Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars

12 Jun

I recommend this book without reservation. It is absolutely vital for anyone who cares about integrity in the writing and teaching of history. Its account of the nature of history and of Australian historiography rings true to my forty years in the field of history teaching.

Indeed, my deposit of memory goes back to the time of Federation, in that my grandfather before me was a teacher and passionately interested in Australian history and shared this with me. I have seen and read many of the histories of Australia used in schools all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century, and I have seen and read many of the classroom readers going back to the 1880s. I also have a good working knowledge of the tradition of Australian literature. What Macintyre says on all this is absolutely accurate.

I deplore in the most serious way the interventions of John Howard in this area, as the man is not only ignorant but as ideological as any Marxist ever has been, except he of course does it on behalf of his own bowdlerisation of Australia’s past. I deplore the shrill apparatchiks who hog the media on the subject — from whom I would in fact except, at his best, Geoffrey Blainey, who really is a historian, whether or not one agrees with all he says.

I have never been a Marxist, and I have never espoused radicalism in historiography, though I certainly have learned from a whole range of historians. My training was at Sydney University when Stephen Roberts, the second Professor of History at that place, was still alive and well, if Vice-chancellor. I even learned my British history in the same class as, indeed sitting next to, Philip Ruddock!

So as one who is actually quite conservative in my history in very many ways, I again endorse absolutely Stuart Macintyre’s History Wars. Read it to see how bad are the times we live in, intellectually speaking. No joke at all; in fact I see it as a tragedy, given the progress we were making in understanding our shared past.

See also Wikipedia.

My maternal grandmother, the wife of the teacher I mention above, once stopped my grandfather in his tracks when he was about to reveal some juicy family history I now know about: “Some things,” she said, “should not be talked about.”

This seems to have been true of the Howard family, if one is to believe David Marr’s story in the Herald, The secret Howard plantations.

THE corner of Ewart Street and Wardell Road in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill is sacred ground for John Howard and the modern Liberal Party. For nearly 30 years, the Prime Minister’s father ran a service station on this spot, setting an example his son thinks Australia should follow.

“I was brought up to believe that about the best thing you could ever do in your life,” he said soon after taking office in 1996, “was to start up a business with nothing, work your insides out, hope you earned a bit of money, and pass on a bit of it to your kids.”

His mother’s church and his father’s service station have come to stand as markers of respectability, honesty and the Howard family’s deep roots in the suburban heart of the nation. To be the son of a service station proprietor allows John Howard to claim as a qualification for high office that he was and remains an ordinary Australian.

But Howard’s father had another life. While this old soldier worked his humble Sydney service station, he was also – on paper – a New Guinea planter with a string of estates where 200 native labourers grew copra in his name. Lyall Howard had cashed in his status as a returned digger to “dummy” for the trading house W. R. Carpenter and Company Ltd. His own father, Walter, was doing it, too. The Howard case provoked secret, official investigations at the highest levels in Canberra, but they and their powerful backer got away with the scam…

Could it be that John Howard’s whole approach to history, its selectivity, its discomfort with the past, can be traced back to this particular piece of mythmaking and attendant concealment? Speculation I know, but I have always felt something very strange is driving this man…

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Posted by on June 12, 2006 in Aussie interest, Cultural and other, Education, Multiculturalism and diversity, News and Current Affairs, OzLit, Politics, Reading


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