Telling entrancing tales in The Big Book of Australian History
Author Peter Macinnis explains his approach to communicating Australian history in a big new book
16 July 2015
I am no historian. I once hoped to become a pre- and post-Islamic medieval Javanese historian, but I took up botany instead. Never mind why; I was pursuing temporary obsessions—as I still do.
With my non-historian status established, one of my most enduring temporary obsessions involves the realities of Australian history, the odd facts that, for previous generations of school students, were buried away or, sadly, misstated or ignored by droning pedants—influential types, not history teachers—who thought the study of history meant adults compiling long lists for the young to learn. In 1954, I had to memorise Dawson, Mackenzie, Isaacs, Suttor, Burdekin ... and so on.
School Pupils Sitting in the Classroom, Cowra, c. 1950, nla.pic-an23697892
Now, unless you have heard me deliver this list, my party-piece, which is always followed by a stinging denunciation of the purblind fools who thought it important for 10-year-olds to learn it, you probably won't know you have just read a list of the rivers crossed by Leichhardt in 1844–1886! There is no use for this, except as a hideous example of wilful Gradgrindism. I'm not against lists per se. Lists made by students—and writers—can be very useful, but they don't need to be rote-learned.
That's something every modern history teacher knows, but there are a lot of critics out there who still disagree. To be blunt, lists can't hold a candle to entrancing tales. I ought to hate history, given all the lists I had to learn in the 1950s, but I was a persistent child, and when I started in on The Big Book of Australian History, I wanted to offer stories that would make readers ask, ‘What happened next?' or ‘What happened before?' I didn't do away with lists entirely; when sourcing original material for the book from the Library's digitised newspaper collections, I found myself leaving lists and comments all over Trove. The answers are out there, but they are background material.
Just as in my primary field, science, there are no final truths in history, which is why even The Big Book of Australian History needed a new edition. Cultural figures had moved on, politicians and sporting legends had changed roles or died, and some new delightful facts and pictures had emerged.
In my world, education involves all of teaching, wisdom, knowledge, learning, culture, training, understanding and erudition, but most of all we must foster enthusiasm. The classroom teacher (and I have been one) is busy performing and managing unruly enthusiasts for their own temporary obsessions, with no real time to think. Writers are educators with the time to craft words that will entrap and entrance, sending the readers, like Kipling's mongoose, to run and find out. The stories we tell provide a framework for thinking and questioning, and the crafty artisan knows the task is never done.
Click on the following links to access some of Peter's top-level Trove lists: