The Problem of History

Geoffrey Bolton.

I want to begin with some words of acknowledgement to Kenneth Binns, in whose honour we meet this morning. I met him once at a University House dinner. He was then, at the age of nearly 80, chair of the Commonwealth Film Censorship Board, and, although he later incurred criticism for wanting to ban Lolita, he had the reputation of exercising a calm common sense that carried conviction. As Commonwealth Librarian during the penurious 1930s and the Second World War, he had lacked the opportunities, which fell the way of successor Harold White during the prosperous Menzies era. But he was respected for having achieved a careful and valuable holding operation, including oversight of the Commonwealth archives and an early realisation of the importance of film as a historical source. In makeshift quarters and under tight budgetary constraints he led a notably efficient and helpful staff. In some ways this makes him an appropriate patron for the present day, when once again librarians and the custodians of our national culture have to work in an environment of grudging finance and increasing responsibilities. Let us honour the memory of Kenneth Binns.

In this overview of the problems of history, I intend unashamedly to begin by indulging in the old man’s vice of autobiography, partly by way of establishing my credentials, but also as an illustration of the changing fortunes of the discipline of history in Australia in the 60 years after the end of the Second World War. It was shortly after that event, in 1948, that I enrolled at the University of Western Australia . In the previous year my schoolteacher had asked me my career intentions. When I told him that I was wondering about journalism or law, he asked me if I was aware that there were people called university lecturers whose job it was to do nothing but teach history and perhaps to write about it. This was a revelation, and I acted on it promptly.

The professor of history at the University of Western Australia , then and for many years before and after was Fred Alexander, a product of Melbourne and Balliol College , Oxford . His own area of specialisation was the history of international relations, but he had a canny instinct for the way the historigraphical winds were blowing, and he managed to recruit two young members of staff who could sail with those winds. Both were products of Melbourne and Balliol, but each was very different from Alexander and from each other. One was John Legge, with a research background in the South Pacific and in Indonesia who was to take us into the uncharted realms of East and Southeast Asia . Legge also brought with him a delight in the philosophy and theory of history, which was a revelation and a terror to empirical youths like myself.

His colleague, Frank Crowley, the least theoretical of mentors, was to teach Australian history. Apart from Manning Clark’s famous course at Melbourne it was the first unit of its kind anywhere in Australia . Crowley was to forge an important alliance with the recently appointed State Archivist, Mollie Lukis, and thus to assemble an impressive land bank of primary sources from which he would deal out research topics to his senior undergraduates and postgraduates with the precision of a surveyor-general marking out territory. He was a great believer in systematic research training, having qualified from Melbourne with the first PhD in humanities anywhere in Australia . He also held a second doctorate from Oxford , and used to pride himself on the double distinction until Asa Briggs asked him innocently: ‘What was wrong with the first one?’ But Crowley and Legge were both inspired teachers, and between them, and with Fred Alexander’s shrewd patronage, a young historian could emerge with a good grounding.

I left Western Australia six years later in 1954 with a number of perspectives on history in Australia , which have since hardened into prejudices. Alexander in 1948 published an essay entitled Moving Frontiers, which sought to apply Frederick Jackson Turner’s, North American

frontier thesis to the Australian experience. This line of interpretation was of course to culminate ten years later with the publication of Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend, but for me, although entirely suburban in background, it had the effect of turning my attention to outback Australia as a topic for research. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the history of the Kimberley pastoral industry, and this awoke in me a suspicion that Australian history was not monolithic in character, but could best be understood as story of regionalisms—interconnected, overlapping, but distinct.

This insight co-existed uneasily with my perception that the powerhouse of Australian historical writing was to be found at R.M. Crawford’s department of history of the University of Melbourne . For years I envied contemporaries such as Ken Inglis and Geoffrey Blainey who grew up in that charmed circle, and consoled myself by observing critically that Melbourne’s pre-eminence came at the cost of a certain myopia, a tendency to assume that the intellectual templates of Melbourne, the Melbourne historical experience, held good for the whole of Australia. When for example, Ken Inglis related that his interest in Anzac Day and the memorials of Australians at war was stimulated by his curiosity that nobody at the universities was paying attention to these aspects of the Australian experience despite their prominence in popular culture, my response was parochial. Melbourne may have overlooked the impact of the 1914–1918 war, but Greenwood at Queensland gave it some attention (there is whole chapter on that war in his edited history Australia , published in 1955) and so did Crowley in Western Australia . This is in no way to belittle the magnificent results which have followed Inglis’s immersion in the commemoration of Australians at war; but it is to suggest that Melbourne ’s dominance of the field could stimulate reaction.

It might have been different if Sydney had offered a counteracting orthodoxy, but the teaching of history at Sydney under the leadership first of Stephen Roberts, then J.M. Ward, followed a different trajectory. They seem to have decided that if Australian history deserved attention it was best studied in an international context, and more specifically against the British background. This accorded with Ward’s strength in constitutional history, but when combined with the interest of the leading practitioners outside the university, such as Malcolm Ellis and C.H. Currey, it meant that there was comparatively little exploration of New South Wales history after the 1850s. When further professors were appointed at the University of Sydney they tended to be figures of international stature such as John McManners and Patrick Collinson, who might be expected eventually to return to England after making their contribution to the enhancement of Australian scholarly standards.

Of course it was also expected that scholarly standards would be enhanced by exposing young historians to a few years of overseas education: in those years usually at Oxford or Cambridge, although a few found their way to the London School of Economics, and one or two pioneers went to the United States—though not, so far as I am aware, to Canada, despite its potential relevance. It was not surprising that I chose Balliol College , since seven of Australia ’s 11 professors of history at that time were Balliol alumni, nor that in 1958 I was delighted to return to a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Australian National University in Sir Keith Hancock’s department at what became the Institute of Advanced Studies . He asked me to work on a commissioned history of North Queensland on the principle that it was in the same general direction as the Kimberley district. It was a fortunate time to arrive, since the next two decades were to be the halcyon years of growth for history in Australian studies.

Hancock set the example. Under his leadership the ANU was not just to be a sheltered workshop where a few fortunate researchers worked away at their masterpieces, but a leader and facilitator for the rest of Australia . So it was that national projects such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the interdisciplinary wool seminar came into being. Hancock also saw it as the ANU’s role to help fill the gaps where significant areas in history were not adequately taught in Australian universities. By appointing the medievalist Eleanor Searle his department gave a boost to the growth of that field and the arrival of Anthony Low with a mission to develop South Asian history produced a school of able postgraduates—‘the sepoys’—who brought India into the curricula of half-a-dozen universities in Australia and New Zealand.

But it was not just Hancock. At Adelaide, Hugh Stretton not only applied his own formidable intellect to issues of social conscience, but also brought together a constellation of scholars—George Rude, Ken Inglis and Allan Martin among them—who for a few years made up perhaps the liveliest departmental tea-room ever assembled in Australia. At the University of Queensland , Gordon Greenwood overcame provincialism to edit the series Australia in World Affairs. At James Cook, Brian Dalton made a virtue out of the remoteness of Townsville and founded a strong school of local and regional history, out of which Henry Reynolds emerged with the path-breaking work on conflict and compromise between Aborigines and settlers.

At Monash, John Legge constructed a syllabus which started with either modern Britain or the Renaissance and Reformation as two cardinal foundations of the modern world. His department then proceeded to offer three streams in which Australia and Southeast Asia might been seen as equal in importance to a Europe in which Britain was subsumed. A little later, at La Trobe University, Allan Martin became the first who ceased to ignore Latin America by the heroic expedient of teaching himself the subject so that he might teach others. Perhaps even more significantly, he brought together a group of ethnographically oriented scholars—Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac, and that epitome of the mature age graduates Inge Clendinnen—who were to produce distinguished and original publications pushing aside the barriers between history, sociology and anthropology.

So it was that by 1975 it might have seemed that history was covered thoroughly in Australian universities. In that year I was engaged in setting up what proved to be the last of the history programs at Murdoch University . An innovative measure which seemed to gain a positive response was an introductory course tailored to the needs of our large number of mature-age students, who were encouraged to begin by writing their personal and family histories. Then, having located great-grandparents who were cotton spinners in 19th century Lancashire, or fisher folk in the Aegean or gold miners at Ballarat they were required to read something about that society and report on it. In that way they might realise that history was not made by foreigners in funny clothes, but by their own flesh and blood.

Another experiment (because we were great on interdisciplinarity in those early years at Murdoch) was a course in Australian environmental history where students were drawn half from the social sciences and humanities and half from the environmental and biological sciences. It was a real challenge to pitch the teaching at a level which satisfied both cohorts, but we managed. We had intended to develop four fields: Australian, European, South-East Asian and North American but the funding cuts intervened before the last of these could be established. We had also noticed that one of the great gaps in undergraduate teaching was the Islamic world, but it proved impossible to convince the paymasters that the subject would ever command enough interest to warrant the cost of building up the library resources or engaging qualified staff. Apparently other Australian universities thought the same.

Murdoch University took it for granted that postgraduate training was integral to a university’s responsibilities. Even before the first undergraduates arrived I recruited two PhD students in the expectation that they would undertake tutoring and provide a generational link between staff and students. More followed. In later years, as university followed university in emerging from the chrysalis of the institutes of technology and colleges of advanced education, all of them straining to mount credible research and postgraduate programs, I have wondered whether this has led to an unacceptable dilution of resources.

Inevitably there will be postgraduates who because of the responsibilities of their job or home, or because they are retired and no longer fully employed, will require to study at universities in their home town. But it is not desirable that a student should pass their entire undergraduate and postgraduate years of study in the same department of history listening to the same mentors. Without endorsing the rumoured partition of the universities into three categories, one might consider that it behoves the smaller and newer universities to encourage their graduate students to seek places at centres of research strength such as the Australian National University and it behoves the Commonwealth Government to fund scholarships generously to facilitate such moves. It would be far cheaper than trying to build up credible research collections in every tertiary institution. But, as is common with old men, I digress.

Perhaps Murdoch was already a little old fashioned. Griffith University , founded in the same year with a comparable commitment to interdisciplinary, offered no specific program of history, although there was a historical component in its cultural studies and James Watter for some years tried valiantly to foster an institute of biography. Other challenges were arising. 1975 was the annus mirabilis for women’s studies, with the publication of Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police and Beverley Kingston’s My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Anne, with Miriam Dixson’s Real Matilda soon to follow. All served notice that the teaching of mainstream Australian history had tended to neglect the lived experience of 50 per cent of Australians.

Other groups who felt themselves too much hidden from history reinforced their claim. With the publication of W E H Stanner’s Boyer lectures on The Great Australian Silence, in 1969 it was not longer possible to confine the Aboriginal presence to a melancholy displacement in an early chapter. Some people perceived conventional historiography as too much reflecting an Anglo-Australian hegemony. Patrick O’Farrell’s thoughtful and discriminating analysis of the Irish contribution to Australia was only the first to proclaim that modern Australian society consisted not of second-hand Englishmen and women but of the product of several generations of ethnic diversity.

Meanwhile a younger generation of Marxist influenced writers, emboldened by the anti-Vietnam protest movements, were staking a claim for the role of history as a school for social action. If some of the young tigers of Arena and Intervention eventually became the grumpy old lions of Quadrant, others following the example of Ian Turner came to explore popular culture, including sport. Oral history achieved respectability as a source for the construction of history from below. But it is simply not true to assert that in those years the Left became the dominant paradigm in the teaching of Australian history. The ferment of the 1960s and 1970s ensured that no single orthodoxy would prevail. When at the time of the Bicentenary celebrations a group of practitioners of ‘history from below’ published a four-volume People’s History of Australia it must have been disconcerting to find that the ten-volume Australia series published in the same year by Fairfax, Syme and Weldon as an anthology of mainstream historians, shared most of the same perspectives. The history of everyday life was a staple of Australian historical writing.

Come forward to 2005 and the problems of history grow apparently darker. The utilitarian conventional wisdom of our governments with their mantra of ‘user pays’ has pressed heavily on many university disciplines, and history among them. The number of full-time staff teaching history continues to dwindle. In some notable departments Sydney and La Trobe for example, the number of staff is half of what it was in their heyday, though the number of students has not fallen proportionately. The staff who remain are ageing. Those under fifty are often much in the minority. There is no obligation to retire, and although most academics depart at around the traditional age of sixty-five, they cannot be sure that they are making room for the next generation. Often their position is suppressed or converted into the small change of temporary or part-time staff.

Lacking secure tenure, grappling with heavy teaching loads, young scholars seldom find themselves able to attempt major projects, and when they have time for research productivity they feel pressure to work on short-term projects which will result quickly in published articles earning brownie points from the ARC. Contrast this with the experience of the British mediaevalist Sir Richard Southern who at the age of 22 was elected to a fellowship at an Oxford college on the strength of one brilliant article. For the next 20 years he produced nothing of significance, though those years were punctuated by service in the Second World War and by much conscientious teaching. He then published The Making of the Middle Ages, by common consent one of the 20th century masterpieces in his field. Could any young Australian scholar dare to take so long in the production of a masterpiece? Even the best and most productive spend their lives in a hand-to-mouth progress through temporary appointments. We do not subject our athletes to such vicissitudes in their years of vigour.

Some branches of history, such as economic history, have almost vanished. In other fields, funding pressures are producing topsy-turvy consequences. Pressure to bring in outside funding has diverted a number of respectable historians whose specialist fields lie outside Australia from working in their own area. Instead they take commissions to write histories of Australian suburbs or business firms or sporting teams. These ‘hobby farmers’, to borrow a phrase from Tom Stannage, produce welcome revenue, but at a cost to the range and diversity of historical production in Australia . Meanwhile Australian historians are devising courses of international range, which will attract the enrolments even while they divert energy from the production of Australian research. Three popular courses at Murdoch University , for instance, are entitled ‘Disease in History’, ‘Witchcraft in History’ and ‘ Hollywood and History.’ In each case they are taught, and taught well, by academics whose main field is Australian history.

For, in this era of rising costs and constant funding cuts, history continues to command substantial and perhaps increasing popular interest. The growth of family history is apparently limitless. The audience for television history is not negligible, and on ABC radio Bill Bunbury’s ‘Hindsight’ programs are widely respected. Biography and old-fashioned narrative history survive as genres commanding the allegiance of a significant section of the reading public. (This of course avoids the question of how much longer the reading public will endure in the age of the computer, but I lack the gift of prophecy and shan’t enter into that subject today). So there is a considerable reservoir of public support, which might be tapped, and it might be mobilised to encourage increased support for history from both public and private sources. (And the private sector could do more. We have our various State premiers’ awards for history and biography, but where is our equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize?)

Part of the problem in recent years has not been an unawareness of the importance of history among our political leaders. It is rather that in recent years they have wanted to own our history, to support those interpretations of the past that sit most comfortably with their own political beliefs. Perhaps Paul Keating began the process in that notorious speech where he blamed British ineptitude for the fall of Singapore and associated the Liberal Opposition with that ineptitude and with what is described as the mindless anglophile and suburban conformity of the 1950s. Many historians would dispute that the 1950s were entirely like that, but the point is that Keating identified himself with a particular historical stereotype. It should not have been surprising that when John Howard came to power he, although at first less overtly tendentious, identified himself with a different historical stereotype, and that his government’s patronage of that stereotype has had controversial consequences.

Most of you will be familiar with the debate over the National Museum of Australia , and I do not intend to rehearse it in great detail, but a few points deserve repetition. The National Museum had always been intended to include a strong historical component since 1975, when John Mulvaney and Geoffrey Blainey put their imprint on the seminal Piggott report. Moreover that historical component should include a very strong representation of the Aboriginal experience in Australian history. This was always understood, and when to its credit the Howard government decided to proceed with a project which previous governments had neglected for 20 years, it must have known that Aboriginal history would figure prominently in the National Museum ’s repertoire.

By this time, however, the interpretation of the Aboriginal story had become considerably embattled. The introduction of the Native Title legislation in 1993 with its creation of tribunals to assess claims meant a welcome increase in employment opportunities for historians. It also meant that research into the Aboriginal relationship with a particular piece of country was conducted for the adversarial dialogue of legal inquiry. This did not always make for a balanced impartiality. Native title also brought up the contrast between the Western traditions of historical scholarship, which place a good deal on reliance on the written record and an Indigenous epistemology, which places greater emphasis on communitarian oral tradition. (And this issue is not unique to Australia , but has also surfaced in Canada and New Zealand ). In short, when work began on the National Museum in 1998, the presentation of Aboriginal material possessed much more potential for controversy than it would have if the Museum had been built 20 years earlier. This contrasts with the Australian War Memorial, whose displays were almost universally accepted as presenting a great message of democratic heroism following Charles Bean.

Then came Keith Windschuttle, with his Fabrication of Australian History. Windschuttle’s attack had some legitimate provocation. Some historians who had written about conflict between Aborigines and settlers allowed their sympathies to affect their judgment, so as to assert as fact anecdotes which could not stand the tests of historical proof. For them, in Henry Reynolds’ telling phrase, ‘The worse the better’. Reynolds himself is a careful scholar, but this did not deter Windschuttle from including him in his philippic or from prosecuting his case with an abrasiveness, which did little to convince the impartial. Debate grew inflamed. Two members of the Council of the National Museum , forgetting the cardinal rule of governance that governing bodies should concern themselves with policy, and management should be responsible for administrative detail, busied themselves with criticism of some of the museum’s historical interpretations. The director of the National Museum , who had achieved the remarkable feat of completing the building on time and within budget, felt obliged to resign.

An inquiry was instituted chaired by John Carroll, but found little evidence of malpractice. Carroll, however, consistently with his writings elsewhere, believed that there should be more emphasis on Australian heroes, citing Captain Cook and Burke and Wills as example. (Another example of Victorian bias: Burke and Wills were a couple of tragic incompetents, far less impressive than practical explorers such as the Gregorys and the Forrests who completed their missions efficiently without exposing their parties to unnecessary hardship and largely avoiding conflict with the Aborigines through whose lands they passed). But Carroll’s report had the result of defusing the controversy, and we may hope for a smoother future for the National Museum .

The most constructive outcome of the dispute, but unfortunately one which does not seem to have been followed up, was a suggestion by scholars of the University of the Northern Territory (now Charles Darwin University ). They argued that it should be possible to put together a database listing the casualties on both sides in Australia ’s frontier conflicts and classifying the death tolls as probable, possible or conjectural. Better statistics would make for better debate. This proposal met the objection that it certainly was not attainable because of the circumstances of outback conflict. Police and pastoralists might have an interest in reducing the body count; Aboriginal tradition might exaggerate or conflate the numbers. Even so, a more precise statistical recur could probably be compiled.

We should remember that, for example, Noel Butlin’s impressive researches into the Australian pastoral industry were based for the most part on statistics of sheep and cattle numbers gathered by half-educated police constables from busy station managers whose efficiency at mustering was variable. And this brings me to the point that Australian historical research will be greatly helped by the compilation of reliable databases, and that our libraries, with their increasing experience of computer technology, can play an essential role in facilitating the creation of such data bases.

Consider the use that can be made of family history. In both Western Australian and South Australia enterprising genealogists have compiled biographical dictionaries listing all the settlers known to have arrived in those colonies before 1888. In the case of Western Australia volumes have also been published listing the Aborigines in certain districts as well as 19th century Chinese settlers. These lists are inevitably incomplete and may contain inaccuracies, but they constitute an invaluable resource on the basis of which historians may undertake research on family patterns and fertility, social and geographical mobility, mortality and many other aspects of social history. There seems no good reason why similar biographical dictionaries should not be compiled in the rest of Australia , using family histories and using the volunteer labour of the genealogists.

This might seem a formidable assignment, especially in New South Wales and Victoria , but we might take heart from the example of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Compelled by their faith into genealogical research, they have stockpiled data accessible to all users, and many historians have not disdained to consult their sources. Secular Australians, even without advanced historical training, might contribute time, even an hour a week, in going through local ratebooks and newspapers. This is not an original proposal. It was made 50 years ago by Geoffrey Blainey, though in an era when the card index was seen as the instrument of record. But we have computer technology now, and, as well as providing a useful data bank, such a project would constitute an ongoing linkage between historians and a wider public.

Of course this is not the only way in which computerisation can provide better data bases. There are bibliographies; there are consolidated catalogues; and of course there is the Internet. History is a house with many mansions, and we shall require the papers of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin no less than the ratebooks of the Yass Shire Council as sources from which to draw our accounts of the past. I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that not even the most widely accessible of computer systems will replace the experience of entering a well-equipped library such as the National Library of Australia and enjoying the hands-on contact with the original documents.

I am not particularly urging that we experience a romantic moment of empathy with the writer of a document when we eye its contents 50 or 100 years after its production. Admittedly, in the case of hand-written letters one can sometimes deduce something of the mood in which they were written. But there are so many incidental serendipities about research: the misdated letter whose true context suddenly reveals itself, the lengthy report whose numbing boredom, one realises, must have been felt with equal depression by the recipient for whom it was first intended; the piece of evidence found in unlikely places. One such example was recently related to me by Tom Campbell who, when he was working on an aspect of religious history, was guided to a tariff report addressing the issue of customs duty on imported rosary beads.

Importantly, too, there is the stimulus to the imagination, which sometimes can be afforded only by immersion in the documents. Take one example. For decades scholars had used the Historical Records of New South Wales. These include a letter written to Governor Arthur Phillip by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Grenville, informing him that His Majesty King George III had read his reports of the successful establishment of the colony of New South Wales and had signified his pleasure at Phillip’s conduct. It took Manning Clark’s historical insight to imagine how, after more than two years without any communication from Britain , Phillip would have read that letter and realised that all the labour and hardship had not been in vain and that his service was appreciated in the quarter where it most counted. It is hard to imagine how this constructive interaction between historians and history can be generated other than by sustained hands-on research.

Of course I may be divulging a secret when I add that the reading rooms of the National Library of Australia constitute one of the best clubs in Australia . Here you are apt to encounter interstate colleagues whom you meet rarely and with whom you may talk shop and exchange useful comments. Occasionally these encounters may be disconcerting. I remember Humphrey McQueen accosting me with a cry of : ‘What are you doing here, Bolton ? Professors ought not to be doing their own research. They ought to be employing some penniless graduate student’. He had a point and I have used research assistants, but in the end succumb to the selfish pleasure of ordering up the files for myself and enjoying that moment when the pink ribbon is untied and the documents are opened for perusal.

None of this is to mitigate the problems for the historical profession, which I have canvassed earlier. Many of them can be addressed to some extent. Funding has been cut unsympathetically, but we are not worse off than the historians who were Kenneth Binns’ contemporaries and we have better technology to aid us. Politicians will continue to meddle with the past and journalists will beat up spurious controversies but the historians will always have the consolation of the last word. We will bury them. Our greatest concern should be the bleak outlook for younger historians, and the profession should do more to amplify their opportunities, and this may include a more imaginative use of our museums and libraries. At the end we may have to console ourselves with the old Jewish aphorism: ‘Where there is no solution, then there is no problem’. But historians who take the long view are nothing if resilient. We have, in company with our allies in the libraries and the museums, a good record for problem solving. Like the Abbe Sieyes who was asked in his old age to give an account of his activities during the French Revolution, we shall be able to look back on the present discontents and say: ‘I survived.’