Big Questions in History: History’s Relevance in Contemporary Society

Family history is an important entrée into wider historical interests for many people in our society. But historian Anna Clark asks if connecting to the past through personal experience shuts out other personal experiences?

Anna Clark from University of Technology, Sydney was one of five historians who spoke at the popular ‘Big Questions in History’ panel at the recent conference of the Australian Historical Association. This plenary session is devoted to a critical discussion about the connections between historians and Australian society. It has been held at every conference I have attended since 2012 and is a dynamic, thought-provoking session.

Anna Clark

Anna Clark

Clark’s question is pertinent. While we are absorbed in our own family history research are we alert to the lives of others who lived in the same community as our ancestors? We may have built a fascinating story about our ancestor but embellishments and silences handed down over the generations may be exposed when we look at the stories of others. The stories of others, unrelated to us, are important to understand too. How can we understand current affairs without some knowledge of the Stolen Generations and the Mabo High Court Case?

“In the midst of this popular flowering of history”, Clark said, “there is a concern that we don’t know enough about the past”.

It is a classic example of the more we know, the more we know we don’t know.

Ann Curthoys reflected on her personal history as a participant in the original Australian Freedom Rides which exposed horrible discrimination against Aboriginal people in Australian country towns. A few years ago she wrote about her experience in Freedom Rides: A freedom rider remembers, and her diary is held by AIATSIC and is available online.

Head and shoulders of Ann Curthoys

Ann Curthoys

“I have become a keeper of public memory”, she said as she reflected on the requests she receives each week to give advice or share advice concerning the Australian Freedom Rides. As an historian she researches others but her role is reversed when it comes to her role as a student activist on the Freedom Rides campaign.

Curthoys’ book and diary is used as a guide-book for re-enactments and a source for the writing of novels, songs and school textbooks. She talked about how odd it feels to have a diary that she wrote when she was nineteen years old now online and used as a public, historical document. Curthoys observed that people are interested in the emotions and senses of people in the past. She is often asked, ‘how did it feel’, ‘what did it sound like’.

School is an important site where history is shared. Rosalie Triolo of Monash University trains future history teachers. She was a note-taker’s delight when she stepped through seven reasons why learning history is important at school. The first three points were the ones you would expect about history helping develop critical thinking skills for other subjects, further education and careers outside history. She argued for study of history leading people to make better choices about their society and environment, “to make the world a better place”.

Study of history at school can lead to “informed leisure choices”, she said. “The informed decision might have an unexpected definition”, she warned.

Rosalie_TrioloTriolo told us of one student who confessed that he was part of a group of teenagers seeking excitement on a Saturday night. They decided to add a dash of graffiti to their country town. After they had left their mark on a couple of choice locations they moved onto the local war memorial with the intent of embellishing it. The student told Triolo several years later that he persuaded the group not to do this. He remembered the significance of the memorial to people in the town from history lessons at school.

Yes, teaching history in schools can protect some historic sites from graffiti.

“The absolute pleasure of knowing one’s history and the history of others”, Triolo said, is a good reason to learn history. This may sound trite and it may sound irrelevant to an argument for requiring students to learn a particular subject, but enjoyment of learning is a neglected but essential element of effective education.

Why does learning have to be difficult, dull and tiring? Why not have a subject that is enjoyable while at the same time they learn essential critical thinking skills which equips them for other subjects and life itself. The most effective learning occurs when the learner is captivated by what they are studying.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna

Manning Clark certainly captivated Australia during the writing of the many volumes of his history of Australia. “He was an extraordinary self-dramatiser”, noted his biographer and panelist, Mark McKenna. “We don’t need a Grand Poohbah of history any more”, said McKenna, “but one thing we can take from him is the importance of telling our audience the story of why we write history”.

This is something my daughters and I observe online. Authors who share the some of the process of writing a book, who engage with prospective readers and are generous to other writers online, are often the authors who attract the most interest in their books. This is much more effective than the author who, two weeks before their book is published suddenly opens social media accounts and starts following reviewers and readers because their publisher told them that this is what they need to do to increase sales. As Manning Clark showed, engagement is about having an ongoing conversation with the book reading public, not just showing up to promotional events.

For all the criticism of ‘The Secret River’ television series which was adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel set in the time of early European settlement of New South Wales, McKenna observed that this type of television creates a larger public space for history. There are always tensions between evidence based professions and dram, McKenna noted. This is not just a difficulty faced by historians.

The issue for historians in Australia, McKenna said, is not presence or visibility but effective communication. Historians need to be part of public debate as collaborators with journalists, documentary makers, museum curators. To remain silent is to cede the space to others.

My head was nodding emphatically and my fingers were pumping vigorously at the keyboard. Throughout this panel and throughout the conference historians at the conference were sharing the proceedings of the conference with people throughout the world on Twitter via the conference hashtag – #OzHA2015. Every year there is a listening public, some historians, others from a wide range of backgrounds who follow the proceedings of the conference on Twitter and through the daily reporting of historians like Janine Rizzetti on their personal blogs. This is our small contribution to bring the work of historians to the public sphere.

Catherine Freyne

Catherine Freyne

As the panelist and former journalist at ABC Radio National, Catherine Freyne noted, historians no longer need to wait for the grace of editors and publishers before they can share their work publicly. There are a host of online platforms that historians can use to connect to the public. There are many platforms and mediums which allow properly referenced and nuanced histories to be shared. Scholarly standards can be met at the same time as connecting to the public.

Podcasting and online archiving means “historical documentaries are able to wear scholarship on their sleeve”, she argued. I agree. The hyperlink is the virtual footnote, so easy to insert and so useful for readers. Link rot (a hyperlink that no longer links to a page because a page has moved) is a problem, but so too is the journal article that is buried in the off-site archive of a library in another country.

Freyne is now an historian at the City of Sydney Council but used to work on the ABC Radio National program, Hindsight. My notes tell me that Freyne said they attracted 100,000 listeners a week. I doubted that I had recorded that figure correctly. Why would the ABC have dropped a program that attracted this many listeners? But the website of the History Council of New South Wales confirmed that the program attracted over 90,000 listeners a week. At least history is included in the new Earshot program.

Freyne also noted the importance of conference programs for journalists working for financially challenged media organisations. She used to scour conference programs online for interesting papers which she could use in her radio programs.

At this point Freyne could have also noted the importance of social media for journalists as potential news sources. As journalist Jennifer Howard noted on this blog several years ago, she reads conference twitter streams and blog posts to find interesting news sources. It is not possible for journalists to physically attend everything. There are many journalists on Twitter and other social media platforms who are there because these platforms help them find good news sources.

This is another important reason for Australian historians to not only tweet and blog the annual conference, but to develop a public online presence on whatever platform they feel most comfortable. As Freyne said, “we’re in a golden age of storytelling”. The internet has enabled this.

The ‘Big Questions in History’ panels demonstrate that historians regard public engagement as important. Each year this panel is provocative and insightful. It is my favourite session at the conference.

Peter Mandler

Peter Mandler

I leave for your consideration an observation made by Cambridge University’s Peter Mandler. He spoke about how history was used to invent tradition and commented that if you need to refer to history for your moral compass then you have ‘lost it’.

Our past is a dense soup of moral, immoral and a host of morally grey actions. We get out of that soup what we choose to find, which is usually the stuff that we can see through the lens of our times. That lens clouds our judgements. While we have the capacity to discern the clearly good from the obviously bad, but morality can be obscure for a very long time. Then there is the obvious problem: Who has the correct moral judgement to construct a moral guide from historical examples?

We need to be aware that histories are never morally neutral. The author of the history consciously or subconsciously applies their world view to their research and their writing. This is one of many reasons why each person sees history differently and we have a plethora of perspectives. This is not only healthy, it is essential. Whenever we see history presented as ‘the facts’ or with the uniformity of public history in the 1950s, we should be alert to the likelihood that the views of other groups are being drowned out and often serious injustices are lurking.

“We are both inside and outside of the histories that we narrate”, said Ann Curthoys

Historians can never be neutral.

Further Reading

Catherine Freyne referred to the following resources which she has found give helpful advice for crafting historical stories in various forms:

Read my blog posts about previous ‘Big Questions in History’ panels at previous conferences:

This report is written with the help of my personal notes and the conference twitter stream. I have tried to faithfully represent the views of the presenters, but please feel free to correct any misrepresentations that may have unwittingly crept into this post by emailing me (see About) or via a comment below.

Read Janine Rizzetti’s post about the same session. No two people hear things exactly the same way. While you are at it, read Janine’s other posts about the conference:

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3 thoughts on “Big Questions in History: History’s Relevance in Contemporary Society

  1. What an excellent conference session ! It picks up all of my historiographical angst on the present age:

    — the connections between historians and Australian society;
    — concern that we don’t know enough about the past;
    — history as emotions and senses of people in the past;
    — School is an important site where history is shared (well, that is what we desire);
    — history as helping develop critical thinking skills for other subjects;
    — history as leading people to make better choices about their society and environment (well, again that would be desirable);
    — absolute pleasure of knowing one’s history and the history of others (who would disagree, I wonder ?);
    — the importance of telling our audience the story of why we write history (and yes, Manning Clark showed us well);
    — the terrible tensions between evidence based professions and drama (have I not made a few words on this issue in recent times);
    — historians need to be part of public debate. Yes, but “as collaborators with journalists, documentary makers, museum curator” ? That is for me a problem of yes and no. Too many historians have been burnt by journalists especially. Content control is important to the historian, leaving the matter of style and fair interpretation in the hands of the documentary makers and museum curators;
    — historians no longer need to wait for the grace of editors and publishers before they can share their work publicly. There are a host of online platforms (Amen to that, and, as a tip, hire an web designer);
    — history was used to invent tradition and commented that if you need to refer to history for your moral compass then you have ‘lost it’ (excellent work in meta-ethics there); and yet,
    — histories are never morally neutral; and
    — the historian consciously or subconsciously applies their world view to their research and their writing; and
    — we are both inside and outside of the histories that we narrate.

    I am amazed. There are not too many conference sessions where I find myself in agreement with so many propositions. Is this an Australian School of History ? A consensus among diverse range of scholars ?

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    • Honestly, I have found these Big Questions in History sessions very inspiring and thought provoking. By having a keynote panel every year about connecting to Australian society in its many guises, the Australian Historical Association is clearly signalling to Australia that historians are committed to working in the public sphere and that they take this role very seriously.

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