Julie Bishop: If we forget our nation's past, we will fail our future

Roundup: Talking About History

[Australian Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, at the country's "history summit."]

LAST year Roy Eccleston, a journalist at The Australian, returned home after four years ... in the US. There his young son learned the basics about important Americans in first grade: from George Washington to Martin Luther King. His daughter's fourth-grade history book traced the national story from Native Americans through the Revolutionary War and onwards.

Since returning to Australia, Eccleston's children have looked at how their suburb has changed over time. They've done some work on a family tree. But, as Roy lamented earlier this year on the opinion page, "a structured, consistent study of the nation's history" was nowhere to be found. When he expressed his concerns to the local school principal, he was told not to worry. His children wouldn't be alone in their ignorance.

Parents all around Australia are worried that their children will grow up with virtually no understanding of their country's history. Unfortunately, they have good reason to be ... I want to see a renaissance of Australian history in our schools.

Big themes like the role of Enlightenment values such as scientific progress, religious freedom and secular government in shaping our colonial experience. The development of parliamentary democracy ... should be taught. So, too, should the impact on our national consciousness and social institutions of involvement in global conflicts.

We have a rich and unique national story. We have to ask ourselves why so few of our children know it. Whatever the reasons, the situation is not good enough. I see this as an issue of national importance. I believe it's time to fix it. The facts of our founding and settlement give rise to an inspirational story. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Australian history, it's ours and we should care about it. To know who we are and where we are going, we must understand where we came from.

But let me assure everyone that we are not in the business of producing some form of official history. The creation of an official history would be counterproductive. It would lead to further attempts to politicise our nation's past and would create a focal point for those with strong political interpretations of Australia's past to periodically attempt to hijack the teaching of our history. We cannot allow the nation's past to be rewritten in the service of a partisan political cause.

When I say that the Australian story is overwhelmingly a positive one, I do not seek to obscure the failings of the past but to restore a sense of balance and perspective to the national story ... At the same time, we must guard against history becoming shoe-horned into a political agenda in which versions of earlier radical doctrines become the new orthodoxy. History is not peace studies. History is not social justice awareness week. Or conscious-raising about ecological sustainability. History is history and shouldn't be a political science course by another name.

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