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National Observer Home > No. 44 - Autumn 2000 > Articles

Culture, History and Citizenship

Professor Philip Ayres

Part of a nation's strength consists in its awareness of its cultural distinctiveness. Human nature, at root self-interested, dictates that there will always be an us and a them, along with alliances and defence pacts which make for security and enable the successful resistance to aggression, as during the Pacific War of 1941-45. A country which has no sense of itself as a historically and culturally defined and distinct entity is an easy victim for any potential enemy country that has that attribute.

Australias security is enmeshed with our sense of ourselves as having a particular set of cultural traditions which are worth defending if ever they should come under threat. It depends on our knowing at least vaguely about those traditions, which means knowing about our own history. And of course a crucial mass of culture-bearers within our population needs to be able to articulate that knowledge for the rest.

The number of culture-bearers in a society can be variously defined. If a nations culture is considered simply as the complex semiology of all that is seen and heard within it, from everyday speech to road-signs, shop-signs and local folk or pop music, then all Italians (for instance) are culture-bearers by virtue of growing up within that culture.

Usually, though, we speak of a nations culture as the product of its peoples highest literary, artistic, scientific, technological and architectural endeavours and the expression of their political, social and legal institutions, and of Western culture more widely as the product of a set or related national cultural achievements and traditions spanning the past 2500 years. This is the culture from which our own Australian culture principally derives. Immigration patterns will not change this, for it is largely a matter of institutions, not specifically of race, and in any case the immigrants mostly assimilate to the dominant culture, which will remain European indefinitely. To have a sense of our national identity, to understand what we are, and why we think and act as we do within the institutional frameworks we have inherited, it is necessary to know something of the history and culture of the West over the past two and a half millennia, and particularly of the British and American traditions that inform our Constitution, our Parliament and our legal structures.

The number of culture-bearers in this more profound sense has always been small, though in a good democracy it should ideally be high. It was minutely small, of course, through the long Dark Ages, yet the culture survived, though Christianised. Actually, Christianity itself during its first three centuries, far from being initially a Jewish sect, was heavily westernised and assimilated into the dominant Romano-Hellenic culture, which was immensely strong and still, in so many ways, survives. The proportion of ancient Romans who had read Greek literature and who appreciated Greek art was almost certainly less than five per cent. The proportion of people in Elizabethan England who could read with varying degrees of facility at least one of the classical languages and thus carried something of classical culture with them was identical with the proportion of the population who had been educated to the age of thirteen or fourteen, perhaps five per cent.

By the early twentieth century, in most Western European countries, the percentage was considerably higher. After 1950 the teaching of the classical languages declined very quickly until in the late 1960s most Departments of Classics in Australian and overseas universities were surviving by teaching the texts in translation. At least the raw meaning of the texts was being transmitted, but the number of students graduating from our universities in the 1990s who could read any Latin was certainly very much less than one per cent - a mere handful in the whole nation who were taught any feeling whatsoever for the Latinity of that fifty percent of the English words they were speaking every day which derive from Latin or French.

The knowledge of Western history has declined at a less spectacular rate, but the proportion of Australian university graduates of the 1990s who know anything at all about the democratic assemblies of ancient Athens, the contest between plebs and patricians in ancient Rome, or the second Punic War would be extremely small, as would the proportion who understand the causes of the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution of 1688. However the proportion who know something about the causes of the American Civil War, or of the Eureka rebellion, or of the dispossession of the Aborigines, would be close to one hundred per cent. This reflects a concentration on relevant issues and an aberrant syllabus of atonement, based on an artificially-induced cultural guilt, a phenomenon which, though bound to pass, should be hastened on its way.

History aside (and something, as I shall show, can readily be done about that), one should not be too pessimistic. The knowledge of English literature is far more widespread today than it was a hundred years ago, because universities are open to a much wider section of the population and English courses in the universities are popular. There is no language barrier involved, and even if English literature were not to be taught in our universities (it being a comparatively recent introduction in any case), the texts would be bought and read, just as they were bought and read before the first chair in English literature was established (at Edinburgh) in the mid-eighteenth century.

The Western musical tradition is also alive and well in terms of the production and performance of serious music. Certainly the Western music culture is vastly more widely listened to and appreciated today than in 1900.

The architectural tradition is similarly in good shape, in the sense that faith in the value of its preservation is higher than ever, and first-hand awareness of it is facilitated by mass international tourism. The same goes for the other fine arts. Attendance at the great galleries of the Western world has increased phenomenally.

So is there really a serious problem of cultural forgetting in the West, and specifically in Australia, today? A larger-than-ever proportion of the population in the English-speaking countries, perhaps thirty or forty per cent, can now be considered, at least to some minor extent, as culture bearers of the modern (Renaissance and post-Renaissance) high-cultural tradition (the proportion who occasionally go to an art gallery, or to a concert, or read Jane Austen, or watch a television production of Thackerays Vanity Fair). Hardly anyone, it is true, is a culture-bearer of the ancient classical tradition pure-and-clear. It is a shame that next to nobody among the young today can read ancient Greek or Latin, but the languages can still be studied in at least one university in each of the major cities of Australia (though in hardly any of the schools). The ancient texts are widely available in translation. They would not be available if they were not selling. Of course, it is a mark of cultural self-confidence that the classical past is no longer deferred to; this confidence dates from the seventeenth century and was first strongly articulated by the moderns in the Battle of the Books (in the 1690s).

One might think that a danger of multi-cultural societies like Australia and the United States is that their citizens would end up as the bearers of no culture at all, but the weight of the evidence seems to be to the contrary. It would perhaps be appropriate to have more worries about cultural forgetting if one were a citizen of Japan or China.

Here in Australia, however, there is one real and profound problem, and it lies in the area of history. We are not transmitting to our young a sufficient understanding of the institutional structures, particularly the political and legal ones, which distinguish our society from, say the Chinese. A self-respecting citizenship has to involve a sound, rudimentary knowledge of what constitutes responsible government under the Westminster system, and a basic understanding of what the rule of law is about, for a start.

These things cannot be understood without teaching the history of Parliamentary government. That means teaching the relevant aspects of British history, from Magna Carta to the Second Reform Bill and beyond. The Australian system of government did not spring full fledged from the constitutional conventions of the 1890s. Nor can federation itself, and the federal system of government under which we live, be understood in isolation from the informing federalism of the United States. The idea of a lower and upper house of parliament cannot be transmitted in any meaningful way without teaching something of the history of early Rome - the rule there at first of an oligarchic Senate, challenged and then supplemented by assemblies of the people. The distinction and balance in our system of government between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary can be understood only on the basis of a knowledge of history, of how the Romans, and later the English and the Americans, were compelled by the force of historical process to acknowledge, and attempt to prevent, the respective dangers of absolute monarchy, absolute oligarchy, and absolute ochlocracy or mob-rule.

More generally, an understanding of democracy must proceed from a knowledge of that concepts history - of how direct participatory democracy worked in ancient Greece, and of how representative or Parliamentary democracy developed in its momentous relations with the Crown in England.

Again, good citizenship depends partly on an understanding of our legal system, which affords protection to the citizens rights and enables his wrongs to be redressed. Our legal system cannot be understood without teaching something of the concept of the common law and how it evolved in England. And any citizen is uninformed who does not understand how to use the legal system.

All of this should be absolutely basic to the education of every Australian, and it is really scandalous that our children are denied the knowledge on which informed citizenship depends. The federal government, through its control of the purse-strings, is in a position to insist that within the school curriculum of every State there is included a compulsory and thorough course in all of the relevant history. It might be titled Understanding the Institutions of Citizenship and taught over two years, with perhaps four lessons per week devoted to it, at years nine and ten. Such a course would at a minimum include the teaching of the following in rudimentary form:

¥ The origins and nature of Greek participatory democracy, including a sketch of the history of ancient Greece.

¥ The history of the conflict between patricians and plebs in the first three centuries of the Roman Republic, and the nature of their Senate and assemblies.

¥ Magna Carta.

¥ The development of the English Parliament in its relations with the monarchy, the establishment of the de facto Parliamentary supremacy through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Reform Bills and the rise of the democratic spirit into the nineteenth century, and the achievement of a universal suffrage.

¥ The American Revolution and the establishment of the United States as a federal system.

¥ The development of federalism in Australia and the nature of our federal Constitution.

¥ The similarities and differences between the form of representative government in Australia and its informing predecessors in England and the United States.

¥ The concept of the English common law which informs the law in Australia.

¥ The nature of our courts of law from the magistrates courts up to the High Court - how they work, and how we can obtain justice from them.

Though this sounds like a great deal of teaching, in rudimentary form it could be taught inside two years out of one really good, ten-chapter, illustrated text-book designed for the purpose.

The Prime Minister and the Federal Minister for Education are in the position to do all Australians a great and enduring favour one might even say to do Australia justice by insisting on the States building into their school curriculums a basic education in citizenship of the kind sketched here. It would be popular with both parties and with the people, and it would be right.

National Observer No. 44 - Autumn 2000