The Killing of History
Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant, 13 May 2021
When little else in the world makes sense, history is the defining discipline. It carries extraordinarily important lessons for us and the future that we seek to shape. It can demolish prejudice. It is a reminder that there are hard decisions that have to be made, and the importance of making them and not shying away from them. And it can also inspire and point us to new horizons … We cannot, in facing our future, in the most consequential geopolitical realignment in our lifetimes, abandon what Arthur Schlesinger described as “historic purpose”. We have to be informed by a sense of not only who we are, but from where we have come.
—Brendan Nelson, on launching A Liberal State: 1926–1966 by David Kemp
The audience at the launch in Sydney on April 29 of the fourth volume of David Kemp’s monumental history of Australian Liberalism nodded in agreement at Nelson’s comments on the centrality of history to understanding society. He described the book of his former ministerial colleague in the Howard government as a “towering masterpiece” which he wished he had read at the outset of his political career: “It brings so much understanding and enlightenment to who we are and where we are today.” (The book is reviewed in detail by William Poulos in our Books section in the upcoming June issue.)
On the night, those attending were obviously pleased with the impact both the book and its three companion volumes were likely to have on the future writing of political history in Australia and on the reputation of the single most influential character in Kemp’s latest narrative, Robert Gordon Menzies. The organiser of the book launch, the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater, also announced that he had just signed a deal with the University of Melbourne to host the Robert Menzies Institute, a prime ministerial library and museum with Georgina Downer as executive director. Everyone hearing this felt things were looking up.
The next day, reality returned with a vengeance. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority released the new national school curriculum for history from Years Seven to Ten. None of its content bore any resemblance to that of David Kemp’s book. The curriculum has no analysis of the origins and history within Australia of liberalism or democracy. No appreciation of the degree of political, social and economic freedom enjoyed by all Australian citizens. Nothing to give any idea of how Australia became the prosperous, civilised country it has long been. No clue about why the great majority of Australians feel so lucky to live here.
The curriculum contains no mention of Robert Menzies or his political rivals John Curtin and Ben Chifley, or of any other of our prime ministers. No mention of other long-serving leaders such as Bob Hawke or John Howard. Yet there are plenty of names of other political identities that students will be required to study. Here is one list from the syllabus for Year Ten:
William Cooper, Jack Patten, Sir Douglas Nicholls, Lady Gladys Nicholls, Vincent Lingiari, Charles Perkins, Shirley Smith, Gladys Elphick, Essie Coffey, Joyce Clague, Roberta (Bobbi) Sykes, Gary Foley, Michael Anderson, Eddie Koiki Mabo, Lowitja O’Donoghue
There is no prize for guessing what they have in common. They are all Aboriginal political activists. These are the people the curriculum wants young Australians to regard as our most historically significant.