The History Wars are continuing in Australia, with the current subject being the place of history, and of narrative
history, in the education of our children. The importance of the stories of history, of teaching the sense of where we, as a nation, came from, with a side-argument on whether we should be teaching our children to interpret context only, because they can google the dates and such, or whether children should know
something of their history.
Given that this is Australia, it gets tied up in the colonialism thing. Essentially, which history? Are we teaching the history of Australia the way I learnt it in primary school, as the founding of a new nation in a harsh natural environment and with regrettable conflicts with the natives who turned out to be living here, a fact which the settlers should have taken more into account, but overall it's a grand tale of which we should be proud? Or are we teaching the history of Australia as one of shameful mistreatment of the natives, with little focus on anything else? (Since those seem to be the only two options being offered in the argument, although neither is ever treated without bias by its proponents or opponents and I admit that my view of Australian history is somewhat affected by the fact that I learnt most of what I know of it in the 80s and early 90s.)
I'm not really going to weigh in on this one, except to say that it reminds me of a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald
I read which was written most of a century ago (I forget when exactly, and the book it was in has been returned to the library from whence it came), commenting on a pageant of Australian History (what there was of it) performed in honour of a royal visit. The writer commented, with heavy irony, on the way the pageant had managed to convey the full story of Australian settlement and onward without mention of a single convict.
Australia's always had a weird ambiguity about its history. We're proud of part of it and don't want to think about the part we don't like, unless we're hyper-aware of it and focus on it really hard. The version of Australian history I learnt in school was heavy on the convict stories - I remember we read through lists of convicts transported and the crimes they'd committed. There was a lot of emphasis on the fact that a lot of the crimes weren't what we'd consider criminal - starving, impoverished people convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed their families, that sort of thing. In the 80s (and remember in 1988 we celebrated, comprehensively, the Bicentennial of the arrival of the First Fleet), we were reclaiming our convict past with pride.
Now that that's done, we're into self-flagellation over what dead people did to other dead people. The Left are into making us take responsibility for it, and it's one of the areas where the Left and I don't really agree; I am deeply concerned about the current
plight of the Aborigines, many of whom have pretty much zero opportunity to live an even slightly healthy and productive life, but I happen to think that in order to go forward we have to let go of the past. No-one who was involved is alive today. I will not take responsibility for the actions of the long-dead.
(Even if I were native to Australia, even if I could trace my ancestry back to that selfsame First Fleet, I wouldn't. As a first-generation immigrant it certainly had nothing to do with me. I don't believe in ancestral guilt, really, and if I did it would cause me serious problems, considering what horrible, evil things some of my ancestors suffered at the hands of, well, some of my other ancestors. MY ANCESTORS PUT MY ANCESTORS IN CONCENTRATION CAMPS. I WANT COMPENSATION FOR THAT FROM... ME. OH WAIT.)
Anyway, I wasn't going to get into that.
My point is actually rather more that the truly great narratives of history, the inspirational ones I think people should learn, are not, in general, Australian. I was reminded of this because earlier I was talking about the Battle of Britain with my mother.
Apparently some moron in the paper has been going on about how the Battle of Britain was won by the Navy, not the RAF. Because he's a moron.
It is, of course, true that Hitler didn't want to invade Britain because the Royal Navy would sink his ships. On the other hand, had Germany attained mastery of the skies, the Navy would have been sunk by bombers and Britain would have been open to the German invasion. The Battle of Britain, as was clearly acknowledged at the time
("Never have so many owed so much to so few...") and has been since, was a battle of the air.
World War Two was Britain's finest hour. It never yet fails to move me. You have to consider just how much
Britain went through during the War - it would help, really, since it puts the world as it is now into perspective.
Not just the rationing. (Although everything was rationed closely.)
Not just the blackout. (Although that went on for years
Not just the air raids. (Although those happened often. Night after night of interrupted sleep, of bombs falling, of fear. People dying, homes being destroyed, and everyone going to work the next day and just getting through.)
Not just the terrifying long-range bombs. (Although those were awful. Imaging hearing the drone of the engine, knowing it's a big, big bomb heading for your homeland... and then hearing the engine stop, and knowing that now is the time for fear, because now it's falling, and it's going to hit somewhere nearby.)
Not just the Blitz
, when Britain stood more or less alone and was bombarded constantly.
All this, and at the same time you have the Royal Air Force, fighting off attack after attack on Britain, as the defences wore away. .Britain was very nearly left open with no long-range radar left operational by the time the Luftwaffe gave up. The war seemed like it would be endless. Whole cities were almost entirely in ruins. No-one was left untouched by the effects of the bombardment.
And through all this, Britain would not surrender. The worse things got, the more determined the British people were to fight on, and win. Their morale never failed no matter how bad things got.
It's a courage and a strength of spirit that I think people lack, today. Certainly it's something nations
don't manage to aspire to.We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the streets, we shall fight them in our homes, we shall never, never, never surrender.
Anyone want to suggest that Blair, Howard or Bush has come up with something on that level, or that people would find it passionately inspiring if they did, or simply treat it as hollow rhetoric. (In Churchill's case, it was certainly rhetoric, but it was anything but hollow.)
Britain's finest hour. Never before had Britain been so noble, strong, so representative of the ideals of strength and fortitude she stood for. It's sadly unlikely that Britain will ever be as fine and glorious again.
To return to my point of origin: this is the kind of history that we should learn. Learn that sacrifice can be nobility. Learn that sometimes, though it costs you money, hardship, and tremendous tribulation, though it makes daily life a struggle, doing the right thing isn't just the best
choice, it's the only
choice. These days we don't want to deal with things if it makes things too hard. We don't want to face privation for the sake of That Which Needs To Be Done. In Britain of the Second World War, enduring privation wasn't just what had
to be done, it was the only
thing to be done.
Because the alternative was unthinkable.