The cane and a dose of cod liver oil

I’ve had my head in “learning” on and off over the past few weeks: not my learning, since I’ve postponed study for at least this year, but thinking about the ways in which other people learn, and how, and why.
But it gets caught up for me in how people teach and more specifically, right now in Australia (a debate reflected in the UK, or vice versa), what people teach; what people value.
We’ve had this debate led, at least in the media, by the Prime Minister, about how the world’s gone to wrack and ruin and nobody knows the date of Magna Carta anymore.
Or understands values – as if the mythical communal values of his youth (and age) are somehow immutable.
By all means, talk about history. Fight about it. I love it. History debates in the early news section of the Herald Sun. Wish Manning Clark was here to see it, although the debate might be rather different if he were.
Let’s just pause for a moment to think about the world of Robert Menzies that John Howard is so keen to regenerate.
The Communist Party of Australia was at its most powerful and threatening, but the idea of banning it split the nation, just as conscription had divided the previous generation. Patrick White was our leading novelist; our greatest living artists included Nolan and Tucker. None of ’em particularly famous for living behind white picket fences.
Were there really any shared national values then?
What about respect? Mateship? The idea of the fair go?
Oh it was great in the fifties. Unless you were Aboriginal, female, on strike, poor, idealistic, down an asbestos mine, or some poor bastard trying to recover from one of several wars. The shared national values amounted to support for the White Australia Policy and the ability to recite Henry Lawson and down several beers at once before early closing.
You knew where you stood back then, by God: in the Ladies Lounge or at the bar, or if you were queer probably bashed and bleeding in the gutter.
History is selective, of course. John Howard’s history is more selective than most. And yet it is this ill-defined fairy tale on which an idea of our national values is based, somehow tangled up in the barbed wire of Gallipoli.
But I’ve loved the feedback from young people channelled by researcher Anna Clark (who has written extensively on The History Wars) reported in several journals and newspapers, on learning history and particularly Gallipoli.
In The Age she writes that “kids prefer to debate it in class rather than learn it as an affirming national myth… Some politicians, public commentators and veterans’ groups would no doubt like children’s attitudes to the Anzac story to be more cohesive. Meanwhile students themselves show that there’s no such thing as a single connection to this history.”
There never was.
My family’s connections to World War One include a Western Front Casualty Clearing Station stretcher bearer on one side and a whole family of anti-conscription activists on another. I have no idea how that was reconciled, or if it ever needed to be.
Was there ever really one national response to that war – or any other?
In preferring debate over myth, the students in today’s schools, over whom our PM despairs, are actually displaying rigour and engagement. I’ll vote for those as national values any day.
Now if I could just remember the date of Magna Carta… wasn’t it Basil Rathbone who signed it?

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