The study of Australian history at Australian universities is in trouble. Enrolments are down and it appears that the students of 21st century Australia are more interested in studying global history than the history of their own country. That students have an interest in the history of the wider world is a positive thing; that they should be shunning the study of their own country is not. They should be interested in both. It is not a matter of students becoming more internationally focused and renouncing the nationalism of former generations. Looking at how the younger generation now celebrates Australia Day one can only conclude that they are more, not less, nationalistic than their predecessors.

So what is going on?

Professor Marilyn Lake provides a clue. According to her in the Australian:

‘Student whims are determining what is taught and therefore who is employed. This isn’t a very rational and scholarly way to approach university education.’ Apparently Professor Lake believes that students have no right to choose what they would like to study. It must be left up to people like Professor Lake to choose for them.

Professor Lake doesn’t seem to get it.

Students have listened to Professor Lake, her friends and acolytes in the universities and schools and decided that they do not like what they hear. And why should they? Who wants to sit in a class and hear their country being constantly rubbished and denigrated? Who wants to hear stories about how evil their ancestors were and what terrible crimes they committed?

Professor Lake’s comments seem to imply that the ‘rational and scholarly way’ is to restrict student choice so that they cannot avoid imbibing a mixture of a denunciation of the crimes of the past and a ‘progressive ideology’ that will show the way to a far better future. The only problem is that students do not want to be indoctrinated. They want to study history and they want it not only to be interesting but taught by people who have a love for the subject.

Consider the case of ancient history in New South Wales. Students coming to university want to study ancient history. This is not a ‘whim.’ They have been taught at school by teachers who love the ancient world and who have instilled a similar love in them. Ancient history is extremely popular both as a Higher School Certificate subject and as a university subject in New South Wales.

It has been claimed that one of the reasons why universities are backward in offering Australian history in first year is that students have studied it at school and are tired of it. Why then are students who studied ancient history at school similarly not tired of it? They have had a taste of it, liked it and want more.

Of course, the problem is not Australian history but the way in which it is taught. What students are tired of is being told how awful their forebears were, which by implication also means them. Young people are not moving away from the study of Australian history because they are less nationalistic than previous generations but because they have a pride in their nation.

Another part of Professor Lake’s statement gives a real indication of her real concerns. ‘Whim’ will have an impact on ‘who is employed’. Academia is ultimately about power and patronage. If there are no students studying Australian history then there are no jobs for those who have done PhDs in the area.

Across the country there is a veritable army of postgraduate students writing theses on Australian topics. There are far fewer doing non-Australian topics. Under current conditions there will be no academic positions for these students who have devoted three years of their lives to becoming experts in some small corner of the history of Australia.

A real problem is that, unlike America where postgraduates must study areas outside of their research area so they can teach in these areas, in Australia postgraduates generally know only about the country they are studying. They are very narrowly trained. Their knowledge of global history and the history of other parts of the world is slight. It makes more sense to recruit historians to teach those areas that students want to study from outside of Australia. The ‘whims’ of students threaten the academic empires which Australian historians have built up over the past 25 years.

In simple terms, Australian historians have been mugged by reality. In the heady days, some twenty years ago, they thought that they would conquer the Australian universities, to be followed by the schools. Their ‘black armband’ version of Australian history would become ‘hegemonic’ and their troops of disciples
would continue down the path that they had forged.

Now it is all coming apart. As the Marilyn Lakes, Stuart Macintyres and Henry Reynolds’s shuffle off the stage towards the inevitable ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ it appears that their legacy will not be as they intended.

And it all comes down to student choice. No one wants to study something that is being trashed. If they are given the chance they will choose to study something which is loved by those who have been entrusted with its care.

In the short term, Professor Lake is correct. There will be a lot of unhappy young people who have undertaken the study of Australian history in the hope of an academic career. Given conditions in other countries, there will be more academic positions in history going to applicants from overseas. There will be fewer opportunities for patronage.

Hopefully academic historians in Australia will take a long hard look at themselves. They will recognise that students need to study global history, the history of Western civilisation, as well as Australian history. They will change the way in which academic historians are trained. And they will come to understand that it is love of a subject that inspires students. Black-armband history leads only to ruin.

Gregory Melleuish, an associate professor of history and politics at the University of Wollongong, is author of Is the West Special? (forthcoming, IPA)