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.