To understand the self-loathing narrative pushed on us by some Australians about the date of our national day, you need only examine the way Australia’s history is being taught.
There is a direct correlation between the version of our history taught in universities, and the story that is yearly trotted out to Australians in the lead-up to January 26.
And the historical themes preoccupying the academic community tend to frame public debate as well as policy decision making. The themes are based on class, race and gender, which are of course the Left’s trope du jour.
In an audit of Australian history teaching at universities by the Institute of Public Affairs — Australian History’s Last Stand — by far the most dominant theme is identity politics. The report found that of the 147 subjects taught across 35 universities last year, a total of 102 either focus on or make reference to class, race and gender. This means the vast majority of subjects offered by history departments employ the lens, to a greater or lesser extent, of identity politics through which to view our past.
It is almost impossible for students to study this nation’s past without encountering the modern obsession with class, race and gender. It appears that our history has been enlisted to support political causes by academics who are more concerned with rewriting the past through identity politics than they are with a narrative motivated by professional concerns.
It hasn’t always been so. Historians such as Manning Clark, Geoffrey Blainey, Allan Martin, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre might have been divided by politics, but they all shared a traditional approach to the discipline of history. They saw their roles with clarity, which was to understand and study Australian society, agreeing that history is about the expanse of time in which human beings have lived and acted.
All operated under the assumption they were able to paint a fairly accurate picture of past events by using a linear model of historical thinking and sifting through historical evidence. However, in the 1960s there appeared a range of radical post-structuralist and postmodernist theories invented by a group of mostly French philosophers who essentially rejected such notions of the linear model, historical evidence, objective truth and knowledge.
Perhaps the most influential of these was Michel Foucault, philosopher, historian, social theorist and inventor of the neologism power-knowledge. He proposed that knowledge is power, and history is fiction, and the historian’s only role is to be social commentator and political activist.
The approach to Australia’s history in academe carries all the hallmarks of Foucault’s radical postmodernist theory. Many individuals who specialise in Australia’s history have wholeheartedly embraced the idea that they are political activists and social commentators whose self-proclaimed role is to rewrite the past as a way of empowering minorities and the oppressed.
The problem is that history is distorted when it becomes a conscious vehicle for advancing contemporary political agendas. In Australia’s case, much of our history is not only being distorted but is being ignored completely. Because the story of our success as a modern nation based on the ideas of liberalism is almost absent from the university curriculum, it is completely omitted from the narrative being pushed by the anti-Australia Day lobbyists.
There is little if any discussion of the fact that Australians laid the foundations of one of the world’s most successful liberal democracies, which has achieved unprecedented levels of personal freedom and social equality and which continues to attract people from all over the world. There is little, if any, recognition of Australia as a beneficiary of Western civilisation.
But you only need to look at the result of the recent poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs to understand just how wide is the divide between academe and the nation, and how mainstream Australians regard themselves and this country.
The results showed that 75 per cent of Australians want to keep Australia Day on January 26, that 76 per cent are proud of Australia’s history and 88 per cent are proud to be Australian. Moreover, 92 per cent think freedom of speech is important and 77 per cent believe freedom of religion to be an important value.
There is clearly no identity crisis among the majority of Australians who turn out in force each January to celebrate this country’s past, present and future.