The End Of History?14 August 2018
The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has released a report bemoaning the rise of identity politics in history departments across Australian universities. History, they contend, should be focused on the study of significant historical events and periods that have shaped Western civilisation, rather than limiting history to the reductive analysis of class, race and gender.
The crux of the report is that history departments have become infected with the same insidious pox of identity politics that has taken over universities, especially in the liberal arts faculties. This terrible affliction turns the glorious Pax Britannica into crass colonialism and bright young minds into sensitive snowflakes, unable to face the real world.
If you are familiar with the IPA, the publisher of the report, this should come as no surprise. Per their description, the IPA is a think tank that supports “the free market of ideas, a limited and efficient government and evidence-based public policy”. More often than not, their research focuses on subjects such as why Australia Day shouldn’t be moved, how tax cuts for the rich fix everything and why paying weekend workers penalty rates is a terrible idea.
On this occasion, they take aim at what they perceive to be diminishing attention paid to the history of Western civilisation, which they describe as “essential to understanding our present and shaping our future”. Students are being turned into “snowflakes”, inclined to take offence and restrict the freedom of speech of others to that end.
According to the IPA, this shift toward focusing history on categories of class, race and gender “risks … impoverishing an entire generation of young people, and in turn all of Australian society”.
Professor Trevor Burnard, Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, responded to the IPA report, pointing out that in most cases, enrolment and funding drives subject creation, not professorial preferences.
Further, nobody can complete a history major at the University of Melbourne without taking subjects centred on key events in Western civilisation. The four subjects offered at level one are all centred on important events in the Western world: Medieval Plague, War and Heresy, The Great War 1914 to 1918, Age of Empires and The World Since World War II.
Burnard rejects the idea that history lecturers are creating subjects to inculcate students to their own social and political views. He describes the IPA’s understanding of the teaching process as naïve, saying, “Students are not empty vessels into which teachers pour their prejudices. Students think for themselves.”
Not only do students think for themselves, they enrol in classes for themselves too. There is clearly something drawing students towards subjects focused on discourses around gender, race, class and Indigenous rights. These subjects touch on the same debates that pervade society today. It seems only natural that when Australia held a plebiscite on same-sex marriage last year, students would be inclined to take a subject titled A History of Sexualities. Or, in seeing news stories about the Keystone XL Pipeline in the US, that students became interested in Global Histories of Indigenous Activism.
Moreover, history is more than just the study of great men, great ideas and great events. Race, gender and class are not reductive categories in the study of history, and many of those crucial events they laud the study of cannot be properly understood without these lenses. A history of the French Revolution that ignores the roles gender, race and class played is an incomplete history. The same is true for countless events in Western history.
At the same time, university students are a changing demographic. Of the students at the University of Melbourne, 56 per cent are female, and nearly 40 per cent are international. It is not an unfair request that the scope of history be expanded beyond the acts of important white men. Nor is it bad history to wonder what was happening outside of the Western world at the same time as these events.
The IPA is right to say that history matters. It provides a rich narrative about how the world became the way it is today. It helps us to understand and shape it. But not all history fits the narrow mould given by the IPA.
The reality is that history is complicated, as is its study. Students are interested in subjects that reflect their experience in the real world. They find parallels between contemporary controversies about race, gender and class, and historical examples. And that is not an abuse of history, it is the entire point of it.