Cover of book: Lessons from History

Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity, David Lowe (eds)
Lessons from History

In 1984, the historian Geoffrey Blainey sparked a nationwide debate by denouncing the government for its supposed preference towards Asian migrants. The subsequent normalisation of the far right means Blainey’s comments no longer shock as they once did. Indeed, with precariously contracted academics now too preoccupied with survival to think about much else, the so-called “Blainey debate” seems most extraordinary because it centred on a university professor.

In that context, Lessons from History: Leading Historians Tackle Australia’s Greatest Challenges seeks to lay bare “how history can and, indeed, should inform public debate”. The book offers 20 or so chapters in which academic historians in all stages of their careers write on a wide array of policy issues, including water management, domestic violence, the state of foreign aid, the ongoing relevance of Indigenous self-determination, the history of electricity reform, and many other meaty topics. Most readers will approach the collection as an intellectual buffet, picking at the topics most to their tastes.

Carla Pascoe Leahy traces the evolution of childcare in Australia and finds the revolution launched by women’s liberation to have stalled, with governments too narrowly focused on workforce participation and economic productivity. Mia Martin Hobbs puts the Australian special forces’ behaviour in Afghanistan in the context of past war crimes and urges authorities to consider the relationship between prejudice, dehumanisation and atrocity.

The individual chapters provide handy primers on specific debates but it’s also worth thinking about the project in its entirety: its presentation of academic history as a policy resource. “Our politicians and policymakers need at their disposal,” the editors explain, “the best information in order to make decisions of untold consequence. This includes a sound knowledge of history.”

Yet will knowledge alone make a difference? In one of the most urgent and powerful chapters, Hugh White lays out the stakes for Australia in a potential war between America and China: “Once fighting began, there would be little chance of avoiding a major war, because the stakes for both sides are very high, and both have large forces ready for battle. This would be the first serious war between two ‘great powers’ since 1945, and the first ever between nuclear-armed states. It would probably become the biggest and worst war since the Second World War. If it goes nuclear, which is quite probable, it could be the worst war ever.”

Such a war would, he suggests, be akin to World War I, a conflict that “should never have been fought” – and he makes a convincing case against World War II analogies that present alternatives to conflict as unconscionable “appeasement”.

In his chapter, Frank Bongiorno makes a similar point, describing the “Munich narrative” – which contrasts a haplessly peace-seeking Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill’s bulldog determination – as the “costliest instance of historical illiteracy”, a parallel used to justify military adventurism from the Korean War to the invasion of Iraq. But, as Bongiorno says, policymakers invoking Churchill to launch wars don’t do so out of historical ignorance. They care about rhetorical power rather than accuracy. So how would a more nuanced account of the aftermath of the Munich Agreement deter them?

In her study of how the memory of the Great Depression haunts discussions of economic crisis, Joan Beaumont argues that governments don’t make policy based on “a simple exercise in rational or statistical analysis”. Instead, she says, innovation becomes possible through “memories of the past that remain dominant in the political culture [… and] attest to societal values that have an enduring relevance”.

In their introduction, the editors express an admirable determination to intervene in the manifold emergencies of the day. “As ‘citizen historians’,” they write, “we will not stand by while the stumps of democratic governance are white-anted, while health inequality reaches the grotesque levels of previous eras, and while vested interests block necessary action on climate change.”

Yet the reference to climate again highlights how historical – or, indeed, scientific – knowledge does not itself spur politicians into action. “Vested interests” block decarbonisation not because they don’t understand the climate emergency but precisely because they do. One might have wished for more discussion of history not simply as a resource for enlightened policymakers but as a means for understanding how societies work.

For instance, in Evan Smith’s account of community and labour organising against fascism, we find an implicitly different theory of social change. Even though he too, rather oddly, addresses his chapter to “policymakers”, Smith advocates for mass campaigns rather than state intervention, in part because “the far and extreme right in all their forms are driven by many of the same racist and settler colonialist ideas that underpin the institutions of the state and mainstream Australian parties”. Whether he’s right or wrong, it illustrates how different theories of history point to very different interventions.

In the past, public intellectuals could take for granted an array of organisations, from social clubs to trade unions, to provide an audience – the “Blainey debate” began with the historian speaking to a Warrnambool conference of Rotarians. The economic reforms that transformed the traditional university into a giant corporation simultaneously eroded the institutions of democratic participation, making the work of socially engaged scholars considerably more difficult.

Lessons from History appears as higher education endures a fresh round of pandemic-driven cuts. In that context, we can only hope it provokes wide debate about what the university is – and what it should be. 

New South, 432pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Lessons from History, Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity, David Lowe (eds) ".

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