:39:16