VOLUME 27 NUMBER 2
Narrative History: Truly Writing the Past.
The academic discipline `history' has been marked by recurrent discussion of its methods, its philosophical bases and its value. Such discussion can readily be traced through texts such as Carr's What is History,1 Elton's The Practice of History,2 Oakeshott's On History,3 and through more narrowly focussed discussions of methodological issues. One concern in such texts has been the status of narrative history, especially in relation to claims made against narrative in favour of a variety of non-narrative forms of historical writing and approaches to social history which appeared to pose problems for narrative.4 As early as 1979 Stone heralded a revival of narrative,5 and subsequent commentators have sought to soften the sense of opposition between narrative and non-narrative approaches, to reconceptualise narrative in more sophisticated ways and to reassert its position as a major mode of writing history.6 This paper responds to the claims made for narrative, by considering, in the light of poststructuralist theories, three still-problematic aspects of narrative history and considering briefly some possibilities poststructuralism opens up for narrative.
Many, if not most, discussions of the theory and practice of history place the faithful representation of the past at the heart of the discipline. Carr, for instance, presents the historian's task as reconstructing `what really happened'.7 Elton, while attacking Carr on many other issues, agrees. Starting from the claim that history involves `the study of present traces of the past' he moves to assert that history nevertheless `deals with man's past' to generate an `understanding of the past' which entails the `rational reconstruction of the past'.8 More recent texts say much the same thing. Lloyd, for instance, sees history as properly concerned with the attempt `to conceptualize and discover the real hidden structures of society and the real processes of social structural change',9 while Stanford, with a rather different notion of structures, insists that `the aim of historical understanding must be to grasp the underlying structure, not as an ideal of perfection but because accurate construction and representation are not possible without it'.10 The historian, in these accounts, is principally engaged in a project to apprehend and faithfully render, in some sense, what was - an approach encapsulated in the use of metaphors of discovery and revelation for the historian's enterprise.
This literature accepts that access to the past is itself a highly complex issue, and devotes considerable attention to the problems it poses.11 It deals with problems of understanding those residues of the past which comprise the historian's source materials, and of appreciating their fragmentary and partial (in both senses) character. Problems of understanding range from technical matters to do with comprehension of texts, associated with the changing meanings of words, to more abstract epistemological concerns with the ways in which historians' own biases and present-day interests, and their conceptual or theoretical schema shape their interrogation of the traces of the past in producing their knowledge of that past.
This literature also carefully avoids any semblance of crude empiricism. It offers an account of `faithfulness to the past' which involves the careful, judicious and knowledgeable weighing of evidence, the careful consideration of relations between facts, and the exercise of judgement regarding the significance of various data.12 Consequently, it suggests, each historian revisiting even well-explored historical territory will reinterpret it in the light of his or her own interests, concerns, theoretical and political perspectives and values. Each history of a particular event will be different, still faithful to the past, but bearing the marks of the author's own position in history. It is faithfulness to the past, understood in this elaborated fashion, which, the literature argues, is fundamental to the capacity of history to explain, or to yield understandings of human experience, understandings and explanations which, although they concern the past, and change over time, make the present more intelligible.
Many of the characteristics of historical practice outlined here, and of narrative history in particular, are exemplified in the following extract from a distinguished biography, drawn from the history of Australian education:
When Aristides Franklin Tate and his wife Bessy left Gravesend on 30 December 1854 they did not know that, four weeks earlier, the diggers had risen in Ballarat and that Melbourne had been swept with rumours of pillage and riot. Nor did they know that four hundred troops and police had stormed the Eureka stockade killing about thirty diggers and savagely quelling their ill-organized rebellion. But the Argus of 10 April 1855, the day on which their ship arrived in Melbourne, carried long columns discussing the findings of a commission which had reported on the condition of the goldfields and had supported many of the diggers' demands. To the shock of antipodean lawlessness was added other disconcerting news. The adventurous Tates had been lured across the world by the hope of finding gold, [but] the same edition of the Argus… reported that the production of gold had seriously diminished.
… [Nevertheless], the Tates loaded their few possessions on to a bullock dray and left Melbourne to go to the Mount Alexander goldfields which were centred on the town of Castlemaine about eighty miles north-north-west of Melbourne. They were to remain there for about eighteen years and to see displayed in their own lives the district's hopes and disappointments, the long periods of disconcerting tedium and the sharp lifting of spirits when it seemed that riches might be near at hand.
… They left Melbourne on a road, part of which still retains the name of Mount Alexander Road, and trudged across the Keilor plains, aiming to skirt the west side of Mount Macedon whose awkward, brooding shape was clearly visible from Melbourne. At Gisborne on the outskirts of the Black Forest and under the shadow of Mount Macedon was the well-known Bush Inn which, rumour had it, was the resort of bushrangers. At the Inn these gentlemen committed no serious outrages, though they might `quietly rob some of the drunken diggers that were usually hanging about under the house, or sleeping under the verandah'. But once the traveller entered the Black Forest the bushranger was more dangerous.
… As the Tates passed through there were… grim reminders of earlier failures and the scarcely-rusted remains of carts and drays which the Forest had destroyed. In some parts of the track their own dray had to bump uncomfortably across different sized logs which had been laid at intervals of nine or ten inches; in others Aristides might have had to walk ahead of the dray in order to guide it past large holes holes filled with mud and water which waited to trap the unwary traveller. When they had overcome the Forest's difficulties they arrived at the appropriately named Woodend, and then ten miles beyond Woodend, at Kyneton where on 16 October 1854 Aristides' brother, Robert William Tate, had taken up his appointment as headmaster of a Church of England school.13
Most obviously, this extract is about the past: it tells a story about what it represents as an historic group of people, in what it represents as an historical context. It treats `the past' in a manner which clearly values facticity and fidelity to the historical evidence. It is a model of careful, scholarly research: in its attention to detail, its careful comparison of dates and events establishing the Tates' necessary ignorance of Victorian events; in its careful distinguishing between those things for which there is (presumably) `hard evidence' (the bushranging, the state of the road, the rumours about the Forest Inn) and those which imaginatively interpolate as likely events, known practices relating to the prevailing conditions but for which there are no recorded details in this instance (Tate must have gone ahead); and in its careful placement of details in their broader context (the goldrush and the Eureka uprising, the `primitive' state of infrastructural development in the colony). The text also displays the obligatory signs of late twentieth century historical scholarship - footnotes. These demonstrate simultaneously its dependence on and fidelity to `sources', its recognition of other scholarship, and its `originality', showing that it is extending and amplifying whatever other scholarship might have established, not merely replicating it.
It is equally clearly concerned to explore and interpret that past, to render it meaningful. It does so, in part, by establishing the meanings that it might have had for those who lived it. It also explores the historical setting and its relation to the particular story it tells, suggesting the complex relations between the broad contours of society and environment, particular events with wide ranging ramifications, and particular individuals. In the process, it offers, if indirectly, a way of understanding the relations between material conditions, society and the individual more generally.
Educationalisation: A key concept in understanding the basic processes in the history of Western education.
Finally, as knowers, let us not be ungrateful towards such resolute reversals of familiar perspectives and valuations with which the mind has raged itself for far too long, apparently to wicked and useless effects: to see differently to that degree, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future `objectivity' - the latter understood not as `contemplation without interest' (which is, as such, a non-concept and an absurdity), but as having in our power our `pros' and `cons': so as to be able to engage and disengage them so that we can use the difference in perspectives and affective interpretations for knowledge. From now on, my philosophical colleagues, let us be more wary of the dangerous old conceptual fairy-tale which has set up a `pure, will-less, painless, timeless, subject of knowledge', let us be wary of the tentacles of such contradictory concepts as `pure reason', `absolute spirituality', `knowledge as such': - here we are asked to think an eye which cannot be thought at all, an eye turned in no direction at all, an eye where the active and interpretative powers are to be suppressed, absent, but through which seeing still becomes a seeing-something, so it is an absurdity and non-concept of eye that is demanded. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective `knowing'; the more affects we allow to speak about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we were able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our `concept' of the thing, our `objectivity'. (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887)
Long before there was talk of any `postmodernism' in philosophy or in historiography, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), with this citation from his Genealogy of Morality,1 pointed out that our perception of things - and thus also of the past - has always been colored by our perspective. Because we are biologically situated in a specific spatial (social and cultural) and temporal (historical) context, we can do nothing other than look from a specific standpoint (casu quo perspective) at what lies behind us. And since time always further blurs (and ultimately even erases or wipes out) the past, this looking-back unavoidably implies a `reconstruction' that attempts to recover `how it really was', as Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), one of the `fathers' of empirical historiography, was wont to say. However, our perspectivism - and this the French philosopher Michel Foucault convincingly demonstrated in the seventies of this century2 - means that this `re-construction' inevitably has the character of a `con-struction'. Each historian unavoidably proceeds from an artificially compiled set of data that were grouped (and regrouped) into a `text' that, according to the insight of Foucault's countryman Michel de Certeau (1925-1986), contains a predictable `unity of meaning'.3 To say it in a less complicated way, in the studying of history, we ourselves construct the story of what is past, and that story, whether we want it to be or not, is automatically influenced by the place and the position (rank, sex, nationality, age, and so on) that we occupy in the present. A suprahistorical Archimedian point from which the past could be read or moved is not granted to us mortals. One who thinks he has found such an Archimedian point is like the Baron von Münchhausen, or, what is worse, like a fanatic who always wants to prove he is right in a power struggle with his opponents.
To conclude that the writing of history is simply impossible because of this perspectivism or that it has to end up in boundless subjectivism, however, is not necessary. Except for the possibility of looking at something from several standpoints and positions - the `various eyes' Nietzsche urged in the citation above - there is still always the scholarly community that looks over our respective shoulders to see if our story of the past is `acceptable'. But here, too, we have to be aware of the fact that this scholarly community ultimately constructs its own `stories' and creates new `legends' and `myths'. Following Thomas S. Kuhn,4 we can speak of successive `paradigms' that have been dominant in the course of time. These are the more or less coherent complexes of laws, theories, applications, and instruments that belong to the essence of a consensus that rules, within a certain group of researchers, the available basic concepts, the residual problems, and the manner in which they must be approached. These paradigms are normatively charged and ultimately determine what is `scientifically' acceptable and what not (for example, what is published in prestigious journals and by leading publishers).
Illuminating for the study of this process was, without doubt, the introduction of the concept of `discourse', with which Foucault, in particular, set out to demonstrate how much `truth' and `scientific knowledge' are things of this world that function within a specific historical and social constellation and that produce effects of `power' within this social network. Every society possesses, according to Foucault, its own regime and general policy of `truth': it indicates the types of discourse that must be considered `true'; it generates mechanisms and authorities to distinguish between `true' and `untrue' contentions; it invents positive and negative sanctions; it generates techniques and procedures to acquire `truth' (knowledge) and assigns `value' to them, while it grants status to those charged with the promulgation of this `truth'. The history of human knowledge and science for Foucault thus comes down in large measure to the unravelling of these often hidden power mechanisms. It contains, in Foucault's terms, a patient construction of discourse over discourse, which it exposes again and again to new arguments and possible `transformations' - a task to which we, as human beings, are, as it were `historically' doomed.
Writing Landscapes for a Good Teacher.
Australian writer Helen Garner once remarked that when a first novel is published and reviewed, there is a loss of innocence; the author writes thereafter with the wariness of a millipede whose consciousness has been raised about how it moves its legs.1 It has taken me by surprise that there could be a historian's equivalent of this process. Helen Garner comes to mind because I am suffering from what I take to be the historian's equivalent of writer's block, the sort of existential nightmare which writers tell us about in the literary supplements to our Saturday papers.
My first major book, Knowing Women: origins of women's education in nineteenth-century Australia, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1996.2 Reviewers have been positive: by and large they have overlooked, or chosen to overlook, the shortcomings which kept me awake at night as the manuscript went into publication and out of my control. Intellectual coherence, academic imperatives and the encouragement of a commissioning editor suggested that I should write a companion volume on women's education in the twentieth century. It was this agenda which I placed before the Australian Research Council, and in 1996 I was awarded a large ARC grant to embark upon a major segment of the book: women teaching for the State in twentieth-century Australia. The research grant was a matter for celebration and an affirmation of the importance of women's history and education history in Australia. It allowed me to employ research assistants in the other states, to travel often and so on. I was therefore taken by surprise when my initial euphoria gave way to a personal and professional crisis about the project I had committed myself to. This paper is an attempt to think through some of these problems.
Perhaps the problem is that Knowing Women happened the other way around. It was the outcome of many years' research, reading, intellectual companionship and teaching which allowed me to find my feet as a historian and a writer. It did not begin in an intention to `write a book'. ARC funding and a contract with Cambridge came tumultuously together in the early 1990s to carve the book out of all of the above. The realities of getting history published in the Australian market and the realities of academic survival now dictate that we must learn to learn to work the other way round. I suspect that this is more than a matter of self-discipline.
Perhaps the problem is also in that couplet `historian and writer'. I don't want to embarrass my fellow historians by asking for a show of hands, but how many of us take ourselves seriously as writers as well as historians? There is a mini industry of theory claiming that history as a discipline owes something to the creative imagination; yet how often do those who make these theoretical claims go on to discuss what that means for the way they work? I have in mind here something beyond the injunction to write well. It is common enough to hear historians despairing of the stern encounter with the blank page. But why is it that we rarely encounter historians at writers' festivals - on either side of the podium? Indeed I could reformulate my question by asking: `How would you respond to an invitation from a Festival Committee to discuss your work before an audience of general readers? To talk about your work, rather than from your work: the encounter between self and archival texts, the intellectual passions which keep you going against the odds, the creative process, the skills of your craft - in other words, a `performance' that Greg Dening would do supremely well.3 R.J.W. Selleck could do it, but probably wouldn't.4
Personally, I would not be a historian if I did not believe history to be a creative process which allows me to share modest house room with the novelist and the artist. I am a historian, not an academic who satisfies the research requirement by doing a bit of history. I have never contemplated jumping ship simply because history has suffered an eclipse in faculties of education. Early in my life I developed an affinity with the past which survived my education at high school and university. An affinity with the past is difficult to describe; but we should be wary of historians who do not have it. An affinity with the past surely involves imagination and therefore creativity. In my case it came from my father, a deeply intellectual and introspective man whose family could not afford to send him to secondary school. He was passionate about the history of the goldfields in a way which historians in search of boundaries refer to as antiquarian. He taught me to see the town in which we lived as sketched in over the landscape of the past. I have carried with me ever since the doubled vision of the historian. Together we would walk through the bush to remnants of the Cornish miners' village, where we stood respectfully among stone foundations, ruined chimneys, gnarled fruit trees and the yearly display of daffodils, jonquils and snowdrops. That coming together of past and present, of place and of imagined people has stayed with me. It can even happen in the Public Record Office of Victoria!
My father had what writer and political commentator Donald Horne recently described as historical imagination, a state of mind which Horne urged upon policy-makers and politicians. My father would have intuitively understood what Greg Dening meant by `the symbiosis of Past and Present… made in the reading… of historical signs… that the Past is the Present when we are entertained by it'.5 What my father did not have was the opportunity to engage with the landscape as well as the figures. Many years later I encountered the Cornish miners brought into history when they entertained other historians with other agendas: as an international aristocracy of mining labour; as migrants whose determination to move as families ran contrary to the received wisdom of Australian masculinist history; as Methodist parents adept at exploiting the regulations of the Denominational School Board. I, too, have learned to do my homework; romantic encounters with the ghosts of Cornish miners are not enough. As a young girl from a country town I did not have the means to imagine myself as a historian. Two sets of circumstances mediated my arrival in the discipline of history. Firstly, as a teacher recruited by the educational State I acquired a university degree. I married, had children, and returned a few years later to teaching as we did in those days. Secondly, I became involved in the women's movement of the 1970s. For the women of my generation the women's movement gave us the means to imagine our lives differently. This abrupt remaking of self reinforced the doubled vision of the historical imagination. My new life as a historian and an academic is lived in the company of another self who might have lived my mother's life.
The legacy of this personal history is clear enough. The smallest inscriptions of ordinary lives in the texts of history are my preferred starting point, my signposts to the infinitely more prestigious territory occupied by ARC grantees and published authors. These lives have flowed into my own life and into my reading, thinking, talking and writing about history, women, and education in the last two decades. The urge to write, to capture on paper that engagement between the past and the present, begins in there somewhere and I know when it is not happening.
New Sources for the History of Australian Universities.
For historians of universities students are a problem. They are the institution's clients, the major reason for its existence, their number and character on entering and leaving a crucial test of its success or failure; yet because they are powerless as a group and individually have only a brief sojourn in the institution, they are peripheral to the story of its growth. Histories commonly meet this difficulty by dealing with students in separate chapters. Some, like S.G. Foster and Margaret M. Varghese's The Making of the Australian National University, succeed well within such a limitation. Others confine their comments to general discussion of the development of student organisations, student sporting and social facilities, and the occasional controversial episode. Inevitably, however, the material on students seems to form a hiatus in the development of the work's main theme. Furthermore, there has been little discussion of this problem. A significant indicator of the lack of awareness of it is Ideas for Histories of Universities in Australia, edited by F.B. Smith and P. Crichton, an excellent set of recent, revisionist essays but one in which students are barely mentioned. The contributors deal incisively with relations between the university and the community, institutional government, career paths for academics, and similar issues. The only essay that refers to students in a major fashion is Don Anderson's `Access to University Education in Australia 1852-1990…', which treats the student body en masse, as an object of policy..
It is possible to conceive of a history of universities that would place students at the centre of events, a sort of higher educational `history from below'. Such an endeavour would seek to get inside the minds of students by creating an appreciation of what it was like to be a student at various times in the history of the institution (that is, how the university functioned for students), how they viewed the university as distinct from how administrators and academics said it was, what being a student meant in terms of social status (and therefore how the university functioned in society), and what the attitudes and major activities of students were. It is also possible that historians of youth, an emerging group in the profession, might in the future heighten the focus on university students, and that social historians of other kinds might see them as a strategic subset of society for particular types of investigation. All these approaches, however, will encounter the problem of evidence.
It is a well-known paradox of the information age that so little information is available about parts of it. If this is true of the higher realms of government and other vital areas of power, where the rise of the camera, the photocopier, the telephone, the computer and other devices has made participants reluctant or careless to preserve data, it is doubly true of areas of powerlessness like student life. In histories of individual Australian universities student life has been seen partly through official university (and government) sources. Newspapers have also been used, the national or regional for the occasional sensational event, the student press with considerable caution, not to say scepticism. Some histories make use of collections of documents relating to the history of particular student societies, but the holdings of those collections in university archives (or elsewhere) tend to be few and incomplete. Autobiographies, the occasional set of letters, and a handful of other kinds of private papers usually round out the written sources. Adventurous (and well funded) historians have supplemented this unsatisfactory volume of evidence with interviews, themselves of limited availability and reliability since they are almost always conducted many years after the events that form their subject.
The purpose of this article is to alert historians to the existence of another range of sources and to illustrate its use. The records of national associations of student societies, such as the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM), the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF) of Evangelical Unions (EUs), and the Australian Union of Students (AUS) in their various incarnations, have been preserved and in some cases are very large. They provide therefore a wealth of evidence on the history of the national organisation, but, more to the point here, they also provide valuable contemporary evidence of each constituent body, that is, of particular universities.
The Rogers-Templeton and Pearson Royal Commissions: Contemporary Views of the 1872 Victorian Education Act.
`A more thoroughly useless document has probably never seen the light', trumpeted The Age newspaper on the release in 1884 of the report of the Rogers-Templeton Royal Commission into education in the colony of Victoria.1 Remarkably, considering the serious nature and relatively rare occurrence of royal commissions in general, and those into education in particular, this was not the first royal commission to look into the consequences of the 1872 Education Act, an Act which claimed to provide `secular, compulsory and free' education. Charles Henry Pearson, Oxford don, failed farmer and an important intellectual voice of the liberal movement, had conducted a Royal Commission into education in 1877. While the two Commissions were different in many regards, both had been asked to `(e)nquire into the whole administration, organisation and general condition of the existing system of Public Instruction',2 and to `report as to any improvement which may be calculated to increase the efficiency of education in the colony of Victoria'.3 The principal concern in both cases was the `compulsory and free' clauses of the 1872 Act. The Rogers-Templeton Commission had also been asked to inquire into the workings of the `secular' clause or, as the Commission put it, `the alleged grievances of a portion of the population'.4
The Act put education under the control of an Education Department and a Minister of Public Instruction responsible to Parliament and replaced the notionally independent Board of Education, which included proportional denominational representation, while also assigning an ambiguous, and eventually significantly weakened, role to the local control of education. The Act abolished state aid to denominational schools and attempted to eliminate religious education from the four hours of secular teaching each day. It also provided free education for all students in writing, reading, arithmetic, grammar, geography and drill. Extra subjects had to be paid for and every child between the ages of six and fifteen was required to attend school, until reaching the required standard of attainment, for 4 hours a day for 90 days in each 10 month period.5
This Act has been the subject of much controversy, being described variously as the triumph of the liberal conscience over denominational bigotry, the victory of State coercion over individual liberty and, more recently, as a failed attempt to coerce groups, such as the poor and women, into mainstream modes of thought.8 It is surprising, therefore, that the Pearson and Rogers-Templeton Royal Commissions should have received so little recognition by historians. Together they reveal the reactions of a cross-section of Victorian society to the education system for the twelve years following 1872 and provide a variety of contemporary evaluations of the Act.
This paper argues that these two Commissions, although differing in their attitudes to the religious question, reached substantial agreement on the nature and extent of the administrative problems facing the development of the fledgling Victorian Education Department. Their final judgments tended towards the view that the newly formed Education Department was plagued by seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Pearson believed the Department was in danger of imminent collapse and half the Rogers-Templeton Commission wanted it scrapped. Both Commissions believed that as it stood at the time it was poor value for money.
Despite these criticisms, governments failed to implement virtually any of the Commissions' many recommendations. Consequently, I argue, their primary significance lies in the evidence they offer concerning the evolution of educational administration in Victoria in particular, and in Australia more generally. They offer insights into the early development of public and social policy analysis. They represent an early manifestation of the belief that the use of scientific methodology was needed to more efficiently organize social conditions. In particular, the attempt of both the Commissions to evaluate the Education Department is an interesting early example of the use of expert analysis in the development of a public institution, while their reports give us some insight into the difficulty involved in setting up and running such an institution for the purpose of normalising the educational experience of the citizens of the State - all without the benefit of effective means of collecting data and measuring outcomes.