Features Australia Thawley Prize

As history fades into history

2019 Thawley Essay Prize Winner

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

My son is more at risk of becoming a victim of the ‘march through the institutions’ than I ever was. We have not acknowledged that this was never just a march, but rather, a sprint that has produced the most powerful Fifth Column in history. Thousands of years of shared wisdom and experience, the human condition so to speak, have been reduced to background for an ideological battle for the soul of history and the way it is taught. It has taken only two generations for this to happen. History as a discipline is going the way of the dodo. It’s becoming an offering on the social sciences smorgasbord, signifying nothing in particular, but everything to those who believe the experience of Western culture must be taught in a way that exposes its inherent flaws and its need for reform and revision, if not downright erasure. If what is lost in the process is irreplaceable, then so be it.

Rudi Dutschke, the German activist who coined the term ‘the long march through the institutions’ knew it was good for the cause not to be too explicit; his last two words ‘of power’ are often omitted from the quote. Rudi was smart, street smart; let them realise when it’s too late, when the frog is boiled and there is no one left who knows how to turn the stove off. The Cold War feared the effects of dominoes falling, but the history domino is badly teetering and there’s no one left to set it right. My generation has been blindsided by a wall of silence, we know something isn’t right, but we don’t want to be the adults in the room and address the cause of our unease. Being useful idiots isn’t what we want, but we’ve been betrayed and our ignorance of so much of what should be our heritage and legacy leaves us unable to make constructive criticism, or to give thanks.

My parent’s boomer generation is possibly the last to receive their rightful instruction of a thorough, questioning, chronological history education. Indigenous Australians know that history and culture must be fought for and proudly expressed if it is to be preserved, and passed on to their children, but other Australians seem to have lost the will to take this path. Children of European descent must constantly hear their culture being denigrated.

My generation was the first to be subjected to the implementation of anti-Western tropes and to be ashamed when Western history and culture were mentioned. We were the first generation to be educated after the march through the institutions began, and cultural Marxists realised there was no better way to start the revolution than by subverting the education of the baby boomers’ children.

The difference in historical knowledge between the boomer generation and that of their children is evident, and like many evident things today, not spoken of. Growing up, I took for granted the seemingly endless amount of knowledge my parents had, cherished in the books, paintings and classical music they surrounded themselves with. It was the culture and history they had been taught, what they felt comfortable with, and as a child I anticipated that I would inherit that knowledge one day. I am still anticipating.

Take the whole Western canon, subtract Shakespeare and you have everything I missed out on during my twelve years of education in Australia. An exaggeration, yes of course, but that’s how it feels sometimes. The curriculum dictated history be taught in ‘themes’ with no explanation on how these themes were decided on, or by whom. The syllabus for Ancient History read ‘Year 12, Semester one, Ancient Rome’. Parents were not to know the actual material covered in the semester were ‘architecture’, ‘women’ and ‘slaves’ as stand alone themes, without the historical context to aid understanding. What a toxic, patriarchal lot the Romans were, with none of the brainpower of contemporary society! But I guess they did leave us the Coliseum and a lot of material for some great epic films.

Dates and events were amiss, chronological order wasn’t important and there were gaping holes between semesters. What happened was not the fault of my history teachers, who were outstanding and instilled a lifelong love of history. This essay is partly for them. They were hamstrung by a curriculum that cared more for what I believed than what I knew. I heard an academic say many years ago that there has been a lot of grieving in academia for what has happened to history, I know now what she meant.

Replace facts with ‘themes’ and you erase factual knowledge. You can’t refute falsehoods with themes and a generation has been created that can’t defend Western culture and values. There was no ‘theme’ for that. The constant stream of anti-Western propaganda goes by largely unchallenged by my generation. When Emmanuel Macron tells the French there is no such thing as ‘French culture’, Generation X says nothing. The BBC alleges everything ‘British’ comes from overseas and millennials remain silent, yet their grandparents defeated Nazism. This juxtaposition is only comprehensible when viewed as the result of what has happened to history education. Macron and others know they can make these statements, as the young have been robbed of the facts needed to refute their claims, while they themselves attended the elite École nationale, the gateway to the highest positions in France. I’d guess there’s not a lot of reliance on themes there.

The revision of history is the ultimate postmodern stratagem, the final goal post of the march through the institutions. Marxist ideologies that dominate youth culture could not have taken hold if history had been taught in a rigorous way, based on primary sources and all that other boring stuff. Of course history is open to interpretation, it should be, that’s part of its appeal, but its foundation on something more solid than ideology is its identifying feature. Get the story straight first, then do your interpretation. History isn’t a series of fables built for our edification, but a chronicle of what went before. It’s the story of what our ancestors got right, and perhaps more importantly, what they got horribly wrong. As a species, history is the closest thing we have to collective memory, it’s the rock our culture and values stand on. Without it, humans will be forced to rediscover the wheel with each generation, never advancing further and unable to make sense of the present.

At this rate, my grandchildren will be wondering what we did with all that accumulated knowledge; shades of Planet of the Apes, a baby-boomer movie that I love and certainly an apt metaphor for what’s happening today to Western culture and history.

Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 knows facts don’t lie, but they can be presented in any number of ways. The language is everything. The problem is that Orwell is hardly read anymore, he’s been taken off the syllabus to make room for more acceptable authors. It’s hard for a generation to produce a Shakespeare without being educated in the classics as Shakespeare was; they’re called classics for a reason. Ditto for Picasso who combined his ground-breaking creativity with a thorough training in the techniques of his craft. We all benefit from the knowledge of those who went before.

My boomer parents were the gatekeepers of the knowledge and culture passed on to them, but that generation is ageing. It is now my time to pass on that historical inheritance. But how can I be a gatekeeper of what I don’t know? Why was the curriculum changed so radically in one generation? This is remarkable, yet did no one comment at the time?

Exam papers from the 1800s and 1900s reveal a standard so magnificent it feels like reading Marcus Aurelius during the Dark Ages. Traditionally each generation wants a higher standard for their children in all areas of life. I want my children to have their grandparent’s education, to sit the exams of their ancestors and to be enriched by their legacy. Most importantly I want them to be liberated from what has been called ‘the tyranny of low expectations’. I want them to be free to choose what they want to be; capitalist, Marxist, socialist or whatever, but to do so with their eyes open and equipped with a few hard facts.

The history education of my generation has been subverted to serve a cause, and far from thanking those responsible, many of us are now reclaiming what was taken from us. If our history fades into history, so too will our Western civilisation, one of the great achievements of humanity. My generation needs to act now to have something to pass on to those who come after us, to claim our heritage and to luxuriate in the beauty of what our ancestors have given us. The scales need to be re-set. If we don’t do this, we should say the last rites, accept that history is written by the victors and be prepared to observe the words of the marriage ceremony, ‘or forever hold your peace’.

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Emma McCaul works in the health field and has a keen interest in history, mathematics, film and politics. Emma lives with her son in Queensland.

The Spectator Thawley Essay Prize is an annual competition generously sponsored by the Thawley family. We thank them.

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