Review – The History Question: Who owns the past?

Today I’m reviewing one of the Quarterly Essays – The History Question; Who owns the past? by Inga Clendinnen. Quarterly Essays are 20,000 words published quarterly, with responses generally in the next issue. I’ve previously reviewed Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, which is a detailed deconstruction and pieceing together of the history of the first five years of white settlement in Australia. So I thought that her writing on historical narrative, and the current controversy about how history is taught in Australian schools would be excellent.

It was good, but not as good as I was hoping. Clendinnen does a great job of expounding on why history can never be the single narrative that John Howard and much of the liberal party wants. As Clendinnen says:

“There is always one counter-story, and usually several, and in a democracy you will probably get to hear them.”

But most of this essay is about historians versus other interpreters of our history – fiction writers, particularly Kate Grenville. Grenville, when interviewed on Radio National said when asked about the History Wars:

“a novelist can stand up on a step-ladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. You can set two sides against each other and ask which side will win… or you can go up on the stepladder and look down and say, well, nobody is going to win…. Once you can actually get inside theexperience, it’s no longer a matter of who;s going to win, it’s simply a matter of yes, now I understand both sides.”

This passage clearly intensely annoyed Clendinnen, a historian, who takes umbrage through most of the essay at the idea that historians lack the imagination that fiction writers have to really understand what was going on in various controversial historical events. Clendinnen spends a lot of time pointing out just how different 18th century Australia was from today, and how the more you understand the differences, the less you can understand what was really going on in people’s minds.

To me, a lay reader, there seems room for both; anything that gives us greater insight into all the different ways that people could have perceived things happening is a good thing.

But back to the controversy about history teaching, which is what I was hoping this essay would be about. Clendinnen discusses at length the contrast between stories, and facts. Many of those on the right who want history to be about facts forget that to make history come alive, and contribute to a shared cultural understanding of this country, there have to be stories. And stories cannot include all the facts. Understanding history involves understanding that there are many stories about the same event. Just to give one example, the standard Australian story about Gallipoli at heart is a set of stories that we tell ourselves about the plucky Australians who were sent to their deaths by the perfidious english. But even the NZ story is different – still about the perfidious english, but NZers have different heroes, and a different flavour of the kind of young men who were sent to die for their country..

Clendinnen writes well about how important a good understanding of history is for any educated person, and how important it is that good historians of all political stripes keep society at large honest about the stories we tell ourselves. It’s always important to understand the other point of view, and historians have a vital part to play in that.

In the end, Clendinnen says;

“I would like students at every level to study Australian history because I believe that one of the best ways to “teach values” is to exercise minds by engaging them in invetigation of conflicts between competing values and interests, always with a proper regard for clarity and justice of analysis and the relevance of evidence.”

Perhaps a lofty goal, but not an impossible one. One of the exercises I remember best from my study of history at school was early on in my high school career, when we were divided into groups and asked to each take a European country and explain whose fault it was that World War I started. The effort of getting into different mind set for the exercise stays with me still.

In the end, learning and understanding history is about imagining yourself in a different place; both historians and fiction writers can teach us a lot about it.

  6 comments for “Review – The History Question: Who owns the past?

  1. December 31, 2006 at 4:47 pm

    Lovely post. I know nothing at all about this debate, now I’m curious.

    Happy new year, Jennifer!

  2. January 2, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    A couple of quotes may demonstrate firstly the importance of wide ranging examination of context, and secondly the near certainty that the “other viewpoint” will sneak into the market place. It will take longer if all those Shakespeares writing history, and noble speeches for the participants, are in agreement. In Australian history it appears to matter enormously what went on in a study in Yarralumla on 11th November 1975. In considering options of the participants, as they themselves did, Australian discussion rarely finds contemporary activity in India worthy of comment. The quote that follows shows that it could be significant.
    “To secure her power and because of escalating riots, on June 26, 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency which limited the personal freedom of Indians”. The second thought dates at least from the wars of the Roses, and may be even older. “Treason doth never prosper, and there’s a reason, for if it do prosper, none dare call it treason” Nursery rhymes were miniature and carefully anonymous blogspots, but carried a sting that lasted.

  3. January 2, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    all I recall of Australian history in high school is….well not a whole lot, to be honest what Australian history I do know is due to conversations with my father and my own interest research. Before debating which facts and stories to teach, perhaps it should be considered that almost no history is taught in Australian high schools at the moment unless it’s chosen as an elective.
    thats my little grumble on the issue at lease 🙂

  4. January 3, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    Absolutely fascinating post (as ever!) I’ll have to dig into a little background as I know nothing about the controversy in Australian schools.

    A third strand she might have considered is the role journalists or ‘popular’ historians play in writing or constructing awareness of history e.g. the current crop of books describing a multiplicity of perspectives on the Iraq war or more iconic works such as Gitta Serenyi’s book on Albert Speer.

    Re the increasing strangeness of the people in the past as we learn more about their context. I’m not sure I agree – one of the joys of reading (say) classical literature is the suden moments of recognition amidst the unfamiliar. Though it could be argued that I’m just hopefully miscontruing (or am being misled by a translator in the same situation)

  5. January 4, 2007 at 7:48 am

    I realize on rereading this post that I did start with a bit of assumed knowledge – well at least it whet your appetite.

    Naridu, It’s interesting that hardly any Australian history is taught at the moment. My memory of Australian history at school was being taught about Captain Cook and the First Fleet about four times, but nothing much else. Same result really.

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