The postmodern interpretation of history has had its day, says historian Henry Reynolds
Declaring himself to be ''an old-fashioned historian'', Professor Reynolds said postmodernism had provided an interesting take on the language of history but ''it just goes round and round, with lots of lights and colours and doesn't get you anywhere''.
''I think the postmodernist movement has gone,'' he told a session of the Sydney Writers Festival. ''We live in profoundly different times to 1980. We live in some ways in a terrifying world where old-fashioned history and truth continue to have their great value and virtue.''
During a discussion with fellow historian Ross Fitzgerald, Professor Reynolds said he believed history had a purpose, which was to search for the truth.
''Truth is important. It always has to be partial, it always has to be as I see it, but that is what we have to search for,'' he said.
After the session, Professor Reynolds said that school history courses were tending to preach rather than teach, which was inappropriate.
''History can teach us to understand and empathise and sympathise with people who are different from us, either because they're (from) different cultures or of a different era,'' he said.
''If that also makes us more understanding and tolerant, I think that's a splendid thing.''
But courses such as the NSW modern history syllabus were ''too prescriptive'' for attempting to go beyond fostering an appreciation of different cultures and traditions.
The syllabus said students will ''display a readiness to counter disadvantage and change racist, sexist and other discriminatory practices''.
''That's probably too prescriptive,'' Professor Reynolds said.
''It's not the central point of history, which is explaining things so people understand why others behaved the way they did.
''You have to have confidence in your students. They have to make up their own minds ... otherwise it's just propaganda. It's wrong to preach at them.
''I always tell my students, 'I will tell you what I think happened but you've got to make up your own mind'.''
In Western Australia, the draft history exam for the new course to be introduced next year contains little examination of historical events.
Rather, it requires students to analyse primary historical sources, comparing messages in the sources, identifying opinion and fact, and the nature of bias or prejudice.
Professor Reynolds said he had no problem with such questions as long as the students knew enough facts to make sense of the interpretations.
''As a general principle, I think for students to make sense of history, they have to have a good factual foundation,'' he said.
''Only then can they make sense of all assessments and interpretations.''
Indicative of the direction of history teaching in schools is a question asking ancient history students whether the raiding of the pyramids was analogous to sending Aboriginal artefacts, including human remains, overseas. Australia's leading Egyptologist, Naguib Kanawati of Macquarie University, said there were no similarities, saying Aboriginal culture was an existing culture with links to the artefacts.
''But an Egyptian mummy is just a mummy. It should be treated as a human being, with respect, but no modern Egyptian has a spirtual link to it,'' he said.
The other important difference was that Egyptian artefacts had left the country with the permission of the government.
Professor Kanawati said the issue of respecting cultural artefacts was an important ethical consideration that should be part of a course preamble.
But the study of the pyramids was not about their looting but about the magnificence of the structure and the achievement of ancient man.
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