A legend with moral authority

I am considering a question from implementing the Australian Curriculum: why and how to teach history.   (I am also breaking a half-dozen of the “rules” they teach for writing-to-the-test, because my authentic voice doesn’t fit the standard pattern.  Just saying …)

My main interest here is not the understanding that, as Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  It’s not the hope that flows from seeing the marvellous changes over time, and the thankful feeling from comparing most of the-lives-lived with our own.  (I really appreciate instantaneous hot water, vaccination, soap, and eye-glasses, for example.)  It’s not the intellectual training from asking the questions like “When does now become history?  How do we know what happened – what do historians do?” – or the surprises that brings when we find that our “history” was propaganda, as in Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time.”  (Worth borrowing from the library, even if you have read it – I reread it this week, and was enthused.)

It’s the creation of legends with moral authority, to give a deeper meaning to”Being Australian.”

Consider the etymology of the word:

from the delightful http://etymonline.com  legend (n.)

early 14c., “narrative dealing with a happening or an event,” from Old French legende (12c., Modern French légende) and directly from Medieval Latin legenda “legend, story,” literally “(things) to be read,” on certain days in church, etc., from Latin legendus, neuter plural gerundive of legere “to read, gather, select” (see lecture (n.)). Used originally of saints’ lives; extended sense of “nonhistorical or mythical story” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “writing or inscription” (especially on a coin or medal) is from 1610s; on a map, illustration, etc., from 1903.

As a child I came across “Van Loon’s Lives” and was entranced by the stories of truly interesting people from the past.  I read and watched many biographies, but few were of Australians, and none of those struck me as really amazing.  It was only as an adult, through an ABC Radio National program (one which seems no longer to be on the net, alas)  that I was introduced to the life of an Australian whom I rate with those Van Loon chose:  Sir John Monash.

Sir John Monash was the child of Jews who had emigrated from Prussia, at a time when Jews were socially unacceptable unless wealthy (remember, this bias continued in many places even after WWII – “No Blacks or Jews” signs in lodging house windows.)  He excelled at school and loved music and drama as well as  languages and mathematics.  A respected  engineer, he served in World War I as an officer – not in Engineering – becoming one of the most respected Generals of the war.  Higher ranks were impressed by his planning, execution of plans, and ability to command; returned soldiers appreciated his victories, but praised his ability to get them hot food.

After the war, he chose not to seek election to Parliament, but – despite social rejection by some traditionalists – used his skills to improve the country.  For example, he worked as the head of the Victorian State  Electricity Commission, changing electricity from a “rich man’s commodity” to a basic utility.

A more important example to consider: when the police were on strike and looting and rioting broke out, he led – at the request of the Premier – a group of other  generals and ex-servicemen ( five battalions, not just a mob) to restore order.  Another:  when the State government had rejected a proposal for developing the power grid, he talked his way into addressing the Cabinet, and told them 

‘Gentlemen,  you have rejected my proposal because you have clearly failed to understand it’. He explained it to them. For thirty minutes. In the end, they agreed! He then said ‘Well, you will now need an Order in Council to implement the decision’, pulling from his pocket one that he had prepared earlier. He stood there while it was signed.

There are many sites with pieces on his life, but I am interested in an aspect less commonly (at present) reported: his decision not to lead armed groups to overthrow the Australian Government.   The Australian Returned Services League (RSL) has one teaching resource which puts it in historical context ( it is in Source 9), and Engineers Australia has a biography    where it is in his life context on page 9.

An outsider by birth, often insulted for his race and his ideas, a brilliant man who cared for the unfortunate, a polymath  who had won the respect of common soldiers, an expert who faced down politicians for the good of the State, a man who saw fools in elected positions of power at a time of crisis, a man who was then offered the chance to take control of the nation  – and supported the fledgling democratic system.  Would you like that to be the children’s idea of a hero?  Their idea of  what it is to be Australian?

That’s a man who deserves to become a legend.

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