Features Australia

Sex and gender in the British Empire, anyone?

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

In 440 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus broke with tradition by collecting primary sources and then systematically and critically arranging them into a narrative. In doing so, he essentially established the genre of objective historical writing, earning himself the epithet of the ‘Father of History.’

According to a coterie of historians currently practising their trade in Australian universities however, this is where Herodotus went wrong. In their view, Herodotus’ The Histories is rendered null and void as an historical source because he failed to frame his discussion of the Greco-Persian Wars in terms of class, gender or race.

The proposition that history be approached as a linear sequence of events and that the history of Western Civilisation should form the basis of an undergraduate degree has become so abhorrent to some that to suggest otherwise elicits howls of laughter or a torrent of vitriol. This was the gist of my recent report for the Institute of Public Affairs, The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017.

Worse still, the response to my suggestion that the pernicious ideology of Identity Politics has permeated history departments in Australia has been met with outright denial. But despite such protestations, there is no doubt whatsoever that many a history department has been well and truly shackled by Identity Politics.

Of the 746 history subjects currently taught across 35 universities, 244 reduce thousands of years of human history and all its nuances and complexities to the themes of class, race and gender. These are simply variations of the Marxist template used by British historian Eric Hobsbawm in the 1960s, when he deliberately re-wrote the history of the ‘long 19th century’ as being 125 years of class struggle. Hobsbawm transformed history as an academic discipline into a vehicle for social policy. Indeed, in The Rise of Identity Politics we demonstrate that the most commonly employed words in the subject titles and descriptions are ‘indigenous’, ‘race’ and ‘identity.’


Let’s look at some of the subjects proffered to history undergraduates in 2017 which fall firmly and squarely into the Identity Politics camp. At the University of Western Australia, students were able to elect ‘Community, Power and the Common Good’. In this subject, they ‘explored the community engagement and community empowerment through…social justice, power, equality and inequality, ethical public behaviour, theories of community building…’

In a similar vein, students enrolled in ‘Film and History’ at Flinders University spent their semester watching films to find out ‘ways in which films shape[d] the collective memory’ through their ‘portrayal of political and social change, war and society, class, race, ethnicity and gender, and national identity’.

Insofar as ‘race’ is concerned, students studying history in their third year at the University of Western Australia had the option of taking ‘White Supremacy’. During the semester, they were taught how ‘societies emerged in many parts of the world which deliberately gave “white” people power over other “races” from the 17th to the 20th century.’ Over at the University of South Australia, a subject entitled ‘Identity and Representation’ unpicked just how racist Australians supposedly are by discussing ‘immigration, multiculturalism and the refugee policy, the history of the “white” Australia policy, the social construction of whiteness and representations of whiteness in contemporary Australia….’ If the white students taking this class were not sufficiently burdened by the colour of their skin upon enrolling in this particular subject, then they certainly would have been by the end of it.

It is unsurprising that gender studies were particularly abundant. Again, at the University of Western Australia, second year students taking ‘Masculinity, Nostalgia and Change’ spent their tutorials discussing ‘constructions of masculinities in Europe, Australia and Asia since c.1700’. In order to properly ‘construct masculinities’, students drew from ‘gender theory, queer theory… and cultural studies…’.

Perhaps in an attempt to balance things out a bit, third year students at the same institution were offered ‘Feminist Thought’. This subject considered the ‘history and philosophy of thinking about gender in the West, from its emergence in 18th century liberal humanism to the present’. Interestingly, students engaged in ‘slow readings’ of the key texts which were complemented by ‘workshops and some assessments foregrounding affective or “feelingly” responses…’

In ‘Sex and Gender in the British Empire’ offered by Deakin University, one of the questions posed in the subject description was ‘what sex and sexuality had to do with the Empire and how imperial power itself was gendered.’ What indeed. At the University of Melbourne, history students were able to study the full gamut of sexualities at the University of Melbourne’s ‘History of Sexualities’ by covering ‘transgender, cisgender, heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality’ which they examined ‘alongside the history of political activism around sexuality.’

In the blurb outlining ‘Gender & Queer Critiques: Rethinking History & Other Studies’ at the University of South Australia, the writer claimed that this particular subject would be ‘very useful to History majors as well, including those doing Education degrees.’ Is it any wonder that parents are unconvinced by claims that Safe Schools is merely an anti-bullying program, when the explicit agenda of those designing and teaching it is built on neo-Marxism and Identity Politics? Safe Schools has polarised society, which is what Identity Politics does. The history being taught at universities is about the collective, not the individual. It’s about what divides us, not what unites us. We should be teaching the shared values and institutions of liberal democracy inherited from Western Civilisation.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Herodotus told us that he had written his history of the world to ‘prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks…’ It is up to the academics and indeed interested citizens to roll back Identity Politics and pass onto the next generation a renewed interest in the history and understanding of Western Civilisation.

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