Unmaking history

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty and Education | Richard Allsop
The Spectator Australia 12th March, 2011

March may seem a little early to give an award for 2011 's silliest contribution to public debate in Australia, but surely, Monash University academic Tony Taylor has the prize securely in his keeping.

Associate professor of education Taylor recently commented on the historical significance of the English Civil War or, to be more accurate, commented on its lack of significance. According to Taylor, it was 'arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume)'.

What turns Taylor's views from amusing wackiness to something of serious concern is the fact that over the past four years he has been a key player in the development of the three drafts of the new national history curriculum. Under both the Howard and Rudd/Gillard governments, he has been happily beavering away on deciding what our children should be learning in school, as well as developing national professional standards for the teaching and learning of history.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of world history would realise that far from being 'localised squabbles', the Civil War produced a seismic shift in thinking on how the state should, or even could, operate. Until the 1640s, it was surely inconceivable that parliament could revolt against the monarchy, that a monarch could be tried and executed and a republic would be declared in its place. The impact on Britain and Ireland of Cromwell's Commonwealth, the subsequent Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, was clearly enormous.

However, these events also had a profound influence on Europe and North America in the following century. At the time the English were chopping off the head of their king, the alternative model on the Continent was absolute monarchy, which came to be personified by Louis XIV of France. Without the alternative thrown up in England, absolute monarchy might have had even greater resilience.

Indeed, if we indulge in a little counterfactual history, it is hard to imagine any of the French or Scottish Enlightenments, the American War of Independence or the French Revolution taking place without the explosion radical ideas unleashed by the English Civil War. These ideas led to the development of the founding principles of liberal democracy, the political system which has spread throughout much of the modern world.

Further, without the political ferment in 17th century England, it is extremely unlikely that the Industrial Revolution would have taken off in the manner it did, so the Civil War can lay claim to be an important contributor to the modern world's dominant economic system, market capitalism, as well as its political system. Yet, here in Australia, a person as influential as Taylor does not rate any of this, believing interest in it is confined to eccentrics wanting to dress up.

His curriculum work done, Taylor was off to enjoy the benefits of an Australian Research Council grant to 'conduct a comparative analysis of the political contexts for the development of history national curricula in Australia and Russia' when he was rudely interrupted. I'm not sure how this would be treated in Putin's Russia, but a bit of lively criticism of the proposed curriculum by shadow education minister Chris Pyne was enough to give Taylor a 'museli-choking' moment at his breakfast table. In response, he fired off a piece to Crikey defending his pride and joy.

He was particularly concerned by Pyne's claim that Christianity was a bit underdone in the national curriculum. Au contraire, Taylor said: Christianity is covered in Year 8 under 'the spread of Christianity', medieval Europe under the Crusades (not so good, that bit), the medieval dominance of the Catholic church and the Spanish cqnquest of the Americas (another not-sa-good bit).

Just to be clear here, the bits in brackets were also Taylor's words, effectively undermining his own case by admitting that Christianity only cracks a mention in its 'not -so good' moments. It is a bit hard to fathom how anyone could draft a curriculum so openly hostile to the West's dominant religion and expect to escape uncriticised.

So, there are some things that are not there because they are trivial (e.g. the English Civil War); and some things that, despite critics' claims to the contrary, are there, although they are generally bad (e.g. Christianity). Then, there is a third category, which is perhaps the oddest of all Taylor's defences. These are the things that are not explicitly there, but are there implicitly. Hence, of Magna Carta, Taylor says, 'not that it's explicitly mentioned but, as a teacher, you'd be daft not to spend some time on Runnymede'. But, if we can trust the teachers to teach the right things, it only raises the question as to why we are having a national curriculum in the first place. And this is, indeed, a very good question.

The genesis of the history curriculum goes back to the History Summit of 2006. As with a number of other policy areas, the Howard government, perceiving a problem in the states with the poor quality of history teaching, tried to impose a centralised solution. The futility of this approach was highlighted by the fact that even while the Coalition remained in power they did not manage to get an outcome they liked. Worse, it apparently did not occur to them that, if you create a centralised power, your political and ideological opponents might use it in ways which create an even worse situation than the one you were trying to rectify.

The realisation that the education system was not providing the opportunity to understand our cultural heritage was one reason why the Institute of Public Affairs and the Mannkal Foundation created the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, which undertook the analysis of the national curriculum as one of its first projects. All the feedback the program has received is that young people crave to learn about what is important in the past. No wonder they feel they are missing out, if those deciding what they should learn can display as great a degree of historical ignorance as Taylor.

However, perhaps in one way at least, we should be grateful to Taylor. With his impetuous response to Pyne, he made it clear just how fundamentally flawed the national curriculum is.