Discussion paper

Teaching national shame: history and citizenship in the school curriculum

Citizenship National identity School curriculum History Australia United Kingdom

Identification with a nation-state has the capacity to unite disparate individuals in a shared sense of identity and purpose, with education playing a role in the transmission of this identity through a common curriculum.

In this paper, analyst Joanna Williams, examines the impact of changing approaches to teaching history and citizenship on the cultivation of national identity in Australia and the United Kingdom. She notes that the history curriculum has long provided a specific site for the teaching of a national story, while distinct lessons in citizenship are a more recent development.

In both countries, however, rather than celebrating national successes, history classes increasingly focus on sins of the past, thus teaching national shame. Schools have also promoted the values of global, rather than national, citizenship, with civics lessons encouraging local political activism as a form of democratic engagement. The legacy is cohorts of young people who have grown alienated from their nation-state and its democratic processes.

The paper concludes by calling for greater balance in the teaching of history, whilst pointing out that the very existence of formal citizenship classes speaks to a lack of confidence and consensus in the values associated with national identity. If a new generation is not to be left alienated from its collective past, the nation-building role that schools once played should be revived.

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CIS Occasional Paper 189