The integration of local history into classroom pedagogy must be done with some care. For example, Australia’s history curriculum and commemorative calendar have long been dominated by ‘white Anglo’ narratives (Walton et. al, 2018 p. 133). The prominence of Anzac Day and what some see as the militarisation of Australian history has profoundly distorted our history, which in turn has placed the military before the civil and the imperial ahead of the national (Reynolds, 2018). A second major consideration for history teachers is the process famously characterised as the ‘great Australian silence’ and a ‘cult of disremembering’ which has reduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to little more than a ‘melancholy footnote’ in Australia’s history. This has all but erased the ‘invasion, massacres, ethnic cleansing and resistance’ that characterised First Nations Peoples’ treatment for much of the period after 1788 (Stanner, 2000, p. 120). The absence of a First Nations’ voice ensures that many Australians have a sanitised understanding of Australian history that is pervaded by celebrations of Anglo-Saxon identity and achievement. There is a pressing need, as Alison Bedford and Vince Wall (2020) argue, for a new pedagogical framework that reflects and explores our shifting attitudes from foundation myths to an exploration of our nation’s foundational truths.
Of course, this blindfold/armband binary is a false dichotomy, but it is helpful in understanding why there is such tension in teaching Australian national history. Is the past a story of glorious nation-building, defined by the ANZAC spirit, or is it a narrative of colonial oppression? The answer of course is both. The teaching of Australia’s military history offers a particular challenge to teachers. Since Prime Minister John Howard’s intervention in the national History curriculum in the early 2000s and the subsequent ‘History Wars’, debate continues about how best to teach our wartime history. The History Wars created two distinct positions: the ‘white blindfold’ perspective that argues that Australia’s national story, best exemplified in the ‘ANZAC spirit’, is one of progress and growth. White blindfold arguments diminish the significance of evidence of frontier violence (with some scholars arguing there were no massacres or disputing the number of casualties), the mistreatment of First Nations peoples by successive eras of government policy, and the racism that underpinned the White Australia era. It was this perspective that motivated Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to offer an apology to First Nations people. On the other hand, the ‘black armband’ view is seen as an apologist stance, which argues that contemporary society needs to make reparations (even if largely symbolic) for past harm or neglect. The black armband view supports evidence of First Nations frontier resistance, recognises the harm caused by government policy, and seeks to move towards reconciliation through truth-telling. A formal national apology was made to Australia’s First Nations peoples on February 13 2008 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Understanding the ANZAC legend – both the genuine heroics of our servicemen and women and the less glorious parts of our military service – is vital to understanding a core part of Australia’s national identity. Equally, understanding the impacts of colonisation on not only First Nations peoples but our society as a whole is vital in addressing contemporary social and political challenges.
Reynolds, H. (2018). The militarisation of Australian history. Social alternatives, 37(3), pp.33-35.
Walton, J., Priest,N., Kowal, E., White, F., Fox, B., & Paradies, Y. (2018). Whiteness and national identity: Teacher discourses in Australian primary schools. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(1), 132-147. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1195357