The Future of History

1 December 2017
The Future of History - Featured image

Western Civilisation is being neglected in Australian history courses.
But there is hope for the future, writes Dr Bella d’Abrera.

As part of its Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, this October the Institute of Public Affairs released its latest research report, The Rise of Identity Politics  – An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities. We systematically reviewed all 746 history undergraduate subjects taught at the 35 universities across Australia which over programs of study in history. In 2017, the teaching of history at the undergraduate level in Australia has in large part been overtly subsumed by the post-modern political theory of identity politics.

Our research took identity politics to mean two related ideas. The first is that individuals are defined by a limited and arbitrary set of group identities, namely class, race and gender. The second is that political and social interactions between individuals and groups are fundamentally defined and restricted by these group identities. The underlying philosophical premise of identity politics is the essentialism of the anointed group identities. Group differences are ultimately irreconcilable and individuals from different groups are unable to empathise with each other. As such, it highlights the differences between individuals rather than that which people have in common. Such a notion has far reaching political and social implications in terms of how individuals are treated.

This fascination with variances rather than likenesses means that people are treated as unequals rather than as equals.

What is the future of history as an academic discipline if it is continually re-written and perceived through the ever changing lens of identity politics?


In the nineteenth century, German philosopher Georg Hegel constructed his world view of history into a narrative about stages of human freedom. His was the view that history was simply the process of moving towards the realisation of human freedom.

Later that century, Karl Marx built on Hegel’s world view with his theory of historical materialism. He proposed that society’s productive capacity and social relations of production determined both its organisation and development.

Both Hegel and Marx essentially denied the role of individual human agency, regarding history instead as the product of inexorable forces and trends which were primarily of a material and economic nature. ‘Society’ wrote Marx, ‘does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.’


Marx essentially created the template of identity politics for the study of history with his notion that human society consists of a zero sum contest for power between the oppressor and the oppressed. In the 1960s, his model was adopted by British historian Eric Hobsbawm who deliberately re-wrote the history of the ‘long 19th century’ as being a century of class struggle. Hobsbawm successfully transformed history as an academic discipline into a vehicle for social policy.

From the 1970s onwards, historians have fully embraced Marx’ template and applied it to their own particular historical fields, re-writing the past from the point of view of class, gender and race. These new histories have gradually replaced the traditional canon of historical subjects which once upon a time formed the basis of an undergraduate degree in history in Australia.


What exactly does an undergraduate degree in history look like in 2017?

To find out, we divided the 746 subjects on offer into five distinct categories. The first category is ‘Identity Politics.’ These are subjects that approach history from the perspective of class, race and gender.

The second category, ‘The Essential Core Topics in the History of Western Civilisation’ are subjects which contribute to an understanding of the history of Western Civilisation, from Ancient Greece and Rome to the Modern World.

The third category, ‘Australian History’ are subjects which teach some aspect of Australian history. ‘Other Histories’ is the fourth category, and includes subjects which teach the history of periods and regions that fall outside the history of Western Civilisation, and included the history of Asia, ancient Egypt or the history of Africa.


Finally, the fifth category is ‘Theoretical or Practical’ subjects which are self-explanatory.

Our research found that of the 746 subjects, an astonishing 244 fell into the ‘Identity Politics’ category. Each of these subjects approached their particular areas of history through the lens of class, gender or race.

Some examples of these subjects were ‘A History of Sexualities’ at the University of Melbourne, ‘Food for Thought; Discovering the World through Commodities’, taught at La Trobe University, and ‘White Supremacy’ and ‘Masculinity, Nostalgia and Change’, each of which was offered at the University of Western Australia.

With some notable exceptions, these ‘new histories’, have found their way into every department of history in Australia and are offered to students at all levels of study. Moreover, the inuence of identity politics could be seen across all 746 subjects by a simple keyword search.

The stunning complexity of the past is increasingly being reduced to a range of themes. We devised a list of 30 words which we believed would demonstrate where the bias or direction of the subjects lay. While the decision making in terms of the list was subjective, it demonstrated that the most commonly appearing keywords found in both the titles and subject descriptions were ‘Indigenous Issues’, ‘Race’, ‘Gender,’ ‘Environment’ and ‘Identity’. Indeed, there were more instances of ‘Sexuality’ than the ‘Reformation’, ‘Identity’ than the ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Film’ rather than ‘Democracy.’ The lowest occurring keywords were ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Liberalism.’


The concept that there are significant historical periods and events in history has become unfashionable with the rise of identity politics.

In a speech delivered to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni by Professor Niall Ferguson in 2016, Ferguson quoted a question posed three years earlier by the National Association of Scholars in the United States, which ask ‘Are race, class, and gender dominating American history?’ To answer this question, Ferguson developed his own canon of 20 significant historical periods and events which he believed should be the basis of an undergraduate modern history degree. After assessing the range of courses provided by the history departments of Harvard, Stanford and Yale, he concluded that very few of the 20 were available to undergraduates and that they had been replaced by the new histories of identity politics.


Drawing heavily on Ferguson’s methodology, we developed an Essential Core of Topics which we believe are the 20 most significant topics in the history of Western Civilisation. They range from Ancient Greece and Rome, to the history of Christianity, to the French, Industrial and Russian revolutions, to the Cold War. These topics should form the basis of an undergraduate degree in history in Australia as they explain the political, intellectual, social and material basis of the history of Western Civilisation. At the very least, students should be presented with the option of studying these topics.

We found that 241 of the 746 history subjects cover one of more of the Essential Core Topics of Western Civilisation. However, there is a predominance of subjects which cover ancient history and the twentieth century with very little in between.

The most commonly taught topics are Ancient Greece, followed by Ancient Rome and World War II. Interestingly, subjects dealing with the Reformation and the Enlightenment are outnumbered by those which cover Decolonisation and the Cold War, for example. Dozens of subjects are offered in early modern history, but only a handful of subjects teach students about the events and the ideas that created the modern world. The paucity of subjects considering the Reformation and the Enlightenment reveal the decline of intellectual history in Australia’s universities.

There is no doubt that the most important countries to Australia, politically, economically and culturally are the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet, the Audit showed that the subjects which cover either country are the least commonly taught subjects in the Essential Core. Of the 746 subjects, only 17 actually focussed on British history, of which just 7 covered the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the seminal period in British history which gave rise to the modern democracies which characterise the Western World. The fact that there are more history subjects which focussed on class, gender, and race than there are on the history of Western Civilisation revealed the extent to which identity politics has permeated history departments in Australia.


As the Roman politician and lawyer Cicero remarked, ‘To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain a child.’ By not teaching the foundations of Western Civilisation, most universities are denying students the enduring intellectual, cultural and political heritage of Western Civilisation.

However, there are three universities in Australia that offer students subjects which cover all 20 of the Essential Core Topics in the History of Western Civilisation.

They are Federation University, the University of Notre Dame and Campion College. All three are quite different. Federation University is a regional public university based in Victoria with a history dating back nearly 150 years, the University of Notre Dame is a private Catholic university which was established in 1989, while Campion College in New South Wales, is Australia’s first liberal arts college and was founded in 2006.

Not only are there universities which offer an excellent all round history education, but another positive sign is that since the IPA published its first report in 2015, The End of History… In Australian Universities, the University of Melbourne added an undergraduate subject entitled ‘Britain in the Wider World 1603-1815’. This covers major events in British history such as the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Second Hundred Years’ War between France and Britain, the Industrial Revolution and the Battle of Waterloo. Monash also added a subject which examined the history of Britain, from the arrival of the Normans to the restoration of the monarchy in 1066.


What action can be taken to remedy the situation? Certainly, there are at least two things we can do today. First, we can deregulate the university sector to encourage greater competition. This would be an excellent way of determining which subjects were in demand. It would also give universities the flexibility to offer smaller courses and subjects to cater to student needs.

Second, we can continue to re-iterate the importance of defending the institutions of Western Civilisation. Even though these institutions can be obscure and require certain level of knowledge to appreciate them, they have been central to modern prosperity. Young people need to be given the opportunity to understand, celebrate and defend the values of Western Civilisation.

Since it was established in 2010, the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program has generated significant public interest. The purpose of the Program is to encourage Australians to understand and appreciate the heritage of Western Civilisation. The study of Western Civilisation is not an obscure academic pursuit. Liberal ideas such as the rule of law, freedom of speech and equality before the law, which are directly inherited from Western Civilisation, are being contested daily.

The history of Western Civilisation has, of course, light and dark pages. But it is necessary to learn about all aspects of Western Civilisation because it is a part of our human world heritage. If Australians understand the origins of the institutions which give us the rights and freedoms from which we benefit today, we will be unable to recognise the signs which indicate that these freedoms might be under threat.

The welcome addition of new British subjects, and the popularity of resources produced by the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, are positive signs for the future. They demonstrate that there is both the capacity in academia as well as an appetite among young people to learn about the history of Western Civilisation—the ideas and values that have made us prosperous and free.

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