Let pride replace shame

By Jonathan King

Political correctness clouds our children's view of Australian history in the classroom, argues Jonathan King

THIS long weekend, Australians from all walks of life are celebrating what some schoolteachers call ``a day of shame''. With their barbecues, sizzling sausages, beer cans and Aussie flags fluttering in the summer breeze, Australians are commemorating what these teachers describe as the ``invasion of Australia''. So committed are Australians to this blackest of all days, many of us will also take today off in honour of the event.

January 26, of course, has not always been a day of shame. Until recently, Australia Day was commemorated with pride. After all, the arrival of the First Fleet of convicts in Sydney Cove in 1788 led to the British settlement of all six colonies and to our Federation in 1901. And this was done in the breathtaking space of 113 years -- no small feat.

The hazardous voyage of 11 tall ships battling largely uncharted seas for eight months from Portsmouth was an achievement taught proudly to earlier generations of Australian students. It inspired first thoughts of nationhood. At what is now Circular Quay, fleet commander Arthur Phillip predicted: ``We have founded here today a state which we hope one day will not only occupy this great continent but will become a shining light for all nations of the southern hemisphere. How grand is the prospect that lies before this youthful nation.''

Phillip's safe arrival was a much greater achievement than the highly promoted six-week trans-Atlantic Mayflower voyage of pilgrims who settled America in 1620. Even though the pilgrims travelled one-tenth the distance, they still lost one of two ships and half their settlers in the first winter. By contrast, Phillip lost no ships and delivered 1350 people with few casualties. Today it would be like colonising Mars.

So many Australians felt good about this maritime achievement that 2 million spectators turned out to welcome 11 tall ships that re-enacted in 1988 that epic voyage from England. That year's bicentennial celebrations were, however, the last hurrah. The landing on that fatal shore, as Robert Hughes branded it, is now taught in our classrooms with little reference to Phillip's achievements.

Despite his abhorrence of slavery, his reconciliation efforts and, in NSW Premier Bob Carr's words, ``heroic status'', Phillip was banished by our history teachers long ago as persona non grata -- unacceptably British, imperialist, racist, sexist, and anti-environmentalist to boot. He was the first casualty of the late 20th-century history war initiated by a small politically correct brigade bent on changing Australia in its own image. His expedition with unsavoury convicts and all-male crew (taking advantage of women in and out of chains), which was victualled in colonial South Africa, had to be sidelined. Attempts made by explorers and settlers to tame the wide brown land were reframed as a deliberate war against Aborigines -- with most subsequent behaviour seen as unacceptable for a contemporary mindset.

The deterioration of our schools' history standards doesn't end with the first settlement. Today, many NSW students, who must do 100 mandatory hours, rarely hear about navigators such as Flinders, who charted and named Australia. They rarely hear about Burke and Wills, the first explorers to cross the continent. And they rarely hear about the gold rushes that transformed colonies, the fight for Federation, surviving the Depression, Gallipoli, and the heroic Australian efforts in the Somme, Tobruk, El Alamein, Kokoda, Korea and Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, students' ignorance of our history is becoming so appalling that one school leaver thought Gallipoli was a surfing beach in Queensland; another thought it was where we defeated Hitler. Few even know when, how or why their continent was settled.

By sweeping mainstream history under the carpet, teachers have produced crops of empty-headed young people who don't know much about the nation's achievements. Australian history has been taught in such a negative way that young Australians also grow up feeling ashamed to be Australian.

Outside school, people have been turned off history to such an extent that one of Australia's best-known tourist attractions, Old Sydney Town on the central coast north of Sydney -- a theme park dedicated to re-enacting daily life in colonial Sydney from 1788 to 1810 -- closes down today after nearly 30 years in operation. Its closure follows the removal of other outward and visible signs of Australia's invidious past: the First Fleet memorial is gone from Sydney's Customs Square; the Old Government House site has been reconstituted as the Museum of Sydney; a south Sydney council has attempted to delete an ``outdated'' Captain Cook from its coat of arms; and Phillip's statue in Manly has been destroyed by vandals. Earlier this month, political vandals even torched the Inaminka Dig Tree and removed the memorial of Burke and Wills's tragic expedition, from which visitors could learn so much.

It's time to admit failure, go back to the drawing board and design commonsense representative history courses with balance, starting with a chronological overview to give students a timeline-based big picture before focusing on any one topic.

Start with Aboriginal customs and achievements, confirming how well original inhabitants cared for the continent for 60,000 years, but include navigators who charted it; transportation; exploration; struggles of female and male pioneers and the founding of each state. This overview should also include key events that any teacher with commonsense knows shaped Australia -- gold rushes, Federation, World War I, Depression, World War II, the fight against communism, wars in Korea and Vietnam, and a review of prime ministers, featuring events such as the 1975 Dismissal.

Of course, let's include shameful chapters in our past -- no one can deny the tragedy of the Aboriginal experience; but it does not help to inflict guilt on our children with an apologist history. After all, we do have much to be proud of. Avoiding politically loaded words such as genocide, teachers should teach -- not preach -- what actually happened, not what should have happened, in plain English. They should present historic figures as people of their time -- not judged with 2003 attitudes.

Having established different cultural perspectives, teachers should explain inevitable clashes, dispossession and destruction of the traditional Aboriginal way of life (not least through disease) as a terrible price of settlement rather than the objective of settlement. Tell stories from both sides but confirm Australia had more good news events than bad.

Meanwhile, most Australians are left with the grand prospect of a three-day weekend for no official reason as a shining light in the holiday calendar, while many in the know are celebrating an event they have been taught to be ashamed of. It is a dilemma we must resolve. No nation should deny its origins, especially when these influenced its identity. If Aborigines can hold Survival Day at Sydney's La Perouse, non-indigenous people should also acknowledge the event.

To just fly the Aboriginal flag would not represent the majority and to change the date would be a cop-out. Like it or not, 166,000 convicts peopled Australia over 80 years. They did well. It is our history. We should be proud of it.

Jonathan King writes about history for "The Australian". He served on the Mandatory 100 Hours committee for the NSW Education Department in 1990, has taught history and organised the 1988 London to Sydney First Fleet re-enactment.

Article from "The Australian" of January 27, 2003, Page 11

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