Australian schools are coming out of shut-down, where for many weeks they have been sheltering from the COVID-19 pandemic. During this period the internet has proven of great value by allowing teachers to continue interacting with their students remotely, talking, listening and exchanging documents via computer.
One effect has been greater involvement by parents in their children’s education. With distance schooling parents can discover what their children experience in the classroom. So it was, sitting beside my 13-year-old son, I viewed his English teacher present parts of the NSW curriculum for that subject. My reaction is expressed in the following letter of 30 April 2020.
This letter concerns the English curriculum for Class 8E.
I’ve been helping my son … with his Year 8 English assignments and notice that Lesson 4 does not deal with the subject of English.
The first question [of that Lesson] might come from a course on identity politics. It asks students to define and give examples of “social inequality, racism, segregation, ghettos, discrimination, civil rights, slavery”. The second question involves researching the victimhood of African-Americans in the United States. Students are asked to research slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, the Ku Klux Klan, Rosa Parks, the freedom rides, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Not one question was directed at literature, texts, poetry, or songs. The topics are also deficient with respect to understanding the lives of African-American, which is a larger story than victimhood.
I don’t see how researching Rosa Parks or the racism of the Ku Klux Klan helps children understand poetic techniques or rhetorical devices. The questions do not seek to elicit such information. Neither do they engage with Australian culture.
Lesson 4 is not at all about English, and all about politics and society viewed from an extremely ethnocentric and pessimistic Black-American perspective. Students are not provided with opposed viewpoints.
This contrasts with an earlier lesson concerning Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which asked about rhetorical devices such as rhythm and rhyme. Lesson 6 is devoted to this speech. The speech has some relevance to English, despite being extensively plagiarised. Putting that aside, and King’s degrading treatment of women, it would have been preferable to teach about your students’ own culture. Why not the great wartime speeches by Menzies and Curtin (or Churchill and Roosevelt) in their stand against German and Japanese ethnic aggression, or the poetry and prose written by Australian prisoners of war subject to barbaric treatment?
You do suggest Lesson 4 is relevant to Australia in your spoken instructions, available online for the students. No Menzies or Curtin or POWs. Instead you adopt an indigenous perspective, and a decidedly pessimistic one, claiming that Australia has had a long history of racism.
“… [racial discrimination] is quite ingrained in Australian history, sadly, through all the stolen generations, the fact that indigenous Australians weren’t even counted as citizens in the 1960s, they were still classed as flora and fauna. … Australia has a really dark history with racial discrimination and segregation.”
I have to say, that is untrue and a slur on Australia and on the ancestors of your students. Like other societies derived from Europe, Australia is highly individualist, with relatively low levels of ethnic solidarity. Well before federation indigenous Australians were British subjects and had the vote in all colonies except Queensland and Western Australia.
The example you give to the class is the Federal Government’s recent lock-down policies to contain the COVID-19 virus. You note that Aborigines are asked to stay at home if they are 50 years or older, but other Australians only when they are 70 or more. The cause of this difference, you say, is great racial or social inequality, which is shameful for Australia. No reference is made to causes that lie within indigenous communities. All the causes are matters of shame for Australia.
“So, the racial or the social inequality in Australia is so poor that indigenous Australians are classified when they’re 50 as 70. That is quite shameful; that’s not something we should be proud of as a country. We know there was a huge learning gap between indigenous Australians and white Australians so I think it is really imperative and timely that we should look at the social inequalities in our own country.”
Are these ideas – in the written assignment and your statements to the class – part of the NSW school curriculum? Does the NSW Department of Education require them to be taught?
If they are required, I should like to read the applicable part of the curriculum. Could you send me a reference or link?
Even if you are constrained to inflict this on the children there might be room to soften the Department’s propaganda with cautions, for example pointing students towards material relevant to the study of English that doesn’t defame their country, ancestors or heritage. Shouldn’t teachers protect their students from hateful ideologies?
I look forward to your response.
P.S. I have instructed [my son] not to submit Lesson 4. I cannot think of a way for him to answer the questions while remaining within the subject of English. Again, your suggestions would be welcome.”
The teacher never did reply or send a curriculum link. Instead a deputy principal telephoned. He sympathised with my annoyance, but pointed out that if the lessons were changed he might receive another visit from local Aboriginal activists and be accused of racism. I counter-pointed that English in New South Wales has descended to ideology because teachers are expected to instruct pupils on non-literary subjects about which they are ignorant, such as American history and the sociology and psychology of race. Why not stick to analysing texts? The deputy principal explained that knowing how badly Black Americans have been treated helps students understand the emotions express in their speeches and songs.
I continued that my son’s class also studied the Stolen Generations. That is another contested, politicised subject. And it is being taught from one radical minority perspective. None of these subjects is like algebra or physics. There are different points of view.
I could have added that by substituting ideology for scholarship, the curriculum distorts students’ understanding of society. For example, it does not describe emotions expressed by blacks who are conservative or politically neutral or who do not resent whites or for whom identity politics is unimportant. Expressions of black victimhood and the social theory meant to explain it are both cherry-picked from the same narrow ideological perspective. That is the approach of the NSW Department of Education and has been for decades.
The deputy principal suggested I forward my letter to an English adviser in the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), a body responsible for developing the curriculum. My covering letter of 11 May 2020 contained the following message:
Please find attached a letter of complaint I sent to my son’s Year 8 English teacher at [his] School. The letter explains that I do not attribute all or even most of the [English lessons’] bias and national defamation to the teacher but to those who set the curriculum. I would appreciate receiving your response, as someone involved in curriculum development. Can you shed light on how high school English became politicised? Is there anybody involved in curriculum development in the NSW Education system who disagrees with the present direction?
No reply has arrived and I am left with stark choices – leave my son in the public school system, pay for a private school, or undertake to school him at home. The first two options leave him exposed to the present ideological curriculum. Home schooling still must operate within the curriculum, but I would be able to filter out or soften its most damaging elements. I’m thinking about it.
While my son remains at school I shall do what I can to shield him from the curriculum and those teachers who uncritically convey it.
Frank Salter is the author of The War on Human Nature in Australia’s Political Culture