Historical Evidence – Sometimes we will never know

Photo of front of two story red brick school building

Dorcas St State School, South Melbourne designed by Charles Webb and built in 1880

This post started as a simple report of a few presentations at last week’s Buildings, Books and Blackboards conference in Melbourne, then it became more reflective than a report before finally morphing into a discussion about how historians construct history.  Conferences are gatherings where historians learn and share.  However, as a result of writing these blog posts about the conference, my learning from the conference has continued well after the close of the event.

I knew that I was going to enjoy Melissa Vick’s presentation having read some of her work.  I also knew that her paper, ‘Normalising schooling in South Australia 1850-1875’, touched on topics closely associated to the issues that are of particular interest to me.  I was not disappointed.  Vick gave an absorbing presentation.  It was not only the subject of the presentation that gained my attention, but how Vick constructed her discussion and delivered it.

Vick argued in favour of drawing on a variety of philosophical perspectives in historical research.  I see this as a strength of the discipline.  We have seen that while a particular philosophical tradition may contribute useful insights, one philosophical tradition is never sufficient to explore all the issues of the world.  It is also useful to explore one particular historical issue from a number of different perspectives, each helping in a different way to yield a variety of insights.  The discipline of history has benefitted from historians being open-minded and willing to explore different philosophical approaches.

Vick used drawings of school buildings to demonstrate that one item can be loaded with information and possible interpretations.  These drawings of proposed schools were sent to the authorities in the hope that the government would give approval for their construction.  One school looked like a church, both inside and outside which demonstrated the difficulties which some people had separating church from the state at the time.  Another submission stated that the trustees were applying for the construction of an “English School”.  The two principal trustees had German surnames.  The use of the words “English School” are clearly significant.  What debates and attitudes do they signify?  A third school drawing had the words “In the town” underlined.  Further inquiry about these words reveals that there were several different proposals in the region and the inhabitants were divided about which proposal should be adopted.

Vick’s presentation was a very good demonstration of how historians painstakingly examine every scrap of evidence on a page.  These techniques are vital in the current work historians are doing to reveal the history of marginalised groups such as indigenous people, women and the working classes.  I have discussed this issue further in my post, ‘Women and Archival Silences’.

The history of education and children’s reading is usually told from the perspective of the adults involved in teaching children but we rarely hear an account of this history from a child’s perspective.  In the most recent issue of the newsletter of the Australian Council of Professional Historians’ Association Christine Cheater has noted that it is difficult to find historical sources that directly record the observations of children.

Whereas Vick focussed on school buildings from the perspective of adults, Mary Burston examined the perceptions of children.  In her conference presentation Burston drew on the memories of school recorded by author, Mary Fullerton, in her autobiography, Bark House Days.  She noted that the teacher saw the drawbacks of the school building, the lack of equipment such as slates, conversely Mary Fullerton remembers that the children were entranced by its shiny galvanised iron roof, a material they had never seen before.  “School, as the unknown, was a place to be flocked to”, remarked Fullerton, but “school, as the daily objective, ceased to excite our curiosity” (pdf p. 16).

Mary Burston’s presentation was different because of her introduction.  Before discussing the school building that was the subject of her paper, she first alerted us to a massacre of Aborigines that had occurred in the area before the school had been built.  She then went on to tell us about the school, noting that it is possible that Aboriginal children attended the school but we probably will never know whether this is the case because the archival records don’t have enough information to answer our questions one way or another – archival silences intrude again.

The focus of Burston’s story was the school building, the children and teacher who worked in it.  All her introduction did was to alert us to a possibility of Aboriginal use of the school but with no evidence this remained a supposition.  She could have easily told the story without mentioning this possibility.  Why did she do this?

Always underlying every aspect of Australian history is the undercurrent of what happened to the Aborigines.  Aborigines have a past but it is important to remember that throughout the history of Australia they have always had a presence.  Burston drew our attention to the fact that despite the massacre, Aborigines were always there, living, working and engaging with settler society despite what the archives tell us.  Her inclusion of Aborigines in her presentation came across as abrupt, disjointed even.  By presenting in this manner Burston unsettled the history she was presenting and made her audience think.  She drew our attention to the limitations of the archives.

There are many compelling histories written with engaging narratives which hide the possibility that other conclusions could be drawn from the same evidence, or that with the limitations of the evidence available a definitive conclusion cannot be made.  It is the mark of a good historian when they disclose to the audience how they constructed the history and make their audience question the history presented to them.

And sometimes we will never know.  We hear the adult memories of a childhood at the school, but the archives will never reveal the perspective of a child recorded while they are studying at this school.  We can speculate about the presence of Aboriginal children in the classroom but the absence of archival records on this question means that we will never know.

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In the midst of a conference there are so many stimulating presentations to attend at presto pace and a plethora of conversations in breaks.  One fascinating idea is barely absorbed before a completely different observation, equally thought-provoking, is heard.  There is little reflective time in which the ideas can be mulled over.  Sitting in the quiet of my lounge a week later, accompanied by the hum of the refrigerator and the whistle of various electronic devices attached to the television, I can finally absorb the ideas that have not yet been properly processed.

I write these reports about conferences for a number of reasons.  The main reason is because I want to share with you how historians work, the historical issues that are currently of interest to historians and to share some of the fascinating history I am fortunate enough to hear.  The other reason is that these reports help me to reflect on what I have heard and gain deeper understanding of knowledge gained fleetingly at the conference.

I hope that this post will help you gain more insights into how historians work.

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3 thoughts on “Historical Evidence – Sometimes we will never know

  1. Thanks again for sharing this, Yvonne, anything about schools is always especially interesting to me.
    BTW I can’t quote it properly, but I’ve never forgotten something written in a bicentennial diary that I had: it was a reminder that it took an inordinately long time for the settlers to set up schools, even for the wealthy, never mind for the children of the convicts and settlers – but on the day we celebrate as the foundation of Australian settlement, Aboriginal children were flourishing in their own education system which taught them everything they needed to know to thrive as adults.

    • I totally agree with you that it is important to acknowledged that Aboriginal people were educating their children when Europeans first settled in Australia and continued to do so albeit under duress from the colonial settlers.

      I am glad that you are interested in the history of education. I believe that the history of children’s education is fundamental to understanding any history. The knowledge and attitudes that are drilled into children at school influence their actions in adult life. More about that later…

      • We studied history of education when I was at Teachers’ College. I don’t know if they still do, I think it’s important.

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