Stuart Macintyre in Conversation with History Honours Students

As part of the Honours subject The Writing of Australian History (HIST90023), students have the unique opportunity to meet with distinguished historian Professor Emeritus Stuart Macintyre and to engage him in conversation about his work and about Australian historiography more broadly. We share below a videorecording and transcript of one of these sessions, from April 2019. The discussion is wideranging, touching upon different methodological and theoretical approaches to history; changing views on the teaching of Australian history; and reflections on the research and writing process.


Isa Pendragon: My first question is, you said of cultural history that it is sometimes illuminating and sometimes redundant. Do you think we should move to a synthesis of cultural and perhaps material, economic history?

Stuart Macintyre: When I read that quote [in the subject reader], I sort of thought, did I say that? And I went and found that edition of the Concise History [of Australia] and I found that what I was talking about was explorers, and the way in which – in fact, the particular example was Thomas Mitchell – the way in which explorers were once heroic figures in Australian historiography, making their epic journeys.

But there’s been a lot of work on them since. First of all, the new work notices that it’s a strange sort of exploration when there are people they’re meeting as they do it, and how often they rely on Aboriginal guides; there’s tension, conflict. I think what I said is that cultural historians have spent a lot of time deconstructing exploration, and some of that is illuminating, but given that Thomas Mitchell’s journal talks in frank terms about what he’s doing, and about Aborigines with whom he’s fighting, some of that is redundant. I think that’s what I said.

The Concise History’s not meant to be historiographical; it’s meant to give us clear stories. I had to sneak that in.

So I suppose my feeling about cultural history… The cultural turn occurred, what, in the 1980s, and the 1990s? And it affected all of the humanities, and indeed a good number of the social sciences. And I think it was a quite crucial way of thinking harder, particularly about our relationship to the subjects we study and how we study them. But in a sense, most new historical methodologies give us new insights. They change things. Gradually they become generalised, and you begin to wonder whether further research of that sort is required, or whether what economists would call diminishing returns are setting in. If you’re going to perform the same exercise on yet another case study, are you likely to find anything new? So I suppose my observation about cultural history is that some cultural history was always concerned with the material; I think that article in Australian Historical Studies tries to make that point. And as I read it, it’s not suggesting we return to a form of material history, it’s rather that the two ways of understanding the past, material and cultural, interpenetrate.

Aidan Carroll: you talk about your Concise History being about stories –

Well, that was the format.

… so what’s your take on the idea of narrative? And on the more analytical and quantitative styles of history?

The economic histories that were written in the nineteenth and twentieth century in Europe and in the States were literary and generally narrative ones. And that tradition of narrative forms of economic history remains strong in the United Kingdom, and it’s practised by a number of economic historians. The turn to what’s sometimes called quantitative economic history, which is using very large databases to test propositions and to analyse patterns, is really a product of the last half-century, and it’s highly specialised. It relies on fairly advanced mathematics that I don’t always follow, although you can normally work out with the accompanying text what they’re doing.

Pick up a volume of the Australian Economic History Review, or go online and have a look at it, or the American Economic History Review, and you’ll find pages of it consist of mathematical formulae, which are ways in which they are using the statistical databases to check for correlations, causes, effects, and so on. It’s not something that historians practise. I mean, it has been used, I should say; anyone here familiar with the American work on slavery, in the 1970s, which was one of the first …? It was sort of a counter-factual study which was investigating whether a slave economy was more productive than a free labour economy. Similarly an early and influential one … it decided that slavery was counterproductive (surprise surprise!) There’ve been other ones done on the railways; how much did they cost, and what were the benefits. You get this sort of cost-benefit analysis too often; you’re going to get a lot of it over the next five weeks during the [Australian federal] election. Because you can go to any consultant and they’ll give you a mathematical study – what did we discover? That sleeplessness is costing the Australian economy 36.2 billion dollars a year. Well, don’t take much notice of the figure!

Isa Pendragon: I was wondering what your views on politics and the writing of history were. Do you think that historians should embrace their political leanings, sort of lean into it, in writing history? Or should they try to remain… be objective, and lean back?

Well, I suppose my first observation would be that an earlier way of writing history was purportedly dispassionate and objective and was taking no sides. I mean, I gather you’ve been reading Ernest Scott, and that’s the way that he conducts his investigation into what the French were up to, in his book on Terre Napoléon… even though he’s got things he wants to tell you.

My view now is that it’s futile to suggest that we are neutral; we’re often drawn, characteristically drawn to topics that concern us – that’s the sort of thing that attracts us, that we want to discover. And at the same time, if we think we know the conclusions in advance, there’s not much point in doing the research. So in my case anyhow, I take topics that I have an attachment to, but I still don’t quite know where I stand in relation to them, or there are bits of them that puzzle me, and I want to know more. The idea of political neutrality I think is very hard to sustain, but to interrogate your own expectations and assumptions is very important.

You read book reviews which are highly critical – sometimes called hatchet jobs – and it’s a bit too easy, because they take the weakest points of the book and emphasise them. It’s a good idea to take your opponent’s strongest argument and engage with that.

Aidan Carroll: So when you decide to start writing A Concise History, and you look at the work before, very short and short histories of Australia, how do you decide what goes into yours, to make it different from other approaches?

That’s an interesting question … As you know there’ve been short histories, well, from before Scott, there’d been a score of them. They tend to be used for educational purposes. My Concise History has a lot of educational sales. I wasn’t terribly keen in doing yet another one, but the person who was then at Cambridge University Press, someone called Philippa McGuinness, who’s now the commissioning editor at NewSouth, which I think is by far the most successful of the Australian academic publishers – she explained that the Concise History was in an international series that Cambridge had initiated, so there were concise histories of Germany, France, Portugal, you know, and that their experience was that about half of them were bought in a country other than that with which they were concerned. I don’t know what the Cambridge blurb said – these would be of interest to tourists, businesspeople, people who were visiting a country for the first time. And I suddenly thought: yes, it’d be fun to write a book about Australia for someone who’s never been to Australia, or is about to come to Australia. And my imaginary reader – because there’s always an imaginary reader when you write – my imaginary reader was someone I’d known when I was a postgraduate student in England, who’d never been here but was about to come. And I was going to draw their attention to things that might puzzle them, things that were different, or things that might appear to be different but weren’t all that different. So that was my angle. It had a number of unfortunate consequences, but that’s what made me do it.

And at that stage, the format then was a narrative account, which never puzzled over [the question]: are there two different ways of interpreting this? And I wanted to play along with that, so in it I tended to put how understandings of subjects had changed, as for explorers. And I did read very widely. I mean, I was familiar with quite a lot of the secondary literature and primary literature; I read a great deal of it. I liken writing a general history of that kind to a sort of water skier who has to move very rapidly over the surface, because if you slow down, you’ll sink! And the bits that I found hardest to write were the bits I know most about, you know, because I was aware of all the complexities that I was not able to deal with when I was doing them. But it’s very stimulating to read good historical writing in an area that you don’t have a great knowledge of; you’re introduced to an extremely interesting set of ideas.

Isa Pendragon: A lot of the students of history that I speak to have a lot of distaste towards Australian history, a bit of ambivalence towards it. I was wondering what your views are on the cultural cringe in the modern day? Are we moving past this ambivalence towards Australian culture and Australian history, or are we still very much tied up in …?

I think you’re the people to tell me the answer to that! Let me think about it …

When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t study Australian history; the last time I formally studied the subject was in Year 12. And that was because I was interested in principally European history, but I did a course which included, you know, medieval and early modern history. There was a rule at the time that Australian history was already a fairly popular subject in the 1960s, but John La Nauze, a somewhat stern and forbidding historian, had a rule as the head of the department that no one could do Australian history until they’d taken the modern British history subject, because you couldn’t understand it. And so that idea that Australian history was some sort of rather uneventful postscript to a history that had occurred somewhere else was still very strong.

It was already weakening; the cultural changes that were occurring in the ’60s and ’70s – literature, theatre, film, the whole thing – I think were altering that. There are times when people think that life is more real and vivid elsewhere, and times when they think: no, that’s not true, and Australia is offering experiences that are really stimulating. That’s, I suppose, my feeling. I spent most of the 1970s in England and had a wonderful time, and I always enjoy going back. But one of the great advantages of travelling of course is that you come back and see your own country with different eyes. But you can tell me whether you think that’s an issue.

Isa Pendragon: I just know a lot of people who don’t like studying Australian history very much and choose to avoid it because they think it’s boring.

I think one reason why some people have that view is their memories of Australian history at school were not terribly exciting; I think it’s slightly better now. The curriculum tended to be repetitive, where you were doing the same things over and over, and they found it hard to compete with, you know, revolutions and dramatic transformations.

My own view – I was involved in the rewriting of the Australian history curriculum – is that it needs to be taught in a framework of world history.

If we’re going to talk about Aboriginal occupation of Australia, we need to think about the movement of peoples out of Africa to different parts of the world, and think about the Aboriginal experience comparatively. If we’re going to talk about convicts, we ought to look at the much larger number of people who were sent across the Atlantic to the Americas, having committed crimes. That’s the way we’ll get a better appreciation of what happened here and why it matters.

Aidan Carroll: So, in terms of Australian history: there was a quote in the reading saying that Australian history is economic history, or something like that.

Ah, yes; the Douglas Copland thing. That’s the epigraph to the William Coleman piece.

How much do you agree with that?

No, I don’t agree with that … There’s a very good biography of Douglas Copland. He was a larger than life New Zealander, the twelfth of thirteen children, who was very ambitious and very worldly. He became a professor of economics and the founder of the economics faculty, and an ambassador and so on. He was the person who made the economics profession so influential in Australian public life. But no, I don’t agree with that.

I think it’s true to say that it’s impossible to understand the course of Australian history without some awareness of the economic dimension, you know. The British make the decision they’re going to establish a penal colony in 1788 – how’s it going to work? How are they going to feed and clothe themselves? There’s then the violent dispossession of the Aboriginal people in order to grow wool, and that becomes an export product that makes Australia rich. There’s then an impulse that the land really belongs to the people, and so legislation is passed that enables people to select it and to become, they hope, self-sufficient family farmers. All of those things are important impetuses to the sort of things we argue about, the sort of things that grasp our imagination. That’s what generates the writings of Lawson, and Paterson, and so that dimension I think is an important part. But there’s more to Australian history than economics.

Otis Heffernan-Wooden: you’ve had such a productive career. What was your process of writing? Do you set goals every day?

I was just saying to Jackie [Dickenson] before we came in here that I’m well behind on my current project!

I’m not someone who finds it hard to study, to conduct research and write, but I am aware that the research process and the writing process are rather different. I’m sure all of you have discovered occasions when you probably have enough to start writing, but you keep giving yourself excuses about reading someone else, something else, because it’s more demanding – it’s more rewarding, but it’s more demanding. And I’m also someone who’s very easily distracted when I’m writing by thinking “I’ll just go down to my library and check that”, or, you know … newspapers online are a curse!

When I was a younger historian, I was more methodical; I used to make very detailed plans for everything I wrote. Now, I spend a lot of time trying to think of the opening sentence, and after that it sort of falls into place.

I think computers make a great deal of difference to historical writing because they enable you to play around with things in a way that, you know, probably when Jackie started, when I did, you wrote it out long hand, and then at a certain point you got out your portable typewriter and you made a clean copy. And then it got, they call it, cut-and-paste on a computer, because that’s what we used to do – you’d get the scissors out, and you’d cut it, and you’d get the sticky tape and put in the bit that you’d realised had to be there. So the computer I think frees us in our writing enormously.

There’s always – well, you’ve been experiencing that this year – that question about short-term and long-term tasks, isn’t there? You’ve got this seminar and another one, and you’ve got a thesis. So you’ve got short-term demands, and you’ve got long-term ones, and it’s easy to allow one to prevail over the other. So time management I think is quite important.

If you proceed with your careers in History you’ll find that there’s a balance between things you’re asked to do and things you want to do. When I was a dean I was asked to write essays or articles and I did, because there was an immediate gratification. But I sort of likened it to a junk food diet; it wasn’t terribly nutritious, because the projects that require real immersion in sources and hard thought, I didn’t have time for. That sort of research – in some ways you’ve got to hold it in your head, on a continual basis to really see it, I think. You don’t have it yet with your thesis, but there’ll come a point some time in second semester when you’re working on your draft and putting it together that it’ll be quite important to be able to hold it all in your mind.

Dominique Tasevski: Stuart, before you mentioned the review conducted on the history curriculum; can you talk a bit more about that? Because I understand that Christopher Pyne, the former education minister, was quite critical.

He was quite critical, wasn’t he? Anyone would think he knew something about history!

First of all, an essential part of the background is that history was suffering in schools. I don’t know whether you did subjects called history in your secondary years, but throughout Australia in most schools people tended to be working in an integrated curriculum framework where it was called Studies of Society and Environment, where I think history fared very poorly. There weren’t very many history teachers being trained – that’s changed now.

So the initiative really came when Julia Gillard became education minister in 2007, and she made an attempt to create a national curriculum. Now, I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Australian constitution, which says that education is a matter left to the states. But because the Commonwealth’s so heavily invested in funding, it has considerable leverage. So an organization was created, originally called the National Curriculum Board and then ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. You can go online and look at ACARA and see what it does.

All the states and territories agreed that they would contribute to the process and that they would adopt the new curriculum, sometimes tailoring it to their own curriculum framework, and that they would report results against it. And the first four subjects that were going to be developed from kindergarten to Year 12 were – surprise surprise! – maths, science, English, and history. There were a lot of people mumbling about this — they didn’t think that history ought to be there. And I was asked to advise on it, so I wrote a sort of an initial paper, and then there was an extraordinarily lengthy process whereby history educators, teachers, curriculum officials and so on from all around the country made observations and comments and we revised it, but in broad terms it argued that we needed a world history framework and we needed to emphasise skills of historical understanding – that history was not simply learning facts and dates, and that it was possible to identify historical skills that could be embedded within the curriculum.

In the secondary years [the curriculum] begins with ancient and early history, by Year 10 it reaches modern history, and in Years 11 and 12 it offers special options. Then all of that was turned into a curriculum document by about ten curriculum writers, who we met with regularly.

What was the problem? The problem, where Christopher Pyne entered the thing, was that first of all, it was always vulnerable to the suggestion that we were not treating sacred events in Australian history with sufficient seriousness. So that in the curriculum that I initiated I thought it very important that rather than tell the familiar story of the Anzacs going to Gallipoli and then serving on the Western Front, students would understand that a lot better if they knew the larger history of the First World War. You know, who were our allies? Who were our enemies? Why were we in Turkey anyhow? And that caused great affront because it seemed to be slighting the uniqueness and the importance of the Anzacs. But there was also an argument that’s still around now with the Ramsay Centre and Western civilisation, that because it was world history and because it was taking other civilisations alongside European civilisation, that this was a form of moral relativism, or rather it was a neglect of Western civilisation and betraying Western values. So that’s the background to the Christopher Pyne criticism.

The Abbott government when it was elected, he was then minister for education, they set up a review, which was pretty – well, I can talk about its shortcomings if you like – there was no public consultation, none of the submissions were identified, and the ministers for education weren’t terribly interested in it. So the changes, the compromises to the curriculum in my view is that it doesn’t have sufficient time in the school timetable, and to some extent that’s true of all academic disciplines, which are crowded out by NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests. And there’s been some attempt to teach it back in a Studies of Society and Environment framework.

So I’d sort of give the current curriculum, I don’t know – 70 marks out of 100, I suppose? It’s a lot better than what went before.

James Hogg: I probably shouldn’t ask this because it’s very ignorant, but last week we were asked to look at our own piece of work and decide whether or not it was important, and I was sort of wondering whether you had any criteria, other than the pub test …?

Crikey! You had to look at your own work and decide whether the topic was important, or the treatment of it was important, or …?

Oh, sort of just like, you know, originality’s obviously part of the thesis …. Contributing to knowledge, filling a gap …

Right. Yes, it’s that old question about how a judgement’s made about the quality of historical research. What would I say about that? It seems to me that there are two contrary forces operating. All academic disciplines are ways of understanding part of reality; each of them has their own assumptions. Economics tends to rely on the assumption of rational choice, for instance; it’s sometimes said that the disciplines of economics and sociology exist to correct each other’s mistakes! And historians develop certain ways in which arguments are made, the way in which evidence is deployed.

Part of what happens, I think, in any academic discipline, is that the standards and judgements are built into the way in which the thing works. So, just think about it: you’re studying a group of historians, you are writing a thesis which is going to be examined by two academic historians. If you go on and do postgraduate work you’ll be supervised by one and then examined by another, by historians who are experts in that field. If you submit an article to an academic journal it’ll be sent to anonymous readers, if you submit a manuscript to an academic press, ditto, it’ll be reviewed. This is a very conformist set of pressures, isn’t it? This is reproducing things. And it tends to mean that adventurousness and originality are difficult to… they enter into it, because originality is regarded as a virtue. But not too original – it needs to, you know, open a new window or suggest a new aspect. If you were trying to say that everything people have been doing till this point has been wrong, you’re likely to get some adverse examiners’ or readers’ reports.

So there’s a certain sort of territoriality about all academic disciplines, at the same time as they move because of the esteem that’s attached to someone who innovates. Does that make sense?

Now, significance is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? Academics are asked to justify their own research now, and they have to talk about its impact, you know, how does it change the world? I don’t think that’s a very good test at all; and sometimes the arguments for significance are very … It’s always a good idea to ask yourself, why am I doing this? What hangs on it? I’m trying to say something, but why does it matter? And then I suppose the judgements are how well it’s done – technically, how well it’s done; what level of independence of thought and originality does it display? If you just sort of discovered what someone else had discovered earlier, then people are not going to be as excited by it.

James Hogg: I guess the contention was for me, obviously a lot of the really important and crucial events in history have been done to death. If I was going to dig up some sources from the Vietnam War I wouldn’t be telling anything new. What that means though is that to do something new and original, I’d have to write something so niche that nobody would care. Where do we go with that? It’s rare that new material would be a new take on important events.

No, I think that is probably true, that the Vietnam War has a very large literature, a very large international literature and a very large Australian literature, although I don’t know whether all the possibilities have been exhausted. I mean, the early literature tended to be why did we go; the later literature tended to be with concern with the domestic resistance to the Vietnam War and opposition, so many studies of the moratorium. But a long argument about was the war lost on the battlefields, or was it lost on the television screens – that debate continues. The whole argument about the conscripts who went to Vietnam were shunned and treated as pariahs when they returned – there’s a literature on that, isn’t there? I think there are more things to be said, if you wanted to work on it, for instance, thirty years later, what difference did it make to the lives of people who were involved in it, forty years later? What are the long-term consequences of it?

I think there are events that naturally attract attention, and have always done, but you can be fairly confident there’ll be a lot of new publications on the subject. The same’s true of biography, isn’t it? I mean, some people take a biography where there is no life of that person and they think that the life has something to show. Then there are individuals about whom – I think Napoleon’s had more than a thousand! Julius Caesar can’t be far behind. Is there room for another one? Well, the professor of history at Newcastle has written a very successful multi-volume life of Napoleon that’s admired and praised all round the world.

Dominique Tasevski: This week we’re looking at economic history. Arguably the most famous Australian economic historian is Geoffrey Blainey. He’s quite a controversial figure. It’s my understanding that you worked with Geoffrey Blainey during the ‘80s, when there was a lot of controversy about some of the work that he published. What was it like working in the History Department during that time?

Well, I’ve spoken a bit about it, I’ve written a bit about it in the book that I wrote with Anna Clark on the History Wars. Geoffrey Blainey – well, you know about Geoffrey Blainey, if only through William Coleman. He was someone who unlike most people who aspired to an academic career, did not upon graduation do tutoring, and did not as they tended to do in those days go to England to do postgraduate research; rather, he went down to Tasmania, and wrote a history of the Mount Lyell Mining Company, which was almost immediately published. And he was a freelance historian – he worked mainly writing commissioned histories, mainly mining, but some other things as well – he wrote a history of Camberwell, among other things – until he returned to the University as originally a senior lecturer and then a professor of economic history, in the Faculty of Economics and Commerce. And he didn’t transfer across to the History Department or, if you like, return to it, so to speak, until the 1970s. And he was a very popular and successful professor and head of department. I think he became head of department about a year after… I didn’t return to the Melbourne department until 1981.

The controversy arose in the early 1980s where he was giving a speech – of all the sort of innocuous things you might do – he’d gone down to Warrnambool to address the Rotary Club, and he gave a speech in which he said that the pace of Asian migration might well cause alarm. There was a what’s called a stringer – worked for the local press but also sent up stories to the Age, in those days when newspapers prospered and they had a lot of reporters. And he sent up a report which was put on the front page, about Blainey warning about Asian migration, and almost immediately a controversy broke out, and — how will I put it? Geoffrey Blainey wouldn’t retreat an inch, and indeed he went further. He began to suggest that the migration department was hiding the real figures, and a series of I think difficult to sustain propositions, which upset members of the History Department.

The crucial element of all this was that, and I think a number of us found it quite hard that someone that we admired and respected, had said such things. The crucial element, though, is that he wasn’t in the History Department – he’d become Dean, and so he was never in the Department. It was a full-time job, and he remained in that… there was one attempt at a meeting of members of the department with him, which I thought would be a good idea and turned out to be a very bad idea. It didn’t cause any reconciliation at all, it just hardened differences. So yes, I think it was a very… that sort of event involving people you know – it was difficult for him and for others. He was the victim of death threats; so were a couple of his most prominent critics in the history program. It was a difficult time. There was a knife attack on his daughter, although I think the jury’s out on whether that was an attack because she was his daughter.

Meanwhile there were journalists for News Corp who were throwing petrol on the flames, I mean, this was a national controversy in which accusations were flying left right and centre.

Jackie Dickenson: On that, do you think… it’s over?

Well, first of all, I don’t think anyone would suggest that the immigrants and refugees who came to Australia in the late ‘70s and early ’80s were anything but ideal. If there’s an anxiety of that sort in Australia today it concerns Islam. We were talking about East Asian and Southeast Asian people at that time.

The History Wars then broke out in a sort of a more recognizable form over the question of massacres on the Aboriginal frontier, with Keith Windschuttle alleging that there was a fabrication of those incidents. I don’t think anyone argues that anymore, whether it be Tony Abbott or anyone else. There’s an acceptance now that there were violent incidents and that the effect of European colonisation was traumatic. You know, Acknowledgement of Country which was regarded as a left-wing fad has now become quasi-official; the University recognises Aboriginal prior occupancy in various ways.

War history became one over the last decade, really; you know, are we to take pride or are we denigrating? The current proposal to enlarge the War Memorial, with a half-billion-dollar display hall is a sort of another outbreak of that.

It’ll continue – because the History Wars are an element of the Culture Wars, and the Culture Wars are a distinctive feature of twenty-first-century popular politics. What the issues will be, I don’t know. I’m sure Andrew Bolt is wondering what the issues will be at this very moment, and he’ll tell us.

Thanks to Professor Stuart Macintyre; the 2019 Subject Coordinator Dr Jackie Dickenson; the Arts Faculty’s e-Learning and e-Teaching Team; and the 2019 History Honours cohort.

You can read more about the history of the History program at Melbourne here.