On 19 March 2020, the Board of the History Council of Victoria (HCV) accepted with regret Professor Graeme Davison’s resignation as Chair. As its new Chair, the Board appointed Professor Peter McPhee.
Introducing Peter McPhee
by Professor Graeme Davison AO FAHA FASSA FFAHS
The History Council’s new Chair, Professor Peter McPhee AM, is a distinguished historian of the French Revolution with an outstanding record of service to Victorian universities and to the history community, both locally and internationally. He is a gifted writer and speaker, an accomplished university administrator, and a passionate advocate for history in schools and the public culture. He comes to the office at a time of great challenge and promise, both for the Council and the history community.
Peter was born in Victoria and educated at schools in Coleraine, Colac and Melbourne before the University of Melbourne, where he completed his PhD under the supervision of Dr Alison Patrick. In the 1980s he taught for seven years at the Victoria University of Wellington before returning to the University of Melbourne. His course on the French Revolution – which he still teaches as a professorial fellow – has drawn an enthusiastic response from generations of students. Like many other academic historians, Peter came to university as a secondary teaching trainee and completed a DipEd; his continuing interest in history education in schools is shown by his long involvement as a lecturer in the History Council’s History Roadshows.
Our images of the French Revolution are dominated by the dramatic events in Paris, like the fall of the Bastille and the actions of leaders like Marat and Robespierre; but Peter began his researches from the bottom up and from the rural provinces of southern France rather than the metropolis. In a series of influential social histories, such as The Politics of Rural Life (1992), Revolution and Environment in Southern France, 1780-1830 (1999) and A Social History of the French Revolution he explored the social forces that made and sustained the revolution. He remains keenly interested in the delicate interplay of necessity and contingency that produces or inhibits change in society. In a recent contribution to online forum The Conversation, he reflected on the gusts of popular discount sweeping the world in our own time, in places as different as Iran and the United States. Could they produce permanent changes? ‘People grow angry far more often than they rebel’, he observed. ‘And rebellions rarely become revolutions.’
In the early 2000s Peter held a series of senior administrative positions at the University of Melbourne, culminating in his appointment as the university’s first Provost. Among his responsibilities was the introduction of the controversial Melbourne Model. On his retirement in 2009, he returned to his first love, the French Revolution, with a biography of the leader of the Terror, Robespierre (2012) and in 2016 his general history, Liberty of Death: The French Revolution, acclaimed by one reviewer as ‘a major event in the historiography of the French Revolution’, and sure, in the words of another, to become ‘the standard work in English’.
In his 2000 Kathleen Fitzpatrick Lecture on ‘The Future of the Past at the Turn of the Century’, Peter affirmed his belief in the public importance of history. ‘I celebrate the study of the past for the excitement of encountering difference, for the chance of understanding ourselves better, and above for all the skills learned by its practice. We can hardly over-estimate the civic importance of a perspective which emphasizes cultural understanding, careful judgement, flexibility of outlook and respect for difference.’ He is splendidly equipped to lead the Council as it seeks to promote its recent Statement on the Value of History.
A message to all HCV supporters
by Professor Peter McPhee AM FAHA FASSA
I thank Graeme Davison and other members of the Board of the HCV for their warm welcome to me. I look forward to serving the Board in advancing the objectives of the Council and the place of historical literacy in public life.
As Graeme points out, I have devoted much of my academic career to teaching and researching about the French Revolution, although I’ve also written a good deal about Australian history and education. I am particularly supportive of the HCV because of its commitment to the importance of history in general, across time and place.
I have been involved with the HCV for many years through its Roadshow visits and value highly its role as a peak body bringing together important institutions and interests around shared objectives. I’ve also had a close long-term relationship with the History Teachers Association of Victoria and for three years chaired the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. I often lecture about history to community and business groups of various types.
Like all of you reading this, I have a deep conviction about the vital importance of an historical awareness in our lives, in everything from individual and community identity to the quality of our public culture and decision-making.
As we all know, Graeme Davison has personified these values during his most distinguished career and I’m thankful that his need to step away from chairing the Council will not end his involvement with us. He is a fount of both wisdom and new ideas. This is all the more important because of the immediate uncertainties we face in maintaining our activities during the current health emergency. We will hope that our public activities – notably our Roadshow and our partnership with the Making Public Histories seminars – will resume in their usual format later this year. In the meantime, our Executive Officer Margaret Birtley is leading the way in keeping us informed of online activities and news.
The Council faces some other challenges which I am keen to confront, notably our need to ensure a stronger financial basis to enable us to plan a richer variety of activities with greater certainty. We do need to seek a stronger memberships base through expansion of the Friends network, and through individual philanthropic support for general and specific activities.
Of course, I would welcome your thoughts and contributions about these matters!
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