Post-colonial perspectives on the historical narrative: Towards a pedagogic theory of historical representation

Year: 2012

Author: Parkes, Robert

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Educators have long been aware of the role that schools, and specific school subjects such as History, play in nation-building, and have acknowledged the ways in which national consciousness gets shaped within the classroom (Green & Reid, 2002). Inherently political, historical narratives are frequently studied and taught in national categories (Curthoys, 2003); and history as a school subject is regularly an area of public debate, government disquiet, and a site of struggle over collective memory and cultural literacy. However, History education, tethered to national interests, is increasingly confronted by cultural diversity and competing perspectives on the past. The emergence and recognition of counter-memories from Indigenous, ethnic, and national minorities have interrupted the incontestability of the nation-building project, and prompted re-evaluations of curricular organization and content. The challenge to history from rival narratives is never far from concern in post-colonial societies, struggling to define national identities, amidst simultaneous calls for reconciliation (with Indigenous minorities proclaiming counter-narratives of the nation) and internationalization (achieved by re-locating national narratives into a global environment).

In Australia, the struggle over histories in state social studies and national History curriculum have almost exclusively centred on whose history is to be represented. The so-called “history wars” of the 1990s were precisely skirmishes over rival narratives of the nation's colonial past (Macintyre & Clark, 2003), particularly representations of frontier conflict. Conservative concerns that History curriculum has been used to serve partisan political causes was a motivating factor in the move towards an Australian curriculum. The Gillard government has promised a national curriculum that moves beyond both 'black armband' and 'white blindfold' histories, as if an entirely position-free narrative was possible. This paper, turns towards post-colonial theory as a way to rethink the problem of historical representation that sits at the heart of the history 'curriculum' wars. Specifically, it explores Ashcroft's (2001) study of the modes of resistance to historical discourse that commonly manifest in the histories and literatures produced within the post-colonial state. Ashcroft's identification of rejection, interjection and interpolation as forms of post-colonial resistance to interpellation, provides a compelling heuristic for interrogating History curriculum as post-colonial text (Parkes, 2007), and offers important insights that are used in this paper to develop a pedagogic theory of historical representation.