What teaching Christian heritage could teach Australia’s students

Australian students are now going to be force fed our Western and Christian heritage and be told that the Anzac legend will no longer be ‘contested’.

Putting aside our ‘Western’ heritage – even given that Asian people trading with Indigenous inhabitants  have played a role in our history since before Cook arrived and common  enough to later amaze Mathew Flinders when he found many Makassan ships around what is now the Northern Territory – the Christian heritage if taught comprehensively will at least make the subject more popular than a teenage slasher movie.

Indeed, it will be hard to know where to start on a couple of millennia of intolerance, blood and gore. One bit of blood and gore should, however, be omitted in the interests of historical accuracy – and that’s the alleged martyrdom of many early Christians. As Candida Moss demonstrated in her great book, How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, it was great propaganda but poor history.

But a good place to start with the history curriculum would be the Holy Roman Empire Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 when somewhere between 4.5 million and eight million people died. Now the War was also partly civil and dynastic but it really got down and dirty with the religious divisions bit.

The three French wars of religion which ended in 1572 and involved the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of thousands of Huguenots (French Calvinists) as well as the immortal realpolitik  phrase – “Paris is worth a Mass” – uttered by Henry of Navarre a survivor of the Massacre.

The 1095-1127 Crusades in the ‘Holy Land’ should also get some attention with half a million civilians killed. Small beer compared to European battles but huge given the population of the area and the great disparity between the levels of civilisation of the Crusaders and the Muslims. This can’t be hurried over just in case some students miss who were the barbarians and who were the civilised.

Crusades also encourage some knowledge of geographical diversity. Student can learn a bit about the Northern Crusades in the Baltic which included The Wendish Crusades (1147-85); the Livonian and Estonian Crusades (1198-1290); the Prussian Crusades (1230-83); the Lithuanian Crusades (1280-1435); and, the Novgorod Crusades (1243-15th century).

If northern climes are a chilling example then the curriculum could whip students away to warmer Languedoc where between 1209 and 1229 Pope Innocent III waged a military war to eliminate Catharism.

By the 1350s Cathars were still being sent to the stake in a prolonged campaign by the Inquisition which had been set up by Pope Gregory IX in 1232. To illustrate how that operated students could learn about the 1391 pogrom in Spain which murdered 160,000 Jews followed 100 years later by their expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

Some of the descendants of these refugees would experience the 80 Year War of 1568-1648 in which the Spanish tried to destroy the Dutch state and impose Catholicism on the largely Protestant community. The large Dutch Sephardim community (including a teenage Baruch Spinoza) which had sheltered there after their expulsion would have been apprehensive about the outcome and relieved when it ended with the Dutch still free.

It might also provide an interesting case study of how the Dutch treated the refugees from Spain compared with how we treat with refugees who reach Australia. Being descended on one side from a family who found refuge after the Portugal expulsion it has special relevance to the author.

Bouncing about a bit, a quick look at the German Peasants War in 1524-25 when 200,000 poor people were killed and how Martin Luther sided with the ruling classes against the poor might be an instructive insight into what side religious leaders are often on.

The curriculum material is never ending. There is also the 15th century suppression of the Hussites; the witchcraft trials of the 16th and 17th century; and, the executions by auto da fe of the polymath Giordano Bruno and William Tyndale the Bible translator whose work provided the foundation for what is now the King James Version and our rich English language. If you ever feel any sympathy for Sir Thomas More’s fate always remember it was he who orchestrated the Tyndale execution.

A Morrison Government probably wouldn’t see the New World (except for the US) as a suitable sphere of Western heritage study but the reign of terror against Mayan Indians in the 1560s would demonstrate how ‘civilised’ Westerners interacted with the people of world’s they ‘discovered’. A sidebar on Bartolomeo Las Casas might illustrate the courage of those who seek to redress both immediate and historical injustices against Indigenous peoples.

There is to be an Indigenous emphasis in the new curriculum and the New World experiences (including the US) would also be great subjects for those compare and contrast essay questions so popular on long ago examination papers.

As for the Anzac legend not being contested what can we say? Is this a way to maintain Anzac and Gallipoli as a foundation myth? How do we rate that myth against the realities of other major Australian achievements and how do we teach students to separate myth from genuine achievement?

Myths play roles in all national histories whether they be Western or elsewhere. But the most revealing and empowering historical practice and study are the ways we learn to understand what national myths are; how they came to be; and how they influence our perception of our historical reality.

As introductory texts students could use Eric Hobsbawm’s  Invention of Tradition and Hugh Trever-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland (from where the other half of the author’s family came).