Ponderance

(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

How to Lose the History Wars!

Wednesday, July 07, 2004
The Australian's Higher Education section reports that the History Wars have prompted some very silly ideas floated at the Australian Historical Association conference this week:
Western Australian heritage consultant Cathie Clement has also proposed, in a discussion paper to be considered by historical organisations this week, that historians should "avoid discrediting their profession by attempting work beyond their level of competence". Her suggestions came under assault from various arms of the historical community yesterday, with warnings that they would stifle the open debate over white relations with Aborigines. University of Wollongong historian Greg Melleuish said parts of the proposed code were "to put it mildly, outrageous, because they seem to want to suppress open discussion". "It strikes me a bit like pedophile priests, you don't put it out in public, you keep it in the church," he said. Dr Clement has battled with Keith Windschuttle, who criticised the works of academic historians, including Lyndall Ryan over whether colonists killed Tasmanian Aborigines on a large scale. [...] Dr Clement begins her issues paper saying "public ignorance of the standards expected of historians" had contributed to Dr Ryan becoming the target of a "media witchhunt" created by Mr Windschuttle. "The support she expected from her professional association did not eventuate, leaving the Australian Historical Society open to a sharp rebuke," Dr Clement writes. In her code of ethics for historical associations, Dr Clement suggests: "Historians should not publicly question the integrity or competence of their colleagues. Complaints of this kind should be directed to the executive of their professional association." Mr Windschuttle said some of Dr Clement's proposals would inhibit free speech. "If the integrity or competence of a historian or anyone else deserves to be publicly questioned, then it should be done," he said.
If, as my historian colleages often remind me, the credo of the good historian is "Criticism, criticism, criticism again and criticism once more", then stopping debate seems antithetical to good historical practice. That said, Windschuttle's attacks have been ungrounded and unfair and his so-called history (which strike me more like history-bashing and historian-bashing) seems extremely questionable. However, I think this because of things I have read in public debate between historians (and others). As someone outside the Australian Historical Association, but deeply concerned with how Australia's history is being (re)written, I think keeping historical debate behind closed doors would be unnecessarily limiting to the public discussion that will eventually show 'history' like Keith Windschuttle's to be absolutely groundless. All of that said, I still have a great deal of sympathy for Lyndall Ryan and historians in similar situations, I just don't think ending debate is the solution.

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