History, philosophy, and the new Australian National Curriculum

There was an interesting discussion of history on Radio National’s Future Tense this morning. It is noteworthy that this discussion should have taken place on a program devoted to matters of the future. There is, of course, a dynamic tension between past and future, and the program title (Moving forward, looking back) captures this nicely.

The discussion centred largely on the significance of history in the formation of public policy, although it was acknowledged that history is relevant to everyone, and should be ‘part of lifelong learning’. The participants were also keen to discuss the websites for the Alfred Deakin Research Institute and Australian Policy & History, as resources for policy makers and other interested parties. The idea is that historians should be available for consultation in situations where important decisions are being made, in much the same way that, say, economists are.

Modern philosophical preoccupation with history began in the nineteenth century. Early discussion centred on the interpretation of ancient texts. It wasn’t until the twentieth century, however, that a more radical understanding of history emerged, particularly in the work of German philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Addressing the Enlightenment notion of historical objectivity, Gadamer pointed out that there is no abstract point outside of history where such objectivity could be attained. It is simply part of the human condition to be immersed in a set of circumstances, which both forms us and which we form:

In fact history does not belong to us, but we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being. (Truth and Method, London: Sheed & Ward, 2nd ed, 1979, p. 245; originally published in 1965 as Wahrheit und Methode, Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr).

This notion of immersion in the circumstances of life is what philosophers refer to as the hermeneutic circle.

The theme of historical situatedness was taken up by French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who paid particular attention to ‘narrative’ as an organising principle that brings together disparate ‘facts’ about our existence as individuals and groups. We do not merely understand ourselves as a collection of facts, but rather in terms of a narrative that we are continually creating and re-creating. ‘The narrative constructs the identity of the character, what can be called his or her narrative identity, in constructing that of the story told. It is the identity of the story that makes the identity of the character’ (Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 147–8; originally published in 1990 as Soi-meme comme un autre, Paris: Editions du Seuil).

From a philosophical perspective, then, our very self-identity is inseparable from an understanding of our situatedness in the flow of history. In order to understand ourselves now, we must interpret our past, but we can only interpret our past according to the preoccupations and prejudices of the present. History is never simply about what happened in the past. It is never ‘finished’ in the sense of reaching a totalising comprehension, but reinterpreted over and again. This is not a relativist position, however: such interpretations must be substantiated with evidence that is discovered using the methods of historical inquiry.

If the present cannot be interpreted without recourse to the past, then neither can the future. All of our hopes and predictions for the future can only be expressed in terms of where we are now and, by implication, where we have been. This is the case at the personal level as much as the social one. As a person I exist in that tension between my understanding of my past and my anticipation of my future. What I call my ‘present’ is in fact this dynamic state of tension.

Today’s program acknowledged the significance of the appreciation of history for our future. Reference was made to the new Australian National Curriculum, which similarly acknowledges this significance. In its 2009 discussion paper, Shape of the Australian Curriculum: History, the National Curriculum Board (NCB) wrote that history ‘enriches the present and illuminates the future’ (Point 2.3), and that it is ‘a distinctive and indispensable form of understanding’ (Point 2.4).

Historical inquiry involves the retrieval, comprehension and interpretation of sources, and judgment, guided by principles that are intrinsic to the discipline. It yields knowledge that is based on the available evidence, but remains open to further debate and future reinterpretation. It develops in students the ability to recognise varying interpretations of history and to determine the difference between fact, opinion and bias. (Point 2.6)

History stretches from the distant past to the present, and provides a deeper understanding of present-day events as well as the enduring significance of earlier ones. It introduces us to a variety of human experience, enables us to see the world through the eyes of others, and enriches our appreciation of the nature of change. (Point 2.7)

Having laid down these general philosophical principles in the Introduction, the document describes the aims of the proposed curriculum in terms of students developing ‘knowledge and understanding of the past in order to appreciate themselves and others, to understand the present and to contribute to debate about planning for the future’ (Point 3.1).


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5 Responses to “History, philosophy, and the new Australian National Curriculum”

  1. Mark Pegrum Says:

    It’s interesting to read about this show – and your reflections on it. Do you know Anthony Giddens’ work on the importance of constructing one’s own narrative in the late modern age? Essentially the idea is that as external sources of identity (family, community, church, nation, etc) have become weaker, individuals have increasingly become responsible for authoring their own narratives. His main book dealing with this issue is “Modernity and Self-Identity”, Polity, 1991. You might find it an interesting read if you don’t know it already.

  2. Simon Kidd Says:

    Thanks, Mark. Yes, I’m familiar with Giddens. His writing is influenced by the hermeneutic tradition in philosophy, especially Ricoeur’s work on narrative. It’s always interesting to see how these ideas percolate into other disciplines and culture in general.

  3. erasmid Says:

    Heavy duty thinking there. It raised a thought:

    The weakening of traditional external sources of identity raises problems for us as educators, particularly where the new group identity patterns reject traditional educational values but the society is democratic. The curriculum can say anything, but what the students don’t want to know they will forget. Without understanding the circumstances of past decisions, and without understanding the complexity of the real world, how can the voters ask the key questions of their representatives?

    One child – an online type – said “But if I thought about other people’s feelings before I did stuff, I wouldn’t be me.” How do we change the self-concept to be “I am a person who can change”?

    I think that the teacher’s abilty to shift the student’s ideas of who-I-am is the key, and part of that is strong narratives of who other people were and who they became. Too many of our history stories seem to be as though the individual was always so: as Ken Robinson said, “Who has thought of Shakespeare being a baby? … Or a seven-year-old?”

    I wonder whether that will be less so in future, as youthful indescretions are captured in the cloud memory. Will students hunt out the teenage facebook pages of a new Prime Minister?


  4. Simon Kidd Says:

    Thanks Julie. There seem to be two related points there. The first concerns democratic participation, and the second concerns self-identity.

    Regarding the first, there is an assumption that voters don’t understand the circumstances of past decisions, or the complexity of the real world. I would argue that there are degrees of understanding among individuals, depending on their background and aptitudes. The point of philosophical hermeneutics, of course, is that there can be no objective, third-person perspective outside of time and circumstances. So understanding will always be provisional and ongoing.

    Regarding the second, self-identity is at the very heart of philosophy. What’s the point in anything if we don’t have some understanding of who we are? Of course, there is no consensus on who we are! So this is one of those questions that each individual can only really clarify for him or herself. Philosophy here is a useful tool for preventing simplistic, dogmatic or premature answers to the question.

  5. Julie Says:

    I can see how it might have seemed that “voters” could mean all rather than some. It is hard to combine brevity and accuracy sometimes.

    My main concern was the group identity sets which are closed to learning about history / current reality as viewed by anyone but their group, particularly when this is linked with a belief that individual mental / emotional characteristics are immutable.

    So yes, I agree totally with your response.
    Philosophy rules, even if no one hears it.

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