I was genuinely baffled to see the name Captain Cook trending on Twitter. It was in response to a Daily Telegraph article declaring history was being “rewritten” by the University of New South Wales for favouring the term “invaded” over “discovered” for the arrival of Europeans.

In many ways it was the usual sensationalism that characterises the Telegraph. The editor sprawled the word “Whitewash” across the cover, seemingly ignorant that the term refers to ignoring Indigenous history – the exact opposite of what UNSW are trying to do. Academic staff are called the “nutty professors”.

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The Telegraph seems to think this is a recent change.

The confusing thing is why the Telegraph decided to make this an issue now? The article gives a false impression that academic staff have only recently had the epiphany that Australia may have already been discovered in 1770.

None of this is new. The UNSW’s terminology guideline comes from a book published two decades ago in 1996. The majority of the recommendations are just common sense and reflective of modern historical terms. No contemporary Australian historian would write of Cook “discovering” Australia.

The term “Invasion” is common but also contested. Many historians, including myself, will tend to favour “the arrival of Europeans” or the “beginning of British colonisation”. In either case referring to the British “settling” Australia has been out of fashion for decades.

That said, there are a couple of points in the recommendation I would take issue with. Firstly, there are two inherent contradictions when the guide claims “Aborigines” and “Aboriginal people” are inappropriate terms.
 
The guide states:
 
Using terms such as “the Aborigines” or “the Aboriginal people” tends to suggest that Aboriginal people/s are all the same, and thus stereotypes Indigenous Australians. The fact is that Indigenous Australia is multicultural. Australia before the invasion was comprised of 200-300 autonomous language groups that were usually referred to as “tribes”, now more often as “peoples”, “nations” or “language groups”. The nations of Indigenous Australia were, and are, as separate as the nations of Europe or Africa.
 
There are two issues with this logic.
 
1. The rationale simply does not make sense. If “Aboriginal people” implies that they are all the same then surely the same can be said of “Indigenous Australians”. Both terms are for collective use, drawing on the commonality of these diverse groups. Both terms are acceptable and commonly used by contemporary historians. If there is a problem using “Aboriginal people” – and I would argue there is not – it is not solved by the use of “Indigenous Australians”.
 

2. The guide correctly states that Australia’s first peoples were as separate as the nations of Africa and Europe. This is true and yet terms like Africans or Europeans are perfectly acceptable depending on context. It does not imply that all Europeans are the same or that all Africans are the same to refer to common obstacles or issues relating to these regions of the world.

Returning to the article, the real failure is to see the nuance in the recommendations. The Telegraph claims:

[Students are] told it is offensive to suggest James Cook “discovered” Australia and inappropriate to say the indigenous people have lived here for 40,000 years.

This is not true. The guide suggests that some terms are more or less appropriate. The most misleading thing about the article is the false perception that this is a stringent rulebook being pedantically enforced.

I have taught Australian History at UNSW and was never as prescriptive with my students as the article implies. Nor was I ever told that I must enforce the preferred terminology. Student essays are marked on their merits, their research, prose, and argument. UNSW has done nothing “highly controversial”.

The point of the recommendation, and indeed the point of university, is to encourage critical thinking. Words do carry meaning and students should pause to reflect on the implications of terms and phrases. This is a far cry from dictating to students how they should express ideas, much less a “rewriting of history”.

This whole issue is a crude media beef-up and a sad reflection of the festering anti-intellectualism within News Corp. It plays into a common Telegraph theme that universities are Marxist institutions peddling extreme leftist ideologies. These are not the universities of reality but ones dreamt up shock jocks and culture warriors.

Our mission as historians is to study and reflect on the past. Our task is not to judge but to understand. We teach our students how to think not what to think – and we certainly do not dictate who they should vote for.

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The Telegraph showcased its commitment to impartial reporting at the 2013 election.

 

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