The history and substance of Western civilisation that are essential to understanding our present and shaping our future are not being taught to history undergraduates.
Instead, the focus of a typical undergraduate history degree has shifted from the study of significant events and subjects to a view of the past seen through the lens of the identity politics of race, gender and sexuality.
The Institute of Public Affairs’ audit of the 746 history subjects offered in 35 universities – The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities – has shown that the movement that sought to infuse the humanities curriculum across the Anglosphere with identity politics has come to fruition.
Identity politics encapsulates two main ideas.
The first is that an individual’s political position (and many other things, such as moral worth) is defined by their identity. The second is the way in which a person is to be treated is decided according to that person’s identity.
The suspicion that history as an academic discipline has been successfully hijacked by left-wing cultural theorists is no longer hearsay or speculation. The audit reveals that at least 244 of the 746 history subjects belong to the social sciences. History departments are replete with subjects that examine the study of human society and social relationships, not historical events or periods. Take for example Gendered Worlds: An Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of NSW; Masculinity, Nostalgia and Change offered at the University of Western Australia; Monash University’s Nationality, Ethnicity and Conflict; and the University of New England’s Being Bad: Sinners, Crooks, Deviants and Psychos.
None of these subjects belongs in a history department.
In comparison, of the 746 subjects on offer, just 241 explain the material and technological progress and belief systems of Western civilisation.
That there are fewer subjects devoted to what can be termed as the essential core topics of Western civilisation than social science topics is evidence the humanities have been captured by the left-wing exponents of identity politics.I have quoted at length because it captures the tone of the report. In essence:
- The IPA believes that an understanding of the history and substance of Western civilisation is important in understanding our present and shaping the future.
- The IPA has defined what it believes to be the core components that should be included in the study of history if the first is to be achieved, these are set out in the report, and has a program to promote its ideas.
- The IPA has analysed course titles and summaries. The methodology used is actually unclear, but appears to to be based at least in part on a computer analysis of the frequency of words
- This is then compared to the IPA's desired model to generate conclusions.
To start with two smaller examples both drawn from the University of New England where I have a degree of knowledge.
A UNE course entitled Being Bad: Sinners, Crooks, Deviants and Psychos is specifically identified a a course that should not be taught at university level. The title is designed to grab student attention. The actual course outline reads:
This unit will examine the development of our attitudes and approaches to law and order through a study of some of the most infamous crimes and criminals in the British world between 1700 and 1900. A series of case studies ranging broadly over space and time, will be considered from both historical and criminological perspectives. This will reveal both changing patterns of deviance and criminal behaviour and the evolving efforts to regulate and prevent it. Students will learn how to find, use and evaluate evidence about crime and use it to understand the development of modern society.That is clearly a university level course. However, the second. UNE course mentioned in the report, Professor Howard Brasted's Women in Islam, does appear more problematic at first sight. Here the course outline reads:
This unit is aimed at understanding the complex world of Muslim women today. Among the themes are: the Islamisation of women in Asia, women in politics, both at grass-roots and elite levels, Muslim women in the workforce, feminist perspectives both western and Muslim, the role of the media in defining Muslim women, stereotyping, Muslim women and religious participation and Muslim women and seclusion in a modern world.You can see how this description might lead you to conclude, as the IPA appears to have concluded, that this is an example of the type of fashionable identity/fashionable cause course that they (and indeed I) complain about.
A friend recently enrolled in this course. It is one of the most intellectually challenging courses I have seen, not one for the faint hearted. It begins with the emergence of Islam, the way power, politics and survival in those early days created different beliefs. It looks at the different interpretations of the Qur'an (students are advised to get several translations so that they can compare) and the various beliefs that emerged around the basic document. All this is traced through to the present time to help delineate current attitudes. The focus is on women, but you can't understand that without the rest. This is a truly genuine university course of the older type, By the end, you will have had a basic education in Islamic studies, not just women in Islam.
I was fortunate enough to do university level history in a past age, one of fewer choices but greater capacity for depth, one before the vocational and the need for immediate return became so dominant. All my courses were full year courses, not modules.
In first year, History I covered prehistory to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.In second year, my pass course covered European History from the fall of Rome to the Council of Trent. My honours course covered the English Reformation. In third year, my pass course was Modern European history, with the honours course focused on the American Revolution. In my honours year I took prehistory, philosophy of history and Australian history plus the obligatory thesis, in my case on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life. So I have done just the type of broad studies IPA wants.
Sadly, or so it seems to me, those days have gone and will not come back. Here the IPA report is a hindrance, not a help, to those seeking change, for it does not address the real issues.
History is no longer seen as a core discipline. As a consequence, and as Professor Trevor Burnard points out:
History gets funded, along with English and Philosophy, at a lower rate than any other subject as a result of Australia’s peculiar policy of funding subjects at different levels depending on supposed cost of delivery and perceived social benefit. The government and student funding per university history student is $12,165. Funding for a student doing Politics is $16,591 and for Media $18,979 – much higher than for History even though how students are taught is similar.
It was the federal government under John Howard that first introduced this funding system, ironically given his supposed enthusiasm for History as a subject. And Simon Birmingham has shown no sign of wanting to rectify what the Howard government did, in order to provide the resources to teach history effectively.History Departments and their staff struggle with increasing loads, with the need to reduce costs at a time when overhead costs are rising. They face constant threats as resources are progressively redeployed within corporatised institutions to gain the greatest financial and prestige yield for those institutions.
In a market system within and beyond institutions, they have to attract students to do at least some of their courses, hoping that some of those will be encouraged to go on. That means packaging courses to attract at least some of the students doing other degrees seen as being more useful or financially rewarding. I may disagree with student or official assessments, I think history and the study of history, is a fundamental and useful building block for just so many things, but few agree with me. To my mind, the remarkable thing about many of the historians in academe that I know is that they still hold to the faith, to the preservation of standards, to a belief in the value of history within the academy.
This, then, is my charge against IPA following this report. At a time when the academic history patient is on life support, the IPA is simply picking over the carcass, wishing to re-arrange the limbs. If the IPA, or Senator Bernadi for that matter, wish to see more studies relevant to the history of Western civilisation, then they need to campaign for more money for history in general. Otherwise, it's all piss and wind.