Here at Byron Bay : History in Schools and Australian Patriotism
School day opens the Writers’ Festival here and I was privileged to talk about history, interviewed by Russell Eldridge, before an audience of students from local high schools.
We canvassed the decline of empires, assessing evidence about the US, working on the analogies with Rome ( well-worn as they are ) and covering China. The US is the revolutionary, interventionist force in world affairs, I argued, while China is the status quo power. I talked about the Middle Kingdom syndrome, drawing on Henry Kissinger’s latest book which canvasses the evidence of China’s cultural confidence and the longevity of its civilization and the influence of even its distant history on the behavior of its contemporary rulers.
I stressed the fun of history and the opportunities afforded by the NSW curriculum. We kept history and strengthened it, while other states abolished it and brought in weak substitutes like cultural studies.
I talked about the danger of over-emphasizing Gallipoli and drew their attention to the fall of Singapore in February 1942 as the darkest single day in Australian history. Don’t fall for pompous official patriotism, I warned them, for John Howard’s obsession with Don Bradman. Australian history has many narratives and it is more than sportsmen and war heroes. Make yours’ a gentle patriotism that stems from a knowledge of your country’s history and geography.
Russell got me onto Shakespeare and I told the students to persist with the challenge of Jacobean vocabulary for the day when they might get to see a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the English National Theatre and see it as it is meant to be performed. A skeptical expression in the audience. “Listen,” I said. ” I gave you the best syllabus in the country and 13 national parks around this town. When I tell you to persist with William Shakespeare take it as an order!”
One student had reservations about too much Australian history being forced on them. She said she was learning about Australia’s role in war but not about the wars. Another student said he didn’t want to lose NSW standards in the new national curriculum. Neither do I, I said, but it’s out of my hands now.
Discussion later with students from Kingscliff studying Chaucer in Year 11 English.