The teaching of history in schools is currently in focus, so much so that on August 17, the Federal Government will sponsor a national history summit. No doubt some speechmakers will use it as a platform to bemoan the apparent lack of pride that many young (and not-so-young) Australians have in their country.
But in these days where personal responsibility is the yardstick by which all our actions are judged, why this haste to encourage schoolchildren to be proud of that which is not of their making? If we want our children to grow into adults who take full responsibility for their lives, then having them take pride from antecedent sources external to themselves - such as their nation and their cultural inheritance - seems a poor place to start.
A more ethical position would be to encourage schoolchildren to admire the achievements of their forebears, but not to take pride in them.
Admiration is much more, well, admirable, than pride.
Admiration contains within it the quality of humility, which is the antithesis of pride. When we admire the deeds of others, we implicitly acknowledge that which we lack in ourselves. Thus I admire the works of Shakespeare, Thucydides, Locke, Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein, for I know my own mind falls way short of theirs. I can admire our Gallipoli veterans, for I don't know whether I, in the same situation, would possess their fortitude and physical courage. But how can I take pride for myself in their achievements?
To take pride is to take that which does not belong to us. It is cultural plagiarism. It is theft. Those who take pride in great thinkers, writers or leaders of history may think they are paying tribute, but in fact they are degrading their memory. For such pride usually manifests itself in bombast and triumphalism. The pride of Shakespeare, or our veterans, died with them. It is our admiration they deserve.
Thus I can admire, for example, the bravery inherent in explorers such as James Cook or Matthew Flinders and the men and women of the First Fleet. I can admire their ingenuity and endurance in the face of privations we can scarcely imagine. I can also admire those Indigenous warriors who resisted, and defended their land with violence; and the Indigenous leaders who attempted in vain to negotiate with those who invaded.
I can even admire the resourcefulness and courage it took for Europeans to scratch out a living on this continent. But I don't admire the fact that Europeans assumed control of this land without treating with the original owners. I don't admire the high-handed manner in which that occupation is referred to as "settlement" or "development", as though the culture it supplanted was unsettled or undeveloped. And I don't admire the obtuseness of those who consider such thinking to be a black-armband view of history.
As for pride? I take pride in none of it. Pride is a sideshow. Pride is unhistorical. Taking pride is a lickspittle's attempt to brand dissenters as unpatriotic.
To be sure, it is tempting to take pride from others, especially if we have little enough pride in our own achievements. And perhaps that is where we can redress the balance in our children. For why not take pride in our daily lives?
Life for most of us is a struggle, and much of what befalls us is beyond our control. How well we play the hand we are dealt is greater cause for pride than the hand itself. Perhaps if we felt more pride about that which we have wrought with our own hands, we would be less tempted by the shallow, tin-plated pride that politicians offer as a poor substitute for our intrinsic feelings of self-worth.
And perhaps one day when our children feel genuine pride in themselves, they will be better able to appraise and admire the greatness of others, without using it as a platform to assert a puffed-up superiority. Such proud children, who grow up tempered with ethics and humility, would truly be worthy of our admiration, if not our pride.
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