Election history war coming? Probably

At some point in the election campaign the educational history wars are sure to be revived with Morrison and his stenographers in the Murdoch media dragging the aged horse out of its stable and giving it a few cracks of the whip.

The recent publication of What is History, Now? edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb canvasses many of the issues which will be contested. It is published 60 years after E.H.Carr’s What is History? which provided a methodological framework for generations of historians and students.

Helen Carr is his granddaughter but would not refer to all historians, as Carr did, as ‘he’. She wrote a best-selling book about John of Gaunt. Lipscomb searched an obscure French archive to produce a brilliant book, The Voices of Nimes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc.

The first essay in the book, Why Global History Matters by Peter Frankopan, contrasts the way history was taught in European contexts and especially in British and colonial contexts and the realities of a rich and complex world in which it is important to write about the “silences – about gaps, about lacunae where it is hard to know what happened when, where and why.” He argues that history should be about broadening horizons to help us understand others and ourselves – not the white sliced bread version Morrison and co would impose on schools.

Australia gets an early mention in Alex von Tunzelmann’s chapter about why history deserves to at the movies introducing his argument by citing the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was banned in parts of Australia the year after its original release. He then lists various other films banned in other countries – the Death of Stalin in Russia and in India a Bollywood epic about the 14th century Queen Padmavati (who probably didn’t exist) which provoked riots and was banned in several states.

And he has a message for those who worry about how we can tell fact from fiction – teach critical thinking at all levels – an idea that wouldn’t get Morrison support preferring an uplifting tale about Aussie achievements.

There is a chapter by Justin Bengry about whether we can and should “queer the past?’ Betting on a Morrison No on that one is fairly easy for both questions.

Sarah Churchwell looks at vernacular history and cites E.H.Carr’s: “There no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.”

“We are no freer of myths in our society than cavemen carving pictures of gods and monsters to explain the coming of fire. Our myths take different forms, but they still create bogus history to fill a vacuum in knowledge or claim spurious evidentiary history”. Visitors to Lascaux and other caves now find out that cave women painted too.

Churchwell illustrates this myth driven history by how governments – and societies – narrow history to a few periods and events which allegedly define their societies.

“History is always political; when it is deliberately falsified by political interests it becomes propaganda,” she writes.

Falsification can also be achieved by the destruction of archives as the British did in Malaysia, the West Indies and Kenya. The Morrison Government is doing it by default by depriving the Australian Archives of the funds needed to catalogue, preserve and digitise our national records.

Other chapters cover prehistory and ancient history; diversity in Tudor England; and, how to write the history of religion. Having been reading Gibbon during lockdown makes you realise how a powerful critique of Christianity and religion can provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our history and society.

Emily Brand provides a chapter on why family history matters illustrating how it can illuminate society while sometimes also leading in troubling directions influenced by biases and wishful thinking. Her references to DNA testing and its problems are a cautionary tale for those who hope to prove they are descended from someone famous – or indeed almost anyone at all.

Leila K. Blackbird and Caroline Doss Pennock write a magnificent chapter on how making space for Indigenous peoples changes history. Their epigraphy, a quote from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, could have been written about Australia. “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory, destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will being to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

Fortunately, in Australia this process is now finally being reversed – but not without opposition.

Suzannah Lipscomb contributes a chapter on how we can recover the lost lives of women as her book, The Voices of Nimes, illustrates. Other chapters look at East Asia, disability, emotions, why history always needs to be rewritten rather than allowing it to ossify around myths, and how literature shapes history. Walter Scott has much to answer for when it comes to understanding Scottish history and the Norse myths have helped shape a strand of popular counter-history of the US as settled by valiant whites in long boats.

The final chapter – History, naturally – is by Simon Schama and asks whether natural history is history. To illustrate his argument he discusses two of the great classics of environmental history, Stephen J, Pyne’s The Ice: A journey into Antarctica and his book Burning Bush. A Fire History of Australia.

In his bibliography Schama also cites what is probably one of the best global histories of a climate event yet written – one that has a powerful message for us today. It’s Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.

The answer to Schama’s question about whether natural history is history ought to be obvious to our political leaders but tragically is not.