Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Narrow view of history

Greg Melleuish, The Australian

September 16, 2008

THE discovery that Stuart Macintyre has been engaged to write the national Australian history curriculum for the Rudd Government has attracted an amount of comment. Some of this has focused on Macintyre's involvement in the notorious letter from members of the University of Melbourne history department condemning Geoffrey Blainey in 1984. Macintyre's one-time communist affiliation has also attracted unfavourable comment.

What has not been discussed is the type of history that Macintyre is likely to recommend for Australian students. His mate, the so-called conservative historian John Hirst, has said, trust me, Macintyre is OK by me. This might prompt many to ask: how reliable is Hirst?

There are three areas one should examine very closely when Macintyre's proposal eventually comes out. These are the role of religion in Australian history, liberalism and business, and understanding Australia's place in the world.

The most devastating critique of Macintyre's historical work was written a number of years ago by left-winger Bob Gould. Gould pointed out that Macintyre had no place for religion in his account of Australian history. In particular Macintyre attempted to write the Catholic contribution out of Australian history altogether. It is worth noting that Hirst is also not all that keen on religion and is a noted opponent of private schools.

The role of religion in Australian history was debated forcefully at the 2006 history summit with former NSW premier Bob Carr, among others, not wishing to include religion in the study of Australian history.

The second issue is an important one. Australia's present prosperity has resulted from both the implementation of liberal principles and the role of private enterprise, including farmers, in developing the country. Unlike Blainey, Macintyre has demonstrated no great enthusiasm for coming to terms with the role that Australian companies have played in Australia's rise to prosperity.

When it comes to the liberalism, Macintyre has demonstrated in his writings that he is only really interested in that variety of liberalism that came out of Melbourne in the 19th century and favours state intervention. Like Judith Brett, he has no time for the other tradition of Australian liberalism based on free trade and individual initiative. Again, while Hirst calls himself a conservative, his conservatism has everything to do with nationalism and almost nothing to do with liberalism and individualism.

There is nothing in Macintyre's corpus to suggest he has much of an appreciation of the wider international environment in which Australia has existed during its history since 1788. He has written almost exclusively on Australia, with an early book on the British Communist party. Blainey, in comparison, has written a world history. Hirst is also fixated only on Australia.

But it is even worse than that. Gould pointed out that not only has Macintyre a British Australian view of the world, as one would expect from the product of a Melbourne public school, his view of Australia is centred on Melbourne and Adelaide. Hirst comes from Adelaide and his career has been spent in Melbourne.

It was interesting that when I wrote a paper for the history summit one of the criticisms that was made of me was that I was a NSW historian.

Given Macintyre's track record, there are good reasons to be worried about the type of curriculum in Australian history that he is likely to produce. We should be wary of the assurances of his mate Hirst.

If Macintyre is true to form it will be a history that excludes religion and that has very little to say about the important role of both business and economic liberalism in the making of Australia. Moreover it will be a history that largely ignores the rest of the world and which has Melbourne as the key to understanding how Australia developed.

If my predictions are correct then we must ask if such a history is really appropriate for students living in the 21st century at a time when we cannot understand the national without the international, when religion has not only refused to die but has made a comeback, and when liberalism and business are more important than ever.

We do not want young Australians getting a history that is outdated.

Greg Melleuish is associate professor of history at the University of Wollongong.