Do you keep your old textbooks? I do, though am now starting to move them on. But some I still can’t part with, one being my high school history text. Called Nation and people: An introduction to Australia in a changing world, and first published in 1967, it was written by Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst who were teachers at East Sydney Technical High School. I decided for today’s Monday Musings to have a little look at what my teenage self learnt from it …
I was tickled because some of what I saw, looking at it now, had connections with my future – though, of course, I didn’t know it then. First is the fact that I went to high school in Sydney, and the teachers who wrote it were in Sydney, but the front cover is an image of Canberra, the city I moved to for my first professional job after finishing university, and where I live today. The other is that the first book listed in the student’s bibliography at the back is “F. Whyte, William Morris Hughes: His life and times“. F. Whyte (actually William Farmer Whyte), a journalist, was the grandfather of the man I married. This biography was his magnum opus. I have no idea why it is listed first though. The list is not alphabetical by author or title, and Billy Hughes was not our first Prime Minister so there’s not an obvious chronological reason. The order is quite idiosyncratic to my librarian eyes!
What is history?
These, however, aren’t what I really want to share, entertaining though they are to me. I was interested, for example, in the Preface. The authors say that
students should be encouraged to look for themes. It is important … that they understand the nature of a particular topic they are studying and why they are studying it.
In other words, history is not about dates but ideas and trends. Now, my two favourite high school teachers were my history teacher (Mrs Reynolds) and the librarian (Miss Reeve). It was the late 196os, a time of increasing interest in rights for indigenous Australians, of the Civil Rights movement in the US, and when anti-Apartheid activism was becoming stronger. These two teachers – seen as “red” by more conservative parents – encouraged us to think about what we’d now call social justice. I loved them, because for them history was a living thing about themes, ideas and values.
Of course, in looking at this book now, I particularly wanted to see what it told us about indigenous Australians, because this was an issue we felt strongly about. There are a few references to Aborigines, as indigenous Australians were called then, but there is also a 10-page section devoted to them. It starts with some quotes – from the Constitution (1901), “A Crown Lands Commissioner to Governor La Trobe in 1840”, and writer Marjorie Barnard (from her history of 1962) – followed by their introduction:
During the nineteenth century, the white settlers of Australia extended their frontiers and finally won a continent from its former black owners. The pattern was a similar one to other regions in the world where the white civilisation had made contact with coloured races which were less powerful and culturally different. Lands had been conquered, the stability of the conquered society shattered and the coloured peoples exploited.
They talk about early contact – from seventeenth century sealers to the later farmers – and their poor treatment of indigenous people. They note that “few whites made any effort to understand” cultural differences. They describe conflict between white and black people, in which killing occurred on both sides, but in their view:
Too often in Australian history in the nineteenth century good relations were destroyed by the low standard of settler and the low standard of police.
Next, they say
After the white man had won the land, his [this was before 1970s feminism!] attitude changed. The black man became regarded as a useful stockman who could perform important duties in areas of harsh environment where white labour was scarce and expensive. Thus an extensive cheap labour force was set up for the cattle stations …
They go on to discuss other aspects of black-white history in Australia: missionaries and paternalism, and then assimilation. In 1967, a referendum was passed which amended Australia’s Constitution “to allow aborigines to be included in the census”. Hodge and Whitehurst include a photo of some “Young Australians” sitting at desks. The caption reads: “Now these young Queenslanders will be counted. But will they count?” Good question.
This section ends by suggesting that “integration” is starting to be seen as a better policy than “assimilation”, but
This means, of course, that Australians would have to accept the fact that their society is multi-racial and multi-cultured, and that two cultures would live side by side with complete equality.
Those words – “would have to accept” – suggest, don’t you think, an uncertainty that Australians would indeed accept this. Around 50 years have passed since this was written, and progress has been made but “complete equality”? Nope. How very depressing it all is.
Finally, the authors provide a list of additional reading at the end – where I found F. Whyte – but they say “the reading list in this text is recommended as a manageable one”. They don’t think students “should or could read all the books listed, but … are thoroughly capable of looking at quite a number of them.” They tell students not “to become a slave to one or two general texts, even if they are concise and interesting” and not to “attempt to wade though volumes that are recommended as reference books”. Instead, they say:
Perhaps your most profitable course at this stage of your study of History would be to enter into the spirit of the course through biography. This plan of action you will find very profitable in your study of Australian development. Through reading biographies you will gain a feeling for History and insight into the spirit and problems of each decade.
How sensible is that? Don’t make students read dry recitations of historical events and facts. Better to read books that will bring history alive. Those they recommend at the end include biographies and fiction, such as George Johnston’s My brother Jack, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia and, interestingly, Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved country.
Looking at this book, I can see the origins of my ideas about what history is and what it means. Thank you Messrs Hodge and Whitehurst, and thank you too Mrs Reynolds and Miss Reeve. You have not been forgotten.
Do you have teachers and classes that have made a lasting impression on you and your way of thinking?