Historian Humphrey McQueen writes:

The last time that John Howard called for tradition in schools, his government sent them posters promoting values in education. The image was of a statue of Simpson and his donkey from Gallipoli. Underneath was the maxim “Character is destiny”, signed “George Eliot”.

The Coalition’s promotion of Simpson suggests that its ideologues are as ill-informed about Australian history as they allege government schools are wanting in values.

The truth about Simpson is not as simple as the version that appeared in Howard’s primary school readers. Peter Cochrane told the full story in his 1992 book Simpson and the Donkey the Making of a Legend.

The following extract from a letter which Simpson wrote to his mother in 1912 gives a taste of his values:

I often wonder when the working men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want in England is a good revolution and that will clear some of these Millionaires and lords and Dukes out of it and then with a Labour Government they will almost be able to make their own conditions.

Simpson would have been thrilled to appear on ACTU advertisements against Work Choices.

The quotation “Character is destiny” can be found in Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss where it is identified as a quotation from the German Romantic poet, Friedrich, Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801), known to the culturally literate as Novalis. More to the point, Eliot went on to disagree with his proposition:

For the tragedy of our lives is not created entirely from within. “Character”, says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms – “character is destiny”. But not the whole of our destiny.

Eliot illustrated her disagreement through a discussion of Hamlet.

In Howard’s disciplined classroom, the Ministerial advisors who came up with the poster will have to stay in after school to write out 100 times: “George Eliot did not agree that ‘character is destiny’.”

Meanwhile, two other standardised tests remain. Did the advisors know that George Eliot was a woman? Had they lifted the quotation with its misattribution from the bottom of a page in Dr Kevin Donnelly’s desk calendar?