Daily Archives: February 24, 2010

‘The Discovery of Australian History 1890-1939’ ed. Stuart Macintyre and Julian Thomas

1995, 191 p.

I borrowed this book from the library primarily for its chapter on S.H. Roberts,  the author of “The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847”.   Despite my intention to read only that chapter, comments on my post about that book and discussion here and here regarding what we would now call “political correctness” and historians led me to read the whole book.  I certainly do not profess any great knowledge here at all: I have read only this one book and a couple of other bits and pieces.

My gut-feeling was that the question of political correctness was anachronistic( i.e.  relating a phenomenon to the wrong time), and having read this book, I found nothing to disconfirm that view.  The book, edited by Stuart Macintyre and Julian Thomas (both of whom contributed a chapter) is a series of biographical sketches of key figures of the first and second generations of academic historians.  The focus is not so much on biography, but on the “profession and discipline” of history, both personally and as a field of intellectual endeavour.  Because of its time-span, the “sandstone” universities only are represented: George Arnold Wood and Stephen Roberts at Sydney; A.V.C. Melbourne at Queensland; G. C. Henderson and Keith Hancock at the University of Adelaide;  Edward Shann at the University of Western Australia;  Ernest Scott, Jessie Webb, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Max Crawford at the University of Melbourne..

It is sobering to remember that until the 1890s, there were only three universities- Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.  At the University of Sydney prior to Wood’s appointment, history was included under the umbrella of natural history, or part of the classics. The University of Adelaide offered a chair of modern history and English language and literature. History had long been taught at the University of Melbourne, closely associated with political economy, law and the classics but the early holders of the chair were not recognizable as academic, research-based historians.  For many decades, there would only be the one professor at the single university in each state, with one or possibly two assistants and he – always ‘he’- would lecture across all history subjects presented. (A post on the women in this book will have to wait for another day).

The selection of any one professor was often not in the hands of the university at all- the University of Melbourne for example, delegated an English selection committee, based in England, to make the appointment.   Universities resisted what they perceived as government interference: at Melbourne, the chair had included history and political economy, but the second field was dropped in expectation of State government funding for a separate chair of economics or political science.  This funding did not eventuate because the university would not agree to the government’s stipulation that the new post be filled by one ‘whose views and training accord with Australian traditions and conceptions of economic matters’. (p. 72).  In their selection practices, and the talent pool to which they looked, Australian universities were integrated into an Imperial network.  Without exception, these academics gained their post-graduate qualifications  in England- predominantly at Oxford, with one or two in London.

And  to the extent that these Australian historians were involved in politics at all, it was generally at a British Commonwealth level through various Commonwealth bodies and sub-committees. They also contributed to ABC broadcasts as public intellectuals.  Two economic historians, however, played policy roles within government. Shann was very much involved in a sub-committee of the Australian Loan Council during the 1930s and later on a committee investigating unemployment under the Lyons Government- an involvement that he was later criticized for.  A.V.C. Melbourne was heavily involved in imperial trade policy.  As far as “political correctness” is concerned, George Arnold Wood seemed to have been affected most by it: after criticizing the British government for taking military action against the Boers, he was given only one lectureship up to 1916 and he felt that the university was unjust to him. Nonetheless, his appointment spanned 1891-1928.  The blurb on the back of the book writes that:

The path was not an easy one. The times and the institutions were conservative, resistant to change and new direction.

Institutional conservatism is clearly apparent but political conservatism less so. Certainly many of these historians had deep-seated political beliefs (Shann, for example was a Fabian; several of them embraced Liberalism) and publicly participated in the elite and  intellectual milieu of their societies. The chapters in this book do not pay much attention to the content of the histories produced by these historians, but there seems to be no suggestion that they tempered the narrative of the histories they wrote for the political government of the day.

The history discipline itself, across the world, underwent a huge change during these years as it shifted away from an antiquarian and chronicling emphasis to adopt von Ranke’s emphasis on primary sources.  Here there was fertile ground.  It was these historians who were involved, with others, in the compilation of the grunt-work of Australian historiography- the Australian Dictionary of Biography (Keith Hancock) and supporting,  the compilation of Historical Records of Australia (Wood and Henderson, among others; Scott was involved in writing a rather critical report on the project). It’s hard now to imagine that these sources were ever not available, but Henderson wrangled for five years with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, with the support of successive South Australian governors, over access to government dispatches, enclosures and reports relating to South Australia. The Secretary of State refused to give general access to records beyond 1837, although was willing to consider special cases for records up to 1860 and perhaps beyond (p. 39). When you look at the index, there is reference throughout the book to the  Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, the major professional body to which these academic historians belonged.

In the introduction Macintyre and Thomas note that the essays in their book

resist the temptation to chart a clear line of historiographical progress, whether in the form of an evolution from literature to science, or in the emergence of Australia as the subject of narrative or analysis, or the growing prestige and sophistication of the university. (p. 7)

I felt as if there was a qualitative difference between the chapter on Max Crawford, and the other chapters- as if there was a fundamental shift that occurred at the end of the timeline of this book.  The Cold War was no doubt largely responsible for this, as well as the ushering in of a more mass-oriented tertiary education system. I’ve just been looking, through Google Books, at the introduction and conclusion to Fay Anderson’s book  “An historian’s life: Max Crawford and the politics of academic freedom” . In her conclusion, she observes that selection committees considered the political affiliations of candidates for academic posts from the 1930s (p. 372) and suggests that the study of self-censorship among historians would be a fruitful area for research.

Certainly, I felt in reading these essays that they described a different world, a different intellectual milieu.  The huge expansion of university education in the post-war years brought a whole new environment with more students, a broader pool of historians vying for academic posts, a more defined set of local academic peers, and less integration with the imperial academic network.   All of this is much more familiar to us now, more conducive to intellectual jousts over the content of one’s history and I suspect, more responsive to party-political pressures than this earlier, elitist and empire-driven era.