What is history?
History is about change. It looks at peoples over times past and present in different societies, noticing and explaining their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, and interpreting their reactions to the various pressures, conditions and events that induce change.
The ultimate purpose of studying history is to give meaning to our own life — a personal statement of identity. We incorporate into our own experiences and understandings the examples and case studies of other peoples who have expressed their hopes, endured conflicts, lived ordinary lives with their environment, and in their localities.
When studying history, as in everyday life, we ask meaningful questions, collect evidence, sift through it, analyse it and evaluate it, to produce satisfactory answers to problems of living. These answers provide a context for our own lives and establish a range of values that shape our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.
History remembers the past, explains the present, and gives hopes and interpretations for our future. History provides contexts, meanings, explanations for our lives.
Learning through studying Modern History
Studying Modern History can help us live more effectively as global citizens. To live purposefully, ethically and happily with others, we must be able to make wise decisions. Studying history can help us develop the knowledge, skills and values needed to make those decisions.
The knowledge, skills and values of the senior Modern History syllabus provide an avenue of continuity with the Years 1 to 10 Studies of Society and Environment syllabus, and with the optional History subject syllabus of the SOSE key learning area.
Through the study of Modern History, we can understand why our modern world is the way it is. We can understand the processes of change and continuity that have shaped today’s world, their causes, and the roles people have played in those processes. We can understand that there are relationships between our needs and interests and a range of historical issues, people and events. We develop these understandings through processes of critical inquiry, debate and reflection, and through empathetic engagement with the standpoint of others.
There is a special focus on values. In historical studies, we encounter different values, investigate their origins and study their impact on human affairs. We begin to decide which values might guide us in building a more democratic, just and ecologically sustainable world for all people.
In our everyday lives, including in our work, we need to understand situations, place them in a long-term perspective, identify causes of change and continuity, acknowledge the perspectives of others, develop personal values, make judgments and reflect on our decisions. These are the skills developed in a study of Modern History. We also need the communication skills that are developed and practised in all phases of historical study.
Defining Modern History
There is no single, agreed definition of “modern history”. Conventionally, 1789 has been defined as the beginning of the modern era. This definition obscures the fact that historical era does not suddenly begin on a particular day or in a particular year. As well, this is a Eurocentric definition. Outside Europe, the concepts of ancient, medieval and modern history are sometimes defined differently, or are only marginally applicable.
In this syllabus, the term “modern history” describes the study of the past 200 years approximately. The syllabus stipulates however that any school curriculum based on the syllabus must focus predominantly on the 20th century. There is some scope for inquiry topics focused on the 19th century or earlier. Further, in 20th century inquiry topics, there may need to be substantial reference to background factors from the 19th century or earlier.
The Commonwealth Government’s National Inquiry into History Teaching3, The Future of the Past (2000) states some important processes in improving the quality of History teaching and learning in Australian schools. These processes are expressed as the National Statement on Teaching and Learning History in Australia’s Schools. An important part of the framework is the essential and specific skills of historical literacy.
Learning through history develops specific historical understandings and skills. These are the foundation of historical literacy. They are also skills that are valuable in the everyday lives of young people and adults.
The evaluation and interrogation of sources of evidence is fundamental. Students learn that these sources can be subjective, value-laden, ambiguous or incomplete. Students learn the rules and place of debate and hone their skills for presenting opinions about diverse issues. The interaction with sources also illustrates that language is a powerful tool. It changes over time and may come to them translated or interpreted by others. Together these activities prepare students to engage thoughtfully with the numerous messages they encounter in their information-filled lives.
In seeking explanations for historical events and developments, students encounter key historical concepts: change, continuity, cause, motive and effect. These are valuable concepts for understanding the present as well as the past. Students’ historical understanding is enhanced by developing empathy — the ability to understand something from another’s point of view. This is also a valuable lifeskill.
2. GLOBAL AIMS
Through studying Modern History, students will:
… understand that history is an interpretative, explanatory discipline
Explanations of the past are interpretations. They depend on the quality, nature and extent of sources available and are influenced by the abilities, purposes and values of the historians involved. Therefore, histories are partial in two senses: first, they are incomplete and tentative; second, they are ideological versions of the past. When investigating historical sources, students should ask whose history is being portrayed, from what standpoint and in whose interests. Students should develop the historical imagination necessary to bridge gaps in evidence by exploring probabilities, possibilities, tendencies and likelihoods.
… become proficient in the processes of historical inquiry and explanation
This proficiency involves an understanding of the problematic characteristics of historical sources and the ability to develop evidence from sources using the processes of analysis, interpretation, evaluation and decision making. In doing so, students will empathise with the perspectives of people remote in time and place. Students will make judgments about complex situations, justify those judgments and review them in the light of sustained reflection and critical comment. Students may present their explanations using a variety of media: written, oral, dramatic and graphic. This could include computer and multimedia technology.
… understand the forces and influences that have shaped the modern world
Students will understand that the state of the world at any given time is the result of complex processes of change and continuity. These processes involve the exercise of power and reflect complementary, competing and conflicting interests and motives. Students will understand that the causes of both change and continuity are debatable. They will appreciate that people also debate the extent to which changes have been progressive and what changes, if any, are needed in a society. They will learn that individuals and groups can sometimes bring about change, but not always easily.
… critically evaluate heritages and traditions
Heritage refers to those ideas and practices that have been formative in a society’s development and that are often widely acknowledged and celebrated. Traditions are the enduring customs that reflect heritage. In a multicultural society, different people may acknowledge different heritages and traditions. Students will understand that people in a society may disagree over whether certain elements of heritage and certain traditions should be respected. They will learn that the elements that are respected as heritage and tradition may change over time.
… investigate the role of values in history, and refine their own values commitments
Students will understand the importance of values in motivating human actions. They will identify different values positions, investigate the sources of those values and assess their impact on historical developments. They will evaluate the extent to which different values may contribute to human wellbeing. Through these processes, students will refine their own values commitments.
… value the study of history
Students will appreciate the value of historical study. They will appreciate the importance of historical sources in all their many forms and value the preservation of those sources including elements of the historical environment. They will value the processes of historical investigation and the knowledge developed through such investigation. They will value the qualities of rigorous investigation, critical reflection, empathy and reasoned judgment.
… develop the knowledge, abilities and ethical commitment to participate as active citizens in the shaping of the future
Through studying history, students develop ways of understanding society in historical perspective, insights into how changes and continuities may be effected, skills in making judgments about complex situations, an ethical basis for action, and an appreciation of the possibilities of human agency. These skills and knowledge can help students approach the challenge of making a better future with realistic, informed enthusiasm.