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Australia, Papua New Guinea, and a Communal Blindness in Our History Education

by Jon Ritchie,
Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University

The teaching of history to Australians has been under the spotlight in recent years as experts, commentators, and politicians vie for command of the uses to be made of the past. This was very evident in the — one hopes — now concluded ‘history wars’ of the last decade or so. But the old warriors are oiling their rusty swords in preparation for what may be yet another battle, perhaps one that will be particularly bloody in this election year. The field for this battle will be broadly centred on the new national history curriculum, being developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Agency (ACARA).

Already some soldiers have sallied forth, decrying the curriculum as too stodgy, or too Asian- or Indigenous-focused, or too political, too left-wing, or too Australian, or insufficiently international. Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard has made an early effort to calm things down by describing the approach as ‘neither white blindfold nor black armband’. With the warriors getting ready for a stoush with apparent relish, it is hard to see — from an historical viewpoint — that her desire for pre-emptive peace in the classroom will prevail.

Fighting, battles, war: is it perhaps too easy to cast the study of history as the study of violence? Yet history shelves in bookshops and the History Channel both attest to our abiding fascination with our violent past.

One aspect of our history that so far hasn’t received much attention — despite the abundance of war and fighting stories included in it — is that of Australia’s long association with Papua New Guinea. It should not be necessary to remind people about some of the key elements of this history — tales of derring-do, heroism, sacrifice, fighting and adventure in Kokoda, Buna, Gona, Milne Bay, featuring ‘choco’ soldiers, the 2nd AIF, kiaps (patrol officers), missionaries, gold prospectors and assorted other misfits and ratbags. Even the more recent history including independence in 1975, a long-standing commitment to development assistance since then, and contemporary concerns such as Bougainville, raskols, and failing state rhetoric should be known by many Australians. Yet, despite the strong reasons for our being familiar with this story, there seems to be a communal blindness to this part of Australia’s past. We could hope that the new national history curriculum might be a venue for helping to correct this blindness, and yet from the draft consultation pages published by ACARA this might be forlorn.

The draft content descriptions contained in the curriculum documents (available at http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au) include attention to general capabilities, such as numeracy, intercultural understanding, and literacy, as well as cross-curriculum dimensions, importantly featuring Indigenous perspectives and Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia. So far, the draft curriculum extends from Kindergarten to Year 10, with material on Knowledge and Understanding, Skills, and Performance Standards at each year level. It is encouraging to see engagement with cross-cultural aspects of our history, including relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and the Asia-Pacific region. It is disappointing, however, to dig a little deeper and learn that ‘Asia-Pacific’ really means Asia and not the Pacific. It is deplorable that such mention as the Pacific region gets completely ignores the most populous nation in the Pacific, and the one with which Australia shares the longest (and bloodiest) history, our nearest neighbour (only three kilometres away), Papua New Guinea.

The Pacific region features — albeit in a minor, tangential way only — at three year levels: Year 6, Year 9, and Year 10. Year 6 students will look at how Australia’s links to the British Empire and the Asia-Pacific region in the 19th century influenced Australian society. Older students will explore societies in the Asia-Pacific world, with Fiji the solitary standard-bearer for the Pacific (Year 9), and Australia’s influence in the Asia- Pacific as an example of international cooperation (Year 10). That, however, seems to be it. It would have been nice — no, it should have been mandatory — if the curriculum had included the impact on Australian history of its close to a century as a colonial power, of its having fought a war on PNG territory with Japan, and of its continuing role as a leading aid provider.

Admittedly the curriculum is draft only, and the consultation process is continuing. It may be too early in the battle to venture a serious sortie, but on the other hand there are good reasons for making a pre-emptive strike. At the time of writing this, the draft curriculum for the later years of secondary school remain unpublished, and maybe there is scope for Australia’s long and close relationship with PNG to be included. Ensuring that this happens, and that the Pacific and PNG feature more prominently in the earlier year levels, will depend on what ACARA hears from its current consultations.

Citation: Jon Ritchie, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and a Communal Blindness in Our History Education. Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/australia-papua-new-guinea

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Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/australia-papua-new-guinea