Trivial and Serious Pursuits


is finding where we are in time and space

to try to understand
what happens and how and why,
how humans behave generally and how they could behave.
It is learning about consequences and possibilities.

It is the narrative that we are programmed to love, and to tell down the ages.
It is the detective story that can never be completely solved, but intrigues
with its puzzles, its discipline and its frustrations.
It is the pursuit of truth that is the never-ending story.

Australian History or the History of any nation
must be about the history of the whole world
or it is parochial

No child should leave primary school
without a time-line and a world map in their head

Every primary classroom should have on the wall
a time-line and a map to place everything that is studied

Historical information useful only for answering multiple-choice quizzes interests the intellectually curious. But wider historical knowledge is needed to ensure that school-leaves can have a job, can learn from how real people in the past have lived together rather than only from TV entertainment or current fashions, and can have a fuller life as a contributing citizen in this time of critical decisions about leaders, economics and the future.

Learning from history

  • What happens to nations with tough steel-spined, charismatic, gutsy expensive leaders with 'a touch of the larrikin', great for TV images, who 'decisively' made disastrous decisions - leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, Napoleon, and Ghenghis Khan.
  • And when leaders, despite many faults and a quieter image, were far-seeing, imaginative, compassionate, honest, courteous, and to some degree selfless - for example, Solon, Pericles, Saladin, Alfred, Sejong, Jefferson, Lincoln, Attlee, Chifley, Curtin, Mandela.
  • What happens in history when greed and circuses rule and an oppressed underclass grows.
  • Importantly for Australians, what happened to the hundreds of dead civilisations now lying amid deserts and wildernesses, who fouled and destroyed their resources, or died through climate changes their forest-clearing may have helped to induce.
  • "We stand upon the shoulders of giants to see further" (Isaac Newton ). Geniuses recognise and make the most of this. Dark Ages have been times when the past, with its crimes, follies, heroism and achievements, has been forgotten. Knowing next Saturday's lottery numbers is not enough to save us in the future.
  • As Longfellow did not quite write:

    "Lives of past folk may remind us
    We can make our lives sublime
    Though future cynics fault our footsteps
    Tide-washed from the sands of time."


Why isn't Alternativ History the history that is read in schools today?
Because there are always temptations to make history boring.

Other sorts of histories are often taught in schools.

'GEOGRAPHY IS ABOUT MAPS, HISTORY IS ABOUT CHAPS' describes one interesting sort of history for children, apart from leaving out half the human race.

'HISTORY IS WHAT YOU CAN REMEMBER', as Sellars & Yeatman's definition, is at least brief.

History as DATES AND BATTLES AND KINGS to be learnt by heart did give a framework of time passing, but nothing within the framework.

History as SOCIAL HISTORY OF 'THE PEOPLE' without real individual human life was worthy not doubt but very dull until one reaches the age that one does start to wonder about what the world was like without toothbrushes.

History as 'TRANSECTS' and 'MODULES' and 'THEMES' which is the modern idea of history in schools is ideal for Edbiz special kits and CDs and 'other learning materials and activities' but the student ends up a collection of quilt patches but not enough for even one coherent bedspread, and no framework to sew them into.

History as TRAINING LITTLE PROFESSIONAL HISTORIANS means 'activities' in which students are given say two items of information from archeological or other primary data, and are then asked to make sweeping general conclusions about what that society was like.


The study of history in schools today has suffered fragmentation,

loss of interest in knowledge,
disbelief in the pursuit of truth,
devaluation of memory, decline of humanism,
antipathy to class teaching as 'authoritarian'
and lack of teacher skills to hold a class by teaching, and defects in teacher training
'holistic' ideals that dispute the practical compartmentalisation of knowledge into subjects to make it teachable, but make the problem worse by resort to isolated 'modules',
blinkered utilitarian values held by bureaucrats,
changes in class organisation,
poor reading skills of students,
short attention spans,
deteriorating quality of textbooks,
the proliferation of blackline masters and excessive reliance upon their transitory value.

In the past, history has often been an unpopular subject, because of
a) the ways it has been taught, and
b) the needed qualities of students who enjoy it.

the ways history has been taught,
History as dates and battles and kings.
History as social history of 'the people' without human life.
History as 'transects' and 'modules'.
History taught by reading from textbooks and examined on memory of dates and 'facts'.

The qualities of students who enjoy the study of history: -
- a love of reading and story, verbal abilities, imagination ('the ability to consider what may be possible, in real life, not only in fantasy'), early access to fascinating books, early glimpse of the scope and inspiration of history - eg. through Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia,1 Time Friezes, books that covered a whole period, historical fiction - brilliant teachers, and school textbooks that are well-written and illustrated.
Not many students today are equipped with even a few of these advantages.

History is the daughter of Time, where everything has beginnings and probable endings - a sustained narrative sequence. Dipping a toe into a rock pool arouses questions about the ocean.
History has always been linked with memory and with records.Ý Without memory, no 'fact' can be understood.

History should be an illumination of the mind, not a burden on the memory (Lord Acton)

1 Arthur Mee presented an idealistic Glorious Martyrs view of history, rather than a Black Armband, and his enthusiasm counted for more than the jingoism, belief in progress and excessive sorting of sheep and goats.Ý He glorified the achievements of all races and of women also, despite his excessive pride in his own Englishmen. He wrote for children as children, not adults, but children who are intelligent and curious, and able to share his delights, and indeed, he was able to do this without any patronising because he was like a grown-up child himself. And the illustrations were romantic and exciting and aroused imagination and idealism.