On an autumn day, in a church in The Rocks, an Aboriginal farmhand from the Shoalhaven married the daughter of a Yorkshireman. Such a union is hardly controversial by today’s standards, but in 1864, a time when prejudice relegated Aboriginal people to a status afforded little recognition and few rights, it was enough to attract the derision of some.
A contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald warned of a marriage destined to end in ruin. For as “all writers on the history of Australia agree,” the indigenous people of Australia held “the lowest position” on the scale of humanity. Theirs, he wrote, was a culture that knows no institutions of state, knows no religion, and is incapable of ever comprehending such concepts or embracing such beliefs.
History is the story of who we are and where we have come from. More importantly, history is a guide to the future direction our society will take – the story yet unwritten. We interrogate history; we learn from past mistakes and recognise past successes, so that ideally the story we write tomorrow is a better and more enlightened one.
History’s potential to inform the future direction of society means unsurprisingly, it becomes a pawn in society’s arguments. Just as that writer to the Herald did in 1864, history is invoked to protect orthodoxy and promote one ideology over another. From justifying opposition to multiculturalism and same-sex marriage recently, to extreme examples like the myths of the Third Reich and Meiji Restoration, interpreting history favourably to ones cause can be an influential political device.
That the Coalition government would at some point set its sights on the school curriculum and how history is taught, was inevitable. Few though would have predicted that amidst the supposed economic and national security crises, it would enter the agenda so soon, nor from the outset have such a blatantly partisan character.
Minister for Education Christopher Pyne laments a curriculum he perceives as not paying due praise to the success of Western culture and events in Australian history he considers of vital importance. He is of course entitled to those personal opinions.
Troubling though, is who the Minister has appointed to help shape the future school curriculum; Kevin Donnelly, the unapologetically conservative commentator and founder of the pro-Christian, quasi think-tank, Education Standards Institute.
In 2011, Donnelly penned an article for The Drum titled “Australia, it’s Western, Christian and proud,” phrasing that would not have sounded out of place as a chant in Cronulla circa 2005. In it, he criticised a teaching of culture and history that explored Aboriginal and Torres Strait history, Asian culture and the environment; “politically correct” issues that in his view distracted from “celebrating Western civilisation, Christianity and Australia’s Anglo-Celtic heritage.”
To Donnelly, not all cultures are equal. The focus on teaching diversity is insidious “code for multiculturalism,” a way to tarnish our culture with the influences of other, imperfect cultures. All that is good about Australia is inherited from Western culture and in particular the British, who through empire spread trade, technology, education and medicine around the world.
It’s a narrow view, and if history informs the future, a short-sighted one too. Indigenous culture in Australia survived tens of thousands of years before European settlement, and we’re increasingly harnessing their ancient and intimate understanding of this land, that long sustained them, in learning to manage it. For a time, Islamic societies were leaders in science and maths, and while we all learnt in high school about Pythagoras, few would know his theorem existed in Indian, Chinese and Mesopotamian mathematics independently. And as economic decline takes effect in Europe and America, we see more clearly than ever, that the century ahead is certain to be the Asian century.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that cultures and societies are cyclical. They have prospered and they have fallen since time immemorial. You do not contribute to your own society by viewing it in isolation or with blinding reverence, nor by ignoring the virtues and faults of other cultures and societies, past and present.
Many years after the farmhand from Shoalhaven and the Yorkshire girl married in Sydney, another contributor wrote about indigenous culture in the Sydney Morning Herald. “The more we learn about our Aboriginals, the more it seems to confirm [that they] are more the remnants of a higher race than a primitive savage race.” The contributor, having learned of the spirituality, customs and social norms of indigenous culture, expressed his hope for “a more sympathetic understanding and a more philosophical outlook” that would reveal more of the genesis and fascinating complexity of indigenous Australians.
The story of who we are and where we have come from is one that evolves over time, and with it does that unwritten story of tomorrow emerge. There are many sides to every story and history demands diversity, honesty, balance and ongoing critique. Seeking from the outset to favour one side of history, or to construct a narrative for ideological or political aims, is intellectually bankrupt and fails future generations. Let us hope that despite some ominous signs, any changes to the curriculum avoid doing just that.
Image: “The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788” / Original [oil] sketch  by Algernon Talmage R.A.