TUMBY BAY - Like a lot of expatriates in Papua New Guinea prior to independence, I commenced a university degree through the University of Queensland’s school of external studies.
I didn’t have a particular goal in mind. My motives were to add some direction to my voracious reading habit and give me something to do in the evenings on the remote patrol posts where I worked.
My vague study plan allowed me to range over many different subjects. The only constraints were the rules of the university. In this way I flitted from one course to another as they caught my interest.
The plan would certainly not provide any particular qualification when my degree was completed. Rather it offered a good general education in the nature of the old style Victorian scholastic era.
What I probably didn’t realise at the time, though, was that my approach had a particular Melanesian flavour to it, a sort of laid-back way of learning. It was something, along with a few other bad habits, I must have picked up in that Papua New Guinean water.
Through this ‘make it up as you go along’ degree, I found myself as one of only a few males tackling Women’s Studies and later among hippies absorbing The Politics of Non-Violence.
One thing I did learn from university, no matter what the subject, was that original thinking was a big no-no. It was all about giving the lecturers what they wanted to hear. In other words, echoing their ideas.
I first realised this when an essay on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ was returned to me with a low mark. In the essay I had had the temerity to suggest that my location on a remote patrol post on the upper reaches of the Fly River had some relevance to an appreciation of the novel.
I had also dabbled in a few history subjects and made the same mistake. As Pink Floyd declared, I was just ‘another brick in the wall’ and that’s where I was expected to stay.
When I understood this, I settled back to regurgitating the lecturer’s points of view and my marks improved accordingly. I guess it was good training in writing bullshit.
I also learnt to rigidly adhere to the formalities of presenting essays and other assignments. Wrongly setting out references or citations could mean the difference between a high or low mark. Commas had to be in their pre-ordained places, like this.
Only when I went on to post-graduate study was I allowed to express any degree of originality but I still had to be careful about upsetting the status quo.
That I ended up with a post-graduate degree is a minor miracle. It was also interesting that the degree qualified me to do nothing in particular.
Fortunately this wasn’t important to subsequent employers. They just wanted me to have some bits of university paper, they weren’t interested in what. As far as they were concerned I could have had a degree in basket weaving.
The rigidity that is taught in universities must have an effect on the disciplines they teach.
I may have this wrong, but history seems to be about weighing up tangible evidence to arrive at well-constructed interpretations.
The essence of history about any matter is, therefore, largely determined by its sources. If those sources can be proved to be credible then an interpretation will hold.
The sources should be mainly primary, that is, original documents from the archives and other places or original work by authoritative writers. You will see information referenced as ‘personal communication’. This is information heard directly from key players who were involved in whatever event is described.
All up, this kind of methodology works well in literate societies where information and records have been stored.
However, it doesn’t work well in non-literate societies. In these cases, the main sources are oral.
Oral literature in mainstream history is not highly regarded and is labelled as hearsay and thought to be unreliable. And it is true that oral literature filtered through different generations is necessarily coloured by this filtration. Sometimes it is indistinguishable from invention.
This makes the job of a historian in a largely non-literate society extremely difficult. How is it possible to assert a proposition for which there is no conventional written proof?
Harder still is asserting a proposition if the limited written sources conflict with oral interpretation. If this occurs across cultures, the problem becomes really difficult.
As an aside, I should also note that oral literature quoted by a qualified historian, especially one from outside the country, seems to have more clout than oral literature quoted by a local, unqualified person.
This is when I think that history in places like Papua New Guinea needs to be taken out of its rigid, formal restraints and called something else.
For instance, Mathias Kin’s ‘History of Simbu’ could be called ‘The Story of Simbu’.
Or should it?
That would make it, in terms of an historian’s parlance, a secondary source – a kind of second-hand item. A ‘popular history’, written for entertainment rather than accuracy.
Maybe Papua New Guinea, like it needs a Melanesian Way of governance, needs a Melanesian Way of recording its history.