Who controls the past?

Time is one of many resources history teachers lack to adequately teach a crowded syllabus. Photo: Cason Ho.

Year 12s are undertaking their WACE examinations this month to earn their Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank, which will determine their eligibility for direct university entry.

This year’s graduating cohort have faced unusual circumstances due to COVID-19, but recent changes to university funding have thrown another curveball into the mix.

The Federal Government’s Job-Ready Graduates Bill, that was passed by the Senate in October, will reduce the cost of degrees in fields with expected job growth, while ‘non-priority’ courses, such as humanities degrees, will more than double in price.

Co-author of The History Wars and Australian Centre for Public History Future Fellow Anna Clark said the changes are politically motivated.

“The data shows that humanities graduates are just as impressive in employment results,” she said.

Graduate outcomes survey 2019 national report. Data: QILT.

The graph above shows that humanities graduates earn more than science and mathematics graduates.

Professor Clark criticised the legislation, saying: “I’m pretty cynical about this move.

“At one level, history is important enough that it’s included in the national curriculum, at the same time it’s somehow not providing jobs. I don’t think you can have it both ways.”

She said the political motives behind the legislation were reminiscent of a quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past, controls the future.”

History Teachers’ Association of WA President Catherine Baron said there was a constant pressure for students to move away from humanities.

“Studying history in university doesn’t mean you have to be a historian. It means you’re good at questionings things and thinking about things,” she said.

Reports from the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre show early applications for university entries have dropped by 23 per cent compared to this time last year – in comparison, applications for a Bachelor of Arts in history have dropped by more than half.

Early-bird applications for WA universities. Data: TISC.

Ms Baron said fewer students were pursuing humanities across the board due to pressures for them to take STEM subjects.

“This will create a generation of people who don’t question things,” she said.

“Kids love history, but you have this very consistent push to do science.”

Masters of Teaching Humanities major Cobie Wise said studying humanities helped her to develop a critical mind and communicate effectively.

“If we want to make the world a better place, the best way to do that is through educating kids about the right values,” she said.

Ms Wise said she’s studying to be a teacher to help people learn how to communicate effectively rather than “what a lot of people do now, just yelling and not listening”.  

Professor Clark said history and humanities teachers need more resources and support for professional development.

“You can invest in the most interesting and radical history syllabus in the world, but if you don’t back that up with teachers it’s not going to work,” she said.

Year 12 students studying modern history currently have a choice between Australian, Russian or Chinese history.

The School Curriculum and Standards Authority examination report said Russian history was studied by the largest number of students, while the Chinese elective produced the highest average grade.

The Australian history elective was not mentioned in the report.

Ms Baron said most schools don’t offer the entire curriculum: “They’ll have one history teacher, and they’ll choose based on the resources they have and what they know.” 

Professor Clark said learning about Australian history was important, but it can’t be taught in a vacuum.

“Students are telling us that teaching Australian history doesn’t work, and that it’s boring. But it needs to be taken into a global context and intersected with narratives like the history of migration, civil rights, and war.”