chapter  5
32 Pages

Writing History: Construing Time and Value in Discourses of the Past

In a postcolonial world, our history comes back to haunt us and it becomes difficult to move forward without dealing with the past. In Australia, the issues of land rights and stolen generations dominate the politics of reconciliation, with diverse voices contesting both the history and what to do about it. Debates are highly charged, and for many commentators John Howard’s conservative government has not dealt productively with the situation:

On taking office the Howard government mounted a cynical and sustained campaign to discredit the institutions of Aboriginal welfare and the processes of self-determination and reconciliation, culminating in Howard’s shameful refusal to apologise on be­ half of the nation for the policies of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents. The prime minister invited the outpouring of racial hatred through the calcu­ lated persecution of the “Aboriginal industry” and his attacks on the “black arm-band view” of Australian history. (Hamilton, Guardian Weekly June 21, 1998, p. 12)

From a social semiotic perspective, a concern with reconciliation makes the dis­ courses of history every bit as important to salvaging humanity as discourses of science are to salvaging the environment. But research funding, and thus scholarly enterprise, do not reflect a balance of this kind. For science we have Talking Science (Lemke, 1990), Writing Science (Halliday & Martin, 1993), Reading Science (Martin & Veel, 1998), Explaining Science in the Classroom, (Ogbom, Kress, Martins, & McGillicuddy,

1996), Genre Analysis (Swales, 1990), Writing Biology (Myers, 1990), Shaping Written Knowledge (Bazerman, 1988), Scientific Discourse in Sociocultural Context (Atkinson, 1999, Wallace & Louden, 2002) ... the list goes on. Quite a canon! But for history ... just what springs to mind? Beyond this, in Australia’s public education sector, history is rapidly declining as a subject choice in secondary school. What effect, one wonders, will this have on our readings of the past-on just who will make them and who will read them, and on how critically any of this will be done?