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History focus can play an important role in reconciliation

Divides have deepened when understanding and healing should be our goals.

Our school system is partly to blame for this failure of knowledge and understanding. Far too little Australian history is taught. In fact, without radical action, the only school subject that focuses specifically on our history — “Australian history”, at year 12 — will die within the next five years, maybe sooner.

Last year, of 49,324 Victorian students to complete the VCE, only 628, or 1 per cent, did Australian history. Over the past six years, this figure has been almost halved, with almost 100 fewer students enrolling every year.

A key reason why so few students choose to study Australian history in year 12 is that little has been done in earlier years to fire their passion. History is not even a standalone learning area, but is subsumed within the broader “humanities”.

So across years 7 and 8, students complete only one short unit on ancient “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture”. Then, in years 9 and 10, there is another unit focusing on Australia during the world wars.

For many Victorian students, that is the sum of Australian history taught across their secondary years. At years 9 and 10, there is another optional unit covering the period from 1750-1918.

Three actions should urgently be taken to save Australian history in Victorian schools. First, history must become a standalone learning area like English, maths and science.

Because history is taught only as part of the humanities, it is given little space within the curriculum. It is also normally taught by humanities generalists who have not studied history themselves.

Historical skills, such as the analysis of evidence, are complex. We must recruit more specialist history teachers to make sure these are taught in an accessible and exciting way.

Third, the study of Australian history from 1788 to 1914 must become compulsory. Students love familiarity. So many of my former students decided against Australian history in year 12 because they would have had to learn the content from scratch.

Knowledge of our history alone will not bridge our deep racial divides. But without it, as the Victorian curriculum makes clear, the task is hopeless.

Dr Matthew Bach is a Liberal member of the Victorian Parliament and former deputy principal of Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar.

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