Why It’s Important to Study Australian History in Australia

My last blog was inspired by an activity I had my students do, reflecting on the importance of studying American History in Australia. This post is inspired by the conversations had about that task, where the same students who saw the importance of understanding the history of the United States roundly dismissed Australian History.

There was a time where I shared the opinion of my students, that Australia doesn’t have an interesting history, aside from the clichéd moments, such as the First Fleet, Gold Rush and World Wars.

As I’ve explained earlier, my work now explores what is to me a crucial period of Australian history, the post-war period. It was at this time that Australia began to emerge from the shadow of the British Empire and start to construct its own identity.

One of the basic assumptions that I have always believed as an historian is that understanding the past assists us in understanding the present. It is an argument I always use when questioned by people who are sceptical as to the value of historical study, particularly after I explain that I would like to make a career out of being an historian.

With that in mind, it becomes obvious that the study of Australian History should be crucial at all levels of education in Australia. Without understanding where we have come from we cannot possibly hope to grasp what is happening today.

Yet this is clearly not the case. I have students who are clearly engaged with the study of history deriding Australian History. Clearly this is a flaw with the way history is taught at high schools where the clichéd topics appear to be emphasised. Students come to university with an assumption that Australian history is boring, or even worse that ‘we have no history’, as a student informed me in class a couple of months ago.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. My own work examines a fascinating period in Australia, where our place in the world was changing, along with the country itself. No longer would Australia be a part of the European world. It was time to accept our proximity to the ‘Near North’, and engage with the newly formed and quickly developing countries of Asia.

Another key area that needs to be studied is the interaction between indigenous Australians and settlers during the process of colonisation throughout the 19th century. Recognising that the relative prosperity enjoyed by a large proportion of Australians came at the expense of another group might change the way people act today.

I guess I could sum up this post (as well as my discussion of the importance of American History) by simply pointing out that everyone should have at least some kind of education in history. Obviously, this reflects my own passion for history. But I am convinced that Australian history is not ‘boring’, and does not simply comprise of a handful of select topics. The sooner this fact is grasped, the better for everyone.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why It’s Important to Study Australian History in Australia

  1. My daughter left high school with a dislike of modern history as a result of her experience of Australian history at school. This year she enrolled in an Arts degree and reluctantly signed up to an Australian history unit because she couldn’t find anything else that she wanted to study. Now over half way through the semester she told me how much she was enjoying her university history unit. Reflecting on her high school experience she said she was turned off by the nationalism that was evident in her school history classes.

    The work done by Australian historians with indigenous/settler relations has been outstanding and is relevant to the rest of the world, particularly other nations which are settler colonial societies such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Aside from this there are other important historical connections between all places in the world including Australia.

    Our research here assists historians in other countries. It also helps us to understand ourselves.

    • I had a very similar experience, with a high school teacher who failed to get her students to engage with Australian History. It is a big reason why I looked elsewhere, particularly to the US.

      I also totally agree with you on the quality of the work being done here and its applications outside Australia. I’m trying to do similar kinds of things in intellectual and diplomatic history.

      Thanks for your excellent comment!

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