Cover of book: Private Lives, Public History

Anna Clark
Private Lives, Public History

Don’t know much about history… That’s not just a line from an old song, but a common refrain among those who lament Australians’ lack of engagement with their nation’s past. Historian Anna Clark has devoted her career to exploring the problem. Is it the history that’s to blame, or is it us?

Following her study of history taught in schools (History’s Children, 2008), Clark’s new book extends her investigation to adult Australians. She conducted interviews in five far-flung communities. While questions such as “Do you feel connected to Australia’s past?” and “Does a day like Australia Day mean anything to you?” tended to elicit indifference to official narratives, participants warmed to questions that evoked nostalgia or touched on personal history, such as “Is there a special place that connects you to the past?”

She also raised the question of the “history wars” that reached a pitch during the Howard years, and seemed surprised that “nearly all the respondents (about 90 per cent) were unfamiliar with the terminology of historical contest”.

On the cover, Clark is extolled as a great populariser – “the Alain de Botton of Australian historiography”, no less – and passing references to her family and the joys of fishing hint at there being a person with a pulse behind the armoured prose that her place in the academy seems to require of her. But overall, the work’s cautiousness – timidity, even – prevents the outright saying of anything that might engage a lay reader, signalling instead Clark’s acute awareness that her peers are watching. You might think that fair enough for a book bearing the imprint of a university press, but MUP aims wider and Clark’s cover blurb seems aimed at a mainstream audience.

In fact, the book highlights the insularity of her profession. “I’m wary,” Clark writes, “of the potential for this project to conflate ‘nostalgia’ and ‘enthusiasm’ for the past with actual historical knowledge.” She worries that participants’ engagement with history is long on lore and short on critique.

Must a thriving popular history come at the expense of scholarship and expertise? Do we have to make a choice between national and personal historical interest? Is it not possible to connect and critically engage with the past?

We’re left to ponder if these dichotomies amount to a mere outlying skirmish in the history wars, or are the central point of conflict.  FL

MUP, 180pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "Anna Clark, Private Lives, Public History".

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