Your recent editorial on generational change expressed some important issues very clearly. It is certainly true, as you say, that it is the 60+ generation that seem the most interested in history, and that trend has probably been with us since Adam was a boy. I am not sure if anyone has done a study of all those ‘Back to Croydon/Hughenden/Cloncurry’-style commemorative publications printed in the 1950s etc. to celebrate the historical anniversaries of Queensland districts, but I am sure that ‘old timers’ were probably at the forefront of such heritage-minded endeavours. As we get older, we do tend to have a greater awareness and appreciation of the passage of time.
However, will the next generation develop that same heightened sense of history as the knowledge of their own mortality starts to hit home? I am sure many will, but disturbingly, our collective culture is encouraging all of us to have an underdeveloped understanding of history.
The key problem in developing a passion amongst the young for history is the popular view of learning as being all about the facts and skills you need to get to ‘get ahead’. This is not the predominant message of schools, or universities, but it is a strong cultural attitude in Australia backed up by the media, pop culture, and government. We are officially and unofficially being ‘coached’ to view education as being all about getting a job and the ‘flexibility’ needed to find another one when the market dictates it. The non-economic benefits of an education, such as developing a love of history, appear to be perceived by our political masters as being a bit ‘soft’.
Speaking more generally, the culture of immediacy through social media can rob people of an appreciation of their own environment, and hence the first steps to historical engagement and understanding of those environments may never get made. The consumer-citizen is encouraged by government, IT marketers and popular culture to be so focused on the individual that the abstract, detached discipline of history, involving an interest in things other than the self, seems alien to the way that many people engage with the world.
So far I have presented a somewhat dismal picture of an ahistorical community, but of course this is not the whole picture. There are signs of hope. Terry Deary’s ‘Horrible Histories’ book series (now a British TV show) is showing a new generation of kids that history is not just about facts, it is about people too. This show may indirectly lead to the next generation of historians. A number of heritage houses have actually become tourist attractions for young and old alike, most notably Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney. Families are accessing the immigration and war records from cultural institutions like the National Archives of Australia in increasing numbers. Slowly but surely, history is whispering in people’s hearts and beckoning them to enter its doors. The question is, how do we tap into the yearning for history that clearly exists?
There appear to be three main themes that can encourage greater interest in history:
People: Clearly, stories of famous and not-so-famous people caught up in world events are a key drawcard. But even in the area of business history, the stories of workers can bring a human element that can help understand the wider economic and social concerns of a nation or region. The newsletters and magazines of companies can also be an untapped source for the family historian.
Places: In my own home town newspaper, historical stories of suburbs, beaches and streets are a regular feature. Such stories remind us that every town has a history worth preserving, celebrating and being part of. I wish that universities, which generally have community outreach as a stated goal, would do more to support the regional historian.
Parades: Nostalgia has its place. Suddenly, young women are beginning to discover the fashions of the 1950s, from household goods to elaborate skirts. Even in rather hot towns in North Queensland, Medieval re-enactment societies periodically rise and fall in numbers. Special events by heritage houses which tap into this nostalgia but subtly offer a more ‘challenging’ reading of history may be another way in to history by the next generation.
As historically-minded citizens, our role is to keep presenting an alternative worldview, keep preserving buildings and artefacts and memories to help future generations breathe in the past, and keep encouraging a love of history wherever we go. We must also be prepared to be unpopular, as the lessons of history are not always comfortable to learn. In all the work we do, we must attempt to preach beyond the converted, and help each generation understand that history is precious because it helps us to better understand ourselves and the world around us and to plan more effectively for future generations.