Conversations with my mother

My mother is 92 years old.

Her mind is sharp. Her stories are rich with detail.

I am interested here in how families remember their own.

I have a letter at home sent by Great Uncle Fred Burgis, from the Western Front. I have his cigarette tin and an Empire Tin. Tonight my mother told me that Great Uncle Fred returned from World War I with tuberculosis and that little Elizabeth, my ‘aunt’, then two years old, caught it from him and died.

How my Nanna must have cried.

But what of my grandfather, Fred’s brother? Do I really know anything about Charles Augustus Burgis? I never met him. I saw a photo of him for the first time some six years ago at Aunty Enid’s house. My father never spoke of him. Not once in my child hood or adult life. We had elegant picture frames for all of our relatives, but not one of him. We had miniature paintings of our family from the 18th Century but not one image of Charles Augustus. My mother told me that he was a drunkard and a womaniser. A chronic gambler. A sometimes violent man. She said that officially he fell down some steps at age forty something and died. No loss, she said. Whilst the police said it was an accident, she knew that he was pushed by his mistress. Aunty Enid had the same story. He deserved it, they both said. He treated my Nanna badly: no money, alcoholic rages. My father once was awoken as a child in the night to flee Melbourne to come and live in Sydney because Charles Augustus couldn’t pay the rent. It had all gone on gambling and alcohol. And my father had to leave school at age thirteen, even though his grades were excellent, in order to get a job in a retail store to pay the bills at home. Melbourne Boys’ High School to Snows Department Store.

And the proof of the depth of my father’s feeling is that we had no alcohol in our home in my years at home. No cooking sherry. Nothing. I didn’t really know it existed. When my brother turned twenty-one some of his mates brought a keg of beer to the party. My mother emptied the entire drum down the laundry sink.

But tonight I heard of the loss of Charles’ little girl. Was he long gone at this point? Already a slave to something less than himself? Or was he, dare I think something different, was he, someone once said he was, charming? Was he the man Nanna once fell in love with?

I admire my father greatly. He treated everyone in our family with fairness and respect. He never lost his temper. He loved my mother.

Some violence must have happened in him at some point. Some utter rebellion against his father’s values.

And yet, who was Charles?

My father never said anything about him, bad or good. It was as if he didn’t exist.

The Narrow History Project

In the early 1990s I had the great joy of teaching history in Zimbabwe.

At that time the Zimbabwe dollar was still worth 25 Australian cents, there was optimism about ZANU PF and the leadership of Robert Mugabe, and the land was breathtakingly beautiful.

In the store room of my school were piles of decrepit history books, the remnants of an earlier period. They were written during the time when the nation was called Rhodesia, and a minority white population had announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Within these books the Shona and Ndebele people were largely referred to as ‘labour’ and the history was constructed to tell the story of the success of the nation under white economic leadership. White rule equated to ‘stable government’, and thus to ‘the best outcome for all’.

On the desks in my classroom were the official ZANU PF histories of Zimbabwe. Within the pages of these texts were details of the rise of local African populations such as the Rozvi. They told the story of the struggle of the Shona and Ndebele peoples against ‘oppressive colonial rule’ and the final chapter of the second book was totally dedicated to ‘Mugabe the hero’, the ‘saviour’ of Zimbabwe.

It would be clear to any outsider that both sets of texts were terribly flawed. We thus had interesting classes comparing the descriptions of events and movements in both texts. In these comparisons we uncovered the many challenges that exist in the teaching of history.

Something within me loves The Big History Project. It is an attempt to put the whole story together, to tell the narrative of the history of our planet. Context is a very important thing for the historian. We can better understand events by developing a grasp of the cultures and decisions that preceded them.

But The Big History Project is like the Rhodesian and ZANU PF texts in my history classroom.

It is history told from one perspective.

I can hear the immediate rebuttal. No, that’s not true. The project purposefully allows for a variety of voices.

And that is accurate. There are many voices allowed.

But the overarching categories are established for the student. The basic metaphor for history, for example, is development. It is thus a socially progressive history and students are not alerted up front that not all historians see history this way. Religious and cultural traditions are reduced in importance whilst empiricism is promoted as a methodology. Philosophical positions such as Idealism, Monism and Dualism barely rate a mention. Physicalism is King.

This might not matter to the average Australian, but it should.

We swallow given categories in history all too easily. The current debate that the European Dark Ages were not really so dark, and that the Enlightenment was a not really so illuminating, is an interesting example of why categories matter. Terms carry assumptions. Accepted truths. Generations in Africa – and Australia -were taught that indigenous people were primitive. It is essential that students are taught to not simply accept categories.

The Big History Project is backed by the finances of Bill Gates. He has partnered with David Christian to create a brave new world of historiography for our classrooms. Now the Board of Studies in NSW is establishing a new subject based on this investment. Suddenly we wonder if the investor is writing the way we think.

Financial investment is quite enamouring. Well created websites are beautiful. They make the job of the educator easy.

Be trained by us. Just deliver the course this way.

I am all in favour of assisting students to think about the big picture. I am not in favour of Mr Gates or his academic favourites setting our curriculum.