Don’t just learn English, learn to be Australian!: Assimilation of post-war migrants

I live in an Australia where the word ‘wog’ is used as a compliment. An Australia where I have a choice of Italian, Greek or any other cuisine when I walk down the streets of Sydney for dinner. An Australia where I can be a proud, true, blue Aussie while I dance the Kolo, attend the Croatian Catholic Church of Sveti Nikola Tavelič, eat čevapi at King Tomislav and listen to the best of Oliver Dragojevič in my car instead of the garbage they have on the radio these days. This is an Australia where multiculturalism is celebrated and promoted.

BUT this is not the Australia that my parents grew up in, nor the Australia that European migrants called home in the 1950s. For those people, it was an Australia that asked them to forget their culture and replace it with Australian customs, beliefs and attitudes in order to assimilate into the Australian way of life.

But why assimilate? What was the ‘Australian way of life’? And what was the best way to promote this ‘Australianness’ to the unprecedented numbers of migrants coming into the population?

Before you can even consider answering these questions, you need to remove yourself from the current-day, multicultural Australia that you know and put yourself into the 1950s. For those of you who weren’t alive back then, let me sum it up for you a bit. World War II has just ended but the Cold War is peaking, good ol’ Robert Menzies and the Liberal Party is in power and you are populating with over a million ‘New Australians’ to avoid perishing.

So why was it more important than ever for these ‘New Australians’ to change their ways and assimilate into the Australian way of life? Well, in order to populate the country with the numbers that they desired, Australia had to move away from their typical white, British migrant options and move on to nationalities from all over Europe. All these Balkans, Slavs and other European nationalities were so different to what Australia was used to and this was dangerous. In such a nationalistic era with the Cold War at large and ‘ways of life’ competing against each other, it was imperative to keep a unified nation under a common national identity that made Australia unique. Prejudice was no longer based on race, eugenics and Social Darwinism.. it was based on culture, values, behaviours and the ability to assimilate. These immigrants were expected to take on the Australian way of life and not disrupt the nation’s unity, distinctiveness and identity just as the politicians of the day promised.

So what was this Australian way of life? Although it is hard to formulate a concrete national identity that fits an entire nation, an elusive idea of what it meant to be Australian was omnipresent. Especially in the “Correspondence Course for New Australians”.

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The “Correspondence Course for New Australians” was a language acquisition course for non-English speaking migrants in Sydney in the 1950s. A collection of workbooks were created by the Commonwealth Office for Education under the guidance of the Department of Immigration. These workbooks were handed out to migrants to learn the English language but nowadays, you can find these workbooks in the Australian History Museum at Macquarie University like I did.

I am not interested in the ways it taught these migrants the English language. I am interested in how it taught these migrants to be Australian.

As I previously mentioned, the Australian national identity had to be shown to these migrants so that they had some kind of demonstration to follow. What better way than through the repetitive use of images and scenarios presented in the workbooks that were handed out to majority of the immigrants? Some main aspects of this national identity that were used as motifs include the following;

Menzies’ ideas and values of the ‘forgotten people’; the middle-class citizens that epitomized contemporary Australia.

Home ownership. The ‘great Australian dream’ of owning your own home is a product of suburbanization in 1950s Australia. A true Australian aspires to save money, buy a home in the suburbs and build a life for their family.

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Family. What greater symbol of the Cold War than the nuclear family as the bulwark against communism. A true Australian is a family man. A couple of kids and a mother and father who adhere to the typical gender roles.

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Equal but separate gender roles. Male breadwinner and the female housewife that had a little bit of involvement in the workforce even after the war ended.

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As well as some more traditional aspects of the Australian ethos. With our climate, beaches, environment and fauna as central aspects of our continent that make us distinct from other nations and that shaped our outdoorsy way of life.

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Through the “Correspondence Course for New Australians” workbooks, immigrants learned a lot more than just how to speak a new language, they were given a lesson in how to fit in to a whole new culture, courtesy of the Department of Immigration.

Refer back to my opening statement to conclude whether or not this expectation of complete assimilation truly worked. I have to say, thank God it didn’t. #sorrynotsorry

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For a deeper understanding on 1950s Australia, I found this book to be a great source:

John Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000)

Follow this website and read this article for an insight into education for post-war migrants:

http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/state-archives/guides-and-finding-aids/migrant-education-guide/teaching-english-to-post-wwii-migrants

McLean, L. (2008) “The March to Nation: Citizenship, Education, and the Australian Way of Life in New South Wales, Australia, 1940s-1960s”, in History of Education Review, 1(37)

This is a link about the primary source discussed, but I definitely suggest to visit the Australian History Museum at Mac Uni:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drive/historyonics3a-english-courses-for-new-migrants/5602880

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3 comments on “Don’t just learn English, learn to be Australian!: Assimilation of post-war migrants

  1. peterg says:

    Hi Juliana,

    Congratulations on finishing your capstone project. As a founding member of Making History@Macquarie I know exactly how much work was involved and how exciting it is to have your hard work up here on display to the world!

    Good luck with your postagraduate life, whether you continue studying or put your degree straight to work!

  2. emilymatthews2 says:

    As my parents were born in the 1950s, I am often amazed at the comments they are to make regarding other cultures that have had an increasing presence within Australia. This blog prompted me to consider what exactly was ‘Australianess’ back in the 1950s – why do my parents hold beliefs like they do? Is it their fault for being brought up in a period of time where to be ‘Australian’ was to be Anglo-Saxon, church goer, and married with children living peacefully in a two-leveled home?

    It begs me to question the role I play in shaping prejudices and beliefs that are held today and allows me to consider ways which I can look at who I am as an Australian, and ask what is it that makes me an Australian? Is it my skin colour, my faith, my accent? A question I will continue to ask myself; one that I may never know the answer too.

  3. dowie101 says:

    Great post, I’ve always admired that generation of migrants for how quickly they settled and how different the Aussie culture was in those days having just come out of the White Australia policy. To put up with what they did and make the success out of themselves that most did is an achievement. Great research in finding that manual- i think if a similar thing was done in 2014 the difference between Australian and migrant culture would be massive. Also, having lived in Blato for 6 months your mention of cevapis brought back fond memories! Again, thanks for the blog.

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