Next month I’ll be flying to England to present at the History of Education Society (UK) / Australia New Zealand History of Education Society joint conference. I’ll be speaking on the subject of narrative imagery – specifically imagery that invokes the senses – and its use in moral instruction during early twentieth century Queensland.

As I finalise my paper, I’d like to share some reflections on the role of storytelling in teaching children how to behave in the adult world.

Storytelling is a part of every culture we know of. Those who did not, or do not, write passed knowledge on through oral means – through stories or song – which could be remembered and which imparted important lessons. In Western culture, the most obvious examples are the fairytales we still tell our children today. We still expect stories for children to have some purpose or moral: the phrase ‘the moral of this story is…’ has become a sort of punchline, yet the most popular children’s literature still tells the child something about the world – even if what it says is that the morals of former stories are outdated.

Stories intended for children are therefore an excellent source of information on the morals valued by a society at a particular time. Stories told within the context of the school tell us which morals are seen as widely acceptable, as desirable, for the majority of the population served by a particular school. In my research into moral teaching in Queensland schooling I have engaged deeply with this type of story: the short, improving narrative, tailored to a target age group and featuring just enough action or humour to hold the child’s attention.

What I have found – and what I did not expect – is that many of the narratives in these texts produced decades before my birth are familiar. They resonate with my own experiences of childhood in the early twenty-first century. There is something in this kind of generally accepted morality that seems to last for generations and to render the old schoolbooks – dated in their words, their characters, and even their beliefs – relevant and accessible long beyond their own time.