The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - ROBERT MURRAY on pri­mary knowl­edge

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.


Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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