Wednesday, August 23, 2006

History - Not Just a Bunch of Dates

I would not ordinarily write about Australian educational policy. What the heck do I know about Australian educational policy? Nothing. But I do know a thing or two about history. There’s a bit of a tug of war in Australia right now between people who want to teach history as a stand alone subject and those who want to teach it under the umbrella of "Studies of Society and its Environment," which I imagine is what Americans call “Social Studies.” The reasons for opposition to teaching history separately caught my eye. Here’s what Rod Welford, Education Minister for Queensland, and Ljiljanna Ravlich, West Australian Education Minister, had to say.

After the summit, Mr. Welford said it would be "educational vandalism" for the federal Government to force the separate study of history on the states. "To talk about history as a stand-alone subject, as a list of events, is an educational absurdity," he said. [snip]

Ms Ravlich dismissed the knowledge of key historical dates as unimportant and was reported yesterday as saying it was akin to not knowing "the internal workings of a computer". She said the advent of the internet and search engines, such as Google, meant students had those dates at their fingertips.

Oh dear. Ravlich and Welford are confusing history with antiquarianism. Antiquarianism is a bit of historical jargon – it means collecting bits of historical information like you would collect antiques, buffing them up and putting them on display like Grandmother’s silver. Most people who do genealogy are doing antiquarianism. Of course antiquarianism shouldn’t be taught to poor little Australian kids – that’s boring as all get out. But history is not antiquarianism. It’s much more than a bunch of dates. History is interpretation and analysis. It’s critical thinking applied to the pageant of the past. History asks the question, "Why?" What do these people think I do all day – sing little mnemonic songs about important dates? “Oh in 1066/William got his kicks/And in 1492, Chris sailed the ocean blue…” (So much for my songwriting career.)

This is why so many kids hate history. People like Ravlich and Welford think history is just memorizing a bunch of stuff, and that’s what they promote as “history” in classrooms. Ravelich apparently think it would be OK to teach “history” in grades 9 and 10, but if what she has in mind is rote memorization, I’d prefer she not bother. I’d rather get college students who’ve never had a day of that kind of “history.” Even if they didn’t know one single thing about the past, at least they wouldn’t walk in the room loathing the very idea of history.

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