Do ask questions….

Craig Hill reposted this yesterday: English professor suddenly realises students will believe literally anything she says.

Midway through her 9 a.m. Intro to American Literature course Thursday, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Elizabeth Mabrey suddenly realised that her students would accept, without question, literally any words that came out of her mouth as absolute, incontrovertible fact, sources confirmed.

“I could say that On the Road was an overt metaphor for the Vietnam War and they would jot it down in their notebooks without any hesitation whatsoever,” said Mabrey, adding that, come midterms, her students will, as if on cue, mindlessly regurgitate whatever she tells them, whether it’s that the character of Dean Moriarty is supposed to be a figment of Sal Paradise’s imagination, or that the entire novel is meant to be read backwards.

“I could, honest to God, ask them to tear their copies of the novel in half because that’s what Kerouac ‘intended the reader to do,’ and they would do it. I mean, what are they going to do? Disagree with me?”

Professor Mabrey told reporters she has no plans to abuse her newly discovered power, though she would admittedly reconsider this position if denied tenure.

Craig Hill does acknowledge The Onion as his source and clearly tags the post as satire. But… My experience is this is worryingly possible. In my younger days I had a bad habit of every now and again telling my class a whole lot of nonsense in the hope they would challenge it. Sadly at times I had to tell them that everything I had been saying for the past ten minutes had been drivel.

Questioning the textbook was also very much a feature of my history teaching – where I knew enough that is, and that is a problem. History teachers have to know a hell of a lot, and really good ones do, but none knows all that could be known. So the skill is in being able to access and evaluate information, to think critically. It can be good for students to see that a textbook can be wrong – and even more so a web resource! In the 1970s I was teaching Asian Studies and one of our texts was The Jacaranda Atlas. We observed that comparing one map with another Luang Prabang, at the time the royal capital of Laos, was in different locations – around a 70 mile discrepancy, if I recall correctly. So I got the class to write to the publisher. We were pleased in due course to receive a reply promising to correct the next edition!


A Year 12 Formal group in the school where I taught in 1975

So long ago! Who are these people?

Not at that school but in that general era I taught the person with whom I had the following exchange on Facebook last night. I had shared a link as part of my growling about Pyne to Education wars: what the curriculum actually says about Australian history.

  • DP When most Australians believe that Whitlam got us out of the Vietnam War, there is a problem.

  • Neil James Whitfield This is as I remember it! Is it wrong? “Six months after the third Moratorium, the Liberal Party, now led by William McMahon, was defeated in the federal election by the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The ALP, now led by E. G. (Gough) Whitlam had campaigned on the platform of ending conscription. They immediately abolished conscription and freed those who had been imprisoned for resisting it. Whitlam also announced that the last of the Australian troops in Vietnam would come home. Australian involvement was officially over after ten years.”…/aus…/responses-of-various-groups

    The moratorium rallies were an outpouring of that support with huge numbers of p… 

    Perhaps you are referring to this: “Australia’s last two battalions to serve in Vietnam, the 3rd and 4th Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR and 4RAR) arrived in 1971. In August that year the Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, announced that the re…See More Australia and the Vietnam War | Vietnamisation – pulling out OK, I will grant McMahon had a lot to do with it. But the next paragraph from that site says: “In April Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces launched an offensive across the South. United States airpower, rather than the ARVN, stopped the North V… So “When most Australians believe that Whitlam got us out of the Vietnam War, there is a problem.” No, there is an opportunity! The fact a syllabus

  • DP  My understanding is that Nui Dat had been closed for over a year before Whitlam was elected and that no military combat operation had been conducted since Nui Dat”s closure. The total number of Australian soldiers left was no more than 200 at the time, mainly embassy guards and admin. Part of their task was to assess which Vietnamese were eligible for asylum in Australia (having cooperated with the American Imperialist)….Whitlam said “We are bringing no one back”…..leaving them to their fate under the communists. Fraser’s compassion towards the Vietnam boat people can be largely explained by this.

    I have heard Whitlam interviewed on ABC radio about 3 years ago….he said that he receives at least one letter a week thanking him for getting Australia out of Vietnam.

  • Neil James Whitfield Which just goes to show what every history teacher knows — the past is contestable. In fact that is one of the things that makes history so interesting. I agree with you on Whitlam versus Fraser on refugees, and can even remember arguments about the issue I had in 1975! In Katoomba of all places! And we had a pretty disgraceful performance here in Wollongong from Union leader Merv Nixon, if I recall correctly — which is always problematic. My recall, I mean. What all this actually says about the merits or otherwise of the National Curriculum does elude me. I could certainly work very happily with the National Curriculum, were I still teaching history, and I would like to think my students would get a balanced course. I also think that is true of most of the colleagues I have had in history over the years. The curriculum does not, cannot, legislate the fine detail when a topic is being explored.

  • DP Having read the History texts set when my son was at XXXX (2007 or thereabouts) I was concerned with the way this matter was dealt with, so much so that I presented an alternate view (with sources) to the then history teacher. The set text certainly gave the impression that Whitlam extracted us from Vietnam.

  • Neil James Whitfield OK, so “Did he really?” is a very fair question. But I would also object to a syllabus that denied he had any role in the end of the war — as he clearly did. Very few historical questions — even in recent history — have neat answers. Similarly, agree with him or not, I think the question Paul Keating raised at the War Memorial last year about whether the nation really was born at Anzac Cove is a VERY fair question.

We may grant that the textbook DP looked at was deficient, as this timeline entry further shows:

18 Aug 1971 The Vietnam toll Prime Minister William McMahon announced the final withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. By the time the last men had returned home in 1972, more than 46,000 Australian personnel had served in Vietnam, with 3000 wounded and 500 dead.

We also see that fact-checking really is easier now than it was in the 1970s, if we have the skills to sift all that stuff online. So let us look again at Whitlam’s 1972 It’s Time speech. Worth reading the whole thing and reflecting on how much was delivered, and what of it still stands.

The war of intervention in Vietnam is ending. The great powers are rethinking and remoulding their relationships and their obligations. Australia cannot stand still at such a time. We cannot afford to limp along with men whose attitudes are rooted in the slogans of the 1950s – the slogans of fear and hate. If we made such a mistake, we would make Australia a backwater in our region and a back number in history. The Australian Labor Party – vindicated as we have been on all the great issues of the past – stands ready to take Australia forward to her rightful, proud, secure and independent place in the future of our region…


We now enter a new and more hopeful era in our region. Let us not foul it up this time. Australia has been given a second chance. The settlement agreed upon by Washington and Hanoi is the settlement easily obtainable in 1954. The settlement now in reach – the settlement that 30,000 Australian troops were sent to prevent, the settlement which Mr McMahon described in November 1967 as treachery – was obtainable on a dozen occasions since 1954. Behind it all, behind those 18 years of bombing, butchering and global blundering, was the Dulles policy of containing China….


When a law divides the community and alienates some of its best, as the National Service Act does, the onus of proof for its retention lies entirely with those who support it.

The Liberals have made no attempt to justify the Act, morally, financially or even militarily. I agree with the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Roden Cutler, VC, that it is difficult to justify in logic or in military terms. I agree with the present Minister for the Army, Mr Katter, that even under the Liberals it would be “dormant” within two years. We, however, will act a little more promptly!

After Labor takes office there will be no further call-ups. All men imprisoned under the National Service Act will be released, pending prosecutions discontinued and existing convictions expunged. Our Minister for Defence and Attorney-General will take the earliest steps to amend the regulations and instructions under the Act to permit conscripts to be discharged when they wish. Conscripts who choose to complete their service will have the full benefits which Labor will introduce for the volunteer army and other forces…

And then:

30 Apr 1975 Evacuation of Saigon North Vietnamese troops occupied Saigon and remaining Australian and United States personnel were evacuated. Under the new regime, North and South Vietnam were unified. Saigon, the southern capital became Ho Chi Minh City.

Perhaps because, as I remember it, the Moratorium and the conscription issue so dominated our attention at the time, and the images of the fall of Saigon were so powerful, it is easy to lose the backstory in the previous prime ministership.

On the other matter – Vietnamese refugees – I can for once cite Quadrant positively even if the Robert Manne bashing is a bit tedious, and see also Weh Yeoh, Immigration nation and the refugee situation: another case of history repeating.

On history and history teaching there are some interesting threads in Library Thing.

What does worry me about the conservative history warriors is that they really do seem to be treading rather too much on the heels of some poor role models:

Japan’s conservative government is considering a requirement that school history textbooks nurture patriotism and include nationalist views of World War II, a departure from the current mainstream texts. Below are excerpts from the current most popular textbook and the leading conservative one, which nationalists in the governing party hope will become the new standard…

Here are some posts from my own blogs in 2005-6:

* Let me quote my 2005 self:

Windschuttle has his own myth of the history of Australia, and this myth, a perverse reversal of the Spartacism that failed him, becomes a template which he makes everything fit. I lived through much of what he is talking about and I know he is talking out of his arse. And I fancy myself as a moderate, not a raving leftie. I regard John Pilger and Mike Moore as propagandists too, I should add.

Finally, yet another of those political thingies appears on Time, so I tried it.


And by the way, I do believe Julia Gillard when she says on Facebook: “Aus newspaper story Kevin & I mandated curriculum themes dead wrong. Experts not politicians wrote the curriculum.”  The appropriate proof went into the Memory Hole, but not before Pandora caught it.

One thought on “Do ask questions….

  1. I am also a lecturer, at college and university. I have to admit that the whole story is alarmingly close to the truth.

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