WHEN a newspaper columnist once suggested a contest for the best book ever written, excluding the Bible and Shakespeare’s works, I was tempted to nominate the fifth book of The Victorian Readers series. This, in my distant day, was the main teaching aid ( it would now be called a resource) in Year 5, other than talk, chalk and the blackboard.
It is hard to think of a better book for teaching nine and 10- year- olds about their country. The class particularly loved Henry Lawson’s ballads The Fire at Ross’s Farm and The Ballad of the Drover , and his short story The Drover’s Wife .
There was also John Shaw Neilson’s poem Old Granny Sullivan , pieces about the explorer Matthew Flinders, an Adventure with the Aborigines and a poem about the pioneers.
The sixth book had the even more memorable Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow and Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country (‘‘ I love a sunburnt country . . .’’).
Nor was it all parochial. The fifth book had approximately equal Australian and overseas content and included pieces on Giotto the Italian shepherd boy, Switzerland’s William Tell and the apple, Robert Bruce, and the story of King Kaid of India and the spider.
While World War II raged far away, about 40 pupils ( a few years later it would be more like 50) would read the livelier items rhythmically as a class, sing- song like the multiplication tables of the previous lesson: ‘‘ Across the stony ridges, across the rolling plain, young Harry Dale the drover . . . ’’ But each child also had to read aloud before the class, one by one, and few would not do their best and be found out as a weak reader, which would involve being kept in after school for further teaching.
( An even worse fate, and thus spur to effort, was to be kept back to repeat a year; but it was effective remedial education if it happened.)
The teacher, Mr Dunell, would walk up and down the aisles of twin- seater desks while children read and rap on the knuckles with his wooden ruler anybody who talked, giggled or dozed off. His favourite poet — who, I was surprised on checking to find was in the sixth, not the fifth book — was William Wordsworth. He introduced us to Wordsworth’s Daffodils , which we had again the following year.
The books and curriculum varied from state to state, but the spirit didn’t vary much. These and similar verses and short articles were primary school favourites for generations, until the curriculum purges of the reforming 1970s led to their ouster for various reasons, including a move against rote learning and the suspicion that they were remnants of imperial history.
However, when I read now of the debates over the place of history, especially Australian history, in the secondary school curriculum, I wonder if many educators have forgotten, or not known, ‘‘ ‘‘ how much Australian and general history was once packed into the humble primary school.
It was not so much taught as infused in the classroom day. The readers and also the monthly School Paper merged reading, literature, history and geography. The black- and- white sketches brought distant times and lands to life and were themselves an introduction to art.
Lawson, Paterson and other ballads introduced children to the story of the grazing industries, the battle of squatter and selector, bushfires and inland geography.
Billy Bear was a memorable cartoon figure in my School Paper , a koala- like chap who toured the sources of our food and household goods: Goulburn Valley for fruit, Gippsland for milk, Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) for tea, Java ( Indonesia) and Malaya ( Malaysia) for rubber.
History lessons proper devoted much time to the explorers. The crossing of the Blue Mountains built on Captain Cook and the First Fleet. Flinders taught us as much geography as history. The journeys of Edward John Eyre, Ludwig Leichhardt, Thomas Mitchell and Charles Sturt taught us more inland geography and a feeling for the early 19th century, with white adventurers moving into the vast plains and deserts sparsely inhabited by Aboriginal tribes.
The explorers were once heroes. When I moved on to high school, the sports houses were named for them. There is many a Flinders, Sturt or Mitchell street still and three Leichhardt postcodes.
The fairly common belief that imperial history is discreditable and must only be studied harshly, if at all, should be re- examined. In practice, avoiding it means little history is taught at all, or becomes the ‘‘ fragmented stew’’ that John Howard complained about.
For better or worse, empires were the main way of ruling the world between ancient Rome, if not earlier, and World War I. The British Empire was the biggest and, arguably, the best.
Those who feel that imperial history in Australia insults Aborigines have a point. It needs sensitive, but not evasive, treatment. To ignore pioneering history or to present it only as suffering victims of invasion is to avoid explaining how the society we live in came to be.
The Aboriginal reaction to white occupation, where recorded, shows rapid and shrewd adaptation, but with lots of problems. Though much of what has been written is contested, balanced secondary school lessons should be possible, but it seems too complicated for younger children.
On looking back through all eight of the Victorian Reader books, I thought the coverage of Aborigines was not too bad: perhaps seven out of 10 marks. There could have been more, but none of the articles was demeaning or patronising, unless it is perceived as politically incorrect to depict Aborigines other than as guerilla fighters or social workers.
Schoolbooks initiated 90 years ago are unlikely to appeal today, and no doubt were losing effectiveness after 50 years of service. And of course most teachers work hard under difficulties. Nevertheless, though secondary school grabs the headlines, teachers say part of the difficulty is that primary schools today turn out too many pupils who do not know enough or read or spell well enough.
Formation in reading, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, poetry, history, geography and nature study should not be too much to ask, especially as it once could be done for a fraction of the present cost and fuss. Robert Murray’s latest book is 150 Years of Spring Street: Victorian Government, 1850s to 21st Century.