Big Questions in History: Historians and Public Policy

‘Big Questions in History’ has been the topic of the final plenary panel session at the last few conferences of the Australian Historical Association. These plenary panels have been my favourite session at every conference I have attended. The panels discuss some aspect of historians engaging with people who are not historians. Last year the plenary panel discussed ‘Who is our Audience’. This year the topic was ‘How can Historians Influence Policy’.

This was a powerful session. The ‘Big Questions’ series is always a good demonstration that history really matters, that it is not some arcane, abstract discipline. It matters to every person on the planet. If you get the history wrong, if you hide the uncomfortable bits, injustice ensues.

History opens up the possibility that it doesn’t have to be like this, Professor Ann McGrath said in her opening remarks as chair of the panel. History shows that we can take action to change things, she said.

Book cover of The Reef

The Reef: A Passionate History by Iain McCalman (Penguin: 2013).

If historians want to influence society then they need to get involved with communities said Professor Iain McCalman from the University of Sydney. He is a historian who feels deeply about the subject of his writing and it showed in his impassioned delivery at the start of the plenary panel. His book is titled, Reef: A Passionate History. He talked about how he could use his status as an author to discuss current issues concerning the management of the Great Barrier Reef with the media. He pointed out that historians can do powerful work with local communities and activists on issues.

Professor Tom Griffiths of the Australian National University concurred. “It is worth going straight to the people”, he said. “It is the ordinary people who are leading innovation re renewable energy… The people are moving faster on this issue than we can measure… They are acting on their pragmatism and dreams.”

Book cover, The Market in Babies

The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption by Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert (Monash University Press, 2013).

The plenary panel was already fascinating then Professor Shurlee Swain of the Australian Catholic University added another dimension. Swain researches the history of women, children, families and welfare. The issues she studies are probably amongst the most topical historical issues being discussed in Australia today. The history of child sexual abuse has dominated the news over the last couple of years particular in light of the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and an array of state and federal government inquiries. Swain supervises historians working on the ‘Find & Connect’ website which is designed for people seeing records about their time in Australian orphanages, children’s homes and other institutions.

In a speech packed with important observations she shared some advice about how historians should approach this form of research. Swain regards this work as an act of collaboration with the survivors of these institutions and she is conscious that she shares the authority on this subject matter with the survivor themselves. Her comments imply that the researcher needs to recognise that the survivor as well as the historian is the expert in this history. Historians need to listen and learn from survivors. Thus the historian stands alongside the survivor, instead of speaking for them as Swain explained.

Listening to Swain talk I was reminded of a series of blog posts written by professional historian, Katherine Knight on her blog, Western Sydney Frontier, about the work the survivors of the Parramatta Girls Home have done in retrieving their history and speaking about it. Some of the matters Swain raised reminded me of Angela Wanhalla’s talk in another plenary panel at the conference about the sensitivity and care required in her work with children born from relationships between indigenous mothers and American soldiers during World War II.

Book cover of Slicing the Silence

Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica by Tom Griffiths (University of New South Wales Press, Harvard University Press: 2010).

Historians need to challenge the media and political imperative to bury things and move on, Swain said. The issue of abuse in care grabs headlines now but public attention will start to wander away. Swain argued that historians need to ensure that their focus remains on this important issue. She also said that it was important to keep up with academic writing as it is the academic output that gives us credibility in the eyes of the public.

Professor Tom Griffiths has also worked with survivors – those who had to pick up the pieces after Victoria’s Black Saturday bush fires. He observed that these fires turned the survivors into historians. “They needed to understand what happened on that day”, Griffiths observed. “Generalities and abstractions would be an insult. They needed to be listened to.”

Griffiths wowed the audience with sage and pithy thoughts. He is a deep and original thinker yet he is also the master of the sound bite such as this one:

History is a human instinct.

Think about that.

History is one of the few disciplines which is practised by people irrespective of education level, culture or formal historical training. It is, as Griffiths remarked, “a democratic practice”.

Book Cover The Power of Humanity

The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of the Australian Red Cross by Melanie Oppenheimer (Harper and Collins, 2014), to be published in August 2014.

Most of those who do have formal training will be employed outside academia observed Professor Melanie Oppenheimer of Flinders University. Very few will go on to do history professionally. Yet this makes the teaching of history students by academics very powerful Oppenheimer remarked. With good teaching these students will go into organisations and professions throughout society and bring with them an informed view of our history and the skills to think historically about current issues.

“Bad history is almost worse than no history”, Oppenheimer stated.

This is another powerful thought. ‘Bad history’ is a deceit even if it is not intentionally constructed as that. ‘No history’ is either the lack of mindfulness about the past or a deliberate act of suppression, the former being more benign but still destructive albeit in a more subtle way. Through bad history we construct the wrong story about ourselves. The lack of history means we have no story about ourselves. Yet a person not mindful of their history is potentially more open to understanding their history when they discover it. A person whose mind is full of bad history needs to re-understand themselves, to replace the story on which their whole persona is based and get to know themselves anew.

Keelen Mailman was confronted with this when she discovered that the name and birthday she had gone by ever since she was a child were not correct. In her memoir The Power of Bones she writes about the profound shock she received when she received her birth certificate but thought it was for someone else. It confronted her identity.

Yet this is mild. In a post earlier this year, ‘If, we are going to sin we must sin quietly‘,  I wrote a hypothetical case of a child born in colonial Kenya who discovers years later that the family and friends who had nurtured him had participated in the torture and killing of the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya during the dying days of the British Empire. The British actions during that time had been constructed as benign, those around him had probably told him of the tolerance they had shown the Kenyans they worked with. How could the child reconcile the discovery years later of the shocking crimes if he found that the family and friends who had loved him had perpetrated violent acts of hate towards others?

The older generation of Australians are faced with a less personal but what some find a disturbing readjustment. They had not been told about the shocking treatment of Aboriginal people in our history and had been brought up with tales about the heroism and morality of white Australians in the past. In their elderly years they have had that comfortable harness yanked from under them and been confronted with a history totally at variance with that which they grew up with. Is this similar to the shock we feel about the revelations about Rolf Harris?


As much as possible I tweeted during the panel to share this exciting discussion with people listening in from afar. One of Oppenheimer’s comments resonated with the online audience in particular:

How appropriate that a conference where gender featured so strongly was also raised in the final plenary panel.

Blogging is a great way of fleshing out the ideas that are tweeted during a conference, but this plenary panel has escaped me. There were many more ideas worthy of mentioning here, some I hope I will pick up another day. There is already enough stuffed into this post for us to ponder.

The question set before the panel was “how can historians influence public policy”? Each speaker emphasised the importance of working with people who are not historians, the students, the survivors, the media, the activists. It is by historians working in collaboration with Australians of all backgrounds that change will occur in our public and private lives.

3 thoughts on “Big Questions in History: Historians and Public Policy

  1. The last point made about Professor Tom Griffth’s observation together with Yvonne’s wonderfully quotable statements about Professor Melanie Oppenheimer’s observations, I think, almost says it all for our current local history practice. Even if there is a slight erroneous inference that ‘professionally’ doing history lies only in academia, the insight is powerful, as Yvonne has pointed out, and I think this is the message we need to get out to the wider local history community (meaning the diverse collection of communities in this country).


  2. Pingback: History Carnival #136 | Exploring same-sex love in public history

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