Students Resent ‘Guilt’ Of History

Justine Ferrari, News.co.au (Sydney, Australia), May 18, 2007

HIGH school students resent being made to feel guilty during their study of Australia’s indigenous past and dislike studying national history in general.

The History Teachers Association called yesterday for a rethink of the type of Australian history being taught in schools and the way in which it is taught.

History Teachers Association of NSW executive officer Louise Zarmati said her experience teaching in western Sydney was that students were resistant to learning about Australian politics and, in particular, indigenous history.

“This is a somewhat delicate subject but they don’t like the indigenous part of Australian history,” she told a hearing of the Senate inquiry into the academic standards of school education in Sydney yesterday.

“The feedback I get is they’re not prepared to wear the guilt. They find it’s something that’s too personal, too much of a personal confrontation for them.

“I think it sparks a lot of racism; it certainly did in my classroom. It makes it an unpleasant learning experience.”

Australia’s indigenous history has been a contentious issue in the ongoing “history wars” over the interpretation of European colonisation.

Historian Geoffrey Blainey brought the phrase “black armband view of history” to prominence in 1993 to describe the portrayal of European colonisation as shameful.

The description was picked up in 1996 by John Howard, who later launched an offensive on the teaching of Australian history in schools. The Government is now in the process of developing a national curriculum for Australian history.

Until this year, NSW was the only state in which Australian history was a compulsory stand-alone subject for students in years 7 to 10. In years 9 and 10, students study 20th century Australian history focusing on the workings of government and the history of politics, and the subject is examined in the Higher School Certificate.

Ms Zarmati said more than 20,000 students studied history for the HSC last year, of whom more than 11,000 studied ancient history, making it the most popular history course in the English-speaking world.

Ms Zarmati said history teachers constantly struggled with the unpopularity of Australian history in years 9 and 10.

“They don’t really enjoy it and feel forced to do it; they don’t like the politics all that much,” she said. “My personal opinion is that it’s the nature of the beast.

“Teenagers at that stage aren’t mature enough to understand the concepts but when they get to years 11 and 12, they really enjoy Australian history because they’re looking at problems and issues and debates.”

In other evidence to the Senate inquiry, literacy expert Max Coltheart said the federal Government’s budget initiatives to improve literacy and numeracy standards with programs costing more than $500million over four years was a “waste of money”.

The budget included a scheme granting up to $50,000 to schools that showed a significant rise in literacy and numeracy standards, and vouchers worth $700 to provide one-on-one tuition for students failing to meet minimum national literacy and numeracy standards.

Professor Coltheart, professor of psychology and head of the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science at Macquarie University, said the commonwealth should stipulate the type of reading tests schools had to use to qualify for the grants.

He said children who struggled to learn to read were labelled as having a learning difficulty but they actually suffered a teaching difficulty. The budget funding would be better spent on training primary school teachers how to teach reading properly.

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