The Frontier Thesis: Why I Teach

why i teach

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that democracy in the US was formed by the advancing western frontier. The process of forging and reforging the frontier line had an impact, not only on  the pioneers of the time but on the way in which contemporary society operates. While Australia’s history is less well documented in popular culture, there was a similar process with explorers, but more often drovers and settlers, continually re-establishing the border between the known and the unknown.

This is why I teach. Every new semester with a group of fellow explorers, drovers and settlers I re-work the boundaries between the known and the unknown. As Cathy Davidson said in the connected courses hangout this week, the process provides “intellectual and emotional nourishment” for me, and my fellow travelers.

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9 Responses to The Frontier Thesis: Why I Teach

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    “…I re-work the boundaries between the known and the unknown”



    • Marj Kibby says:

      Thanks Bill!


      • Bill Benzon says:

        So I’m curious about 19th century Australian fiction, Marj. I’m wondering if it’s more like 19th century American or 19th century British fiction. I ask the question because, of course, the Frontier. I have in mind the argument that Leslie Fiedler made in his (now classic) Love and Death in the American Novel (1966). The 19th century European novel had love and marriage at its center. But the 19th century American novel did not. It featured men against the world (Natty Bumpo on the frontier, Capt. Ahab on the ocean) and children (Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer).

        The NYTimes movie critic A O Scott features Fiedler’s book in his recent article, The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. He ends his article:

        Looking at those figures and their descendants in more recent times — and at the vulnerable patriarchs lumbering across the screens to die — we can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.

        Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

        I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.


      • Marj Kibby says:

        Bill, the early Australian novels were very much of the “ripping yarns” variety. I guess understandably like the American fiction of the period they were tales of valiant adventures in the outback. It was invariably men who had these adventures, though Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife was one story that recognised the role women played

        Names that come to mind: Rolf Boldrewood, Marcus Clarke, Joseph Furphy. Miles Franklin moved to the US then the UK where she found it easier to get published. Barbara Baynton is a favourite – she comes from my local area, created a false ID for social advancement, and challenged the romantic view of Australia put forward by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, writing about a male domination society where dogs and horses were held in higher regard than women. (As Willie Nelson sang You can’t blame a man for shooting a women who’s trying to steal his horse.)

        I’ll read that article – I’ve been fascinated/puzzled by the appeal of YA fiction for old adults.

        If you come across Evan McHugh it would be worth putting one of his books on your holiday reading pile.


  2. tsheko says:

    I love the way you visualise how and why you teach. I’m gate-crashing the course as a secondary school teacher librarian in Melbourne. Pleased to meet you, Marj.


  3. Marj,
    Powerful thoughts— the playing with boundaries of known and unknown– I appreciated too your reference frontiers and that influence on American society. Glad I’ve discovered your blog!


  4. lanihall says:

    Sorry if this is a repeat. I was having challenges leaving a comment.
    Powerful thoughts— the playing with boundaries of known and unknown– I appreciated too your reference frontiers and that influence on American society. Glad I’ve discovered your blog!


  5. Susan Watson says:

    Love your frontiers analogy. Known and unknown. The mystical nature of the unknown is what drives me many days at school.


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