The Educational Legacies of the History Wars

History is frequently studied and taught in national categories, contributing to the development of national identity, and often utilised as a political instrument of nation-building. In Australia, the struggle over the national story resulted in the formation of a national curriculum, in an attempt to ‘guarantee’ that Australian young people would develop a shared historical consciousness of the nation. What is taught in classrooms about the nation’s past, however, has largely remained a black box. In this article we explore the narratives of the nation mobilised by pre-service History teachers who were studying history in school at the peak of the history wars, showing the influence of the same on their historical consciousness; underscoring the importance of directly engaging public history in the classroom.
Languages: English

Since the 1988 bicentennial[1] of the nation, Australia has become acutely aware of rival narratives of the nation. Many graduates of today’s History teacher education programmes carry the legacies of the history wars in their historical consciousness. In exploring the narratives they mobilise about Australia’s past, the need for direct engagement with public history becomes obvious as a classroom imperative.


Struggles over the National Story

History is frequently studied and taught in national categories; and given its perceived role in nation-building, History as a school subject is regularly an area of public debate, government disquiet, and a site of struggle over collective memory and cultural literacy.[2] Rival narratives of the past from Indigenous, ethnic and national minorities, and sometimes regional neighbours, have interrupted the incontestability of received national narratives, resulting in very public skirmishes over what history is being taught in schools. Australia has experienced more than two decades of public and political struggle over its national narrative[3], the latest conflict arising around the book Dark Emu[4] as a result of the publication of Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate.[5] In Australia, the struggle over the national story resulted in the formation of the Australian curriculum, as a sort of ‘guarantee’ that Australian young people would develop a shared historical consciousness of the nation. However, History classrooms and the historical narratives shared within them, as an important site of public history, have largely remained a black box in the decade since the national curriculum was first implemented. This certainly led us to wonder if the national narratives mobilised by pre-service History teachers shed light on the future, and the past.

Peering into the Black Box

Pre-service History teachers represent those individuals who will be tasked with teaching the nation’s past to future generations. Thus, they are public historians in the making. By developing an understanding of the narratives pre-service History teachers mobilise and exploring the influences on the formation of these narratives, we hoped to gain some sense of both the narratives these prospective teachers were exposed to during their formative years, and the narratives they were likely to share with their future students. Consequently, we borrowed the methodology developed by Létourneau[6], asking 97 pre-service History teachers to “Please tell us the history of Australia in your own words”.[7] Participants were given 45 minutes to write. No internet access was permitted, and we refused to answer the common question about “When should we start our narrative?”

From Gondwanaland to Federation

Most participants started with reference to the Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) past, though a few were clearly ‘Big historians’[8] and began their narrative far back into geological time when Gondwanaland was still part of the mega-continent Pangea. An even smaller number started with Federation and the official formation of the Australian nation. In this regard, we really left up to the participants to determine where they saw the boundaries of the “imagined community” of the nation.[9] Once the narrative scripts were collected, they were analysed by the research team, seeking to identify the topics and tropes the participants mobilised in the telling of their nation’s history. The particular cohort who formed the participants for this study hold a particular significance as a research sample, in-so-far as they had all studied History as a school subject during the height of the ‘history wars’[10] and we were interested in whether this had impacted the narratives they would share.

Constructing Historical Significance

88 of the 97 participants in our study engaged with Aboriginal history in the stories they told, with 72 specifically addressing British colonisation.[11] 71 referenced World War I (WWI; a topic of great significance in the curriculum, in national debates over what should be taught in schools, and in public discourses about what is worth celebrating or commemorating as a nation),[12] but only 29 mentioned the European exploration of the continent, a topic that was once central to the curriculum. When Aboriginal history was discussed, the overwhelming majority of the participants concentrated on events from the colonial period described as invasion, dispossession, segregation and assimilation (n=58); while a significant number gave additional attention to what have become known as ‘the stolen generations’ (n=44). It certainly would seem to be a victory for the curriculum authors of the early 1990s that so many students engaged with Australia’s firs nations history in this way; an indication that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, so often forgotten,[13] had finally found its place in the national consciousness. However, what we found in the narratives told a different story than what this might suggest.

Our Participants’ Stories

Some of their responses may be instructive in this regard (italics are our emphasis):

  • Aboriginal people had a spiritual connection with the land; their purpose for life was to care for the land. If they did not do this they had no purpose. Different to the white settlers’ viewpoint on land and land use. They viewed land for expansion and industrial reasons. This caused many tensions between English settlers and Aboriginal people, the ignorance of the white settler cause Aboriginal people and their culture to be discriminated and devalued. [#21]
  • From an indigenous perspective, Australian history has been fraught with the annihilation of the Aboriginal race through to the assimilation in order for white settlers to gain dominance over the land and therefore resources. [#40]
  • The Aboriginal people, however, lived on Australia for many thousands of years, before being invaded by Europeans . . . The lives of the Indigenous community were still being valued as inferior; Aboriginals could be killed without major concern. [#37]
  • For the aboriginal people this meant they were displaced from their land and many thousands were killed as Europeans expanded. At the same time, guerrilla warfare began to take place between the aboriginals and the new settlers as both sides fought for the right to their land. [#74]

What is clear from a close reading of the above excerpts from our participants’ narratives, is that Aboriginal agency and resistance is almost entirely absent from the stories being told (#74 being the exception). There is sympathy towards Australia’s first nations inhabitants, and even a certain sense of outrage at how they were treated in the colonial past. However, strikingly absent from the 97 narratives was any mention of an Aboriginal resistance leader by name, except a singular mention of Pemulwuy (1750-1802), a member of the Bidjigal clan of the Eora people who were the original inhabitants of the areas we know as Toongabbie and Parramatta (retaining right into the present, names of Aboriginal origin). From 1790 until his assassination in 1802, Pemulwuy, then living in the area of Botany Bay, mounted a guerrilla campaign against the colonists. Other resistance leaders, such as Windradyne of the Wiradjuri (who occupied the Central West region of New South Wales, beyond the Blue Mountains), and Tarenorerer of the Tommeginne people (in Tasmania), are nowhere to be found in our participants’ narratives.

The Great Australian Silence

The tone of the narratives is marked by a negativity towards the Europeans who had colonised the country, but concerningly first nations people are constructed almost universally as victims of European imperialism and oppression, with little room for agency. The result are stories that rehearse a view that has dominated the Australian national consciousness, in which Aboriginal people have consistently been depicted as a ‘dying race’ (fuelled here by the lack of resistance), which likewise continues to feed into the “great Australian silence” that had erased the violent conflicts of the colonial period from public memory.[14]

Wearing the Black Armband

We would undoubtedly expect to see differences if the data was collected again today, as historical consciousness is always historically located. Members of our sample had their historical consciousness forged in the crucible of the history wars. The perspective that dominates is what Geoffrey Blainey dubbed the ‘black armband’ perspective, a mournful view that projects a one-sided picture of the colonial past, in which Europeans were the oppressors and Aboriginal people were victims without agency. Undoubtedly this is the narrative that many of our participants would carry into the classroom, and while we might applaud the attention to past wrongs, a strong sense of the strength and pride of Aboriginal people would still be missing.

An Important Lesson

This study offered us an important lesson. It demonstrated that our pre-service History teachers are successful consumers of public history in general, and the dominant discourses of Australia’s past in particular; and that given the opportunity, it is these dominant discourses that they readily mobilise. This underscores the importance of engaging public history directly in the classroom, and in the seminar, if we seek to engage with the past beyond the popular sentiments of our time.


Further Reading

  • Debra J. Donnelly, Robert J. Parkes, Heather Sharp, & Emma L. Shaw, “Remembering Australia’s past project: Pre-service history teachers, national narratives and historical consciousness,” Curriculum Perspectives (2019), vol. 39, pp.159-168. DOI: 10.1007/s41297-019-00087-z.
  • Heather Sharp, Robert J. Parkes, Debra J. Donnelly, “Competing discourses of national identity: History teacher education students’ perspectives of the Kokoda and Gallipoli campaigns,” International Journal of Research on History Didactics, History Education and History Culture (2017), vol. 2017 pp. 73-94.

Web Resources


[1] “The year 1988 is an important one in Australian history, being the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet from Portsmouth, England to Port Jackson (Sydney), New South Wales. This event effectively began the modern history period of Australia, being the first colony established on the continent” (p .1). Heather Sharp (2011): Australia’s 1988 Bicentennial: national history and multiculturalism in the primary school curriculum, History of Education, DOI:10.1080/0046760X.2011.625557.
[2] Tony Taylor, & Robert Guyver (Eds.), History wars in the classroom: Global perspectives, (London: Information Age Publishing, 2011); Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, & Ross. E. Dunn, History on trial: Culture wars and the teaching of the past, (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 1998); Sirkka Ahonen, “Post-conflict history education in Finland, South Africa and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Nordidactica: Journal of Humanities and Social Science Education, (2013) vol. 1, pp. 90-103; Terry Haydn, “History in schools and the problem of ‘the nation,’” Education Sciences, (2012) vol. 2, pp. 276-289.
[3] Stuart Macintyre, & Anna Clark, The history wars. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003); Robert J. Parkes, “Reading History curriculum as postcolonial text: Towards a curricular response to the history wars in Australia and beyond,” Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 4, (2007), pp. 383-400; Robert J. Parkes, “Teaching History as historiography: Engaging narrative diversity in the curriculum,” International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, vol. 8, no. 2 (2009), pp. 118-132; Robert J. Parkes, & Heather Sharp, “Nietzschean perspectives on representations of national history in Australian school textbooks: What should we do with Gallipoli?” ENSAYOS: Revisita de la Facultad de Educación de Albacete, vol. 29, no.1 (2014), pp. 159-181.
[4] Heidi Norman, “How the Dark Emu debate limits representation of Aboriginal people in Australia,” The Conversation (July 8, 2021),; Ben Wilkie, “Dark Emu debate highlights problems with labels,” Sydney Morning Herald (June 16, 2021), (last accessed 27 September 2021).
[5] Peter Sutton, & Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2021).
[6] Jocelyn Létourneau, “Remembering our past: An examination of the historical memory of young Québécois,” In Ruth Sandwell (Ed.), To the past: History education, public memory, & citizenship in Canada (pp. 70-87). (Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, 2006).
[7] This research was conducted as the Remembering Australia’s Past (RAP) project, funded through the Strategic Networks and Pilot Projects (SNaPP) scheme of the Faculty of Education Arts, at The University of Newcastle.
[8] Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big history: From the big bang to the present (New York: The New Press, 2012); David Christian, (1991). “The case for ‘Big History’,” Journal of World History vol. 2 no. 2 (1991): pp. 223-238.
[9] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 1983).
[10] Stuart Macintyre, & Anna Clark (2003), The history wars.
[11] Debra J. Donnelly, Robert J. Parkes, Heather L. Sharp, & Emma L. Shaw, “Remembering Australia’s past project: Pre-service history teachers, national narratives and historical consciousness,” Curriculum Perspectives (2019), vol. 39, pp.159-168. DOI: 10.1007/s41297-019-00087-z
[12] Robert J. Parkes, & Heather Sharp, “Nietzschean perspectives on representations of national history in Australian school textbooks: What should we do with Gallipoli?”
[13] Chris Healy, Forgetting Aborigines, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008).
[14] Bain Attwood, Telling the truth about aboriginal history, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005).


Image Credits

Invasion Day Melbourne 2021 © 2021 Matt Hrkac CC BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Citation

Parkes, Robert J., Debra J. Donnelly: The Educational Legacies of the History Wars. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 7, DOI:

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