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Looking back to move forward: valuing history in education

The History Council of New South Wales has launched a statement emphasising the value of history and the ways in which it can enhance many aspects of our lives.

Delivered by Dr Stephen Gapps at the recent Annual History Lecture in Sydney, the statement argues that teaching history and learning from the past are essential in providing a “foundation for future generations”.

“With common agreement, commitment and open conversation about why history is important, we believe the historical community can change perceptions of the value of history and articulate its important role in the public sphere,” Gapps said.

Inspired by the US History Relevance Campaign, he added this was the first time the history councils across the country had collaborated on a campaign, signifying “the importance that needs to be placed upon history that may have dropped away over the last 20 years or so”.

Campus Review caught up with Gapps and asked him whether he thought history is valued in an education context, and also got his thoughts on changes he’d like to see to ensure a better appreciation of history.

CR: Do you think the value of history is fully appreciated in our education system?
SG: I think the value of history is appreciated, but it could be more appreciated, particularly in education. It’s changed a lot over the last few years from what I understand. It needs to be treated more as a bedrock than other elements of the curriculum because it’s critical.

It’s a critical part of people’s lives in Australian society to understand history, and I think the importance of that is really strong in education, which has historically not been that good on teaching various and varied elements of Australian history. I suppose this is a reflection of broader changes in Australian history where we’re focusing, or refocusing, upon different areas that have been limited, forgotten or not talked about in the past.

There’s been a lot of focus on STEM and vocational learning of late. Do you think that’s contributing to subjects like history perhaps being undervalued?
It is. I mean, I’m no education expert, but I can see that there’s a focus on STEM that has been important. But has it been at the expense of, for example, history? I think that’s the question. And whether people have really understood the connections between history and all the other elements of education, I think that’s perhaps something that’s been left aside a little.

The Value of History statement says one reason why history is important is that it can contribute to our economic wellbeing. Can you give us some examples of this?
We don’t really see history as having an economic value. It’s not an obvious thing. We might see it a little bit in terms of the heritage value of a certain property, but we tend not to see how history, mostly (but not only) in terms of heritage, underpins a lot of economic enterprise.

A few examples are in museums. They’re critical in terms of creating jobs and tourism opportunities, and history tourism and heritage tourism are really prominent, but they may be packaged up in the other sorts of tourism. Museums might be part of a broader tourist circuit, but they’re still talking history and making economic transactions around history.

Heritage is a good example where there’s a monetary value upon the heritage fabric of our buildings and our places. But it’s about the landscape as well. The natural environment has … a really significant element of historical importance as well as its natural significance as well.

I think when you try and unpack or unpick the role of history as an economic factor, it’s quite difficult. But it is actually there. It’s important to understand its financial value, which often gets missed.

Is our appreciation of history hindered by our fast-paced, high-tech world, or is it enhanced by it?
That’s a good question. I think it’s a bit of both. For example, recent historical research has dramatically been changed by new technology. As a historian, 20 years ago there was no such thing as digital records. Trove was not around. Nowadays, there are so many more research opportunities – what would’ve taken you years of research previously can now be done in seconds.

That’s another reason why people don’t see history in their daily lives: we’re constantly using historical information that’s online, but because it’s been digitised and is no longer in stuffy old books, we tend not to think of it as history, but it is. I think that’s been a wonderful change with new technologies. I certainly couldn’t have conducted some of the research I’ve done recently without it, but we do tend to value it less when it’s ready to hand in a digital format.

If there was one policy or legislative change you could make to improve the appreciation of history, what would that be?
In terms of heritage, we need to really consider stricter guidelines on landscape and urban development, and restrictions around that. We tend to think of, for example, the fringes of Sydney as real estate and space for development. Whereas once we do that, we lose the historical value of those places, or it has to start again. So stricter planning controls would be a great thing.

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