OPINION: by Jeffry BabbNews Weekly
The history book that helped bind a disparate nation
, November 13, 2010
The south Perth primary school I attended, Kensington State School, was a melting pot of postwar migration. Kensington in those days was a mixture of housing commission and war service homes.
Many boys, myself included, never wore shoes because shoes were kept for special occasions. The Perth winter can get quite cold, and after we made it to school we would warm our feet by the fire - a real red-gum fire.
The students who made up our school included Hungarians, Germans, Balts, Italians, Greeks, amongst others, and some Aboriginal Australians.
Kensington never produced a prime minister or governor-general. Apart from a few footballers, its main claim to fame is that Mrs Stone, mother of former Secretary to the Treasury John Stone, taught there for many years.
Most children at this school received a decent education and went on to high school. What's more, they shared an Australian culture.
That shared culture was based on a British heritage. At assembly, we sang "God Save the Queen". And our textbooks reinforced that heritage.
Recently, I came across an old textbook of mine, Whitcombe's Vivid History Reader
for grade 5, The British People in the Making
. First published in 1938, the book was still in use in the 1950s. And it is indeed a vivid reader, with stories from Britain's past, such as King Alfred's fight against the Danes, and Hereward the Wake's guerrilla war against the Normans, the man called "the last of the English".
What is intriguing about this book is that it sets British history in its European context, from the earliest Stone Age inhabitants of Britain to the end of the Middle Ages. The British People in the Making
discusses the role of the Church in Britain from the earliest times to the arrival of St Augustine, and the Church's role as a preserver of culture and learning.
The book sets Britain and Australia in the context of our civilisation, from the earliest times. It says: "Though it is thousands of years since Stone Age men lived in Britain, such men still live in some parts of the world. The Eskimos are much like them, for they are hunters and fishermen, knowing how to work flint, and kindle fires by friction; and until the white men came to Australia, our Blackfellows were true Stone Age men."
Discussing the conquests of Rome's legions ("The wonderful Roman Army"), the author writes: "Thus Rome became very rich; Roman citizens were learned in history, for they had time to study; they knew a good deal of geography, too, for they talked with soldiers and traders who had travelled; they loved beautiful buildings and statues, and pictures and paid artists well."
But if one thing is notable above all in this book, it is the centrality of Christianity in our shared British heritage. The Normans, setting out on their mission of conquering England, followed a banner blessed by the Pope, who hoped the Normans would reform the Church in England, which had grown lax in its religious practices.
The book continues: "In a few English villages the curfew still rings out at even-tide from a Norman church-tower; and its seems strange to think that the voice of the bell which now sounds so friendly was hated by our forefathers in Norman times, when it had become a daily reminder that Englishmen had become the slaves of a foreign conqueror."
The role of the Church in preserving the wisdom of the past and the role of the monasteries as intermediaries between the feudal lords and the common people get an interesting treatment. The travelling friars, hermits, missionaries and pilgrims are all mentioned, as are the early saints such as St Patrick, St Columba, St Aidan and St Augustine.
Would such a book be a recommended text in Australian state schools today? One doubts it.
But The British People in the Making
helped create a common narrative for a country where newcomers from all over the world were thrown together in an education system that had to cope with not only academic progress but teaching these newcomers what it is to be Australian. There were no teachers of "English as a second language" in those days.
Primary school teachers were then mostly males. Primary school teaching was an honourable profession for a male, and the pay was sufficient to allow him to raise a family in reasonable comfort.
These days, with the possibility of a court case hanging over the head of any male teacher who even innocently touches a female student, many males have deserted the profession, which is sad, because students are denied a male role model. Many primary schools do not have a single male on their staff.The British People in the Making
teaches that the role of religion is central to English-speaking civilisation. Without it, civilisation as we know it would not have survived the onslaughts of the Vikings, Germanic raiders and the Norman invasion.
The book's author is anonymous. Whoever he - or she - was, the author made a significant contribution to making Australia what it is today. This is history as adventure and building a national narrative for a new nation.