A Back-to-Nonsense Curriculum

The Rudd government fulfilled its 2007 election promise to develop a national curriculum by establishing a National Curriculum Board in early 2008 (now known as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority).

At the time, while welcoming the move to what was described as a more academically-minded approach to the curriculum, I argued that such was the power and influence of Australia’s cultural-Left education establishment, there was little chance of the government succeeding in its plans (see “The Dubious Quest for a National Curriculum”, Quadrant, September 2008).

After reading the most recent kindergarten-to-Year 10 national curriculum documents in English and history (dated December 8, 2010 and due to be fully implemented at the start of 2013, two years behind schedule) I can see that my fears about the new curriculum were well founded.

Instead of representing an academically rigorous and back-to-basics approach, the new curriculum is dumbed down, politically correct and represents a re-run of Australia’s much criticised and condemned outcomes-based education (OBE) curriculum model. OBE champions progressive fads like child-centred learning, inquiry or process learning, teachers as facilitators and an ideological view of the curriculum imbued with a heady mixture of politically correct perspectives: sustainable, indigenous, feminist, class, postmodern and cultural relativist.

Two of the central tenets of OBE involve defining the curriculum in terms of the interests and world of the child and arguing that the process of learning is more important than content (otherwise known as inquiry learning). The early years of the national curriculum in both history and English are restricted to the immediate world and interests of the child and the history curriculum describes itself as adopting a “skills and inquiry-based model of learning”.

In relation to literature, instead of teachers introducing children to the classics associated with the Western tradition (a tradition that incorporates an enormous range of literary texts from different cultures and countries), priority is given to students developing “criteria for establishing personal preferences for literature”. In line with reader-response theory and postmodernism, the English curriculum also adopts a subjective view of reading with statements like: “texts are shaped by different viewpoints”, “viewpoints are shaped by individual values and experiences”, and each student’s response must take into account “different opinions and interpretations”. Completely ignored is the fact that authors generally intend their works to have a particular meaning or effect and that some interpretations are more justifiable or closer to the truth than others.

Instead of providing succinct and unambiguous guidelines detailing what to teach, the national curriculum, copying OBE, overwhelms teachers by forcing them to monitor and evaluate hundreds of vague and generalised content descriptions, elaborations and achievement standards that every child is expected to master. As a result, the enjoyment of teaching is lost as teachers are turned into book-keepers and bean-counters, and the way in which academic subjects are described is patchy, superficial and riven with political correctness. 

During the 1990s OBE was forced on Australian schools as a result of the Keating government’s national statements and profiles being adopted by the various state and territory education authorities. Before the 2007 Commonwealth election, such were the widespread public concerns about OBE’s failures (especially in Western Australia and Tasmania) that both major political parties argued for a more academically-minded approach to teaching, and outcomes-based education has now disappeared from the educational lexicon.

In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election Kevin Rudd, the ALP leader, staked the middle ground in education by advocating a conservative agenda embracing a back-to-basics curriculum and a return to traditional subjects. During her time as Education Minister Julia Gillard also defined herself as an education conservative and described the ALP’s national curriculum as exemplifying a return to academic standards and rigour. In one speech Gillard described herself as “a passionate believer in the benefits of a rigorous study of traditional disciplines”, and in a second speech she boasted, “What we’re on about is making sure that the absolute basics of knowledge, absolute basics of education are taught right across the country.” On replacing her as Minister for Education, Peter Garrett maintained the ALP line that education is a major priority and described the national curriculum as “world-class” and “vital to our goal of giving every child a great education”.

Has the ALP government delivered on its promise to develop a national curriculum that embraces the “traditional disciplines” and “the absolute basics of knowledge”? Based on the English, mathematics, history and science documents (dated December 8, 2010) the answer is “No”. Instead of heralding a return to traditional learning, the proposed national curriculum represents a continuation of the type of substandard, politically correct approach to education that has bedevilled Australian schools over the last thirty to forty years.

The more traditional approach to the curriculum, while acknowledging the importance of the learner and the fact that disciplines evolve over time, places subjects like history, mathematics, the sciences, the arts, music and languages and literature centre stage. Matthew Arnold’s view that education should introduce students to the “best which has been thought and said” is often referred to in this context, as is Michael Oakeshott’s metaphor of education involving a conversation that is larger than the individual and that has been going on for hundreds of years.

This liberal view of education, while drawing on a range of cultures and traditions, is closely associated with the rise of Western civilisation and our Judeo-Christian heritage. In the same way that the nation’s legal and political systems and language and literature owe a great debt to and can only be understood in the context of this Western heritage, so to with education.

Instead of respecting and acknowledging this liberal view of education, the national curriculum gives primacy to three politically correct “Cross-curriculum priorities” (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability) and seven “General capabilities” (including intercultural understanding, competence in information and communication technology, and critical and creative thinking). Every subject in the national curriculum must incorporate the aforementioned perspectives and capabilities. As a result, the disciplines of knowledge are undervalued and distorted to make them conform to the ALP’s and the Left-intelligentsia’s preoccupation with Asia, indigenous Australians, and teaching so-called work-related generic skills.

Instead of Asia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, why not define the curriculum in terms of Australia’s Western heritage and Judeo-Christian tradition?

In relation to the seven capabilities (most of which are subject-specific and impossible to teach as abstracted skills) the case can also be put that it is more important that students commit themselves to the qualities and dispositions associated with a liberal education, such as civility, morality, objectivity, compassion, kindness, humility, creativity and truth-telling. 

The history curriculum provides a clear example of this unwillingness to acknowledge the grand narrative associated with the rise of Western civilisation and the importance of Christianity. In one section the document asks students to act with “moral integrity” and to “work for the common good” but the curriculum writers refuse to acknowledge that such ethical values are culturally specific and can only be understood in Australia in the context of the Western tradition. 

In an early draft of the history curriculum, while “Christian” appeared once, there was no mention of Christianity. While the most recent document refers to Christianity a number of times (and once to the Catholic Church) the focus is very much on diversity, difference and cultural relativism. When Christianity is mentioned it is usually in the context of other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam) and there is no attempt to detail the historical and cultural significance of Christianity. When studying ancient Rome, for example, students are asked to consider the rise of the Roman empire and the spread of religious beliefs, but there is no mention of Christianity. In the study of Medieval Europe, Christianity is included, but the stated aims, that students should learn about “the dominance of the Catholic Church and the role of significant individuals such as Charlemagne”, “the Church’s power in terms of wealth and labour” and “the nature and power of the Church in this period”, indicate that students will be left with a less than favourable impression.

The decision by the curriculum writers to ignore the terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) in favour of the politically correct alternatives, BCE (Before the Common Era), BP (Before Present) and CE (Common Era) further illustrates the extent to which Christianity is ignored and undervalued.

It should be noted that the most recent history document represents a slight improvement on earlier drafts. While the draft dated March 2010 made no mention of the Magna Carta, the Westminster system of government and concepts like the separation of powers, the most recent edition does when stating that Year 6 children should learn about “the Westminster system”, “constitutional monarchy” and “federalism”. Unfortunately, though, instead of representing a balanced approach by recognising the debt Australia owes to its Anglo-Celtic heritage, it is clear that the curriculum writers are still committed to a view of history that uncritically promotes diversity and difference (code for multiculturalism) and that presents Australia as a nation of tribes.

The document’s treatment of migration provides a good example of this bias. Even though migration to Australia since the First Fleet has been primarily Anglo-Celtic and European in origin, teachers are told that students must be taught about “the long history of migration to Australia by people from Asia and appreciate the contributions made over time by Asian Australians to the development of Australia’s culture and society”. Instead of praising the fact that Australia has welcomed so many immigrants from often hostile foreign shores and allowed them to live in peace and prosperity, the history document, when asking students to study migration, refers to “internment camps”, “assimilation policies” and “mandatory detention”.

Another example relates to slavery, where the history document is happy to refer to slavery during the Roman empire and to the European trans-Atlantic slave trade but, no mention is made of slavery under Islam. It is also no surprise that, when dealing with ideas and movements during the period 1750–1918, Year 9 students are only expected to study “progressive” ideas, with no mention of classical liberal philosophy or the type of conservative ideas associated with Edmund Burke.

The English curriculum, similar to the history document, also gives priority to “Cross-curriculum priorities” and “General capabilities”. As a result, there is no mention of the Western canon when detailing the literature that students should encounter (except to say that students should not be presented with “an English literary canon that is a static identity”), and teachers are told to concentrate on world, Asian and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature.

In the play Pygmalion, Henry Higgins tells Eliza Doolittle that her “native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible”. Harold Bloom, in his book The Western Canon, makes a similar point about the need to introduce readers to the great works associated with the Western tradition. The English document enforces a different view when it states:

The Australian Curriculum: English values the history, cultures, traditions and languages of Aboriginal students and Torres Strait Islander students and their communities. One of the key aims of the Literature strand is to ensure that students develop and awareness and appreciation of, and respect for, the historical and contemporary literature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

So much for the Western tradition!

As an aside, it should be noted that the science national curriculum also has a romanticised and misleading view of indigenous culture when it implies that Western science and indigenous science are of equal value:

It acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always used science to meet their needs. They have learnt about their world through observation, using all the senses; through prediction and hypothesis; through testing (trial and error), and through making generalisations within specific contexts. These are features of modern science and have always been practised and transmitted from one generation to the next. The Australian Curriculum: Science provides opportunities for students to become aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have particular ways of knowing about the world and continue to provide significant contributions to developments in science. 

In relation to the importance of teaching Standard English, the English document also adopts a relativistic approach when it states that students must “understand that Standard Australian English is one of many social dialects used in Australia” and that students should “identify words used in Standard Australian English that are derived from other languages, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages”. It ignores the fact that Standard English is the lingua franca of international commerce, business and politics and that English owes more to the influence of the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans and to Latin and Greek than to the languages originating in what is now known as Australia. 

When an earlier draft of the English curriculum was launched in March 2010 the then Education Minister, Julia Gillard, boasted that it adopted a back-to-basics approach; especially in relation to teaching phonics and phonemic awareness and grammar. In one interview, Gillard stated, “I think many Australians will be pleased to see that, because they have worried that writing abilities, particularly understanding grammar, has [sic] slipped in recent years.”

Not only has the most recent draft removed the section on grammar, including the statement that “The Australian Curriculum: English makes explicit the teaching of grammar in all years of schooling” but also, a phonics approach is weakened by the inclusion of such whole-language strategies as using illustrations, guessing and contextual clues when reading.

That the English curriculum represents a return to OBE is also evident in the social-critical approach to interpreting texts adopted, an approach that views literature as a cultural product where students interpret what they view and read in terms of power relationships and the rights of victim groups. In secondary school, for example, students will be made to analyse why some texts are “valued” over others by examining their historical and cultural contexts. Students will also be asked to identify how texts present “stereotypes of people, cultures, places and events and concepts”, to analyse “how socio-cultural values, attitudes and beliefs are conveyed in texts” and to “explain ways in which different groups in society are represented in literary, persuasive and informative texts”.

No doubt, based on past practice, teachers will use a social-critical approach to ban traditional fairy tales, like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, where a happy ending is defined as marrying the prince, and Romeo and Juliet because it privileges heterosexuality.

During the ALP’s first term of government, both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard made much of their education revolution and asked the public to judge their performance on the success or otherwise of their educational reforms. Not only has Building the Education Revolution been proven to be a multi-billion-dollar waste, the promise to give every senior student a computer remained unfulfilled and the MySchool website was riddled with flaws and mistakes. Now, on top of all that, judged by the current history and English documents, the national curriculum can be added to the list.

Matters are made worse by the fact that every school in Australia, both government and non-government, will be forced to implement the national curriculum as a condition of Commonwealth funding. While in most states and territories schools currently have the freedom to adopt the state-mandated curriculum or equivalent, under the ALP-inspired social engineering agenda such autonomy will be lost.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Australia’s Education Revolution (Connor Court Publishing).

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