Old curriculum chapter reopens as history wars erupt

In 1891, a former New Zealand politician, Hugh Lusk, wrote an Australian history textbook for the NSW Department of Public Instruction. It told tales of governors, railways and emerging industries, but saved its greatest enthusiasm for Captain James Cook and his difficult journey along the north-east coast.

“Such is the record of one of the greatest and boldest feats of seamanship ever performed by any navigator,” Lusk wrote, in a vivid example of what historian Geoffrey Blainey termed the “three cheers” view of history, an optimistic counterpoint to the black armband version. “Its greatness can hardly be understood by us who have so long reaped all the advantages which it has given us as Cook’s countrymen.”

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge says the national curriculum gives an overly negative view of the country’s past, teaching students to hate rather than love their country.Credit:Meredith O’Shea

But even Lusk acknowledged – ever so briefly – the perspective of Indigenous Australians upon whose lands those colonies were built, and used a word that has become contentious in history syllabuses today. “The fate of the natives promised to be a hard one,” Lusk wrote. “The march of the settlers to the west was to all intents and purposes a hostile invasion of their hunting grounds.”

Australia’s decades-old history wars have flared again. This time, it’s over a revision of the national curriculum, which federal Education Minister Tudge says gives an overly negative view of the country’s past, teaching students to hate rather than love their country; a black armband view. He worries about the use of the word “contested” to describe the Anzac legend, rather than treating it as the “most sacred of all days”, and has criticised the emphasis on “invasion theory” in relation to Australia Day.

However, as the country’s education ministers prepare to consider the draft curriculum on Friday, a Herald analysis of syllabuses and textbooks of the past has found that many of the contentious ideas and words in the draft syllabus have been taught in NSW schools for decades, if not more than a century, ranging from Lusk’s textbook to a1958 play, The One Day of the Year, which scrutinised drunken veterans behaving badly on Anzac Day and has featured in NSW syllabuses in some form for decades.

Tudge is far from the first Coalition education minister to raise concerns about the teaching of Australian history. In the late 1990s, David Kemp held an inquiry into students’ declining interest that found only one in three knew Edmund Barton, the first prime minister, was an Australian politician, and in 2006 Julie Bishop warned pockets of Australian curricula were “straight from Chairman Mao”. When John Howard was prime minister, he condemned history teachers for focusing on themes rather than a timeline, and warned the nation’s social cohesion was at risk.

But the teaching of Australian history in schools, or lack of it, has concerned Labor politicians, too. Former NSW premier Bob Carr – a history buff who had the HSC exams sent to him every year to answer in his spare time – was alarmed at the lack of detail in the NSW syllabus when he came to power.

“It’s all about patriotism,” he said in 1995 of the importance of teaching history. “Patriotism rises from the telling of your country’s story – a story of its people. Unless we know our story, we are not likely to value being Australian.”

Carr’s concerns led to a history syllabus that was so chock-full of information that teachers struggled to keep up, and bored students abandoned the subject in droves.

“They went to ancient history instead,” says Kate Cameron, who began teaching history in 1980 and retired five years ago. “It was a deathly dull syllabus that had serious implications across the board. To [Carr’s] credit … a new one was introduced which had less content.”

Premier Bob Carr and Education Minister John Aquilina in 1997 with Burwood Girls’ High students at the launch of the state government’s plan to overhaul the HSC. The TER would be replaced by a confidential universities index, changing the way students were to be assessed from 2001. Credit:Steven Siewert

Politicians’ attempts to meddle in school curricula sometimes go badly. Usually, they go nowhere at all. But that doesn’t stop them trying. Partly, it’s driven by a genuine interest in Australia’s history; democratic systems are at the forefront of their work. But history wars also serve a wider purpose by allowing politicians to flag their values, focus people’s minds on the simplicity of the past, and create a moral clarity in uncertain times – especially when an election looms. “They are as much a political strategy as a curriculum intervention,” says Anna Clark, a historian and author of History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom. “It gets people talking.”

Even during the hand-wringing about the teaching of Australian history in the 1990s, federal politicians acknowledged that NSW had a good record on teaching the subject. It is the only state that has long run history as a separate and compulsory discipline – other states have tended to weave it into other social sciences.

The earliest record presently available (some libraries are restricted due to COVID-19) of how history has been taught in NSW is Lusk’s 1891 textbook. The next is a copy of a 1957 NSW Department of Education syllabus, kept in Sydney University’s Fisher Library, which shows little had changed since Lusk’s tome; history class was still about the imparting of information rather than the analysis of it, and focused on stories of politics and power. Students studied why Australian colonies federated, and how other British colonies, such as South Africa or New Zealand, grew to nationhood.

But in the 1970s, Australians became more willing to question assumptions about their own history. Migrants were bringing new perspectives. Women were entering public life in greater numbers. The bicentenary of Cook’s landing in 1970, and of the first fleet’s arrival in 1998, focused attention on the struggles of Aboriginal people; on both occasions, as well as during the 150-year celebrations in 1938, Indigenous activists wore black armbands. In the 1971 syllabus, students were introduced to the concept of historical understanding; to treat history not just as a series of facts, but weigh up different perspectives.

In the 1980s, modernity arrived. A 1982 syllabus taught NSW history students about racism, and the “resistance, protest and reaffirmation of Black culture.” They studied trade unionism, women’s civil rights, and the impact of birth control (or, more euphemistically put, “limiting family size”). In one class, they “tested the Anzac tradition”. Students were also encouraged to read The One Day of the Year, a 1958 play about a university student who rejects the boozy, debauched behaviour of veterans on Anzac Day, including his father. The play is still studied by HSC students as part of a unit on changing representations of the Anzacs.

The 1992 syllabus – the one that alarmed Carr due to its focus on just a handful of themes, but was considered revolutionary by others – was the first to consider the perspectives of Indigenous people and women, and acknowledged that Indigenous people saw colonisation as an invasion. It also looked at history from the viewpoint of the ordinary, rather than the elite.

That was the decade when history wars exploded at a national level. Then Prime Minister Paul Keating gave his Redfern Park speech, in which he acknowledged the wrongs inflicted upon Indigenous people. “We committed the murders,” he said. “We took the children from their mothers.” This did not sit well with his successor, Howard, who in 1996 rejected that black armband view of Australian history. “I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one,” Howard said. “The Australia achievement has been a heroic one, a courageous one and a humanitarian one.”

Prime Minister Paul Keating delivers his Redfern Speech in 1992 where he acknowledged the wrongs inflicted upon Indigenous people.Credit:Kylie Pickett

It’s one thing to advocate a particular framing of history; many Australians agreed with Howard. It’s another to impose it on a school curriculum. Howard never did the latter, partly because he couldn’t. At the time, there was no national curriculum. States run schools; federal politicians have all care, but no responsibility. Howard set up a working group to develop a year 9 and 10 curriculum – which critics said was also too fact-filled and boring – but could not do much about having it implemented. “[Federal politicians] always running their views of what schools could do,” says Tom Alegounarias, the former chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority. “They had no mechanism to do it. They were nothing but expressions of perspective.”

A national curriculum – mooted since the 1980s – was finally developed under the Labor government, with history as a compulsory subject. The biggest states, NSW and Victoria, kept their own syllabuses and took an “adopt and align” approach to the national version, which involved a significant amount of cherry-picking. Smaller states used it because it saved them the cost of developing their own, but they could also ignore, change, supplement or delay it as they chose.

The organisation responsible for the national curriculum, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, was carefully designed to keep politics away. ACARA is owned by all the states and territories, which each appointing representatives to the board, and everything it does must be approved by all ministers. The curriculum development process begins with experts, then opens for consultation with teachers and the community, and finally, after changes are made, goes to ministers. “One of the problems with history education has been the constant politicisation,” says Clark.

Several historians and education experts have questioned why Tudge continued to lobby for changes after the consultation window closed, which meant no-one could respond to his views. Glenn Fahey from the Centre for Independent Studies argues ACARA’s process should be respected. “The political role is really to ensure the process has been followed, the experts were heard, and the public had an opportunity to contribute,” he says. Clark says many in the history field believe the intervention is unusual. “It shows the traction that talking about Australian history generates at a political level.”

History teachers feel like they keep going around in circles. “The public discussion is fairly exhausting,” says Jonathon Dallimore, from the NSW History Teachers Association. “It’s not done gently and it’s not done without passion.” Teachers acknowledge the public debate about what to teach is a legitimate one; there’s thousands of years of history, and only a few hundreds hours of teaching time, so decisions must be made about what to prioritise, and those priorities change. “People feel impassioned because it’s their national story, and that story can be told in different ways and from new perspectives,” says Dallimore.

But they worry about suggestions that the study of history should be given a positive – or negative – spin. “The eternal debate has been why we teach history,” says Dallimore. “Once, the answer to that was you teach loyalty to empire, you teach Christian values. That broke down in the second half of the 20th century, and people began to re-think that.”

Now, teachers help students use the disciplinary skills of historians to look at the past, skills that are also useful outside the classroom in a world of fake news. “It’s about trying to approach the past with intellectual rigour, to think hard about what happened, why it happened, how do we know it happened in this way?”

Students at Ultimo Public School in 1965. The 1957 curriculum was a chronological, fact-filled syllabus with students studying Australia’s role in Britain and the world before finishing with revolution in Europe. Credit:James Hopwood

Even though debate over curriculums is intense – they act as a values statement of what we want our children to know – they have much less influence on a student’s history education than what happens in the classroom. Paul Kiem, who trains future history teachers at university, asks his students about their experience of the subject. “It’s disappointingly fleeting and often doesn’t leave an impression,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of reasons for that. They mandate it, they don’t give it enough hours, and don’t give it enough well-trained teachers. They’re revising the curriculum now, but are they interested in how effective it is? That would be a better question to ask.”

In Cameron’s decades of experience as a history teacher, she learned what made students sit up and take notice. Students love learning about Anzac Day, she says, if it’s taught from different perspectives; the Australian and the Turkish experience, and changing attitudes over time. ”It hasn’t always been a sanctified day,” she says. “After the Vietnam War, numbers really dropped off at parades.” They like the history of medicine, crime and punishment, war and, perhaps not surprisingly, children.

Clark worries that culture wars do nothing to advance the study of Australian history. “[They] are pretty simplifying,” she says. “It’s going to put history right back into a black-white, left-right, truth-untruth dichotomy, which is exactly what history is not.”


  • 1957: NSW Department of Education, a chronological, fact-filled syllabus. Students studied Australia’s role in Britain and the world in third year, before finishing with revolution in Europe. The leaving certificate focused on the world wars.
  • 1967: Introduction of the Wyndham scheme (years 7-10, then HSC), students could elect history from year 8. Chronological, content-heavy approach.
  • 1972: History treated as a separate subject, and introduced the idea of historical understanding. Covered Aboriginal, Asian and social history.
  • 1981-82: Taught students to use historical methods. Students studied trade unionism, Aboriginal Australia, the clash between church and secular, tested the Anzac tradition.
  • 1992: Introduced perspectives of women, Indigenous Australians and ordinary people over the study of famous men and pioneering settlement. Introduced the concept of “invasion”.
  • 1998: Heavy focus on content rather than skills. Years 9 and 10 focused on Australian history from 1901 including political, social and cultural developments ranging from reconciliation to republicanism and feminism.
  • 2003: Introduced before the 1998 syllabus was fully rolled out, after backlash from history teachers and students to previous curriculum. Less content, more historical thinking.
  • 2012: (current version, adapted from first national curriculum) Arranged from world history to Australian/modern history, has been criticised for making Federation optional, for too much military history, and for being too content-heavy. Asks students to look at different perspectives on the Anzac legend (but does not use the word contested). It defines contestability as different interpretations, “eg British ‘invasion’ or ‘settlement’ of Australia”.
  • 2021: New draft of a revised national curriculum. An attempt to reduce the amount of content in the curriculum to allow students to study in more depth, but has been criticised by federal Education Minister Alan Tudge for “almost erasing” Christianity, and omitting modern political figures such as Menzies, Howard and Whitlam. He also objects to a reference to the Anzac legend as being contested.

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