‘The recent report from the Institute of Public Affairs on history teaching in Australian universities is the latest salvo in the “history wars”. Left-liberal “elites” have been accused for decades of undermining the nation and its roots by indulging in fanciful or biased history teaching by focusing on “identity politics” instead of the “canon”. For conservative or right-wing critics, teaching the “canon” means telling the story of Western civilisation and its successful implantation in Australia.
‘… The authors of the IPA report attribute the supposed flowering of “identity politics” courses to the politics of the historians who teach them. This ignores the fact that historians (and their Heads of School) are under constant pressure to maximise enrolments. Undergraduate enrolments are the primary driver of an academic unit’s resourcing. Academics and their managers are acutely aware of areas of student interest, and tend to respond to student demand rather than shaping it.
‘The authors of the report also ignore that history programs offer a mix of broad and narrow courses. Typically, larger and broader courses are offered at first-year level, and a greater number of specialised courses at upper-level. There is a clear pedagogical logic behind this curriculum structure, but it appears to have led the IPA astray.
‘Broader first-year courses – more closely aligned to what the IPA and The Australian would consider the “canon” – attract higher enrolments because there are fewer of them, and one or more are usually compulsory for a history major. More than 40% of the total history student cohort in any one semester at the University of Adelaide, for example, take the courses Empires in World History or Revolutions that Changed the World. These courses pay plenty of attention to the foundations of parliamentary democracy, and the changes brought about by clever inventions and “great ideas”. These fit within the foundations of Western civilisation.
‘Counting the number of courses based on “identity politics” is not a realistic way of identifying what most students are studying or how they are being taught about the past.’