A storm of strings far away… Review of the IPA’s ‘End of History’ by @ChrisBerg

There is a shamelessness to libertarianism, but it is still shocking to see the Institute of Public Affairs completely lacking the culture, education, and general wit to be ashamed of publications like The End of History… in Australian Universities.  This is a subliterate mess of a document.  Worse, it’s part of the body of work that the IPA produces to justify the generous tax concessions it receives from the Commonwealth.

The report seeks to demonstrate — by doing a survey of courses on offer at Australian universities — that undergraduate history courses in Australia are deficient because they don’t teach the sort of history that the IPA would like (specifically: British history).  None of the three authors — Chris Berg, Hannah Pandel, or Stephanie Forrest (who bizarrely claims to have founded a society that I was a member of) — have any kind of expertise in the area.  They are not historians.  They are not theorists.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.

While moaning about deteriorating standards in education, the report is riddled with basic errors:

…little attention has been given to the composition of history courses at Australia’s at the tertiary level.

Later, a method is used to ‘assure’ comparability between two different studies.  Referencing is a dog’s breakfast making it difficult to verify assertions made about other writers.  Wonky comments reveal the author’s lack of familiarity with the sector, such as referring to Anna Clark’s research as ‘ARC-commissioned’.  And the style is sophomoric, with weird constructions littering the prose:

It has long been recognised that history is a discipline with enormous social importance. More than two millennia ago, Cicero warned that a lack of understanding of history can lead to ignorance: ‘Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child’. More recently, Winston Churchill advised ‘Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’

But the authors never quite get around to explaining what their argument is.  It is asserted that the ‘general public’ should be concerned about the ‘narrowness’ of geographic and temporal scope, but for reasons that are never made entirely clear.  The report suggests that we should be worried because high school teachers who teach history won’t have mastered the subject matter.  Utter nonsense: the point of undergraduate history is to master technique rather than subject matter.  If the point of teaching history in a particular way was to improve the quality of secondary education, the departments of history would be moved to the education faculties.

The authors try to justify their ranking methodology by reference to other methodologies, particularly the QS World Rankings.  But this introduces category errors: the QS World Rankings is not a teaching indicator, but the report is purporting to evaluate undergraduate teaching.  But a ‘quality’ link was needed as the methodology used — loosely taken from Carly Millar and Mark Peel’s ‘Canons Old and New?  The Undergraduate History Curriculum in 2004‘ — was never intended to be used for ranking the quality of institutions.  Indeed, the authors admit as much:

our results are suggestive rather than conclusive. It is our hope that future surveys will adopt a more specific focus on particular questions: changing assessment practices and tasks, for instance, or ways of conceptualising student progression through a history sequence, in terms of what we want them to know and to be able to do.

You have to wade all the way into the appendices to find out why everything’s so nutty:

the Final Report of the Millar and Peel Review provides very scant information on the methodology that was used and so the exact process which the researchers took to construct their data can only be a topic of conjecture.

It’s from this misreading of Millar’s and Peel’s work that we get the bizarrely prescriptive ‘canon’ used in the IPA report.

So where Millar and Peel assert that ‘the construction of new, thematic units in areas such as sport, disease or popular culture is seen as an exciting development, and often the way forward for programs’, the IPA says ‘general history subjects are giving way to more specialised, disconnected, thematicallybased subjects on narrow issues such as imperialism, film studies, and ethnic and gender perspectives, making it possible for students to graduate with a history major with extremely little knowledge of history beyond a few nuanced areas.’

And where the IPA bewails the lack of focus on British history, Millar and Peel’s survey suggests that professionals think Asian history is underrepresented.  The IPA’s vision of the canon (on page 8 of their report) is simply delicious: of sixteen categories for assessment, eight are European and two are Australian; all of Asia and its history is crammed into one category (even classical history — Greece and Rome — is split into two).  There is simply no way to use Millar and Peel’s work to substantiate the wacky claims being made in the IPA report.  We shouldn’t be surprised; none of the authors of the IPA report know what they’re talking about.

I know I’m probably being trolled here — as I’m sure I’ve spent more time thinking about their assertions than the authors did — but it is difficult to parse the agentless value assertions:

The offering of such specialised options would be more acceptable if they were offered alongside more traditional introductory history subjects designed to give a grounding in broad historical periods

More acceptable to whom?  Why should the study of history be geared towards grounding students in particular subject-specific matter and not technique and theory?  What is the advantage of ‘traditional introductory history subjects’?

It is little surprise that the universities with larger teaching staff in their history departments cover more of the IPA’s ‘canon’ than smaller universities.  One wonders if the IPA is advocating for more taxpayer funding to flow to universities so they can hire more classicists and historians.  But in the real world of limited resources, what is the relative benefit of these ‘traditional introductory history subjects’?  Surely, if students are still enrolling in history majors, the free market has determined their value.  Oh, wait.  I forgot that this report was coming from the ‘We pretend to understand culture’ arm of the IPA and not their ‘Free market, hooray!’ wing.

But look also at the changes the authors make to the categorisation methodology:

Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome are an addition to the list since Millar and Peel—despite supposedly including ancient history subjects in their study—did not include any data for ancient history.

So my undergraduate degree is in Classics and Philosophy, and I’m an avid supporter of forcing every man, woman, and child to study Latin and Greek, but what possible justification is there for considering Classical History to be two separate categories in the methodology?  You would only do this if you are trying to bork the results, or if you are stone stupid.

The results are also borked by rubbish method.  The authors take a point-in-time approach: what subjects were on offer in 2014?  So if your department’s teaching programme cycles over four semesters, they won’t include the additional subjects in the metric.  Further, they appear to have only included subjects coded to history.  So religious history and intellectual history were clearly not included when coded to religious studies or philosophy (which appears to be the case for two universities covered in the report).

The report is a hodge-podge of demented ideological guff, and a ‘think tank’ should be ashamed to publish this rot.  The Institute of Public Affairs is supposed to be the think tank for conservative Australia; we conservatives need to do better.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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