Monday musings on Australian literature: on Nation and people

Hodge and Whitehurst, Nation and PeopleDo 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.

Indigenous Australians

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.

Further reading

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?

30 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: on Nation and people

  1. Wasn’t Mrs. Reynolds great? I remember on the occasional Saturday going with her and a few other students to visit local historical houses. Although I used to go to the library during the religion period, I don’t remember a specific librarian.

    • She was Glenda … And I believe she has received an Australian honour, AM?, for local history work in the Blue Mountains.

      She and Miss Reeve ran some discussion groups in the library … I’m pretty sure Miss Reeve was there the whole time we were. Of course I was considering being a librarian so I was interested in the library.

  2. I was in my 2nd Year at Sydney in 1967 – one of my subjects was History – you’ll know immediately the other – plus Education – my three “majors”. Brian Neill at Tamworth High for English – and Maurie Graham for Modern History – my Leaving Certificate in 1965. (Japan: Meiji to MacArthur for History Honours – I later spent more than 16 years in Japan – and found my paedagogical hero because I recognised Perry’s “Black Ships” (in a Diorama Museum in a remote region coastal town far from Tokyo – dedicated to that hero) from my History Honours studies. As you say – the things we meet later with direct consequence/meaning to something met in our final years of school. What I wanted to talk(write) about mostly though was a class I taught in a remote NSW town in 1975 – an English class – Form IV (Year 10). In the class a very impressive young lad – Athol. Indigenous. Quite literally everywhere he was present in the school was lit up with his good-natured presence. The awareness of prejudice and bigotry was just beginning to properly come to my consciousness. What to do – young, without the words to properly articulate what I wanted to say – and the word racist was then – it seemed to me – only ever used in connection with South (South Africa and apartheid – and the Deep South). Not Australia! Hmmm! I was in a new school – but old books passed on by the school from which our new one had been hived off – were in our text-book room. I looked at what we had and made my selection. Let the writers speak for me to us all – I decided. Alan PATON: Cry, the Beloved Country. Harper LEE: To Kill a Mockingbird. Wole SOYINKA: a poem “Telephone Conversation”. I think feelings surfaced of unfairness – of outrage at injustice – I can’t be certain. Those books are now part of generations of us – and I did teach Harper Lee’s book again some 15 years or so later – and had much to say about it by then – and interesting ways of “reading” it – exploring the concerns within its pages. And in later years too became a friend of South African writer Daphne ROOKE – who was on cheek-kissing terms with Alan Paton – said his voice had the same intonational music as that of Desmond TUTU. And another friend had been at Leeds University latter 1950s when Wole SOYINKA was in the Drama circle. In fact I wrote to him myself while in Japan some 25 years ago – after his Nobel Prize win of 1986 – and he wrote back of his visit to Japan following that win – and with an aside on a distant cousin of mine who’d founded the National Folk Art Museum in Lagos – an eccentric, he wrote, lived a Spartan life – rode a bicycle – swam a lot! The experience lived with me – lives with me still – and has been written about and spoken of in a variety of forums. And my student Athol? He went on to take tertiary studies – headed an Indigenous Study Centre at a rural university in NSW – then headed up regional Home Care Services for Indigenous people – a vast area – until illness called a halt to that – but even in his remission period he was running Domestic Violence Awareness programs for Men – until all too soon just about two years ago now – aged only 57 he was gone. I counted him a real friend – the one who showed me my way forward as a teacher – social justice at the core – and I said so at his funeral – the biggest I have ever attended – spilling outside the doors. I was in my equally rural hometown at the end of last year and undertook a couple of Indigenous cultural tours organised by the local Art Gallery – led by (Uncle) Len WATERS (named for a famous uncle – the first Indigenous fighter pilot – during WWII – stamps in his honour). I thought I knew the region (from which in large part I have been away for some 50+ years) like the proverbial back of my hand – but Len opened up the old way of seeing the landscape – and rock art sites and lines of sight – explaining cultural practices and significances – along with smoking ceremonies and respect for the things he was showing us. At lunch time I mentioned something of my life and the Indigenous influences within it. I mentioned Athol. He and Athol had been mates in Dubbo – both were Gomeroi men. He had worked with my brother. Small world – circles meeting! Thanks, WG!

    • Thanks for these wonderful stories Jim. But that Athol, how very sad. Way too young.

      I don’t know those South African writers. I will keep an eye out for them, as I haven’t read enough literature from that continent.

  3. We didn’t buy our own textbooks in high school, the school owned them and they were loaned to students for the semester so I don’t have any of them to discover all the subliminal messages that have been secretly governing my life 🙂

    My high school American history teacher was amazing and co-wrote one of the books we used. He was of the kind like yours where it wasn’t the dates that mattered most (though he did make us memorize some dates), but the themes and connections and effects. It was an excellent and rigorous class at the end of which I was able to take a test that allowed me to get college credit for it so a year later when I arrived at university I didn’t have to take the general education history class.

  4. I have all the Victorian School readers and Arithmetic books for Primary and second year high School. I also have some poetry and geography books form school. I collect old school books such as Whitcomb’s text books. I have a 1900 text book, Easy Stories for Australian Children – a Junior Reader of Australian History correlated with Geography, priced 6d. It refers to Aborigines as “Blacks” and says in one lesson: “The Tasmanian blacks….were shorter than the Australian blacks, and belonged to a different race, not unlike the negroes, having curly or frizzly hair, and shiny, black skin.”
    I can’t remember the name of My 5th Form English teacher which is a pity, but he was the one who encouraged my interest in poetry and Shakespeare. He allowed me and other students to express our views without dictating to us. I think English and History are so connected that it would be difficult not to be interested in both.

    • That’s fascinating Meg that you collect them. My book has that “fact” about Tasmanian Aborigines that they were killed out, but your 1900 “fact” is fascinating. Makes you wonder what we say now, and believe, that isn’t “true” doesn’t it?

      Yes, I think you are right about English and History. You don’t find many interested in one and not the other do you.

      • I think Stephen FRY has commented somewhere or other in connection with his QI program and he proves it on his program that the things we learnt then are no longer true – this point of Meg’s and by you is spot on. In the late 1980s – before my life in Japan – I had a history text, too – Year 10 level – from which I taught. Excellent! Australia: a land of immigrants – by Beryl and Michael CIGLER – one of the best. Published in 1985. Yet even as we worked our way through the relevant sections tied to our course – I would have to point out when more recent research or perspectives had overtaken the facts as presented in the Cigler text. However – when discussing the Indigenous Australians (Aborigines) not only did it present the view that they came island-hopping – by canoes to Australia – a long time ago – it also presented the traditional/religious Indigenous viewpoint – along with “The Dreaming” of being created within this landscape. And in a later section speaking of Genocide – and Tasmania – it tells the story of one of the last Tasmanians, William LANNEY who died in 1869 and describes what the Hobart “scientific”/”medical” establishment mob then did to his body – removing his skull, cutting off and taking his hands and feet (and other more intimate parts of his body in fact – though not mentioned in the text). The story of the life of Truganini follows. True weeping – one’s only proper response to the tribulations she faced not only in her life but what followed. I visited Oyster Cove a couple of years ago – a sacred place now – declared part of Palawan Heritage in the 1990s. Yet even the small graveyard there in the latter 19th century was robbed of the remains of those who died in that place after being brought from the island of death – Flinders Island – where the graves were likewise robbed – and skeletons and skulls sold to universities and museums in Britain and in Europe. Finally – it has on page 118 – a photograph, late 19th century – of Japanese sugar cane workers in the Cairns district. Now who knew that! My students did! Nearly 30 years ago.

        • Sounds like another interesting history text Jim. Interesting the difference that nearly 20 years made between mine and yours – and then to now. Thanks, again, for sharing.

  5. I wish I could find a copy of the text we had for Modern European History… I can’t even remember its name but I read it from cover to cover and then asked ‘what’s next? It shaped my ideas about unification and the philanthropic movement in Britain and all sorts of other things besides. I reckon that makes it a very good text book!

    • It sure does Lisa. I wonder whether it was Europe since Napoleon, by David Thompson. I had that in my final year or two of school. It was a Penguin – I still have it, and it still opens beautifully despite its heft. It was very readable. I remember sometimes finding it hard to get back to my revision for tests because I wanted to keep reading it.

  6. If I studied any Australian history at high school, I certainly don’t remember a word of it now. I vaguely remember a unit of Japanese history, which mainly involved spending every lesson watching an episode of the TV mini-series Shogun (starring Richard Chamberlain, phwaaw.)
    This was at a suburban Melbourne state school – and actually a pretty good one, apparently – in the eighties. Bit sad, actually.

    • Mine was a good Sydney state school Michelle. The 80s were very different I suspect to the late 60s in terms of how and what we were taught? I think as the years wore on courses became more fragmented into units? I wonder if that approach – it that’s what you had – makes it harder to recall?

      • A fascinating subject. I understand your fascination with textbooks about history and this Australian one seems to have been an excellent text. I remember school history using a well done but rather stodgy one on UK history and doing an excellent course on East African history which opened up the subject for me. I like that advice for students to start with biography as a way of approaching the study of history.

  7. I don’t have any of my old school textbooks, though still have some History books from University on Mediaeval & European History and possibly Australian History.

    There are two high School teachers who stand out for me – Miss Docherty who taught History at Wangaratta High School, and Colin Cave (dad of Rock Star and author Nick Cave) who was a wonderfully vibrant teacher and taught English Literature at Wang High. I also knew him from a small drama group he established in Wangaratta called the Young Thespians.

    I studied Australian History at Melbourne University and recall , giving a lecture on the first AIF, which was so moving we gave him a standing ovation afterwards, the only time I remember a lecturer being accorded that honour.

    • Great stories Anne. I wonder, if we did a survey, whether history and English teachers would be the most memorable for us overall? Of course it may just be skewed here because I’m a lit blog.

      I don’t remember giving any lecturer a standing ovation!

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