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. Continue reading