Putting history in its place: Grounding the Australian history curriculum in local community

Year: 2012

Author: Harrison, Neil

Type of paper: Refereed paper


This position paper develops the case for a greater focus on the teaching of local histories in the draft Australian history curriculum. It takes as its starting point an Indigenous epistemology that understands knowledge to be embedded in the land. This embedded connection between knowledge and country is used to examine recent literature on whether the teaching of history in schools can succeed in the context of the proposed Australian history curriculum. It analyses reactions from various academics of history education to the draft curriculum. It then explores their search for a framework that can be used to select the appropriate content and approaches to teaching history in Australia.

In opting for a framework that privileges the historians' conceptual categories over narrative experience, the writers of the national curriculum have opted for a fairly conventional epistemological frame that may appease the politicians and many historians, but it may not suit those students learning in sites far from where the curriculum has been written. It questions whether such a geographically dispersed and diverse body of students can ever be engaged with knowledge that is often taught far from the place of its making. The then Prime Minister John Howard's Australia Day speech of 2006 is examined to suggest that his observations on the need to be engaged with community have much to offer the development of the national history curriculum. His comments are pertinent in the context of research which indicates that many students are becoming increasingly disengaged from the historical knowledge currently presented in classrooms.

This review of the literature around the teaching of history in schools addresses an important epistemological question underlying the teaching of history in primary schools, the origins of historical knowledge and how it is reproduced on the internet, and in books and classrooms. The paper concludes that history belongs to the place where it is made and to take it out of context is to fuel further debate around the authenticity of history as a discipline.