Forget the cultural-left bias and PC group mentality of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, when it comes to a pervasive ideological commitment to the left nothing beats Australia’s education establishment. One day after the Coalition’s victory Monash University’s David Zyngier, in a piece written for The Conversation, bemoans the fact that the Australian people have chosen a conservative government.
Aboott’s is a government, according to Zyngier, that will destroy Australia’s education system by imposing a neoconservative agenda involving: a back-to-basics curriculum, a funding system favouring non-government schools, a history curriculum based on a “white armband sanitised approach” and a model of education where government schools will be forced to compete.
Four days after that, Tony Taylor, another Monash academic, posted his fears about Abbott on The Conversation, portraying Abbott’s misgivings about lack of balance in the national history curriculum as “personally-motivated, ideological interference in the history curriculum”.
The change of government, argues Taylor, means state and territory schools will be forced to teach a “triumphalist view of the past that uncritically highlights the achievements of a free market economy, Western civilisation and Christianity”.
There is nothing surprising or new about such outbursts. Australia’s educationalists, along with those in other English-speaking nations, embarked on the cultural left’s long march through schools and universities during the late 60s and early 70s.
This was a time of the cultural revolution epitomised by Vietnam moratoriums, flower power, sexual liberation and attacks on established authorities represented by the universities, the Church and the nuclear family.
Marxists such as the Brazilian Paulo Freire argued that education had to be about liberation, in the US Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argued that the education system reinforced inequitable capitalist hierarchies, and in England MFD Young concluded that the established disciplines are social-cultural constructs without any inherent value of meaning.
In Australia Joan Kirner, one time Victorian premier, argued that the purpose of education was to bring about the socialist transformation of society and the Australian Education Union argued against the traditional academic curriculum, funding to non-government schools and competitive Year 12 examinations where some passed and some failed.
Such was the cultural-left’s success that in 2005 the then-president of the Australian Education Union, Pat Byrne, boasted at the union’s annual conference “we have succeeded in influencing curriculum development in schools, education departments and universities. The conservatives have a lot of work to do to undo the progressive curriculum”.
One reason why the cultural-left has been so successful in controlling the education system is because the majority of Australia’s professional bodies, subject associations and teacher training academics are hostile to a conservative view of education epitomised by choice and diversity, an academic curriculum, meritocracy and traditional styles of teaching.
In 1998 the Australian Curriculum Studies Association published Going Public, described in the preface as “an unashamedly partisan book”, where public education is described as “under siege” as a result of a more market driven approach. Complaints about falling standards are rejected as a “manufactured crisis” employed to “undermine the legitimacy of public belief in state schooling and, at the same time, to deflect attention away from material problems such as youth poverty and unemployment”.
In 2000, the Australian College of Education published School Resourcing wherein Alan Reid, an academic from the University of South Australia, attacked the Howard government’s support for non-government schools.
Instead of accepting parents’ right to choose, Reid argues that school choice represents a “culture of selfish individualism where the dominating motif is competition and greedy self-interest rather than cooperation and mutual benefit.”
Reid goes on to argue that only government schools, as they are secular and supposedly open to all, serve the common good and promote social cohesion. Non-government schools on the other hand “promulgate specific or narrow points of view or represent sectional interests”.
In the book The History Wars, published in 2003 and co-authored by the ex-communist historian Stuart Macintyre, the argument is put that the then Howard government’s “conservative polemic” about a black armband view of history is simply an example of wedge politics and the desire to counteract Paul Keating’s Big Picture approach to government policy.
In 2004, the then editor of the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, Wayne Sawyer, argued that the re-election of the Howard government proved that English teachers had failed to teach ex-students how to think.
After describing the conservative government’s education policies as “like Thatcher’s, ironically Stalinist”, Sawyer goes on to argue that English teachers must redouble their efforts to teach young people how to think correctly on the basis that English classrooms have “failed not only to create critical generations, but also failed to create humane ones”.
Such was the opposition to the Howard government’s concerns about falling standards that a ‘whose who’ of Australian educrats met twice in 2006 to campaign against what was described as a “conservative backlash in the media” and a “backlash in the policies of the conservative parties”.
The seminars were organised by the Australian Curriculum Studies Association and involved representatives from peak professional bodies such as the Deans of Education, state based curriculum bodies and the Australian Education Union.
The August, 2006, seminar was titled Approaches to National Curriculum Work and over 65 representatives from across Australia met to develop strategies to direct what was described as “approaches to national curriculum work between all stakeholders”.
Significant is that Tom Bentley, one-time advisor to England’s Secretary of State for Education under the Labour government and former head of Tony Blair’s favoured think tank, Demos, was invited to attend the ACSA seminar. Bentley went on to work as a senior advisor to Julia Gillard, when education minister, and is partly responsible for importing Blair’s failed education polices involving increased government regulation and micromanagement.
Given ACSA’s campaign, it shouldn’t surprise that the Rudd/Gillard inspired national curriculum provides further evidence of the cultural-left nature of Australia’s education establishment. Every subject has to be taught through environmental, Indigenous and Asian perspectives where new-age, 21st century generic skills and competencies undermine academic content.
Instead of acknowledging that “direct instruction”, championed by Noel Pearson and endorsed by the US study Project Follow Through, is the most effective way to teach, the national curriculum embraces an inquiry-based, child-centred view of learning.
Unlike in Finland, a world leader in international tests, where teachers adopt a more formal approach to classroom pedagogy, Australian teachers are told to be facilitators, to base learning on the child’s world and to embrace open classrooms and activity based learning.
The draft civics and citizenship curriculum air brushes Christianity from the nation’s civic life and institutions and adopts a postmodern, subjective definition of citizenship, one where “citizenship means different things to people at different times and depending on personal perspectives, their social situation and where they live”.
The history curriculum, in addition to uncritically promoting diversity and difference instead of what binds us a community and a nation, undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life.
As previously reported in The Australian, the English national curriculum adopts an exploded definition of literature, one where classic works from the literary canon jostle for attention along side SMS messages, film posters, graffiti and multi-modal texts.
While nodding in the direction of teaching phonics and phonemic awareness, where children are taught the relationship between letters and groups of letters and sounds in a more formal, structured way, the English curriculum also favours “whole language”, where children are taught to look and guess.
In addition to subject associations and professional bodies, another factor explaining the cultural left’s success is the fact that education in Australia is controlled by a handful of educrats whose disposition, if not hostile, is unsympathetic to the conservative cause.
Tony Mackay, appointed by the ALP government as head of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and deputy-chair of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, has close connections with the London based think tank Demos favoured by Tony Blair. Mackay also was involved in introducing the discredited outcomes-based education (OBE) model of curriculum when the US-based father of OBE, William Spady, visited Australia to conduct a number of seminars.
Barry McGaw, appointed by Julia Gillard as chairman of ACARA and similar to Alan Reid from the University of South Australia, also questions the existence of non-government schools when he argues they contribute to social fragmentation and loss of social capital.
In a 2006 speech titled Education and Social Cohesion McGaw argues that the increase in non-government school enrolments is leading to an unsatisfactory situation where schools “frequently divide on the basis of gender, faith, social background, wealth, geography and so on”.
Also of interest, during the 2007 federal election campaign, is that McGaw was involved in the launch of Kevin Rudd’s education policy at The University of Melbourne and that he is a strong advocate of the cultural-left’s argument that socioeconomic background is the main reason why disadvantaged students underperform.
Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, also displays a cultural-left disposition when, as a participant at the February 2006 ACSA sponsored conference, he argues the profession must recapture the debate from those seeking to “manufacture a feeling of crisis”.
At the height of concerns about Australia’s adoption of outcomes based education, a model of curriculum the then Howard government education minister Brendan Nelson described as a cancer, Masters leapt to its defence. In a comment piece in The Australian, published on November 23, 2005 (and available here), Masters argues there is no substance to the claim that “standards are plunging” or that Australia’s adoption of OBE “should lead to a decline in standards”.
In the months before the September election, shadow education minister Christopher Pyne argued in favour of Direct Instruction and criticised the national history curriculum for embracing a cultural-left bias.
The Coalition also supports the existence of non-government schools and agrees that they should be properly funded. Much to the chagrin of cultural-left critics the Coalition’s education policy supports a phonics and phonemic awareness approach to teaching reading and greater diversity and choice in education where there is less government regulation and control.
The reality, like the ABC, is that those in control of Australia’s education system exhibit a PC group mentality and a cultural-left disposition. With Christopher Pyne as education minister it looks as if the educrats are about to be challenged and Australian schools will be freed from ideological interference and unnecessary centralised and bureaucratic control.
(Editor’s note: a much shorter version of this column was published in The Australian on October 26, 2013)
Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of the Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: it’s not rocket science