Section 21 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 21

All is in flux

The task now, or interesting duty, which falls upon the minority of Australians who know that growth of mind, or intellectual culture, is even more significant than growth of sheeps’ wool — is to seek, find, and develop the basis of that intellectual culture in the Commonwealth: to explore now and pioneer the Vast Open Spaces of the Australian mind.

The first essential in any such exploration is to make a survey of ourselves in historical perspective. Without a strong sense of our own history we cannot expect to arrive at national self-consciousness. Broadly speaking, it may be said that our history, prior to 1850, was a branch or sector of English history. After that date, or when transportation of English convicts had ceased, our history tended more and more to become our own property, of interest peculiarly to ourselves as being formative of our own national character. It was a dramatic moment in our national story (our “Boston Tea Party”) when a band of free colonists, armed with muskets, went down to Circular Quay and bawled out to the skipper of The Hashemy, just in, that any attempt to land his convicts would be resisted by force. That ship hauled up her anchor and put to sea again, headed for Moreton Bay. The first big Australian gesture was made that day; the beginning of the movement for Australian independence.

Our national Australian history is comparatively brief. Its rhythms are calculable in decades, and not yet in centuries; but, for us, each decade of our history is packed with lore and legend and significant national experience. A decade of our own history is more important to us than a century of history from elsewhere.

Our history has been, and is, a gigantic pageant played on a vast stage. The least important of each of the seven millions of us is still playing a part in that drama. There are enough of us to make a nation; not enough to make a vast amorphous mass (such as the Chinese Republic) in which the individual practically ceases to exist. Individuality, in Australia, still matters.

Every ten-years’ period in our history — particularly from 1850 onwards — has had its own character and quality and national meaning. We are not a crystallised, set, people: there is much movement of both body and spirit in the progressive formation of Australia’s national mind.

The scenes and actors in our giant pageant have changed swiftly and colourfully. No decade has resembled the previous decade even in externals of social, political, and economic life. Nothing has settled into a form of apparent permanence — as yet; though the outlines are at last beginning to be defined.

Our history has had its own glamour.

Wave after wave of adventurous exploration has swept across Australia’s vast stage-setting. In one decade the gold-prospectors went fossicking, thousands of miles “from anywhere,” in the lonely hills and gullies, not of a mere region, but of an entire empty continent. In another decade the patriarchal Shepherd Kings went moving slowly, moving always, on and on, “further outback,” with their flocks and herds, pack horses and bullock-waggons, into the enormous lyrical wilderness. In another decade came the “settlers,” knocking down trees with axes, putting up fences and houses, building townships and towns.

In one decade it is bullock-waggons for transport; in the next it is Cobb & Co.’s coaches; in the next decade ten thousands miles of gleaming rails are suddenly laid down, and locomotives begin to scream like iron parrots through the bush: then, hey presto! — a wave of History’s wand, and, in one decade more, motor-cars are going across our plains and hills on roads of concrete and macadam . . . and yet, already, look up, Kingsford Smith flies from Australia right around the world and back home here — mails and passengers zoom across the continent to a simple and matter-of-fact timetable; it is only four days by ’plane to England. . . .

Bullock-waggons — horses — locomotives — automobiles — aeroplanes — one after the other in five decades: all in a lifetime! Children of these days are born into a different environment from that of their parents. Old ideas, old fixed concepts, are necessarily open to challenge by those who belong to each new generation: to each new decade. It is the old who now must learn. The young can teach. There was never before a human epoch like this.

All is in flux, our Australian nation is emerging, finding itself, in a welter of accelerated human change which is occurring all over the globe. Profound historical changes, which by all precedents should have taken centuries or aeons of evolution to be effectuated, have been packed, as it happens, into the few foundation decades of our Australian national story.

Ought not we Australians now to pause, even if only for a few moments, to review our position, take a sight of the stars and of the sun at noon, and set a course?

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 81-84

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