History shouldn’t get the ‘Kondo treatment’

The history curriculum should not be used as a political football – nor can we only keep the bits that “spark joy”, argues education expert REBECCA CAIRNS.

Everyone has an opinion about what should go into history curriculum. Politicians are especially good at expressing theirs. Acting federal education minister Stuart Robert has announced a delay in approving the revised Australian Curriculum until at least April. This means the ongoing debate about Australian history in the curriculum is likely to be dragged out to the eve of the next federal election.

History curriculum is political but should not be used as a political plaything. This latest delay comes after the then education minister, Alan Tudge, last year rejected the first draft – the product of an independent review by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Tudge called for “a positive, optimistic view of Australian history” and more content about Australia’s “Western heritage”.

This delay gives the Coalition the opportunity to control the debate and use history curriculum as a wedge issue in the lead-up to the election. We saw the way historical narratives get split along political lines last year. Tudge argued for describing Anzac Day as “sacred” rather than “contested”. This was criticised by Labor’s shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, who spoke about the importance of not censoring history.

Signing off on the revised curriculum close to an election might be a good political tactic. A national history curriculum that promotes a more “patriotic” narrative would appeal to Coalition voters. It would also reinforce an ideological point of difference from Labor. Around the world, governments promote their preferred historical narratives to push their political agendas. And, of course, public discussion about the complexities of Australian and world history is important. So is debate about how and what young people study in history.

However, if these issues are used to divide voters, they are in danger of being simplified and reduced to political rhetoric. We know from past rounds of the ‘history wars’ that the ‘black armband’ versus ‘white blindfold’ approach has a dividing effect. As Anna Clark notes in her latest book, Making Australian History: “History can play a vital role in truth-telling and reconciliation. … Seeking justice, remembering and addressing this nation’s past is an ongoing and necessary condition of individual and collective healing.” Expanding our collective historical understanding takes much more than a series of media moments.

Historians help us to understand that the past is long, messy and requires special skills for interpretation.

Attempts to extend debate about “decluttering” the curriculum overlook the complexities of curriculum reform. Decisions do need to be made about what topics are included at each year level. However, we cannot apply a Marie Kondo approach to history and keep only the bits that “spark joy”.

Historians help us to understand that the past is long, messy and requires special skills for interpretation. For this reason, the approach taken in the Australian Curriculum places equal emphasis on the skills and knowledge students need to undertake historical inquiry. One of the stated aims is to ensure students develop interest in and enjoyment of historical study. Another is to develop understanding of historical concepts: evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, significance, perspectives, empathy and contestability.

History curriculums provide maps for teachers and students to navigate a range of topics. Some topics get selected and some do not. Even after the introduction of the national curriculum, research shows it still gets adapted at the state and territory level. Teachers in schools then interpret the curriculum in different ways.

Local context is an important factor in selecting content and perspectives. Given that not every point in the curriculum will get covered, perhaps it does not matter if the history curriculum is “busy”, as Roberts argues. We also know from research that students will make their own meanings of curriculum, regardless of how other people might want them to make sense of certain messages.

The government’s attitude to delaying the review process and now inviting “mums and dads to be involved” fails to acknowledge the process of a curriculum review. There was an extended consultation period in 2021. Teachers, subject experts, educational organisations, and curriculum professionals have worked hard during that process to improve the existing curriculum.

No doubt, the federal government will use the overdue publication of version 9.0 of the Australian Curriculum as an opportunity to stamp its authority on it. But decisions about history curriculum should not be a matter of political opinion.

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