The research and writing for this project was undertaken by Dr Kay Dreyfus, with funding from the History program.
‘If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.’ – Michael Crichton
The use of history is a question that has occupied historians and philosophers for more than a century. There is clear evidence of a significant popular interest in history: history has its own television channel while four of the Academy Award nominations for 2015 went to films based on historical events.
But what value does history have, other than as an entertainment, especially at a time when the pressure of the knowledge economy has shifted focus to the more practically instrumental value of scientific and technological innovation as proper companions for research?
Broadly speaking, history shows us what it means to be human. English historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood famously wrote that ‘the only clue to what man can do is what man has done’. Knowledge of the past is essential if we are properly to understand present realities and make informed and rational judgments about the future.
The study of Australian history enables us to better understand who we are as a people, the distinctive characteristics of our culture, how we are adapting to rapid change and what gives us the capacity to adapt, enabling us to be one of the most successful multicultural nations.
Australian history at Monash University
Monash University, the first University to be established in the State of Victoria in over a century, was founded in 1958 as part of a huge post-war expansion in tertiary education. The University, including its School of History, began accepting enrolments in 1961 with an initial intake of 357 students. Unencumbered by entrenched traditional practices, Monash was committed to a more modern, less conservative approach.
The teaching of Australian history was part of the Monash curriculum from the beginning. The earliest appointments included Geoffrey Serle (as Reader) and A.G.L. Shaw (as third foundation professor), men of established reputation as Australian historians who were also committed to the consolidation and expansion of the profession of history both within and outside the University.
In the fifty years since Shaw’s appointment in 1964, the Monash history program has established a commanding reputation in shaping and growing the field of Australian history. Reflecting broader changes within universities generally, most staff is now ‘research active’, producing a stream of books, book chapters and refereed journal articles on a diverse range of subjects. The history program is ranked 5 in ERA which is the highest ranking at international standard.
Understanding Australian Society
The first publications to come out of the School fell into two broad categories: biographies of distinguished men and archivally-based national histories strongly rooted in a sense of place. As the School expanded, the discipline diversified. Resisting strict classification, publications now embrace a range of different kinds of history: urban, Aboriginal, immigration and race relations, women’s, colonial, social and military. No longer is the historical narrative the perquisite of the magisterial authorial voice. Now, more often than not, the subjects speak for themselves, either directly in their own voices, or obliquely through documentary records of their lives. Oral history and the history of public and private memory assume new importance in this ‘history from below’. Public history, also taught and practised at Monash, places the historian as a disinterested expert at the service of the public.
Australian cultural history, at least in one version, is very much a Monash story, one that links research and writing to teaching and learning, beginning with Geoffrey Serle’s experimental honours classes that led to his book, From Deserts the Prophets Come (Heinemann, 1973; Monash University Publishing 2014), and continuing through Ian Turner’s pioneering work on Australian popular culture. Turner’s co-authored Cinderella Dressed in Yella (Heinemann Educational 1978) captured the rhymes of children at play while his posthumously published Up where Cazaly? The Great Australian Game (Granada/Palladin, 1981) canonised his annual Barassi Memorial Lecture, ‘a satirical piece of showmanship in which [wearing a Richmond beanie, beer can in hand] Turner discussed the academic implications of football’. Other publications in this field include John Rickard’s Australia: A Cultural History (Longman, 1988, rev. 1996), and Graeme Davison’s Car Wars: How the Car Won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities (Allen & Unwin, 2004), blending social and cultural history as it celebrated the mass appeal of the automobile and documented its impact on the growth of Australian cities.
Community engagement has been a feature of the practice of history at Monash since the beginning, fulfilling Graeme Davison’s vision of the historian as ‘a disinterested expert at the service of the public, putting his or her skills in historical analysis to work as one of a team of professional advisers or consultants’. Davison, an urban historian appointed to Monash as professor in 1982, was the first historian member of the Victorian Historic Buildings Preservation Council (from 1976) and its first non-legal chairperson. He acted as advisor to the National Museum of Australia (2003-4) and, as president of the Australian Historical Association, drafted the profession’s response to the Dawkins White Paper on reform to the higher education sector.
As biographers and historians, Geoffrey Serle and Alan Shaw were foundation members of the editorial board of the monumental national enterprise, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, serving as section and general editors. Together they founded the Friends of the Latrobe Library (State Library of Victoria). Serle was a member of the Building (Classification) Committee of the Victorian Branch of the National Trust of Victoria; Shaw was Chairman of the Rublic Records Advisory Council of Victoria.
Alistair Thomson has collaborated with major cultural institutions to generate new archives of oral histories and to produce resources for radio and the web which communicate research findings for a broad public audience. In this centennial year, Thomson’s Anzac Memories (1994/2013) has made a key contribution to public debate on how, at the collective or public level, a nation-defining event is remembered.
As the senior researcher for the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion project, Andrew Markus has undertaken seven national surveys between 2007 and 2014. These surveys have yielded, for the first time in Australian social research, a series of detailed reports on social cohesion, immigration and population issues. By probing below the rhetorical surface, the results provide nuanced analyses, rather than a one-dimensional response to immigration, an issue that has emerged as a major political concern affecting our future.
History and the achievement of a just society
In a series of recent government inquiries into difficult chapters of our past, historical research has proved to be essential to the achievement of reconciliation and social justice. Monash historian Marian Quartly’s co-authored book The Market in Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption (2013) gave voice to those who continue to live with the consequences of separation and loss through adoption. At the same time it documented the history of women’s activism that led to the Commonwealth apology, in March 2013, to ‘all those who have experienced pain and suffering through adoption’. Andrew Markus’s study of the impact of European actions on Aborigines in the Northern Territory in the first half of the twentieth century, Governing Savages (1990) was one of the historical studies that informed the Human Rights Commission Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Bringing Them Home (1997).
Prizes and awards
A number of books by Monash authors have won or been short listed for major literary awards.
John Rickard, H.B. Higgins: The Rebel as Judge (Sydney, George Allen & Unwin Australia P/L, 1984) Age non-fiction book of the year, 1984. His Class and Politics: New South Wales, Victoria and the Early Commonwealth 1890-1910 (1976), was winner of the Ernest Scott Prize for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand in 1976−77.
Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1978-2014) won the Ernest Scott Prize in 1978−9.
Geoffrey Serle’s, The Golden Age took out the Moomba Book Award for Australian Literature (1964) and was co-winner of the Ernest Scott Prize for History (1962–3). Serle’s From Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788–1972 (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1973) was awarded a 1974 National Book Council Award for Australian Literature. His biography of John Monash (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1982) won four major awards, including the Con Weickhardt and Wilke Awards, the National Book Council Banjo Award and the Age Book of the Year.
Alistair Thomson, Moving Stories: an intimate history of four women across two countries (Manchester University Press and UNSW Press, 2011) was awarded the United States Oral History Association International Book Award in 2012.
Bain Attwood’s The Making of the Aborigines (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989), was the co-winner of the 1990 W.K. Hancock Prize, awarded for the best first book published in 1988 and 1989 by an Australian historian. It was short-listed for the 1990 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards A.A. Phillips Prize for Australian Studies. His Rights for Aborigines (Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003), won the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards, State Records Prize and was short-listed for the 2004 Ernest Scott Prize for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or colonial history, and the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Best History Book Award.
Attwood’s Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History (Carlton: the Meigyunyah Press, 2009) won the 2010 Ernest Scott Prize in 2010; the 2010 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards, Australian History Prize; the 2010 Victorian Community History Awards 175th Anniversary Prize; and was short-listed for the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Best History Book Award.
Christina Twomey, Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War Two (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), was winner of the John and Patricia Ward History Prize, NSW Premier’s History Awards, 2008.
Andrew Markus, Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001) was shortlisted in two categories for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2002: the Community Relations Commission Award and the Glee Books Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism.
Mark Peel, The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 2003) was short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award (Non-Fiction) in 2004.