The draft shape of the National Curriculum’s ”civics and citizenship” subject was released last month. It is blatantly ideological. It displays its progressive, left-of-centre politics like a billboard.
The National Curriculum was announced by Julia Gillard in 2008 and is forecast to be implemented in Victoria and New South Wales sometime after next year. The curriculum authority is rolling out one subject at a time.
But from the start, the curriculum’s politics were obvious. In its own words, the National Curriculum will create “a more ecologically and socially just world”. The phrase “ecological justice” is rarely seen outside environmental protests. Social justice is a more mainstream concept, but it’s also solidly of the left – it usually refers to “fixing” inequality by redistributing wealth.
Civics is a small subject in the curriculum, but a crucial one. The National Curriculum wants to sculpt future citizens out of today’s students. So the emphasis civics places on certain political ideas will echo through Australian life for decades.
And when a group of education academics try to summarise the essential values of our liberal democracy, we should pay attention. After all, they hope to drill them into every child.
So what are our nation’s values? According to the civics draft, they are “democracy, active citizenship, the rule of law, social justice and equality, respect for diversity, difference and lawful dissent, respect for human rights, stewardship of the environment, support for the common good, and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship”.
It’s quite a list. Some of the values, such as democracy and the rule of law, we all should agree on. But most are skewed sharply to the left.
Where, for instance, is individual liberty? The curriculum describes Australia as a liberal democracy but doesn’t seem comfortable with what that means: a limited government protecting the freedom for individuals to pursue their own lives.
Conservatives should be troubled that ”tradition” is absent from the civics draft. Our democratic and liberal institutions are the inheritance of centuries of experiment and conflict. To respect tradition is to value those institutions. Yet tradition only pops up when the civics draft talks about multiculturalism. It’s part of “intercultural understanding”. In other words, we are merely to tolerate the traditions of others, not value our own traditions.
And liberals should be appalled at the emphasis on ”civic duty”. The curriculum could have said that individuals and families living their own lives in their own way is virtuous in itself. After all, people who do things for others in a market economy contribute to society as much as the most passionate political activist.
But instead the civics subject will pound into children that they should work for international non-profit groups in order to pursue “the common good”.
This may be uncontroversial to the left, but it is political dynamite. Liberals are sceptical of the common good because throughout history it has been used to justify nationalism, oppression, militarism, intolerance and privilege. It’s one of the reasons liberals support small government. But the common good has been tossed absent-mindedly into the civics draft, alongside that other vague and loaded concept, social justice.
It gets worse. The suggestion we have a duty to be “stewards” of the environment comes straight from green political philosophy. It reduces humans to mere trustees of nature. This directly conflicts with the liberal belief that the Earth’s bounty can be used for the benefit of humanity.
Politics drenches the entire curriculum. Three “cross-curriculum priorities” infuse everything from history to maths. They are: sustainability, engagement with Asia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.
Perhaps on first glance the priorities don’t seem too political. But the history curriculum will offer perspectives on “the overuse of natural resources” and “the global energy crisis”. The English curriculum will teach students how to “advocate … actions for sustainable futures”. The ideology here is so flagrant teachers might as well just tell the kids who to vote for.
And imagine the priorities were, instead, material progress, the Australia-US alliance and British culture. There would be an uproar. Progressives would line up to condemn the curriculum’s reactionary politics. Remember the outrage over conservative bias in John Howard’s citizenship test? And that was just for migrants. The curriculum is for every Australian child.
The irony is that this iteration of the National Curriculum wasn’t Labor’s idea. The Howard government set the ball rolling. The Coalition was unhappy about how terribly left-wing state curriculums were.
So people who are pleased with the curriculum as it stands should think how it could be when an Abbott government takes over. We may hear again the same dark warnings about ideologues taking over the education system that we heard during the Howard years.
In theory, teaching all students the virtues of liberal democracy is a good idea. But if educationalists can’t do so without imposing their own political values, we may be no better off than when we started.