Paul Murray: How quickly we forget what really matters

THE Australian National University released a report this week that concluded Same Sex Marriage was the most significant historic event in the lifetime of Australians.

The survey of a couple of thousand people, ranging in age from 18 to 93, included a wide spread of the generations and even political leanings. It was broken down into city and country, men and women, rich and poor.

People were asked to name the 10 most significant historical moments of their lifetime. Twice as many named Same Sex Marriage as the Port Arthur Massacre. Three times as many names same sex marriage as the Vietnam War.

Amazingly, just seven per cent named World War II. That was the same percentage who named the Lindt Cafe Siege and the Bali bombings as the most significant historic event in their lifetime.

By limiting the question to a person's lifetime it narrows the impact of events. But is this really the way to measure the significance of what happens to a country? Unless I lived it, it doesn't matter?

When you break this all down by age, World War II was number one for people over 72. Vietnam was number one for people 53-71 years old. September 11was the biggest for Generation X and Same Sex Marriage was number one for anyone under 37.

Now before you assume they must have loaded this survey with lefty young people, they spoke to more people over 50 than under, yet Same Sex Marriage still comes out on top when everyone is counted.

But even if you keep all of this to the narrow confines of what people experienced, Kevin Rudd's national apology to the stolen generation outranked the first female PM, and the internet outranked the Mabo decision.

While I find the question limiting, it still is a fascinating snapshot of what really affects people, or perhaps, more importantly, the events we take for granted as being significant in our national story.

Now, it's a long time since most of us were in a classroom, but it makes you think about what sort of topics should be part of any basic modern history course at high school.

Victoria is the only state left with a specific subject on Australian History. Most other states just lump it in with modern history. If they do break it down into anything specifically Australian, it's part of political subjects.

Writing history books for students is always hard, fraught with the danger of political interference that can cast figures like Whitlam as victim or hero depending on the author. But this survey shows we clearly need to take greater efforts to explain what previous generations have lived to understand the impact on our culture, traditions and world view.

Future generations need to learn how we formed national security bonds with the United States, what actually happened when the parliament blocks a budget, how air travel opened up the country and what sacrifices were made on the home front to win a war with Japan.

Sadly this survey proves we are taking for granted what is known about our country by each new generation. We must always be vigilant that while our schools need to remain relevant to the modern day, we can't junk a fundamental understanding of the events across the generations that shaped us and give us the freedom to pursue a future that builds on those hard lived foundations.

Paul Murray is a broadcaster with Sky News.

He can be seen on Paul Murray LIVE  9-11pm aedt weeknights.

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