2010 was the bicentenary of the birth of the first Australian-born clergyman, and the first Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral: William Macquarie Cowper. His father, for many years the rector of St Philip’s York Street, arrived in 1809 as the third chaplain to the penal colony. William was born the next year, and as his middle name indicates, had the newly arrived governor as his godfather.
I hated Australian history at school. We seemed to be taught it every year and it never interested me. Mind you, not much did interest me at school. If it weren’t for the extra-curricular activities I would have died of boredom. It wasn’t till my third year at university when I took a course in historical geography that I discovered any interest in our own history.
As an adult I am very appreciative of those wonderful schoolteachers who so nobly fought the indolence of my youth and drummed some information into me. It was most likely, as unpleasant an experience for them, as it was for me. But they gave me some rudimentary idea of who we are, why we are here, how my family’s migration fits into a bigger picture and why our nation operates as it does.
The history of Australia explains why we speak in English, have a constitutional monarchy, a democratic government, a British system of justice, where our wealth came from, and why we play cricket. It also explains our modern multicultural society and our guilt over our treatment of the indigenous peoples of Australia. History is one of the keys that each generation is given to find its bearings in life.
It is shared public information that all children are taught. There may be disagreements about the interpretation of our history. Some see the story line from a right wing perspective others from the left. Some are concerned about the issues of the Irish or the Aborigines or the convicts while others are more interested in the advance of society leaders, government officials or the squattocracy. But there is a canon of historical events that happened and can be taught as explanatory of our nation’s formation.
This enables our community to discuss together the way forward from here. History does not bind us to remain in the past but it does bind us together. And it explains why things are the way they are and what we are losing and gaining by making changes. Generally people do something for a reason – sometimes the reasons are good and sometimes bad. Before making changes it is always wise to discover the reasons why people acted as they did previously. It is unlikely that our own generation is the repository of all good ideas.
However, recent conversations have made me wonder whether we still share knowledge of historical events. I am not talking of shared interpretation of the events but any knowledge that the events happened at all. I have experienced an apparent disappearance of the basic canon of Australia’s historical events.
In teaching about William Cowper to groups of people under the age of 30, I have tried to place him in his historical context. To my amazement, I have discovered an almost complete lack of knowledge of colonial history. The names and events of governors Arthur, Bligh or Macquarie, or issues like emancipation, or the exploration of the continent – the crossing of the Blue Mountains, the inland explorers or the journeys of Matthew Flinders – or even the gold rushes, were basically unknown.
I am not for a moment suggesting that today’s education is not as good as ‘the old days’, or that the next generation of adults are anything but great. It is not that they are poorly educated so much as differently educated. My sample of about fifty people is small and not scientifically based. Yet they are highly educated and intelligent – nearly all have at least one university degree.
I hope that I am completely wrong in all this – that I have met only the strangest sample of Australians – completely uncharacteristic of their generation. But if my experience of difficulty in talking of William Cowper is indicative of the historical education of our community, there are some real concerns for Australia and especially Christian Australia.
Common understanding of our origins is a basic peaceful mode of uniting a community. Losing your past, or censoring it, is one of the ways to destabilise a society. It makes us the victims of the present fads and fashions and worse still – victims of today’s power brokers. The past may not be our vision for the future but it is powerfully explanatory of who we are, where we have come so far and what we need to do to implement our vision for the future. To have no common canon of historical events is to have no common understanding of ourselves.
A nation is much more than its government, and its government’s legitimacy rests on much more than its election. A nation, even one with a democratically elected government, is much more than the current opinion of the majority of its citizens. Otherwise, we are dominated by the transitory, live under the tyranny of the majority and risk the terror of popularism. The protection of minorities in a democracy resides in systems of justice and government that go beyond parliament and its present office bearers. The acceptance of Government power resides in the culture of the community. That culture comes from the community’s history.
What makes Australia’s culture is the history of white settlement. Modern Australia was founded by Christians from a Christian nation, along basic Christian principles and culture. Some of their actions, like some of ours, are a terrible blot on the name of Christ e.g. indigenous exploitation. Others have had the great benefit of His gracious wisdom – e.g. no slavery or polygamy. However, we were not founded as a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Atheist nation. If we had been, our culture, society and form of government would be very different today. Ignorance of white settlement, censors Christianity out of our culture. Each Australia Day provides a good opportunity to recapture who we are by remembering how we were founded.