Behind the Australian History Wars ... Middle-Class Careerism?

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Connor, in the Australian (July 9, 2004):

[Michael Connor is an honorary research associate in the school of history and classics at the University of Tasmania.]

JUST now, the Australian past is a dangerous place to be. I pointed out in The Bulletin (August 26, 2003) that there is an error in the historiography of terra nullius (a supposed rationale for settlement without indigenous compensation) -- and I've been made out as a racist right-winger. I pointed to errors in the historiography of political narratives of the 1820s -- and they gave me a PhD.

What is going on?

The history wars have nothing to do with truth or intellectual inquiry. The history wars have everything to do with middle-class careerism.

Terra nullius, which until fairly recently teachers and academics really believed was the language of Captain James Cook and Governor Arthur Phillip, was a term almost unknown until the 1970s and did not come out of our colonial past.

All the history books, lectures, articles and courses that used it were in error. Taking it away is exciting, for it means a return to the archives; it calls for a complete reappraisal of our nation's beginnings. But for those historians who began all their books and papers with terra nullius, this means that the base on which they constructed their careers is faulty.

Question the validity of terra nullius and you query the authority of those historical narratives built on it. Take out terra nullius and the history writing of a generation has lost its certainty.

Keith Windschuttle's criticisms of Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan frighten Australian historians because so much has been borrowed from these two academics and built into the works of others. Shake any book of history and the Reynolds-Ryan footnotes fall like a blinding snow. There is far more at stake than just the books of these two historians. By questioning two career historians, Windschuttle is threatening an entrenched generation.

Modern academic history writing combines archival selections and the writings of other historians. In a letter to The Bulletin, professor Alan Atkinson wrote: "We rely very much on those who have gone before us, until someone makes a point of checking out that particular piece of detail. So we move forward."

This really is the way history writing is taught and carried out. We have got into the present mess by not checking the authorities on which we relied. This is the reason a book such as Stuart Macintyre's A Concise History of Australia is so full of mistakes. Historians deal with a mass of detail. It is normal to make slips, but grave problems occur when we add in the blunders of others.

In the history wars, new histories are opposing old historians. The key elements in the new histories are a return to archival research and a questioning of rigidly accepted theories. The academics most threatened by new histories are not lonely scholars sneezing away the archival dust, for these are people who have grants to employ research assistants to do the work. They are affluent careerists with useful and pleasant professional and social contacts with publishers, journalists, arts bodies, grant organisations and professional history bodies, and they exert dominating power over their students.

Old history attacks on dissident voices are taxpayer funded. The "get Windschuttle" conferences were paid for by us. The articles, books, letters to the editor are prepared in university time, on university salaries, using university computers. Those history academics involved in fighting the history wars may have a besieged mentality, but they are a well-heeled and well-connected nomenclature.

The subtext to all this is acutely apparent to any honours or postgraduate history student. If they have to work with an enthusiastic soldier in the history wars, their grades and a possible career demand conformity to the lecturer's line or the choice of a research topic so dull that the barriers won't be raised against them....

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