Enduring Truths and Neglected Lessons

Much of the debate surrounding schools and education centres on falling standards, teacher quality, school funding and what constitutes the most worthwhile curriculum and effective pedagogy. While such matters are important, more significant is the question: what constitutes the purpose of education? Given the rise of AI and chatbots and the fear humans will soon be replaced by computers, the question is even more urgent.

Illustrated by the cultural Left’s long march and prevalence of woke ideology in the nation’s classrooms, one answer is to use education as an instrument to overthrow what is depicted as an inherently racist, sexist, heteronormative capitalist society and to bring about the socialist utopia.

Throughout their schooling, students are indoctrinated with the belief that gender and sexuality are fluid and limitless, that males are inherently violent and misogynist and that Western civilisation is oppressive and guilty of white supremacism. Add the fact the world is about to end because of the climate change, that the arrival of the First Fleet led to genocide and there is nothing beneficial or redeeming about Australia’s development as a nation, and it’s no wonder young people suffer such high rates of anxiety and depression.

When Julia Gillard was education minister, she described herself as the minister for productivity. The focus is a utilitarian one where the purpose of education is to strengthen the economy and to ensure the nation has a highly skilled, globally competitive workforce. Associated with using schools to increase productivity is ensuring students are prepared for the uncertain, ever-changing world of the 21st century.  Knowledge is secondary to teaching generic competencies and skills like creativity, working in teams, critical thinking and embracing diversity and difference.

Ensuring education, especially in primary schools, is child-centred represents yet another approach to defining the purpose of education.  Re-badged as “personalised learning” and “student agency”, the belief is that learning only comes alive when it embraces the world of the child.

While each of the above models are distinctive, what they hold in common is the failure to address the essential role education plays in enculturation.  If societies are to survive and prosper and if individuals are to find meaning and purpose, each succeeding generation needs to be initiated into the broader culture.

The American academic Christopher J Lucas makes the point culture is learned and argues, “The culture of a society must be internalised by each generation.  Education, informal and formal, unconscious and conscious, is a means for the preservation of culture”. Edmund Burke also stressed the need for continuity when he described the relationship between citizens and a civil society as a partnership “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born”. 

At a time when cultural relativism prevails it is vital to realise that not all cultures are the same and, in relation to Australia, that our institutions, language, religion, music, literature and the arts have grown out of Western civilisation.

The school curriculum must acknowledge such a reality and, in the same way the national curriculum calls on schools to teach indigenous history, spirituality and culture, it stands to reason students have the right to be introduced to that corpus of knowledge, understanding and skills beginning with the ancient Greeks and evolving over thousands of years.

Such an education, what Saint John Henry Newman describes as a liberal education, is neither practical and utilitarian nor limited to the world of the child.  A liberal education is grounded in the established disciplines and, unlike cultural Left woke ideology, is impartial and disinterested.

The ideal is to enable students to be critically aware, independent thinkers and to be culturally literate, morally grounded and spiritually aware.  Such an education also cultivates virtues such as courage, temperateness, justice and good sense as well as a commitment to social justice and the common good.

While often condemned as backward-looking and ossified, a liberal education embraces change.  As noted by Matthew Arnold, the need is to turn “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”.

A liberal education also introduces students to a conversation that deals with eternal truths that have existed since sentient humans first walked the earth. Existential questions about the meaning of life, what constitutes fulfilment and happiness and what happens after death are ever present.

At a time when the education debate centres on funding, teacher quality, pedagogy and falling standards and the Commonwealth education minister Jason Clare has commissioned yet more inquires, it’s vital to return to first principles.

It’s also timely to reaffirm the belief that no amount of AI and Chatbots can ever replace the patrimony represented by Western civilisation’s enduring cultural heritage.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior fellow at the ACU’s PM Glynn Institute and author of The Dictionary Of Woke.

2 thoughts on “Enduring Truths and Neglected Lessons

  • Daffy says:

    The last thing the Left wants taught is historical and cultural context: children might learn thus to think critically and understand the lessons of history as well as the benefits of a modern liberal self-correcting culture. None of which we want, as it will impede the revolution and our quest for hegemonic power. [Always apply to the Left its own slurs and you will understand them immediately.]

  • Stephen Due says:

    Will education be alright if only it inculcates the culture of “Western civilisation” beginning with “the Greeks”? What is meant here is ancient Greek learning, literature and art, which were adopted into the old Roman Empire and later exhumed to fuel the Renaissance. But these were hardly foundational for Western culture. The real foundation of the Western cultural edifice was laid in Palestine.
    It was Christianity that transformed the Roman world and destroyed for ever the old gods of Europe. It was really Christianity that humanised the West. Conservatives need to face reality. There is no way of returning to “Western civilisation” without Christianity.
    The correct path forward with the agenda of a Western renaissance is not to pursue a weak, de-Christianised humanism. Rather it is to create and vigorously defend strong Christian communities, and especially Christian schools. However this will not be possible if the churches continue to embrace contemporary woke spirituality and ethics, while trashing the vast cultural heritage of which they ought to be the custodians and the beneficiaries.

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