Calling history, come in history

By skepticlawyer

Lawyers (and others) with professional expertise in a given field often complain when a film, television program or book makes use of their discipline for purposes of popular entertainment and then gets it wrong.

I’ve lost count of the number of times (as DEM can testify) that I’ve wanted to throw things at the telly during some police procedural or crime drama. I’ve said things like ‘you can’t say that, it’s hearsay and not admissible under one of the exceptions’ or ‘a police officer who does that has just ensured all his evidence will be excluded’ and so on and so forth. I’m sure doctors watching hospital shows do the same thing, as do police officers, vets, ministers of religion and whatnot (I suspect there are professions featured in various telly shows I’ve missed in that list…).

In all of them, though, I don’t know of any lawyer, doctor, copper, priest or vet who has worked himself into such a lather that he’s sought to have the offending book/film/tv series taken off air or banned. I’m also unaware of other forms of opposition, such as poison pen letters to the author and nasty notes to the editor. I’m sure they exist, but they are rare enough not to flutter the academic dovecotes.

I came to think about this after — and entirely by accident — learning of the to-do around historian Niall Ferguson’s use of ‘counterfactuals‘ in the teaching of history. Now I like Niall Ferguson and think him one of the best and most engaging historians I’ve ever read, so perhaps I’m biased, but learning that distinguished historians resent him enormously for it surprised me. In the dismissive phrase of E.H. Carr, “counterfactual history is a mere ‘parlour game,’ a red herring.” E.P. Thompson is less charitable, calling counterfactual histories Geschichtswissenschlopff, ‘unhistorical shit.’ Now Carr and Thompson were both Marxists, and thus inclined to be a mite deterministic. Ferguson has also been explicit about the fact that he uses counterfactual scenarios to illustrate his objections to deterministic theories of history such as Marxism, and to put forward a case for the importance of contingency in history, theorizing that a few key changes could result in a significantly different modern world.

Now political disagreement I can understand, but because Marxism has been wrong in almost every particular, and especially in its ‘historical materialism‘ thesis, calling another scholar’s method ‘unhistorical shit’ is a mite dangerous, I should think. It brings to mind the dangers commonly attributed to residing in a glass house and flinging rocks at passers-by.

One of the more compelling ones — this from wiki, but the idea is originally Ferguson’s — concerns the July 20 Bomb Plot: 

[T]o the counterfactual “What would have happened had Hitler died in the July, 1944, assassination attempt?”, all sorts of possibilities become readily apparent, starting with the reasonable assumption that the German generals would have in all likelihood sued for peace, bringing an early end to World War II, at least in the European Theater. Thus, the counterfactual brings into sharp relief the importance of Hitler as an individual and how his personal fate shaped the course of the war and, ultimately, of world history.

Perhaps the response to Ferguson is in reality an objection to ‘the great men of history’ style of scholarship that I (and many readers of this blog, no doubt) were taught as children. I hadn’t realised how much learning about great men irritated people until I was called on to teach a ‘Fall of the Roman Republic’ A-Level class over here in early 2001. Of course, I protested my incompetence. My relevant undergraduate major was in classics, not history, and while I had completed most of a history major my real skills were in languages and statistics. I tried to inveigle my way into teaching a math class but failed miserably when it emerged that the other chap was a scientist and would have been even more hopeless with the historians than me.

And thereby hangs a tale. 

I encountered students who knew the minutiae of Roman social and cultural life but could not tell me when — to take only one example — Caesar crossed the Rubicon (49 BC), or what he said as he did so (iacta alea est). This sort of thing multiplied for a term until I realised that they were failing to understand the society and culture they’d learnt so much about because their syllabus ignored the framework provided by the great men of history. And so — with some trepidation — I spent a term teaching them the great men of history. I did things like make them draw timelines and remember dates of battles and read correspondence between important personages. I came to appreciate that one cannot just ‘pick up’ narrative history; it needs to be taught explicitly, and then tested under exam conditions so that people remember it. Much social and cultural history, by contrast, can just be ‘picked up’, but the spiny backbone of a framework needs to be put in place first if this is to happen.

Now (as my friends know) I swore off historical fiction after the to-do over my first novel, despite having some feeling for it and an appreciation (not emphasized sufficiently until recently) that the past really is a foreign country, and that they do indeed do things differently there. I swore off it because so many historians tried to read a work of fiction as history. I also remember sneering comments made by literature scholars, including one from a man — then, as now, eminent in the field of literature — accusing a well-known historian who had attacked me of ‘not being able to read.’ That comment came back to me when I was trying to teach the fall of the Roman Republic and getting very frustrated with a badly designed syllabus. It occurred to me that the historians were no doubt sitting around their common rooms accusing we littérateurs of an identical failing, and that they had more grounds for complaint. People had taken their discipline and treated it like children often treat those cheap Christmas snow globes you used to be able to buy in novelty shops: shaken it until the glass carapace was broken.

This doesn’t mean I approve of the way historians carry on when someone gets something wrong in a popularization, or that I accept the slighting treatment of Ferguson’s teaching method. Historical popularization and counterfactual history have an important role to play in making history come to life and drawing people who may otherwise go into another discipline into studying it. Classicists often talk of the ‘Gladiator‘ or ‘Rome‘ effect, and I have no doubt that other historical films and series set in different eras serve the same purpose for those periods. Even the emphasis on social and cultural history has had some positive effects, with shows like Rome and Mad Men capturing some of what made even the recent past so different from our own times. People are often shocked to see the ad agency lads in Mad Men smoking like chimneys, drinking cocktails at lunch and cheerfully chatting up the girls (and they call them that) in the typing pool (what’s a ‘typing pool’? I hear my A-Level students enquire plaintively). And that was only the early 1960s. Rome makes some social and cultural errors (the black at funerals is wrong, for example), but on the whole does a pretty good job of capturing teh cultural difference:

Most approach the problems of historical drama by emphasizing that, no matter how bizarre the costumes or the language, people don’t change — the same basic emotions have always guided us. This HBO/BBC series acknowledges a different truth; the past is another country, and they do things differently there.

Rome lays bare the oft-overlooked fact that the ancient Roman Republic was a civilisation only in comparison to the Dark Ages. Even the most upstanding figure here engages in animal sacrifice, torture, public shagging and crucifixion. 

It’s just a pity they had to leave out so much of the history — including (and incredibly) some of the sauciest bits (they made up for this omission by, err, inventing shit).

I’ll shut up now, lest I start sounding like a grumpy historian…


  1. Lang Mack
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    A certain person in this household watches a quiz show of an evening, early in the evening that I see as I walk by, so for two of these shows I watched them through. As an uneducated bushie, I could not believe how poor a standard with such high education some/most of these people have. Some of it’s just logic, most general knowledge, I told the watcher that it was the most depressing hour I have spent for some time. (I don’t watch TV apart from ABC news and 7-30 Report, I did go out of my way last night to watch Yellow Stone, ABC, as I will for the next two). Just give me books and music :).

  2. John
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    All this reminds me of some rants I throw at a friend of mine occasionally. I lament the lack of quality debate and scream blue murder at the fact that so many people rely on the mass media to keep them informed. I hated that news slogan: “We’ll tell you everything you need to know.” I wanted to find the creator of that and just see how much he\she really did know.

    With rare exceptions the mass media is about entertainment but many now perceive the likes of Oprah and Co as the authoritative voices of our time. We gotta do something about that.

    It is a common lament of professionals that mass media presentations of their work are woefully silly and misleading. Perhaps that is just a function of the medium and the demand. Fortunately for myself there is a very long list of papers to read but that is tiring after work. I’m good at downloading the papers, it’s the reading part that I need to deal with. Must throw out that old TV.

  3. Posted September 21, 2009 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    We have an oppositional culture that tends to label everything ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and this encourages doctrinal approaches.

    For example when Roland Barthes indulges some typical French hyperbole and says the author is dead, he really means let’s talk about some other aspect of literature. The now unfashonable literary critic MH Abrahms spoke of four paradigms that re-occur throughout the history of criticism (and indeed throughout historiography as well).

    These are (in the arts): The World, The Audience, The Text and the Author/Artist. Barthes advocated a shift from the Author (Leavisite criticism) to analysis of the Text (structuralism) from there came in various perspectives grounded in ideology and politics (The World) and I s’pose it’s the Audience now.

    The Great Man Narrative pretty much stems from the days when history noted a succession of monarchs and that was it. This persists from The Epic of Gilgamesh to a 50s classroom wherin everyone memorizes the lineage of English kings.

    I tend to think that the Marxian reaction against this was, in general, a good thing. History is not simply one person being something or doing something. There’s an entire context. But that does not mean that individuals aren’t significant agents or that there are no ‘Great Men’. Eric Hobsbawm, not a practioner of the great man school, wrote in The Age of Extremes that the central cause of World War 2 boiled down to two words: Adolf Hitler.

    The rejection of the great man mode of history, the purging of it entirely is simply a dogmatic attempt to try and impose equality on the culture. (In much the same way as the exclusive study of kings was an imposition of a rigid hierarchy). De Tocqueville remarked that it was an unfortunate artefact of democracies.

    There’s no reason why the worthy attributes of the history of significant individuals cannot co-exist with the more anthropological examinations of the past. One only needs eschew the either/or dichotomy.

  4. Posted September 21, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    The problem with the Marxists is that they tried to fit history into their pet theory, rather than looking at historical evidence to see what it told them about the past. To a lesser extent the Whig historians did the same thing, although they were at least capable of spotting when a time period had no Whiggish characteristics and should thus be viewed on its own terms. Of course, too, there are some areas of history for which Whiggishness is essential. One cannot look — when writing a history of science — at this graph without having to write a narrative of progress. WWII creates nary a blip, simply because of all those babies that modern medicine saved from the 1/4 (antiquity) and 1/3 (medieval) death rates of days gone by.

    And yes, I am a huge fan of getting culture and society right, or at least mostly right — why I liked both Mad Men and Rome, if only so people can get a sense — in days gone by — that things were crook in Talarook.

  5. Posted September 21, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Adrien said: One only needs eschew the either/or dichotomy.


    I’ll admit my dating is bad… but I can get things approximately right by saying things like “OK, Bosworth, Late C15, Caxton was a good mate of bibliophilic Richard, so printing was introduced into England around sometime mid C15, so Gutenberg wouldn’t have been much earlier”…

    But I’d like to plug two things: a book from my childhood (“1066 and all that”), and the more recent, well researched, and VERY funny ‘The Cartoon History of the Universe‘ series which should get any kids old enough to recognize a picture of a dinosaur interested in history. (A take-the-piss-out-of-everything comic book with a great bibliography? Who’d-a-thunk-it?) Lot’s of in-jokes for the cognoscenti (Clytemnestra and Helen given bills rather than lips, for example)

    If any “real” history students among this blog community know of Cartoon Hist of the U, I’d love to know your opinion.

    And yes, I find the counterfactual is useful to focus on the criticality of an individual, admit individuals are important, but in the big scheme of things (give or take a century or two), I reckon it’s the meme generators who write history.

  6. Posted September 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    The TV series Rome dressed the Egyptian court as Egyptians to make them look radically different from the Romans. The Ptolemaic Dynasty was actually Greek and dressed in the Grecian style. I don’t mind the odd liberty with what’s historically known. Tangentially, I loved Wolfgang Peterson’s take on the Trojan Wars in his much-maligned movie Troy.

  7. Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] on “Troy”
    Yep… liked Troy too, mainly because of the way it seemed to do a good job of the “Shield of Achilles” themes (City at War/City at Peace). The bummer was the sympathetic portrayal of Achilles, much too young to have sired Nasty Neoptolemos.

    I’d decided beforehand that one way of judging it was to count the ratio of spears to swords. That ratio was far better than I’d feared.

  8. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Just had a quick noodle around the intertubes on Cleopatra, it seems she went for pick ‘n’ mix with Egyptian/Greek styles. One Egyptian thing the Ptolemies had adopted was the custom of the King & Queen being siblings and marrying each other… which meant she only had six out of a possible 16 great-great grandparents.

    Genetics was obviously not their strong suit 😉

  9. pete m
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    sl, have you read any of colleen mccullough’s books on rome? I know scholars would poo poo this sort of thing, but they way she brings people alive was enjoyable for a read, and you got to learn some history too.

  10. Posted September 22, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    One of the only things JH and I agree on is the need for more history teaching. All types, you need the narrative, the key events and great individuals, you also need to think about it and critique. Kids should be free to draw their own conclusions.

    “animal sacrifice, torture, public shagging and crucifixion. ”

    Hang on, hang on, there’s a non sequitur in here. Bring back public shagging!

  11. Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    One Egyptian thing the Ptolemies had adopted was the custom of the King & Queen being siblings and marrying each other… which meant she only had six out of a possible 16 great-great grandparents

    I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this practice. After all extensive incest will create two-headed monsters eventually. And the Ptolemies were Greek and would’ve had an abhorrence of it.

    I suspect a colossal con. It’s religion after all.

  12. Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read a couple of the ‘Rome’ books by McCullough, and they are good — the history is more accurate than in the Rome series (especially the second series, which telescoped a great deal of important stuff), but they are more Whiggish, in that a lot of ‘teh cultural weird’ is left out.

    And Armagny, you’re very droll 😉

  13. Posted September 22, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Bring back public shagging!

    You need to get out more. They have believe me.

  14. Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes, indeed they have. I know there’s supposed to be an evolutionary driver for sex in private, but it does seem that both modern western countries and the Romans have/had it in very attenuated form. With them it was often religious (fertility cults and whatnot), although they had park bonkers like we do, too.

  15. John
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Bring back public shagging!

    Perhaps they have. I heard on JJJ to day of a police callout because of someone apparently in distress. The police found a naked couple on a bed in an alleyway having sex.

  16. Posted September 23, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    They need to crack down. If sex in public isn’t restricted and frowned upon you know what happens don’t you?

    It stops being exciting. 🙂

  17. Hugivza
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    The current edition of Scientific American quoting from the October 1859 edition has an interesting, albeit outdated historical perspective: “From ancient history we learn that several nations—Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans—accomplished, at successive periods, great works and became great powers. They exhibited
    much intellectual and physical activity
    during their dominance, and then
    they became sluggish and finally degraded— by reposing on their laurels, they soon sunk into senility. We think no fears of such a result need be entertained in the present age of progress. The printing-press will
    prevent this; it is the mighty agent which
    keeps the public mind in fermentation and prevents it from stagnating.” I guess the blog is an electronic antidote to mental stagnation.

  18. Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    1859: On Liberty, The Origin of Species… those were the Whiggish days. Part of me wants to agree with the Scientific American of 1859 (most libertarians are, at bottom, rather Whiggish), but there have been similar proclamations of progress and undying fame throughout human history, and they’ve so often come a dreadful cropper in one way or another later on. Caution is probably advised 😉

  19. John Greenfield
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink


    I have not dropped by your digs for a while, due to the demands of High Matters of State. I am sure you understand. 🙂

    You have said so much here, just about all I agree with most passionately, but I do not want to piss you off by thread hogging, so I shall stagger my posts.

    As a fan of Niall Ferguson, have you been following the mutual bitchslapping between Fergo and the excerable op-ed bloviator Paul Krugman on the wisdom of the current huge financial stimulus packages?

    Ferguson is that rare bird of historian over the past generation; an economic historian, who has written books on the 19th century Hamburg steel industry, as well as the economics of the British empire, the Rothschilds, blah, blah. Krugman won the Nobel Prize for work on mathematical trade theory completed in his early career.

    Comparing the supple plasticity of historian’s mind with the temporally-coralled mind of the modern orthodox mathematical economist is fascinating. And the bitching is slowly ramping up to levels not experienced since the infamous Fax-Off between Camille Paglia and Julie Burchill. Burchill had the last say, with a fax that poetically demanded Paglia “Fuck Off You Crazy Old Dyke”! Well quite. 😉

    On dates and facts in History, I am a passionate believer that 1/3 of a History student’s assessment should be awarded for her master of chronology, personalities, geography, and all that other minutiae, which must be a prerequisite for any attempt at narrative, explanation, causation, etc.

    The History course I probably learnt the most ‘stuff/facts’ as well as analytical skills was a Late Antiquity course (250 AD to 550 AD). As well as the standard Research Essay and Tute Paper, we had 2×1 hour exams. The first exam was mostly multiple choice, chronology, brief explanations, and as you say who crossed the Rubicon, who was this general, when did this battle occur, where, and why, map identification and so on. The second was a 1 hour essay question. We were given three questions a week beforehand, and told two would be chosen on the day, from which we would have to answer one. As I crafted the answer to my preferred question, just about every date, city, Latin name, work of art that was mentioned in lectures and tutorial readings was incorporated into my answer. After a week of whittling down the answer to the 1,200 words or so one can write in an hour, I knew the subject backwards, and can still get persnickety about this or that pope, emperor, general, church council, piece of legislation, trade route, imperial boundary, and so on.

    Sadly, a great deal of History teaching today sniffs, “just use Wikipedia for the dates and minor facts, in our course, we are concerned with the higher order analytical skills and historiography”. A lot of good that is, if you don’t know which came first: the dude who crossed the Rubicon, and what his name was or the dude who might have converted to Xianity on his deathbed and what his name was!

  20. John Greenfield
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink


    I was tutoring my Year 9 god-daughter in Maths recently, and as usual the conversation veered well away from quadratic equations and geometry! I asked her about History. She rolled her eyes and groaned, “if I have to spend another year being told that Irish convicts 200 years ago used to shoot aborigines, and that some aboriginal kids lived in orphanages, I’m going to spend the entire year in the sick bay”. She says that even in Geography she had to complete a project on the human rights of either gays, aborigines, or refugees! No oxbow-lakes, volcanic formations, or beach formation for her!

    Last year, I went to her school’s End of Year Speech Day, and was truly very proud when her name was called and she walked across the stage to receive several certificates commending her various talents – in 2009, almost all must have prizes, which in many ways is quite a good thing. But what absolutely infuriated me was either side of the stage at the front of the hall was draped a huge flag. On one side was the familiar Australian flag, but on the other side, given the same prominence was the Aboriginal flag. I spent much of the never-ending award giving playing “Spot the Aborigine” with no success. The remainder of the hall was wallpapered with flags from around the world, including, get this, the fricking Palestinian flag!

    Afterwards, I quizzed my god-daughter, who had never met an Aborigine at school, except for the ones who regularly roll up to remind the kids about the “stolen generations”, “terra nullius”, and “genocide”. The tragic thing is that terra nullius is the only Latin phrase she has ever been taught! She even has to learn about “Aboriginal Astronomy” is Science classes!

    She had never heard of the stump-jump plow, had no idea that sheep were not indigenous to Australia, that Australian’s had the highest standard of living on earth by the late 19th century, that women were admitted to university in the mid 19th century with nary a feather ruffled.

    I have advised her to ramp up her enthusiasm for poetry, Italian, and Music.

  21. su
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Against my better judgement, I went and rented Troy on the strength of the approval here and yes, it is quite good considering the presence of the Bloomster and the Pittster (the Banaster I look more fondly upon), but *splutter* WHERE IS CASSANDRA!! Subsumed into Paris’ paltry persona that is where. Ptooey.

  22. Posted September 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Su: They got rid of all Homer’s lovely god/goddess scenes, too, which were his comic relief and essential to avoid making both the Iliad and the Odyssey unrelenting gore-fests and very dark indeed. Bit of a shit really.

    JG: what’s being done to your daughter is very sad, for the simple reason that not only is the history wrong (if anyone was shooting Aborigines back then, it certainly wasn’t the Irish), but it’s also dull as ditchwater.

    I remember being taught the early days of Australia’s settlement over and over as a child, and while it had different content from that being inflicted on your daughter, it had the same soporific effect (producing similar threats to retire to the sick bay or abscond from school). It annoyed me enormously that I didn’t get to learn about things as diverse as the Eureka Stockade and Australia’s involvement in WWI until high school.

    It also concerns me that she is in year 9 and this is still going on. I was learning cool stuff like the feudal system by then — I can remember that, and also remember how it came flooding back when I encountered property at law school.

  23. Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    SL/LE/JG: On Oz History and Year 9:
    Hah! We got pointed in the direction of Manning Clark’s “Sourcebooks” in Year 9 and given a topic to write about…. (a whole shelf-full of little loeb-sized books)… so, any twisted interpretations in our writings were the twists imposed by our /own/ minds… not the historian (apart from any bias of source selection).

    And we had Social Science teachers including (1) liberal candidate (2) a state liberal leader (3) a full-on ALP socialist economics teacher… so we /certainly/ didn’t get a consistent view rammed down our throats.

    You’d think with the internet these days it would be easier to point people to the source materials… but of course, that takes greater effort to mark, and the dear little minds won’t come out all thinking what the powers that be want them to think… “zebra patterned armband” versions of Australian History (or anything other than the hard sciences) are what I’d like to see kids come out with… with the kid deciding what parts THEY will paint black or white.

    And it isn’t just school… when I put loebs and translations of the classical philosophers in front of some 3rd year philosophy students, they were blown away, making their own minds up (occasionally I’d even deconstruct the Edwardian translations), and realized that their textbooks were nowhere near as useful as the sources. They gave up their “official” tutes, replaced them with symposia (original form, animated and intoxicated discussions, gotta get into the spirit of things) every couple of nights, and blitzed their exams. And their high opinion of “The Germans” (Kant, etc) dropped a notch or two.

    Su/SL on Troy.
    Yep, no Kassandra (bummer), no Gods/Goddesses (ok, understandable, and it would have been dangerously close to “Clash of the Titans”), and no Diomedes (bummer). And the architecture wasn’t really the right layer of Troy (but then, even parts of Homer include use of Iron). But… it was nuanced, it was a tragedy, war IS a bitch and often uses pretext, someone has to bang heads to create a nation state, Agamemnon got his comeuppance…. I suppose if Homer could take liberties with History, then why not the film, as long as the spirit wasn’t totally bastardized. As I said, Achilles was too SNAGgy in the film (just ask Penthiselea!)
    But the film DID probably correct the “10 years” exagerration of Homer to something more realistic. (I wonder if a good “Odysseus” NOT “The Odyssey” would have Sean Bean shagging his way around the Med… and then have Penelope going “Yeah…. right…. every second island you land on you get trapped and raped by a supermodel…. “)

  24. Posted September 25, 2009 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Just picking up a few points.

    I have always liked what if history because of the way it forces new questions. In similar vein, I suggest that people interested in Byzantium read Turtledove’s Videssos series – because Videssos is based on Byzantium, it helps explain structures and politics.

    Dates are critical. I remember developing a theme in some writing I was doing on one aspect of the history of Northern NSW. It fitted the evidence so well. Then I thought, let me just check a date. It was a simple thing – construction dates along the Great Northern Railway. One date blew everything I had written out of the water.

    The tragedy with the white guilt approach to Aboriginal historiography – I was going to say history but a lot of it has little to do with history – is that it actually prevents us from focusing on Aboriginal history as history. One sad thing here is that it is Aboriginal people themselves who lose out because of the way that access to their own past is twisted, limited.

  25. John Greenfield
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink


    I agree totally that there is a lot of ugliness in Australia’s history, especially – though not exclusively – towards Aborigines. I also have no hesitation in insisting the details be included in school History curricular.

    My beef is that it seems – from not only my god-daughter, but other friends’ children, the media, and my own brief research of Dept. of Education websites – that the same “black armband” events/themes/details get repeated year after year.

    No other topic in any other subject is so unimaginatively copy and pasted from year to year. Aside from the poor pedagogical practice, my otherwise thoughtful, ethical, poised young god-daughter regards the massacres and other horrors towards Aborigines so dismissively, or akin to her compulsory annual dental check-up.

    Unlike today (at least in NSW since the mid 1990s), when I was in High School in the 1980s, History was not compulsory. You had to choose between History and Geography. I chose Geography. At that stage of my development I would have committed hari kiri rather than study History! 🙂 However, when I got to Year 11, timetabling restrictions forced me to take Modern History. In those days, the HSC course was 2 years long, with both years examinable at the end in one 3 hour exam.

    Topics covered from the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, Metternich, British/German industrial revolutions, American Civil War, 1848 Revolutions, Unification of Italy and Germany, British parliamentary democracy/trade-unions/Socialism/progressive social legislation, Russian Revolution, WWI, Treaty of Versailles, Weimar Republic, Rise of Nazi Germany.

    The HSC course stopped ot the eve of WWII. I think this is correct. To include “Hansonism” or the Tampa, or the 2000 Olympics in a school History course is a mistake, especially if that course omits the stump jump plow!. These events are still really Current Affairs. Thus, my High School education included NO Australian History whatsoever. But had I taken History rather than Geography as an elective in Years 9/10, I would have got a lot of Australian history, and probably a Japanese Samurai sword to the stomach! 🙂

    OTOH, I am quite confused at the number of people I read on blogs and in the media who say “we never learnt a thing about the Aborigines, the Stolen Generations, genocide, etc”. I learnt a lot aboutborigines in Primary School. Though to be honest, the approach was more anthropological. We learnt about woomeras, how to throw a boomerang, bunyips, billabongs, thespirit- god Biame, nulla nulla, how Aboriginal women carried their young. On one school excursion, an Aboriginal guide showed us how to recognise bush-tucker that was safe to eat, included in the tour was a kind of bush-tucker degustation menu. 🙂

    Of course, we also learnt about the nulla nulla’s use as a weapon of war, which naturally raised violence between Aborigines and Europeans. At that stage the generation of “conflict/warfare/genocide” historians such as Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds had not published anything, and we were not taught the recently published work of Humphrey McQueen, Manning Clark, and so on. However, I don’t think the ommissions of such recent scholarship in my Primary School’s curriculum is an ‘indelible stain’ on the 1970s NSW primary school education system! 🙂 However, I do recall, those who chose Year 9/10 History being taught about violence, massacres, and so on, but also about “the tyranny of distance”, and so on.

    So how could all these other people claim to have been taught none of this? Instead they claim to have been taught nothing but ‘the Kings and Queens of England’, somthing I never heard a peep about in my entire 13 years of school? I can understand that might have been true before the 1970s, but that would make those people in their 50s and 60s, and a lot of bloggers make these claims of omission of Aboriginal history who are much younger than that!

  26. John Greenfield
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink


    Sorry if I gave the impression that Aboriginal black armband history is ALL my god-daughter has been taught. My point is that the the Aboriginal stuff is repeated every single year, and usually occupies up tp 50% of History classes.

    LE, you are right that state-mandated History syllabi do offer choices for teachers, except the Aboriginal stuff is compulsory every year. And if a teacher chooses not to teach the optional Ancient/Medieval/Religious History, a student could spend 4 years of High School History studying little more than Mabo, the 1967 Referendum, attempts to ban the Communist Party, the White Australia Policy, Germaine Greer, terra nullius, ATSIC, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Land Rights, Myall Creek Massacre, genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines, and the Vietnam Moratorium demos.

    Now, while not one of these topics even approaches being trivial or fanciful, or propaganda, but as picture of Australia and the World over the past 200 years or so, it is a scandal.

  27. Posted September 25, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    JG: Your modern history course resembles mine in almost every detail. I too did geography up to year 10, and chose technical drawing over history (but then I have always been a bit more scienc-y in focus). In Queensland year 7 is the top year of primary school, too, rather than the first year of high school. I recall the endless repetition of the same Australian history over and over from primary school, never from high school.

    I realise, now, that I was taught a great deal of what I remember as history in the school’s religious education classes, which while skewed (I can remember all the homophobia and anti-abortion rants in vivid detail), also meant I learnt a great deal of European history that is otherwise not taught in most Australian schools (Reformation, 30 Years’ War, Peasants’ Revolt etc).

  28. John Greenfield
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink


    OMG! You are kidding! My other option, apart from Geography, was also tech drawing!! 🙂

  29. Posted September 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    So old am I that I did the NSW LC not the HSC, so I did not face JG’s conflicts. In my first LC (my parents made me do it twice because of age!) I did english, modern history + Australian history honours, geography + honours, ancient history, maths 1 plus maths two.

    The following year I combined maths 1 & 2 in maths three, dropped modern (Australian history) honours, added economics + economics honours and ancient history honours.

    I had the good fortune to do a lot of history as well as economics and geography.

    Were the courses of a lower intellectual standard? No, in some ways higher because they were less crowded. By the time I started modern history in what is now year 10, I had already done three full year units of history.

    My point? Really a very simple one.

    When we come to look at what is studied, we have to look at content, attitude and time.

    I argued at one point that I learned far more about the Aborigines in primary school in the ninety fifties than my daughters did in the late 1990s.

    I still think that’s true, regardless of the biases at both times. However, when I came to look at the actual structure of my daughters’ courses in the context of all the other curriculum demands and my own views as to what they should know, I came to a very hard conclusion.

    In NSW at least, we just have a very crowded curriculum. This makes it hard to add new things in. It also means that those things that are added are often too truncated, too cut off from their supporting roots, to be of value.

    There is a further problem that I have wriiten about, the focus on training rather then education.

    My bottom line in all this is that some of the problems we debate cannot be considered in isolation, on a course by course basis, without addressing far broader problems of curriculum structure.

  30. Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink


    They eliminated the supernatural elements of The Illiad. And thereby got rid of most of the story’s fascinating female characters. I was bemused by how pre-Mycenean Greece resembled medieval France as represented in that preposterous Ridley Scott film with Orlando Bloom.

  31. Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I remember in Ancient History there was a guy that was sooo boring (how boring was he?). He was sooo boring that he gave a 10 minute oral presentation on sacred prostitution and people fell asleep! How can that possibly be boring? And yet it was. It would’ve been much more fascinating to hear an accountant talk about work.

  32. Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    At that stage of my development I would have committed hari kiri rather than study History!

    I think that has to do with the way it’s taught. I’ve often thought it should start near the present and go backwards.

    I designed a bit of a history course a few years back. The first lesson begins by asking people to vote on their opinion of a statement. The statement is written on bits of paper with YES and NO boxes. It says: History is bunk?

    Then I ask ’em if they like cars. And whether they are Ford people or Holden people. I follow with a description of life in the town of Greenfield Mich. USA in 1863.


    If you begin with Julius Caeser it’s difficult for kids to understand why that’s relevant.

  33. Posted September 28, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    These were people who had chosen the Fall of the Roman Republic at A-Level, Adrien (as JG and I discussed above). If you’ve picked that course (particularly at A-Level in the UK, which tends to be taught at a fairly high level), then learning about Sulla, Marius, Caesar, Pompey, Antony, Octavian and the gang kind of goes with the territory.

  34. John Greenfield
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink


    I think it’s really neat you have taught this topic at A-level! And you are so right. The fall of the Roman Republic is one area that demands particular punctiliousness.

    Why, for instance, in the one family do we so often find one/some brothers senators – and thus banned from many types of commerce – while other brothers were equites, and thus able to advance the commercial interests of senatorial brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, etc.

    In the mid-late 2nd century BC, how did two stinking rich ancestors (the Brothers Gracchus) of arguably the grandest family in Rome – Scipio Africanus – from the early republic until Pompey – whom some argue, quite sensibly was one of the richest men in human history – both become Consuls of the Plebs, despite being Patricians, using their power to transfer land from the patricians (of /from whom the brothers Gracchus – Gracchi – also belonged/descended) to the Plebs?

    I wrote an Essay at uni that was on the driest, most dreary topic imaginable – something like discussing one of Sallust’s or Plutarch’s quotes attributing the Fall of the Republic to how wicked and ungentlemanly, the Roman upper classes had become. Rome had thus dissembled into stasis. I, typically, took a contrary view, and used a marxian argument – without even once mentioning Marx; as you would no doubt know, as a teacher of this era, Ancient Historians can be especially persnickety and thus want to dismiss esaays they deem too reductionist, formulaic, or foundationalist.

    Still, I did get away with a largely – though not entirely – materialist/economic account. In doing so, I had to get on top of the never-ending, and very confusing (both due to the nature of the times and dearth of material after Polybius’ treatment of the Gracchi in Book VI of his The Histories. I really empathise with those European scholars who spent the Renaissance stomping around Sicily, North Africa, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire looking for the next 36 Books of Polybius.

    Tell me, as you have taught this – mid to late-Republican period, what source material do you use after Polybius Book VI? I would love to know more than the mouldy skeleton I have of the history from Gauis Gracchus’ assassination in 121 BC and the subsequent/consequent tussles between the populares and optimates resulting in the effective transfer of political/military power from the tribunal and magistrates to the generals, particularly the low-born Marius.

    I found, especially as a non-lawyer – perhaps you therefore found it more thrilling – all those changes to the Roman Constitution, (except they largely left alone the ancient legitimacy of the tribune of the plebs to veto legislation passed by the patricians and vice versa) sooooooo tedious.

    BUT, there was no way I – or anyone else for that matter – could possibly write a university-level essay, with the required analytical/thematic/causation sheen without knowing by rote every single legal change, the names and reign of every single general, consul, magistrate, provincial governor, etc.

    As you so rightly say, it is insupportable that a graduate of a course on the Roman Republic should not know that Julius Ceasar ‘crossed the Rubicon’ river with his army in 49 BC, and that this was basically a blasphemous breach of os maiorum. The 49 BC Rubicon-crossing certainly ignited a bonfire of legislative/constitutional changes, including Julius Ceasar’s assassination in 44 BC.

    Did the kids you taught know the famous line Et tu, Brute from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar was said in 44BC? Did/do they know he said is the day he was assassinated, The Ides of March? And the Ides of March is the 15th of March? Or do teachers nowadays consider these dates to be trivia, easily found on Wikipedia?

    It is so important to be able to integrate the time-space compression of the period 49BC to 29BC with that started by the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133BC. The constitutional/legal manipulations that led to the triumvariates, adoptions, marriages, the rise of proto-fascist general-leaders, and inter-imperial trysts, Rubicon-crossing in 49BC, JC”s assassination 5 years later, and Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony, 16 years after that assassination. Do they know where Actium was?

    Can they trace on a map the route taken by Octavian, and so on and so forth.

    A group of us were having a discussion about the time of Jesus Christ’s life recently. Most were either auto-didacts, graduates of Catholic schools, or history buffs. It males such a difference when a group of people having such a discussion need resort to know more than a refill of chardonnay, with dates , personalities, and events permanently etched into the cognitive furrows of the participants. If someone makes a 20 second/three-paragraphy argument, which is reliant of chronology, personalities and geography, and has all the ‘facts’ correct, the – increasingly chardy-filled – conversation can gallop along compared to the trot that results from cluelessness on dates. Evencorrect chronology – while generally hazy on correct dates – improves a conversation immeasurably.

    Having to constantly refer to textbooks and Wikipedia would be a real drag, and severely handicap any attempt at bigger picture hypotheses.

  35. John Greenfield
    Posted September 29, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Oops. Sorry. Forgot to end HTML mid-post.

  36. Posted September 29, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve fixed it, JG, but alas don’t have as much time as I’d like to answer your questions (next chapter has to be in sharpish). Yes I did find the law interesting… but then, I’m a lawyer 😉

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