Gregory Melleuish: Macintyre's ‘History Wars’ Are Self-Indulgent

Historians in the News

Gregory Melleuish, in the Australian (July 6 2004):

At the end of his afterword to the new updated edition of The History Wars (Melbourne University Press), Stuart Macintyre writes that the"history wars are an ugly side of the Australian present and they debase public life".

This leaves one contemplating a paradox. If Macintyre so disapproves of the history wars, why did he launch this polemical book that he must have known would inflame passions and, having inflamed those passions, why did he compound the matter by writing an equally provocative afterword to the new edition? (See Macintyre's"Past shrouded in polemics" on this page yesterday.) Make no mistake: The History Wars is not a work of scholarship but of polemic and can only be treated as such. Would not the best course have been to remain silent?

I think there are good reasons why Macintyre deprecates the history wars while opening up a new front in them. The first is that Macintyre wants to fight the Cold War over again. It is McCarthyism that provides his model. He places historians in the role of the Hollywood directors and actors of the 1950s. He portrays them as being persecuted by some sort of evil alliance that seems to be composed of John Howard and the print media, with this newspaper being cast in a leading role.

Having set up this fictional scenario Macintyre can then portray himself as the champion of these poor downtrodden and persecuted historians. Hence he has an obsession, especially when dealing with the origins of the word history, with trying to establish that historians are"wise" and knowledgeable people. Flattery will get you everywhere.

This portrayal appeals to members of a history profession in Australia that believes it is under attack. A recent report of the Australian Historical Association refers to relentless downsizing of history departments in Australian universities and"anxieties about a 'crisis' in the discipline".

Macintyre's exposition of the history wars panders to this mood of anxiety and its accompanying" culture of complaint". He provides a simplistic explanation: the Government and the media are out to get you. He confirms their victim mentality.

The history wars have a negative influence not because they encourage public debate about historical matters, thereby removing control of them from the"wise" folk of the history profession. After all, that has been one of the positive benefits of the history wars. No, the problem is that their continuance locks too many historians into a negative mind-set. These historians can blame everyone but themselves for the present state of history in Australia.

The history wars look backwards. They encourage historians to produce yesterday's history, history appropriate to the '60s and '70s when many of them underwent their significant experiences. Theirs is the history of old Australia. There is, however, a new Australia that is in need of a history that makes sense of its world. This is the internationalised Australia of the 21st century.

Our students are telling us what that history should look like. During the past 10 years there has been a significant growth in students studying world history at Australian universities, in particular 20th-century world history. This matches the extraordinary growth in student interest in international relations in political science departments.

For example, at my university, the University of Wollongong, we have had an 80 per cent increase in first-year student numbers in those subjects dealing with 20th-century history and world history. During the same period there has been a decline of about 25 per cent in first-year Australian history numbers.

At the same time, in NSW at least, ancient history is booming in schools and universities. Students want to study history that fires their imaginations and enables them to look outside the narrow world of the here and now.

This may help explain why, for many of them -- in fact, far too many -- Australian history is a giant turn-off. In conversation with many of these students the word"boring" often crops up. In many cases the experience of the compulsory civics-Australian history subject in Year 10 in NSW is the cause of their disenchantment. The problem, I suspect, is that Australian history has become just another excuse for preaching politically correct ideology at students.

A significant issue is that too many members of the history profession in Australia have an attitude problem. Instead of whingeing about how awful everything is, they should view the present situation as an opportunity and a challenge. Their particular challenge is to teach the type of history appropriate for the internationalised world of their students.

Teachers of Australian history have a particular challenge. This is to escape from the" culture of complaint" and seize the opportunity to get themselves in tune with their times or else face irrelevance. So long as they remain trapped within that culture they will continue to transmit a sour and mean-spirited picture of Australia's past to students. Who wouldn't prefer to study the excitement of the Persian wars or the machinations of the late Roman republic to the hellfire sermons that all too often pass for Australian history...?

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