Australian history

The minute silence in our Australian schools

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(Image courtesy Ironbark Ridge PS, NSW)

The Anzac Day tradition is not only powerfully strong in schools all around Australia, says history editor and school history teacher, Dr Glenn Davies, it is where young Australians develop a mature and reflective understanding of the place the day holds in Australian life.

THIS YEAR, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the Anzac Landings at Gallipoli. It is also the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. On Saturday, 25 April there will be Anzac Day ceremonies not only at Anzac Cove in Turkey, but across the breadth of Australia — from small towns to capital cities.

However, it’s often not acknowledged there are other Anzac Day ceremonies held throughout Australia, usually on the day before. There is currently over 3.5 million school students in Australia spread across this wide, brown land in many thousands of primary and high schools, both state and private. In school halls everywhere will be heard renditions of the Last Post and Reveille, school bands playing the New Zealand and Australian national anthems, and the unusual silence of teenagers and children for that one reflective moment.

In schools all around Australia over the past few days there have been school Anzac Day ceremonies. Students learn about Anzac Day and Australia’s wartime experiences in Years 3, 6, 9 and 10 in the national history curriculum as well as in modern history at a senior level. Young Australians have a healthy knowledge of one of Australia’s most important cultural and historical events — a knowledge largely gained from their school and teachers.

In the week leading up to Anzac Day 2015 we’ve been bombarded with a popular media machine intrinsically connected to the former representation of the Anzac Legend as a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the "glory" and "heroism" of Gallipoli.

Anzac Day should not be a celebration of national pride, but a commemoration of the soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in World War I, and those in later conflicts. The most effective place to see this is in all the school ceremonies being held around Australia. If you are looking for jingoistic, celebratory prattle then turn on any television channel.

Schools always attempt to accurately reflect society as best it can in all its "flavours". It is integral that students are exposed to both sides of any debate. The key learning is for students to be able to make judgements on any information to which they are exposed with adequate understanding of the forces that have aided in the construction of historical understanding.

It is in schools that young Australians are exposed to accurate primary evidence relating to the failed Gallipoli campaign so they can draw independent conclusions free of any jingoist sentiments. In schools Anzac Day ceremonies are largely run by history teachers who appreciate the contested nature of history rather than the jingoistic language of the media ‘talking heads’ who don’t quite know what to say and revert to celebratory national pride prattle.

On this anniversary of the landing of the Australian and New Zealand army corps troops at Gallipoli, schools will be commemorating the event with a sadness as there are no longer with us any men who made that fateful landing on the 25 April 1915.

But, of course, it is just not Gallipoli we remember on this day, nor is it even the First World War. This is a day set aside for us to collectively give thanks to all those men and women who have put their lives at risk and in many cases paid the supreme price. We also acknowledge the losses and sacrifices of their families.

These men and women did not start the wars in which they were involved, that was the responsibility of the government of the day and our government is the agent of the people of Australia. The sailors, soldiers and airmen and women therefore, were fighting on behalf of all the people of Australia.

Anzac Day is therefore a day for all Australians, regardless of religion, racial background or even place of birth. It is a day to commemorate the bravery and self-sacrifice of past and present generations. It is a day to acknowledge the selflessness of all those who have been prepared to lay down their lives for Australia so that it can be a place of freedom for all.

On this Anzac Day we thank and recognise those who served in the first and second world wars, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and more recently, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

Anzac Day is not a day for honouring war, for war is not something to be honoured. War is something which is used as a last resort when diplomacy has failed and it is used by a nation to safeguard its sovereignty. We do however, on Anzac Day, honour the people of Australia who have undertaken warfare to protect that sovereignty, no matter how distasteful it may have been to them personally and in spite of the risk of losing their lives.

On this centenary, we honour the memory of all those who have served this country we love. In the mud of Europe and the sands of Africa, on the jungle trails of Papua New Guinea to Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan.

We remember those who have served on the oceans, beneath them and in the skies above.

We pay respect to Australians who have fought for the cause of peace, and those who have helped to keep it.

The ultimate reconciliation is the reconciliation of the dead. Anzac Day not only commemorates the fallen of Australia’s many wars but also this nation’s ability to overcome the hatreds engendered by, and the hurts suffered in, those conflicts.

This subtle change has been effected by the course of time – our first involvement was in the Sudan in the 19th century — and by the arrival of nationals from countries which were once our enemies.

It is this sense of equality and multicultural understanding that is at the core of what Australian schools are all about. It is to the respect being shown within those minute silences all around Australia on Friday, 24 April that we should take great hope in our future and the wonderful young Australians our schools are producing.

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