A passion for the past ... and the future

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Dani Cooper of the Age writes: The history wars are not helping to bring the country's story to the masses…IF Jill Roe has learned one thing in 36 years of teaching, it is that words matter. That is why the emeritus professor at Sydney's Macquarie University is urging state education ministers to put one word back into high school curriculums.The word? History. According to Roe, an expert in Australian and Australian women's history, the demise of history within schools can be tracked to the introduction of generic courses.With the exception of NSW, which still has history in its curriculum, in many other states, according to Roe, history has been subsumed into social-societal studies-style courses."The word [history] has been lost and therefore its identity has been lost," Roe says. "The whole question of retaining the discipline's identity in schools has major consequences for teachers and teaching. The notion that there is such a thing as historical knowledge gets downgraded ... the whole cultural heritage gets lost."The history wars are not helping to bring the country's story to the masses…IF Jill Roe has learned one thing in 36 years of teaching, it is that words matter. That is why the emeritus professor at Sydney's Macquarie University is urging state education ministers to put one word back into high school curriculums.The word? History. According to Roe, an expert in Australian and Australian women's history, the demise of history within schools can be tracked to the introduction of generic courses.With the exception of NSW, which still has history in its curriculum, in many other states, according to Roe, history has been subsumed into social-societal studies-style courses."The word [history] has been lost and therefore its identity has been lost," Roe says. "The whole question of retaining the discipline's identity in schools has major consequences for teachers and teaching. The notion that there is such a thing as historical knowledge gets downgraded ... the whole cultural heritage gets lost."
Macquarie University recently held a Festschrift honouring Roe's career -- one that has included a visiting professorship at Harvard -- after her retirement last year.However, it is retirement in its most minimal form, with Roe ending her undergraduate teaching but continuing to oversee postgraduates, while furthering her own research.The first of her projects to come to fruition will be a biography of Australian author Miles Franklin, to be published by HarperCollins later this year.Roe is also chairwoman of the editorial board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which with the help of an Australian Research Council grant plans to put all its volumes online. Now at volume 17, the dictionary traces the lives of our important historical figures dating back to 1788, across fields as diverse as politics to bushrangers.Roe gets noticeably animated when she talks about plans to place the work on the web."It is going to have a transforming effect on Australian history when all this information can be accessed by everyone [for free]," she says. "My dream is that kids will be sitting in school libraries and they will tap in a name and then all this information will come up."Burning with a missionary zeal to bring history to the masses, Roe is frustrated by the attention the recent wars over Aboriginal history received in the media."We have been very much inundated by a very important debate, but by a debate that isn't making much progress in the way history is growing and accumulating knowledge." Roe says "history wars" are nothing new, pointing to past debates on convict history and a very heated row over the benefit of the industrial revolution to workers which went "hammer and tongs".However, she says the media is not the place for those arguments."By their very nature of fish and chips tomorrow these debates [in newspapers] are not proper debates, they are short, they are unreferenced, they are unrelated to one another," she says.Instead, she sees these discussions enlivening the pages of the new Australian History Association's journal which she recently launched.The journal will publish the best in history research across all areas and Roe hopes it will find room for debate in contested fields such as Aboriginal history. For an academic entering into retirement, a conversation with Roe reveals a woman with a lot of work yet to be done.But it is work born of passion not just for the past, but for the nation's future.

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