In recent years, the media coverage of Australian schools has focused on a number of overlapping crises: a staff retention crisis (up to 50 per cent of teachers leave the profession within five years); a student disengagement crisis (a 2012 study found that 60 per cent of South Australian high school students were disengaged from learning); a behaviour crisis (according to the OECD, Australian classrooms are among the least disciplined in the developed world) and an achievement crisis (on the PISA ratings, Australia’s maths, reading and science scores are all in steady decline). Each fall in the rankings has prompted another round of hand-wringing, but the problem continues to worsen.
In 2019 the federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, said, “Australia’s results in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests are very disappointing, especially in mathematics and science. These results should have alarm bells ringing.” Think-tanks and industry groups joined the chorus, reporting that semi-literate high-school graduates were already hamstringing the Australian economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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With the recent release of the draft revisions to the Australian Curriculum, there was an opportunity for governments to address the decline in standards. However, what emerged instead was an intensified focus on indigenous perspectives on history, including the notion that “the First Peoples of Australia experienced colonisation as invasion and dispossession of land, sea and sky”. Changes to sex and relationship education were also proposed. Furthermore, the English curriculum includes an even stronger emphasis on “First Nations authors and illustrators”.
If media reports have failed to explain how these changes will address any of the crises outlined above, that is a forgivable omission. In truth, the changes are not an attempt to address past failures but a doubling down on the quixotic aims of “progressive” educators—achieving ecological sustainability, indigenising the curriculum and dismantling systems of “social domination”.
As an experienced English teacher working in an Australian high school, I would argue that the deep malaise affecting our education system is partly due to the pernicious influence of “critical literacy”, also known as “critical pedagogy”. It is this rarely-discussed teaching approach which informs most of the curriculum changes.
“Critical literacy” in Australia
“Critical literacy” is the close intellectual relative of such dubious academic projects as Critical Race Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies. Its foundational text is Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. This book, first published in 1970, is approvingly sprinkled with quotations from Karl Marx, Mao Tse-Tung and Fidel Castro. According to Freire, the goal of education is not traditional literacy or numeracy but the creation of “critical consciousness” which will lead to students “intervening” in systems of social domination. Freire’s work aimed to liberate the impoverished Brazilian masses through political radicalisation. Whereas the Marxist roots of Freire’s project are self-evident, by the time critical pedagogy reached the Australian university in the mid-1980s, it had taken a cultural turn. This is exemplified by the work of Allan Luke, Australia’s leading advocate of critical pedagogy, who described the approach as “working with learners to use language to name and problematicise the world—that is to take everyday ideological constructions of class, race, gender, sexuality, war, peace, conflict and so forth, and to make them problematic through dialogic exchange”.
This teaching ideology was mainstreamed particularly early in Queensland, where, under the Beattie government, Allan Luke became Deputy Director General for Education from 1999 to 2000. Luke then served as the Chief Educational Adviser to the Queensland Minister of Education until 2003. Around the same time, critical-literacy advocates Ray Mission (Victoria) and Wendy Morgan (Queensland) worked as state panel chairs on senior “Literature” courses. As these facts suggest, critical theory has been influential at the highest levels of Australian education for more than two decades. Furthermore, a vast array of teaching materials based on “critical” principles have been in use, making it strange that its influence on Australian schools has been so rarely discussed outside educational circles.
Under the influence of critical theory, the entire attitude towards books, poems and films has changed. Parents will have noticed the relative absence of classic literature, with picture books, cartoons, advertisements and even Manga comics being studied instead. At one school where I worked, the set text for Year 7 was The Lorax by Doctor Seuss, a picture book recommended for children between five and eight years of age. To say that this book would not develop the reading skills of a twelve-year-old is, of course, an understatement, but it was selected for its focus on “environmental issues”, one of the ideological commitments of “critical” educators.
The 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians named sustainability as one of three cross-curricular priorities nationally, and the first Australian curriculum made it official. The link of sustainability to a Critical Social Justice worldview is made explicit in the Australian curriculum. We are informed that “world views that recognise the dependence of living things on healthy ecosystems, and value diversity and social justice, are essential for achieving sustainability”. One of the features of this approach is to shoehorn doctrinaire political commitments into everything. The “Futures” section of the sustainability guidelines makes the political agenda even more explicit, advancing a utopian vision of student-activists implementing social justice and sustainability at the same time. The curriculum envisages a future in which young eco-warriors are engaged in “individual and community action that values local and global equity and fairness across generations”. Here we see the influence of Freire, who wanted students to intervene directly in economic systems. However, it is worth catching our breath here and recalling that these revolutionary goals were actioned at my former school by reading a children’s picture book which exhorts students to “plant a Truffula tree and treat it with care”. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of The Lorax to cultivate a “critical consciousness” in students, a huge amount of plastic waste would pile up in the playground each lunchtime.
Considering recent controversies about the “racial problematics” of certain Doctor Seuss titles, perhaps the focus on this insufferably white author was a strategic error. If so, my former school should peruse the assessment schedule at Lightning Ridge Central School, where the class of 2020 were asked to achieve similar goals by watching March of the Penguins, a nature documentary, and then doing an imaginative task in which they wrote about climate change in Antarctica from the perspective of one of the penguins. If this task appears beyond parody, I would argue that the true culprit is not the teaching staff but an Australian curriculum which is not fit for purpose. The curriculum compels teachers to teach radical ideologies which neither they nor their students feel warmly about. In response, many educators try and sugar-coat the pill of Critical Social Justice by making it more “student-friendly” with picture books and the like. But the results are less than satisfactory, as evidenced by the grim test results, year after year.
Oodgeroo, “Che” and the Little Red Guards
In recent debates about the new curriculum, the biggest controversy has been over the use of the word invasion to describe the European arrival in Australia. According to Professor Stewart Liddle of the University of South Queensland, the changes “include a more accurate reflection of the historical record of First Nations people’s experience with colonisation, with a commitment to ‘truth telling’”. More than 150 indigenous academics and teachers have endorsed these changes, again by using the term “truth-telling”. However, this emphasis on “truth” is strange from a critical theory viewpoint. In his article “Critical Literacy in Australia”, Luke tells the reader that some of the main theorists informing “critical literacy” are Valentin Voloshinov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu and Paulo Freire, a motley collection of Marxists and postmodernists who were either the intellectual architects of left-wing totalitarianism or deconstructionists of the notion of truth itself. Is this “truth-telling” going to include the gulags, purges and mass starvation of the Soviet Union and China? Moreover, is it going to include the complicity of prominent indigenous writers and “critical literacy” educators in whitewashing the crimes of communist regimes? My experience suggests that killing-fields-and-gulag denialism is the true lodestar guiding Australian education, both in terms of “indigenous perspectives” and “Australia’s engagement with Asia”—the other two cross-curricular priorities in Australian education.
Since the first Australian curriculum, one of the most studied writers in Australian classrooms has been Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly known as Kath Walker. In my current school, she enjoys canonical status as the only poet studied during Years 7 to 10. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority reports that her poems are widely studied in Victorian schools and this is also the case in New South Wales and Queensland. Overall, her verse is crude and facile, constantly deploying Manichean notions of White sin and Black virtue. In a 1988 interview she explained, “Australians are very rude people. Very thoughtless, tactless, they have an inbuilt racist attitude which is rather sad.” Her advice to Aboriginal Australians was equally inspiring: “Whatever comes from whites is blood money. I say pick it up and run with it and use it against them. I’m all for it.” We English teachers are expected to introduce her as an inspiring and uplifting indigenous voice, but these quotations reveal that her worldview is deeply imbued with Marxist conflict theory, applied to race relations. In truth, this, and not her indigeneity, explains her popularity with “critical” educators. I have taught her poetry to indigenous students on a number of occasions and they have shown no more enthusiasm for it than their non-indigenous peers.
Moreover, it is highly revealing how “critical” educators who obsess over “gaps and silences” in their literature invariably keep mum about the nasty Maoist strain in Noonuccal’s collection Kath Walker in China, a prescribed text for New South Wales Year 12 students from 2019 to 2023. In selecting poems for the course, the New South Wales curriculum writers have steered well clear of these disturbing works, part of their refusal to engage in “truth-telling” about communist dictatorships in Asia and beyond. In her poem “Celebrating National Day in Guangzhou”, Noonuccal joins her Chinese Communist Party hosts in ecstatically celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of their takeover:
The five-star red flag
The emphatic use of capitalisation here is hers, and it is most unusual in her poetry. It suggests that the concept of emancipation she espouses is entirely compatible with totalitarian control by the CCP. Noonuccal dedicates another poem, “Young Pioneers in Xian”, to the Communist Youth League— the Little Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. By the mid-1980s, the atrocities of the CCP were well known in the West, but Noonuccal never once mentions Tibet, the Great Leap Forward or Maoist purges. Instead, she expresses her hope that “Hong Kong, that lost sheep / will soon return to the fold”. Noonuccal’s shameful silence on Chinese imperialism in Tibet and Xinjiang is repeated by other indigenous writers taught in our schools. The indigenous poet Ellen van Neerven gave a speech on “Kath Walker in China” at the 2018 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, claiming that Noonuccal “demonstrates herself as a sophisticated cultural visitor, one who understands history and story as a person of an oppressed race living within a dominant settler invader society”. That is one way of describing odes to the Communist Red Star and a youth organisation that desecrated thousands of Chinese temples in the Cultural Revolution. Why did van Neerven not “decolonise” her speech by talking about the racial oppression of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang? Indigenous writers and Australian curriculum writers have repeatedly engaged in “atrocity denialism” about communist dictatorships. Sadly, Australian teachers and students are expected to go along with the whitewashing. It would be a foolish student who mentioned Kath Walker’s paeans to communism in an HSC essay.
In an even more egregious example of this phenomenon, The Motorcycle Diaries by Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara is a prescribed HSC text in New South Wales for the 2019 to 2023 period. It is highly unusual to include translated work on the syllabus. World novelists like Tolstoy, Flaubert and Kawabata are excluded, but an exception is made for “Che”. It is absolutely scandalous that the promoters of “diversity” should prescribe the study of a writer who jailed Afro-Cuban priests and sent gays to a forced labour camp with a sign saying, “Work Will Make You Men”, echoing Auschwitz. I knew of students who were assigned this book at a previous school, and many of them were puzzled why they were studying an author who had used death squads against political opponents. I agreed with them that it was an unfortunate choice but explained that the texts were set by the Board of Studies. Though the example of Che Guevara is extreme, it is no mere glitch in the system. Many books which superficially look benign are very selective in their “truth-telling” about oppression.
An extremely popular picture-book in Australian high schools is The Little Refugee by the celebrity comedian, painter and author Anh Do. Using picture-books to try and overcome student resistance to social justice dogma is now a popular strategy in Australian classrooms. The Little Refugee describes his family’s flight from Vietnam without ever mentioning communists. One might argue that communists are not appropriate for a children’s book, but he does mention pirates who rob the boat people and threaten to drown a baby. Rather than annoy left-wing publishers, Do has studiously hidden the fact that Vietnamese refugees were fleeing a communist dictatorship. Other set texts by Vietnamese-Australians also fail to mention that Vietnam has a draconian government which jails dissidents and is cursed with one of the least free presses on Earth. Twenty years ago, Australian syllabuses included texts such as Highways to a War by Christopher Koch, which explores the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which offers insight into the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution. Today there is a marked lack of “truth-telling” about communist tyranny in Asia, which, I will now argue, is part of the double standards which plague the “critical literacy” movement.
The “critical literacy” bait-and-switch
Consider: indigenous poets who espouse decolonisation but won’t stand up for Tibet and Xinjiang. Picture-books about refugees which don’t mention the tyrants they are fleeing. Teaching units on sustainability which shoehorn in the ideology of “social justice”. A pedagogy of “emancipation” which aims to reprogram your “consciousness” and make you a foot soldier for neo-Marxist social projects. An education establishment which wrings it hands about falling test scores and then doubles down on the very teaching philosophy which caused them. If it isn’t already abundantly clear, the “critical” approach to education is an elaborate bait-and-switch. As critical educators Luke and Dooley explain, “critical literacy is the use of texts to analyse and transform relations of cultural, social and political power”. The telos of critical literacy is explicitly not traditional notions of literacy or numeracy, but the political radicalisation of students.
Along the way, the critical pedagogue will promulgate such appealing notions as “emancipation”, “liberation”, “anti-racism” and “democratising the classroom”. We are promised that what is on offer is an egalitarian process of “dialogic exchange” about systems of oppression. However, with a radical educator at the helm of an English classroom, what really happens is a two-stage process. In the first stage, the racial “problematics” of texts such as Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn or Othello are asserted by the critical educator. Once these classics have been sufficiently denounced, they will be replaced by texts which align themselves with critical theory dogma. After a couple of decades of critical pedagogy, we are now well into this second phase. The New South Wales Year 12 syllabus mandates the study of texts by “Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander authors” and those that deal with “intercultural experiences and the peoples and cultures of Asia”. Students will study a range of (mostly) contemporary indigenous and Asian-Australian authors such as Ali Cobby Eckermann, Samuel Wagan Watson and Nam Le, learning about the Stolen Generations, dispossession and casual racism. While disrespect of textual authority was encouraged in the first phase, the confrontational approach is now abandoned.
In this essay, I have “problematised” Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems on China, but doing so would only lead to grief in the Australian high school. During the second phase, criticality is supposed to give way to “celebrating Indigenous excellence” and exploring the “cultural diversity of Asia”. Once critical pedagogy is in the driver’s seat, the teacher stops asking tough questions and assumes the role of head cheerleader for the ascendant worldview.
If this seems surprising, it is worth going back to Freire, as he forecast this outcome back in 1970:
Once a popular revolution has come to power, the fact that the new power has the ethical duty to repress any attempt to restore the old oppressive power by no means signifies that the revolution is contradicting its dialogical character.
Therefore, any critique of the new orthodoxy is merely a renewed attempt at oppression, requiring vigorous repression. Cancelling those who are not on board with the revolution is not just permissible, it is an “ethical duty”. And that explains the war on Western values in which we now find ourselves.
At the risk of behaving unethically, I would like to remind readers that Freire’s ideas have been widely adopted in Brazil, and the results have proven disastrous. By 2018, after decades of critical pedagogy, Brazil was rated seventy-first out of seventy-nine countries in maths, fifty-eighth in reading and one of the worst in the world for discipline. If Australia continues to follow this disastrous approach to education, we still have much further to fall.
Raymond Burns is a senior high school teacher who has taught in schools in several states of Australia