The Knowledge Solution: Australian History
Anna Clark, Melbourne University Press, 2019
When the subtitle of a book reads: “What place does history have in a
post-truth world?”, you would think that the book might actually touch upon the topic.
Anna Clark has edited this book on Australian historical writing. Associate
Professor Clark is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the
Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney.
With Stuart Macintyre, she contributed to the History Wars in 2003,
which is a fantastic job.
Unfortunately, this work does not meet those heights. It is a collection of
articles on various aspects of Australia History [often spelled with a capital
H]. All the articles are interesting in themselves, but there is little
coherence in the book. Like any compilation, it has strengths and weaknesses. Even a short excerpt from Peter Cochrane’s book Colonial Ambition is a reminder of the strength of a first-rate narrative historian. Manning Clark’s lecture notes are fascinating. Ellen Ward’s piece on the Temperance Union is a terrific one. Some selections are more mundane. Other articles are more suspect, but that is true of any compilation. The problem with this work lay elsewhere.
These chapters range from Raffaello Carboni in 1854 to writers such as academic Rebe Taylor in 2017. It is doubtful that Carboni had post-truth in his mind when he wrote his account of the Eureka Stockade, and Rebe Taylor is focusing on “DNA testing to approve Aboriginality in Tasmania”. (p. 244.) It is unreasonable to ask Carboni to deal with a concept developed in the 21st century, but where is it present in the later articles. The first and last article do not mention post-truth, and the rest of the articles manage to avoid it neatly. You can look in vain for even the presence of the word ‘post-truth’ in the book.
Even the introduction appears disinterested in the stated theme of the book. So what is the focus of the book? One question which is posed by Clark in her introduction is about how Australian History – spelled with a capital H – “incorporates indigenous perspectives”. (p. xii) This theme does run through the book to a degree and several writers provide some illuminating ideas. The selections by activist Marcia Langton and anthropologist Peter Sutton are provocative. However, it cannot be said there is a satisfying discussion of even this issue. The selected sections are too short and fragmentary to be coherent. Just arguing that it is a starting point, is a bit of a cop out. Either do what you setting out to do or don’t do it.
Each work is given a one-sentence introduction, so the reader has little idea about the writer and their context. This absence is a major flaw. Anna Clark could have done much more with the prefaces. There are short profiles at the end of the book, but if you are going to include Manning Clark or Geoffrey Blainey, the reader needs to know a little more than their formal title at Melbourne University. Clark has made a miscalculation in assuming that readers know the enormous cultural and political impact of these writers. But even less recognised writers need some social or political context. For example, the readers could have known about the impact of Italian nationalism on Raffaello Carboni in the preface to the chapter. Carboni is described as an ‘active participant’ at Eureka.
Clark also argues the articles represent: “attempts to write Australian history [now spelled with a small h], not simply at a point in time, but by many people over time. It’s a history of History- albeit an introductory one.” (xv.) Despite the high sounding nature of this section of the introduction, it does nothing of the sort. It is a collection of writings from various publications. Aside from being an anthology of writings from Melbourne University Press, it is hard to discern any overarching structure or theme – and none is adequately explained. No discussion exists of how one set of ideas influenced or sparked reactions from other writers. Each writer appears to be in a social and political vacuum.
This book has all the hallmarks of a committee-based approach to publishing. The title would have pleased the marketing division, and it is a good one, but it is reasonable to ask a book’s title to reflect its contents. The editor and Melbourne University Press appear to be at sea as to what the book is about, and the focus of the book is lost. The Knowledge Solution: Australian History does not meet its stated aims and it does not address the question it poses.