In 2017 Australia’s oldest university, The University of Sydney launched what it described as a ‘brand campaign’ to advertise itself to potential students and donors. The campaign was called ‘Unlearn’. According to the university it had ‘reimagined the way we teach, so our students can reimagine the world.’
The campaign demonstrates that while we’ve all been taught how to memorise fact and figures, not everyone has been taught how to unlearn – how to question the world, demolish social norms and rebuild new ones in their place.
The deputy director, marketing and communications of the university said:
Giving our graduates the capacity to think critically and make a positive change in the world is at the heart of our undergraduate education model. The ‘Unlearn’ campaign reflects this progressive approach really well, and we hope it encourages our community to do some ‘unlearning’ too.
‘Progressive’ is one description for what The University of Sydney was doing. ‘Destructive, nihilistic and entirely ignorant of the foundations of Western Civilisation’ are other descriptions of it. The university’s campaign revealed what’s long been known which is that Australia’s public tertiary institutions have long given up any pretence to the transmission of culture – or at least Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture as ‘the best that has been said and thought in the world.’ Furthermore, to suggest students should ‘unlearn’ what they know implies they know something in the first place.
In 2022, Australia’s second oldest university, The University of Melbourne went a step further when its The Australian Centre in the Faculty of Arts launched a new research program ‘Undoing Australia’ that:
seeks to denaturalise [sic] the settler colonial nation-state and reveal Australia as an unfinished political project; one that is constructed, negotiated, contest, and indeed refused every day.
Apparently The Australian Centre ‘fosters world-leading research on the settler state, its culture, institutions, sovereignty and identities across several different disciplines, including history, sociology, literature, politics, visual arts and anthropology’. The Centre encapsulates everything that is wrong with our country’s universities and with the teaching of Australian history. Before considering exactly what ‘Undoing Australia’ entails it’s worth considering how Australian history as a subject is being undone. It’s been so undone it’s almost dead.
The study of Australian history is dying in Australian schools. What’s in the National Curriculum as ‘history’ is politics. Victoria is the last state that offers Australian History as a separate subject in Years 11 and 12. It’s taught in just 50 schools and in 2020 it was studied by 710 students out of the more than 50,000 that each year complete the Victorian Certificate of Education. A decade ago some 1,200 students were doing Australian history, so it’s difficult to claim the subject has ever been overwhelmingly popular.
In an effort to boost enrolments in 2022 the course was redesigned and a chronological understanding of history was replaced with four themes, also knows as ‘deep dives’. These are:
From custodianship to the Anthropocene (60,000 BCE – 2010)
Covers Aboriginal land management, colonisation, terra nullius, environmental campaigns including the Franklin Dam.
Creating a nation (1834 – 2008)
Covering competing perspectives on race, immigration and citizenship, including the White Australia policy, land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Redfern speech, Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to parliament.
Power and resistance (1788 – 1998)
Covers struggle for improved workers’ conditions, women’s equality, demands for LGBTIQA+ rights. Debates about Treaty, the Whitlam dismissal.
War and upheaval (1909 – 1992)
Includes changing reasons for Australia’s participation in wars, shifting alliances with the UK and US, fear of Communism
These ‘deep dives’ reveal a completely biased interpretation of Australia’s past that leaves no room for discussion about the story of the country as a successful liberal democracy. What students will be taught is history as merely the story of identity politics. Far from saving Australian history these ‘deep dives’ will kill the subject for good.
There’s little chance a student enrolled in Australian History in Victoria will learn anything the country’s freedom, democracy, or egalitarianism. The Institute of Public Affairs’ One & Free project lists the ten most significant events and achievements that shaped our history – including the Kable court case in 1788, Andrew Bent’s fight for freedom of speech in the 1820s, and The Church Act of 1836. These things don’t fit the left wing narrative determining Victoria’s history curriculum.
According to the executive officer of the History Teachers Association of Victoria students regard Australian history as ‘less compelling than other VCE subjects such as revolutions, which includes in-depth studies of the French, American and Russian revolutions.’ In 2020 4,800 students were enrolled in History: Revolutions. It’s not hard to see why Revolutions is popular and Australian History isn’t. These are some of the sample questions for History: Revolutions for the written examination.
Evaluate how increasing tensions between Britain and the American colonists led to revolution between 1774 and 4 July 1776.
Analyse why the Articles of Confederation were replaced in 1788.
Discuss – ‘The Constitution ratified in 1788 did not completely satisfy anyone.’
Outline how and why the nobility opposed the absolute authority of the monarchy during 1787-1788.
Explain how the actions of Louis XVI contributed to the abolition of the monarchy.
Discuss – ‘The ideals that inspired the revolutionaries to break free from the traditions of the old regime were rarely achieved in the new society.’
Evaluate the extent to which the Yan’an Soviet (Yenan Soviet) was the most significant cause of the communist victory in 1949.
Explain the consequences of the Hundred Flowers Campaign.
Evaluate the influence of the ideas of Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-sen) on Chinese revolutionary leaders up to 1949.
These are some of the sample questions for Australian History for the written examination.
From custodianship to the Anthropocene (60,000 BCE – 2010)
Identify one settler attitude to land ownership and one settler attitude to progress.
Outline two outcomes of the Franklin Dam campaign for the environmental movement.
Explain two changes in environmental campaigns between
1950 and 2010.
Creating a nation (1834 – 2008)
Describe how perspectives about race influenced colonial legislation prior to 1901.
Explain the Howard Government’s perspectives on refugees and migrants after 1996.
Analyse changes in attitudes towards immigration between 1901 and 2008 in Australia.
Power and resistance (1788 – 1998)
Explain how successful the campaigns for the equality of women were between 1957 and 1998.
Evaluate the significance of one change and one continuity in the exercise of power and resistance that occurred due to the growth of unions by 1998.
To what extent do you agree with this statement – ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights activists faced many challenges after 1957 but were ultimately successful in achieving significant gains.’
Students are voting with their feet. It’s no mystery why nearly seven times as many students enrol in History: Revolutions than Australian History. One subject is about history and one is about politics. When it comes to Australian History it’s obvious what are the ‘correct’ answers examiners expect and what are the ‘wrong’ answers no student should ever give.
The teaching of Australian history in schools mirrors how the subject is taught at university. One follows from the other. In 2018 The Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs analysed the content of all the 147 Australian history subjects in that year at the 35 Australian universities that offered Australian history. The findings of the analysis, ‘Australian History’s Last Stand – An audit of Australian History teaching at Universities’ were entirely unsurprising. The most common themes taught in Australian history subjects were Identity Politics (102 subjects), Indigenous History and Studies (57 subjects), War and Conflict (53 subjects). ‘Gender’ is mentioned in the descriptions of 50 subjects and ‘Race’ in 37 subjects, while the word ‘democracy’ appears in four subjects and ‘capitalism’ in one.
Australian history is taught in schools and universities as simply the story of social movements. According to this formulation individuals have no role to play and their choices and decisions are largely irrelevant. So it’s not surprising that in the descriptions of those 147 Australian history subjects only three individuals are mentioned – William Charles Wentworth, Henry Lawson, and Pauline Hanson.
The point is that not only is Australian history taught from an explicitly left-wing perspective, it is the only perspective students have any experience of. Universities talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but there is absolutely no diversity of interpretation when it comes to history. It wasn’t always this way. In ‘Australian History’s Last Stand’ Dr Bella d’Abrera wrote about how Australian history was once taught:
The national story, equally celebrated by both sides of politics, was essentially one of the transplantation of British institutions, culture, technology and people into the new land. The liberals and conservatives celebrated the development of parliamentary democracy, English law and British industriousness, while the ALP championed trade unions, the Chartists, labour parties and English-style socialism. In short, the history of Australia [was seen] as a late chapter of British, European and world history.
By the 1970s, this framework had all but been abandoned and it was increasingly difficult to find a historian or teacher who focussed on Australia’s British origins. This shift had much to do with the influence of history Manning Clark, who in his monumental six-volume History of Australia (1962-1987), reframed Australia’s history in terms of the battle amongst forces of the Enlightenment, Catholicism and Protestantism. In 1976, Geoffrey Blainey had added a further dimension with his Triumph of the Nomads, in which he relayed the story in detail of Aboriginal Australia prior to the arrival of the British.
Allan Martin, foundation professor of history at La Trobe University was a leading biographer of Henry Parkes and Robert Menzies. While he was a life-long Labor supporter, he did not advertise this as such, because ‘he took his take to be simply to get the history right.’
Martin found it impossible to believe that ‘some readily identifiable class or party or cause can mysteriously hold in its keeping the only truth essential for understanding the whole society.’ In his The ‘Whig’ View of Australian History and Other Essays (2007), Martin noted that younger historians had labelled him a ‘counter revolutionary’ and ‘bourgeois’ because he had penned objective biographies of Australian politicians.
While historians such as Clark, Blainey, Martin, [John] Hirst and [Stuart] Macintyre might have been divided by politics, they all shared a traditional approach to the discipline of history… All accepted that truth is objective, knowledge is instructive and that the historian’s principal role is to construct a narrative using his or her professional judgment. A social mission could be built on that foundation, in the manner of (say) Macintyre, but the business of historical research and writing was fundamental.
In many ways ‘Undoing Australia’ at The University of Melbourne is the culmination of developments decades in the making. At its heart, ‘Undoing Australia’ is a political project to dismantle the Australian nation state. The initiative is revolutionary, promoting activism, statue-toppling and the eradication of any positive narrative about Western Civilisation from the history books. The political, legal and social framework of our nation must go down in flames before a new vaguely defined Utopia can rise out of the ashes to replace it. This message is evident in The Australian Centre’s clear obsession with white supremacy, white privilege and entrenched racism.
One of the offerings of the Centre ‘Whiteness in Education’ argues ‘whiteness is not innate, it is learned.’ According to Associate Professor Jessica Gerrard and Dr Sophie Rudolph, ‘the systems of white dominance that operate worldwide are not natural but created and maintained through social and political life’ and education and government are sustained by ‘systems of racial domination’.
Another offering is entitled ‘How should we tell the truth about Australia?’ According to the lecturers as ‘treaty processes take shape in several Australian jurisdictions it is clear that truth commissions are going to be at the heart of future treaty negotiations.’
The use of the word ‘truth’ in this context is interesting. For many years we’ve been told by postmodern intellectuals that there is no such thing as ‘truth’. ‘You have your truth and I have my truth’ as is heard so often in first-year university tutorials these days.
Yet another topic is ‘Black Stories Matter: The media, power and Aboriginal aspirations’. Professor Heidi Norman and Dr Archie Thomas argue that mainstream media reporting of Aboriginal people has long been governed by ‘broader inequalities and racism’ and ‘oppressive’ media narratives must be overturned in order to bring about genuine change. ‘By understanding the media’s ways of knowing Aboriginal people and political worlds, we can be armed to disrupt the patterns of the past,’ they contend.
According to Norman and Thomas three major media narratives ‘delay and deny Aboriginal self-determination’. First, the ‘White Mastery narrative’ sees ‘Aboriginality as a problem to be solved through assimilation’. The second, is the ‘Irreconciliation narrative’ which opposes Aboriginal views that seek to ‘challenge Australian sovereignty’. It’s claimed that, while this narrative recognises the ‘violence’ of Australia’s settlement, it delays change because it relies on democratic approval to gain political change. The third is the ‘Subordination narrative’ where Indigenous desires for self-determination and sovereignty are ignored unless framed in terms of disadvantage and deficit.
Last but not least is ‘Dismantling Settler Futures’ which looks at how the ‘colonial future’ can be rejected to make way for a new age of Indigenous empowerment. Dr Alissa Macoun and Dr Elizabeth Strakosch argue that ‘settler colonial technologies’ operating through Australian Indigenous policy are sustaining the ‘settler project’. They decry any non-Indigenous claim to ‘sovereign legitimacy’ as ‘violence’ as even ‘decolonising agendas’ are tainted by ‘European understandings of sovereignty’.
Nowhere is the contradiction (some might say the absurdity) at the heart of postmodernism more obvious than in the teaching ‘Dismantling Settler Futures’. The subject is based on the idea that ‘white colonisers’ cannot understand indigenous perspectives, yet Macoun is identified as ‘a white woman’ and Strakosch as ‘a non-Indigenous scholar’. Following their own logic neither should be teaching this course.
At The University of Melbourne, the push for equity and reparations is not just evident in radical fringe programs like ‘Undoing Australia’, it has been deeply embedded into curricula and institutional structures. The following statement of the university captures this, ‘Reconciliation is central to the full realisation of the University of Melbourne’s purpose.’ The university’s current Reconciliation Action Plan promises to engage in extensive cultural awareness training and advance national reconciliation. This type of activism is far removed from the central purpose of a university which is to impart knowledge and hone the mind. It does not involve adopting a position on a highly politicised public issue.
For example, the Norman and Thomas critique of indigenous media narratives only serves to highlight the nature of their own narrative. Their dismissal of reform through democratic processes such as referenda on the grounds they’re too slow betrays their distrust of democracy. Their model for change is activism outside of the parliamentary system. The implication is that ‘the system’ has failed and need to be replaced – but with what exactly is never answered. The entire ‘Undoing Australia’ project has little time for the processes of democracy. Words like ‘truth-telling’ are weaponised to impute the guilt of historical figures onto current mainstream Australians.
Terms such as ‘Unlearn’ and ‘Undo’ make obvious the modern Australian university’s rejection of the Western intellectual tradition. Students are encouraged to forget notions such as ‘truth’, ‘reason’ and ‘science’. In this new and improved learning environment ‘truth’ becomes a subjective construct and moral relativity the pathway to an ethical framework liberated from religion.
Education institutions that promote ‘unlearning’ are a direct threat to the Enlightenment project. Ideals such as liberty, toleration, human rights and democracy lie at the heart of the Enlightenment. But these are all threatened by The University of Sydney’s promise to ‘demolish social norms and rebuild new ones in their place’. A revolutionary antagonism towards tried and trusted institutions and values is at the heart of the unlearn campaign. Those leading the advertising spree send the message that progress is achieved through forgetting the old and embracing the new. This is quite different from Isaac Newton’s,
‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’. The value of the last 5,000 years’ worth of accrued knowledge is utterly rejected by the new ‘Unlearn’ campaign. Worse still, it is being rejected in the name of education. Its implications reflect poorly on not only The University of Sydney, but all the country’s universities.
In 1850 when William Charles Wentworth envisaged what became The University of Sydney he described an institution where every Australian could ‘become great and useful in the destinies’ of this country. It is hard to see how students who have been taught to apologise for Australia’s colonial past at the taxpayers’ expense will be of any use to the future of this nation. The mass-produced woke-ready graduates being churned out of universities are conditioned for life as an academic, bureaucrat, or human resources officer. These are graduates who know nothing but criticise everything. The ‘Undoing Australia’ and ‘Unlearn’ initiatives represent regression, not progress.
It is about brainwashing students into a new religion of ignorance about their history. It is about left-wing ideologues and their fixation on dividing people into groups based on their class, race, and gender and denying their individuality. It is about understanding the world as a contest between oppressor and oppressed groups categorised by physical traits like white and black, rich and poor and man and woman. Neither The University of Sydney nor The University of Melbourne try to disguise their radical mission in social engineering.
Australia would be better served by its oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning if they focused on building up rather than tearing down this nation.
This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia 2023 and is written by Brianna McKee. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.