The chance to tell the truth about heroes

By Naomi Barnes

What should an Australian education researcher say about Ben Roberts-Smith? Should I again write about the ANZAC legend and its role in nationalist electioneering? What about something about the Australian National Values posters, complete with ANZAC iconography, you’ll find in most schools, tucked away near a photocopier somewhere? Relic of a time when school funding became about flagpoles. Maybe something else about the remit of all humanities and social science teachers – Australian citizenship and the characteristics of being Australian: courage, egalitarianism, endurance, mateship according to the Australian ANZAC portal.

You ask me what Roberts-Smith means for how we teach history in Australia? I’ll tell you what this means. This is an opportunity to teach the history of Australia’s supposedly ‘great men’ and teach them truthfully. Ben Roberts-Smith is just another allegedly legendary man whose actions have been exposed.

Last week, Justice Anthony Besanko handed down his judgment in the defamation trial brought by Ben Roberts-Smith where the former soldier claimed to have his life ruined by six articles published by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. Australia’s most decorated living soldier, Victoria Cross and Medal of Gallantry winner Ben Roberts-Smith, sought to clear his reputation.

As Michael Bachelard wrote for Nine Newspapers this week: “The main judgment – ruling on the question of whether the newspapers defamed the war hero, or if he is, in fact, a war criminal – was handed down on Thursday, June 1, 2023. The judge found overwhelmingly for the newspapers, finding Roberts-Smith was, on the balance of probabilities, a murderer, a war criminal, a bully and a disgrace to his country and the Australian military.”

What of other allegedly legendary men?

For example, Governor Lachlan Macquarie is way more decorated than Roberts-Smith. What’s a Victoria Cross in comparison to numerous geographic features and universities? Dr Amy Thunig in her TEDx talk explains how cold-blooded it is that someone who was instrumental in the Frontier War Appin massacre of the Gandangara and Tharawal men, women and children should be rewarded with such accolades. And Australia wasn’t the first place he glorified genocide. Macquarie began his brutal career in India, torching villages of Manantheri. Later, in 1799, he celebrated the aftermath of the defeat of Tipu Sultan where the bodies of Tipu and his people ‘lay in such immense Heaps on the Ramparts…as well as in different Parts of the Town that no regular account of them could be taken’. Lucky for the British Empire forces, there were no mobile phones at those parties recording anyone doing ‘shoeys’ or perhaps ‘leggies’.

Australian history teachers could compare Roberts-Smith to another allegedly legendary man of Australian history, John Eyre (decorated with peninsulas and giant lakes). He also went on trial for war crimes. Priya Satia recounts Eyre’s trial in her book on British colonialism, Time’s Monster (a book all history teachers should read). In Jamaica, where he was Governor after his time in Australia and New Zealand, Eyre ‘launched reprisals that killed more than four hundred black peasants. Hundreds more were flogged and arrested and thousands of houses burned’ (p113).  Eyre did ‘things that should make every Englishman blush with shame and indignation’ (Birmingham Daily Post, 21/11/1865)

Eyre’s trial, a royal commission, was, like Roberts-Smith’s, spotted with Empire celebrities of the day presenting opinion pieces about the consequences of Eyre’s actions. Liberal philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill argued that Eyre was the opposite of what the civilising forces of the Empire were supposed to be. He argued for Eyre’s prosecution, as did Charles Darwin. But British public opinion was sympathetic to Eyre who had popular supporters like Charles Dickens and poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson.

Eyre’s trial interviewed hundreds of witnesses and produced a 1,200 page report that criticised him for excessive violence, dismissed him as Governor but exonerated him of murder and genocide because he approved the brutal actions after declaring martial law. We should keep watchful for such a technicality as Roberts-Smith’s consequences unfold. Hopefully we won’t have to teach our children that so-called great men still don’t get real consequences.

The study of history in schools has, and still is, one of the key architectures of nation building. Despite efforts by historians and history teachers to shift the methodology to include the stories of people long marginalised, it has always been broadly accepted by policymakers and politicians that the study of history is about ‘great people’ for young children to learn about to aspire to be great adults. Australian history is resplendent with allegedly great men including highly decorated soldiers who committed horrific crimes. Let’s teach about them, their decorations, their crimes and consequences (or lack thereof). And then let’s ask ourselves what it means to rely so heavily on asking our history teachers to engage in, as Banjo Patterson would say, nation building through stories of ‘shot and steel’.

Header images are, from left to right, John Eyre (by Henry Hering in the Caribbean Photo Archive ), Ben Roberts-Smith (photograph by Nick-D) and Lachlan Macquarie (image by unknown photographer, published by Blue Mountains City Library)

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, history and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “The chance to tell the truth about heroes

  1. An interesting provocation, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this sensitive matter.

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