Professor flunks comprehension test

Monash University Associate Professor Tony Taylor’s  inaccurate and misleading response at The Conversation to John Howard’s criticisms of the Australian Curriculum: History, cannot go unchallenged.

Taylor begins by mocking the former Prime Minister for hitting a “trifecta” whose first leg, he asserts, is a blinkered nostalgia for “the good old days (often the 1950s) when real history was taught, not this fancy stuff the students learn today”. The next alleged sin is that Howard has not read the latest, up-to-date version of the curriculum. And finally, that it does not include “his favourite bits”.

Let’s address these charges, starting with “the good old days” criticism. Here is what Howard actually said in his Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation lecture:

“Asian history will be more prominent [in this curriculum], and no one can argue with that. Although it is a bit of a myth that we haven’t been taught much Asian history in the past. When I sat the Modern History examination for the New South Wales Leaving Certificate in 1956, I answered questions on both China and Japan.”

Compare that to the impression Taylor fosters that Howard’s reference to what he learned in the past are the ravings of a grumpy old man. Both inaccurate and misleading, Professor Taylor.

Second, the claim that Howard is working from an old curriculum. I looked at his every reference to what was in the curriculum, both the compulsory Foundation-Year 10 and the optional years 11-12 ones. His every single citation is correct, all to be found in the documents I printed from the ACARA website. The only area where one could possibly challenge Howard’s accuracy is his claim that “incredibly, students will not be required to study Australian history in depth for [the period 1750-1914] because such a study is offered only as an alternative to a depth study of an Asian country. It is not compulsory.” That’s true, but it could also be argued that the preceding compulsory area, the Industrial Revolution 1750-1914, includes a requirement that the Australian experience of the Industrial Revolution must include many economic, social, political and environmental aspects of Australian history.

So, once again, inaccurate and misleading, Professor Taylor.  It’s surely a worry if the leading history educator involved in the development of the curriculum fails to identify its own content.

When we come to examine the third leg of Professor Taylor’s “gotcha” trifecta, we enter a much more subjective area. Taylor snorts that Howard’s “favourite bits” are there. ACARA’s response to Howard’s criticisms, approved and relied on by Taylor as a strong rebuttal of Howard’s claims, focused mainly on the primary curriculum. So, yes the ‘bits’ are there.

But read Howard’s speech and he is clearly referring to the secondary years. And Howard’s main point was to argue that they are not there in any detailed and coherent way. Taylor is entitled to disagree with Howard’s vision of what the curriculum should be, and what it should do, but a fair reading of Howard’s speech would say that he has argued an intellectually credible case, and not just trotted out conservative rubbish, as Taylor implies. Howard was not on about “bits”, but intellectual coherence. And Professor Taylor does not address this.

Taylor implicitly characterises Howard’s attitude to history as being about “celebration and commemoration”. This deliberately distorts his position, which is that in the teaching of history to school children a “sense of balance” has to be achieved. ‘Regrettably, if recent, and proposed, curricula are any guide,” Howard continued, “ that admirable sense of balance . . . is absent’. It is an arguable case and Taylor refuses to engage with it, instead dismissing it in a way that smacks of intellectual dishonesty.

Taylor then says that history in schools is “fundamentally about investigation and explanation”, and implies that Howard does not agree. Yet Howard does talk about the emphasis on “a modern trend to give higher priority to imparting abstract research skills than actual knowledge”, and asks “what’s the use of teaching abstract themes if students don’t understand how they connect or why they’re important”. It is a valid point, one Taylor does not address in his response. There is a lively move among history teaching today to get back to narrative, to balance this with skill development — Howard seems more in touch with this than does Taylor.

Finally, Taylor has four concluding pleas. He has dropped the mockery, and now demands we heed his wisdom:

  • “That conservative politicians and commentators do their homework properly” — well, Professor Taylor, every factual claim Howard makes about the content of the curriculum can be found in the current version.
  • “That we trust the teachers’ professionalism” — many teachers of history are professionals and experts, but very many teachers neither like nor study history, do not enjoy it, and teach it badly, as you well know.
  • “We can rely on students to make up their own minds when it comes to examining the past” — well, only if they are exposed to balanced, accurate and fair inputs, which is Howard’s whole point!
  • “Labor, develop more concern for whether history will survive in schools.”

Well, help them, Professor Taylor, by putting a reasonable and balanced case against justifiable critical arguments, not by ridiculing critics — and certainly not by ignoring their legitimate concerns.

Robert Lewis is a former history teacher and resource development officer with the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria, a winner of the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize, and an independent writer of classroom history resources

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