The end of history in Australian universities

Every country has national myths and legends — vague memories of the past that add up to a sense of national identity. For Australia, think Gallipoli, the union strikes of the 1890s, the austerity of the Great Depression, and soon.

This populist historical awareness has practical consequences. How Australians understand, for instance, the causes and significance of the Great Depression has shaped how they understand the modern economy. There is a good case that Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan were driven in 2008 by a fear of becoming James Scullin, the Depression-era Labor prime minister whose economic failings made his a one-term government.

Likewise, the place of Gallipoli in the national mindset is an ongoing contest that implicitly relates to our modern debates about foreign policy, our alliances, and military commitments.

History matters, not just for its own sake but for the way it reflects back to the present. We are constantly looking for our origins, in the hope they will somewhat hint at our future.

In July 2015, the IPA released a major report, The End of History … in Australian Universities. The goal was to understand how history is understood by looking at what academic historians pass on to the next generation. Few undergraduate history students go on to be academic historians, of course. But many become secondary school history teachers, and the rest constitute a cohort of formally trained historians, regardless of whether they practice the profession of history writing and research after graduation.

Underpinning this report was our creation of the first complete database of history subjects taught at the undergraduate level in Australian colleges and universities in 2014 — all 739 subjects, taught at 34 separate institutions. We categorised the subjects according to their geographic focus, the historical period they looked at, and their ‘theme’.

Indeed, this is something that the historical profession itself should be, and has been, interested in. Our research was based substantially on the work of a report last published in 2004 by the Australian Historical Association (AHA). The categories were largely theirs, and the notion of a traditional canon was likewise derived from the AHA. Thus we could make some useful comparisons not just about the state of undergraduate history today, but how it has changed.

Our most dramatic finding was that out of 739 undergraduate history subjects, there were just fifteen that specifically focused on British history. Those fifteen subjects were spread between just ten different institutions. In other words, there are 24 history faculties in Australia that do not offer any British history to undergraduates. This is quite striking. It is not an exaggeration to say that the institutions that make Australia what it is today were imported wholesale from Britain. We inherited our liberal democracy, our market economy, our emphasis on individual rights, the common law, and our public ethic of toleration from Britain.

What institutions we did not directly get from Britain we adopted from other British colonies — for instance, Australian federalism was modelled on the American and Canadian examples. Yet British history is in precipitous decline in Australian undergraduate history faculties.

So what has replaced it? For a long time undergraduate history subjects have tended towards specialisation. Rather than broad, ‘survey’ overviews of historical periods of nations and civilisations, even many first year subjects direct their focus to narrow, thematic topics. For instance, it is common to find the history of human rights, or environmental history, or genocide. To be certain, many survey subjects remain. But the era of systematic historical undergraduate knowledge is largely over. More universities teach popular culture than intellectual history. Film history is offered at more universities than British history.

Specialist subjects are necessary and valuable. Indigenous history is important. The history of gender and sexuality matters. The history of film is fascinating. But is it proportionately more important than Australia’s institutional history?

British history is worth dwelling on for no other reason than its role in the establishment of Australian institutions. Its absence says perhaps less about the interests of students and teachers at universities than about the way we understand the role of the history and our relationship to the past.

Some clue to this is found in the fact that history courses were overwhelmingly dominated by subjects on twentieth century history. Of 739 subjects, 308 focused on the twentieth century. Just 189 covered the later modern period, which we define as 1788 to 1900. Indeed, if we exclude ancient history subjects, which in many institutions are offered in separate courses, then there are more discernibly twentieth century subjects than the rest of the historical periods combined.

One of the most influential books in the study of history was published by the University of Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield: The Whig Interpretation of History, published in 1931. Butterfield’s book — more of an essay — is often cited but rarely read. Butterfield criticised what he called ‘Whig history’, which, as it has come to be popularly understood, implicitly depicted history as a series of progressive advances giving us the world we are today.

The Whig Interpretation of History is stirring polemic but it sparked a small cottage industry of work which has been trying to determine the specific nature of this Whig history that Butterfield wished to avoid. For instance, the only ‘Whig’ historian he mentioned was the conservative Lord Acton.

In fact, Butterfield’s argument was much bolder. He is critical of all history that interprets the past in the light of the present. He is critical of abridgement and short-cuts in historical narrative — indeed, in Butterfield’s opinion the more history is condensed for the reader’s benefit, the more Whiggish it inevitably becomes.

It is hard to disagree with the claim that historical events should be understood in their own context, as they were understood at the time and, at least ideally, without importing anachronistic frames of reference from our own age. Yet Butterfield flirts with the notion of history as being almost entirely disconnected from contemporary concerns. The historian should look for discontinuities. The study of history is the practice of alienating oneself from the present, searching for distances, not closing gaps.

In many ways, as the historian Marshall Poe writes, Butterfield’s argument is a neat polemical summary of the almost always unstated philosophy that underpins modern historical practice: ‘It can easily be demonstrated that these traits — what we will call discontinuity, empiricism, and neutrality — are indeed not specific to Butterfield’s thought, but are in fact the most basic ontological, epistemic, and ethical standards of modern historical writing.’

By empiricism, Poe means the commitment to sources and evidence on which historians rest their judgment. Neutrality refers to research objectivity — in practice, an ethical ideal to strive for. Of the three, discontinuity has the most significance. The lesson here is that there are so many differences between our time and the past, that to compare the present to the past is to mislead. For instance, in our book Magna Carta: the Tax Revolt that Gave us Liberty, we describe the complex mixture of thirteenth century fees and charges and financial payments between vassals and lords and barons and kings, as taxes. It might be said, as indeed some historians have said, that such a description is anachronistic. To call these payments ‘taxes’ is to apply modern ideas about citizen-government fiscal relations in an era where they not apply. In thirteenth century England, the state did not levy taxes for public goods.

Yet acknowledging the conceptual distinctions between tax in our time and the network of levies and charges of eight hundred years ago does not preclude us from identifying relationships between our system and the past, and between medieval England and other medieval societies.

A more radical position which can be drawn out from Butterfield’s anti-Whig philosophy is a rejection of the notion of ‘origin’ stories in history. When discussing the Magna Carta, perhaps more consequential generalisation concerns the origins of parliament. One Chapter in the Magna Carta prohibited the king from imposing ‘scutages’ and ‘aids’ without the common counsel of the kingdom. Over time, this evolved into parliamentary control over taxation.

But in its specific, discontinuous context it does not. Is it right to say that this was the origin of parliament as we know it today? There were so many specific and diverse inputs into the evolution of parliament that perhaps to do so is an anachronistic and ahistorical confusion, imposing categorisations where none can apply.

Butterfield clearly did not hold fully to the philosophy expressed in his most famous book. One of his other books was titled The Origins of Modern Science. But the approach he counselled — to seek alienation to understand the past — has, it seems, left its mark.

While it is true that much university history teaching is about the acquisition of profession skills — assessment of evidence, scholarly writing and so forth — the bulk is about passing on knowledge of history. And while professional historical practice does require the historian to try to place themselves in a world different to their own, the task of teaching history is different from ‘doing’ history, just as expression is different to thought.

We do not make the world anew every generation. Our institutions, our ideas, our attitudes, our culture, are all historical, in that they are derived from the past, but are not of the past. If every past culture is alien — if the discontinuities of the past outshine all else — it might seem of no consequence whether British history is taught or not. But the historian lives in the present. History students live in the present. We are interested in history because of the present. Origins matter.

The anniversary of the First World War has sparked a broad cultural conversation in Australia about the meaning of Australia’s participation in that conflict, the Anzac legend, and the nature and symbolic representation of Gallipoli. That conversation is happening in public. When young people flock to the Dawn Service or travel to that famous Turkish peninsula, they are participating in a debate about the meaning of Australia’s past.

And when 49 per cent of Australians between 18 and 29, when asked by the 2015 Lowy Institute poll, cannot agree that democracy is preferable to any other form of government, they are implicitly engaged in a dialogue with Australia’s liberal democratic past, where those liberal democratic institutions came from, and the value we put on them.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The popularity of history in our bookshops, the engagement with the Anzac tradition, and the increasing localised historical awareness (symbolised by the explosion in family histories) shows an Australian public desperate to understand their roots. The history profession is keenly aware of this popular demand. Yet that demand is about origins, not discontinuities.

As Edmund Burke wrote, ‘People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.’ But then again Burke was, as A.J.P. Taylor put it, a corrupt ‘Whig hack’.

Why We Value The Old School Tie

It’s a very Melbourne thing to be horrified by school fees – and there is much to be horrified about. The fees at Melbourne’s most expensive schools are pushing $30,000 per child.

But take a step back. These big fees are a positive sign of the financial seriousness that society takes educating the next generation. Before we get to discussing equality or standards or choice, let us agree, please, that spending money on education is good.

There’s a real sense in which anti-private school hostility has nothing to do with education, per se, in that some people are richer than others.

What is the hypothetical alternative to wealthy parents investing in their children’s education? That they splurge on holidays and cars? Hand the money over as inheritance? Buy property? Surely we can welcome the money being used to develop human capital.

The returns on education are vast. A better secondary education experience leads to more choice of tertiary education, which in turn can translate into higher earnings over a lifetime.

No wonder parents want to buy as much schooling as they can possibly afford.

Individual students reap most of the benefits from their education. But as education advocates constantly point out, society benefits too. A more educated population is a more innovative, productive, and ultimately prosperous population.

Thus some investment by wealthy parents on private education – over and above what is churned back to them through the taxation system – flows through to society as a whole.

All this makes the hyperventilating about private schooling that forms such a fundamental part of Melbourne’s intellectual life more than a little ridiculous.

In an Age column on Thursday, Julie Szego suggested private schools seem a little like a “con” for those parents who are “bleeding money on private school fees on the assumption this buys their child a competitive advantage”.

Perhaps if you imagine modern Australia as a dog-eat-dog fight for prestige, then every attempt to increase human capital formation looks like a brutal feeding frenzy.

But it’s true: there’s a puzzle here. While private schools get better year 12 results, a whole host of evidence shows that once researchers control for things such as family background, the education level of parents, peer performance and so forth, many differences in results between private schools and public schools substantially decrease. Educated and engaged parents are likely to have educated and engaged kids, regardless of what school those kids are sent to.

So are parents being irrational when they send their kids to private schools? Of course not.

In many ways, by paying for private education, parents are buying their children friends. Who you go to school with matters. It is better have classes with peers that brag about doing too much study than too little. In his new book, Our Kids, social scientist Robert Putnam argues that in the United States peer effects cause a large part of education disparities.

Also, education is about more than test scores. All we know about why parents choose individual schools relates that choice to a school’s values, facilities, extracurricular activities, location, or how nurturing or driven the staff are. In other words, how good a fit it is for their child.

Rather than obsessing about the riches hidden behind the private-school fence, why not focus on how to make public schools more appealing?

Public schools would be more competitive against private schools if governments allowed more variation between schools, granted them more independence, and made it easier for more children to attend schools outside their geographic school zones. Remember, it isn’t just money and test scores driving demand for private education.

The obsession with the most expensive schools ignores those smaller, cheaper private schools blossoming around Melbourne, offering marginal improvements and more choice than that offered by the public system.

Funny how the debate about equality is always focused on the lifestyles of the rich, rather than the living standards of the poor.

The Age reported last week some private schools are taking legal action against families who fail to pay fees owed. But by all accounts private schools go out of their way to be lenient on payment. If you’re going to be in debt to anyone, you’d want it to be a school.

After all, it’s hard to imagine much sympathy for families that, for instance, did not pay a builder for a renovation and were subsequently taken to court.

Such is the moral baggage around private schooling that recouping debt fairly incurred is seen as some sort of ethical violation – yet another black mark against these malevolent institutions.

All that fury, all that outrage, directed towards what? Too much money spent on education?

The end of history … in Australian universities

With Stephanie Forrest and Hannah Pandel

Executive Summary: Undergraduate history degrees in Australia fail to teach fundamental aspects of Australia’s history and how Australian liberal democracy came to be. Instead, they offer a range of disconnected subjects on narrow themes and issues—focusing on imperialism, popular culture, film studies, and ethnic/race history.

This report contains the results of a systematic review of the 739 history subjects offered across 34 Australian tertiary institutions in 2014, including 34 history programs and 10 separate ancient history programs.

Only 15 subjects out of 739 subjects surveyed covered British history, and of these, 6 were principally concerned with twentieth century British history—that is, the history of Britain after the colonisation of Australia.

Only 10 of the 34 universities surveyed offered subjects on the history of Britain as part of their history programs, even though Australian society is founded on British institutions. By contrast, 13 offered film studies subjects as part of their history programs More universities offered subjects on the history of popular culture (8) than offered subjects on intellectual history (6).

The report also ranks universities depending on how closely they adhere to the Oxbridge model of historical comprehensiveness. Only the University of Sydney, Macquarie University and Monash University come close to the Oxbridge model. Some very small and new institutions — such as Campion College — rank as well on this measure as large and well-established universities like the University of Melbourne.

There is also a tendency for many smaller universities to offer subjects exclusively on Australian and twentieth century history, thus promoting a narrow and short-sighted view of history. Undergraduate history informs the next generation of historians, the next generation of history teachers, and their future students. This report raises concerns that a new generation of Australians will have a narrow and fragmented grasp of our heritage, and lack an understanding of the institutions that have made Australia free and prosperous.

Available in PDF here.

National Curriculum: Written, But Not Designed

Does the national curriculum even exist?

Much press coverage of the Abbott Government’s review of the national curriculum has focused on the “culture wars” bits.

The report, written by Kevin Donnelly and Kenneth Wiltshire, identifies a stark absence of Australia’s Judeo-Christian and Western Civilisation heritage in the curriculum.

But the most important findings concern the national curriculum as a piece of public policy.

For the most part Donnelly and Wiltshire support a national curriculum. But they write, almost casually, that, “If the definition of a national curriculum includes that it must be implemented comprehensively, with certainty, and consistently, then Australia does not currently have a national school curriculum”.

There is widespread confusion about how tightly teaching should cohere to the curriculum. Is the national curriculum a strict syllabus, or a “guideline”, or just “a bit of a framework”? Is it compulsory or optional? How much can the curriculum be adapted to suit teachers and student bodies?

And, most importantly, who decides?

While in theory adopting the curriculum is a requirement for states and sectors to receive national school funding, in practice there’s no way to ensure compliance.

While Donnelly and Wiltshire conclude that most stakeholders like, or have come to accept, the idea of a national curriculum in the abstract, they also find that this acceptance is based on the curriculum’s vagaries. The national curriculum is in the eye of the beholder.

For all the hundreds of pages of text that has been produced by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), in practice the curriculum is a surprisingly blank slate onto which various education players can impose their own ideas about what ought to be taught and how. It’s “all things to all people”.

That is, the national curriculum is not really a national curriculum at all.

I argued on The Drum in January that the national curriculum ought to be abolished. But what we have now is the worst of both worlds – a curriculum whose implementation is deeply uncertain and confused.

The national curriculum is a classic case study of how political imperatives churn out undercooked and poorly thought out policy programs – even when the process is handed over to a cadre of experts.

In 2008 Commonwealth education minister Julia Gillard managed to get all Australian education ministers to agree to the “Melbourne Declaration” – a statement of intent about the way forward for the national curriculum. You can read it here.

The development of the curriculum itself was then handed over to ACARA, and ACARA got to work writing up the subjects.

But the Melbourne Declaration was a statement of broad principles whose big takeout was an overall agreement to develop a national curriculum in the first place.

The Melbourne Declaration was not an investigation into the philosophy that a national curriculum should adopt. It was not a discussion about the educational foundation of the new curriculum. It was not an argument for a national curriculum – it was just instructions to get one written and introduced.

Donnelly and Wiltshire call this the “missing step” problem. There was a lot of discussion and consultation about what should go into each individual subject. But at no time was there a detailed, rigorous investigation of what we actually wanted out of the curriculum overall, what values should underpin it (beyond motherhood statements like the “curriculum will include a strong focus on literacy and numeracy skills”) and how students’ time should be divided and balanced.

Hence the overcrowded subjects. ACARA dumped more and more material in the curriculum to appease various education lobbies, untethered by any ideas of what the curriculum, as a whole, should look like.

In other words, the national curriculum was written, but never designed.

The worst example of the missing step problem is also the most controversial part of the curriculum – the so-called “cross curriculum priorities”. In the words of ACARA, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability are “embedded in all learning areas”.

These priorities have always been Exhibit A in the case that the curriculum is deeply infused with ideological bias – one might that ideology has been embedded in all learning areas.

But why are the priorities there at all?

Donnelly and Wiltshire find that “not a lot of thought has been given to the actual concept of cross-curriculum priorities” – they seem to have been conceived by education ministers and shoehorned into the process. It appears we’re the only country that has such a thing. “No attempt seems to have been made … to conceptualise the cross-curriculum priorities in educational terms.”

In her just published memoirs Julia Gillard says she was “adamant” that experts, not politicians, needed to design the curriculum: “There was absolutely no political interference in the content.”

But that just isn’t true. It was education ministers – professional politicians – that came up with the cross-curriculum priorities, not experts. And the much-praised experts didn’t second-guess their orders.

So much for a non-political national curriculum.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has said the Abbott Government will take on board the findings of the Donnelly-Wiltshire review, reduce overcrowding, and bring the curriculum “back to basics”.

Funnily enough that’s exactly what Gillard said when she became education minister in 2007 and kicked off this national curriculum project in the first place.

An enormous amount of political capital has been vested in the national curriculum process. For decades educationalists have treated the national curriculum as the great unpursued reform, akin to floating the dollar and lowering tariffs, and essential for our “maturing” as a nation.

That, when given the opportunity, they stuffed it up so comprehensively is a major indictment on Australia’s education establishment.

The Farce Of An Ideologically Neutral Curriculum

Christopher Pyne has done irreparable damage to the national curriculum project.

This is fantastic.

The damage hasn’t occurred because there’s anything wrong with appointing Kevin Donnelly and Professor of Public Administration Ken Wiltshire to review it.

No, it’s because the supporters of the national curriculum can no longer pretend that imposing a uniform curriculum on every single student in the country isn’t an ideological undertaking.

Donnelly is a conservative and in his work as a political commentator, he has made no attempt to obscure his conservative views. Not least on the Drum.

Conservatives are such strange and alien creatures that the appointment has turned outrage up to 11. The teachers’ union described it as the “politicisation” of education. Bill Shorten implored Tony Abbott to “please keep your hands off the school books of Australian children”.

And one of the authors of the history curriculum, Tony Taylor, complained that with the Donnelly and Wiltshire appointment, “we can look forward to 20 years of tedious culture wars in the classroom”.

But if there is a ‘culture war’, it wasn’t the right that started it. The national curriculum is already deeply ideological.

That ought not be a controversial claim. The curriculum is explicit, open, and unabashed about its ideological content. It’s not buried or implied. It’s as bold as a billboard.

The curriculum nominates three great themes (that is, three ‘cross-curriculum priorities’) which are to dominate and define Australian education for the next few decades: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability.

All worthy topics, of course. How are they ideological? Take sustainability. The sustainability theme is intended to “[create] a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action”. That’s virtually the definition of ideology: a positive description (we are harming the planet) combined with a normative ideal of a better social order (an ecologically and socially just world).

If this isn’t clear enough, well, one of its ‘organising ideas’ is the sustainability ‘world view’: “value diversity and social justice are essential for achieving sustainability”.

Perhaps this is an ideology you agree with. Ideology isn’t a bad thing. Everybody’s thought is shaped by ideology, whether they’re aware of it or not. But it’s ideology nonetheless.

So it is bizarre to object, as Julia Gillard did on Friday, that the ideological direction of the curriculum was not dictated by the Prime Ministers’ Office. Are we supposed to feel better that a group of independent (read: unelected) education specialists (Kevin Donnelly calls them “educrats”) determined the future philosophical underpinnings of our compulsory education system?

(That rule by unelected experts is supposed to be more legitimate and morally superior to rule by elected representatives just shows how anti-democratic our era really is.)

A curriculum is always going to be ideological, in the basic sense that an ideology is a lens through which we make sense of the world.

Alan Reid summarises one view of a national curriculum as “the major means by which the citizenry, collectively and individually, can develop the capabilities to play a part in the democratic project of nation-(re)building.”

An ideologically neutral curriculum is a contradiction in terms.

So at best the national curriculum faces a sad future of continuous rewriting at every change of government. Politics is about competing world views, after all. In the words of Christopher Pyne, “I don’t think the national curriculum is a static document.”

Luckily, in a liberal democracy, we have a way to bypass fundamental disagreements about world views – decentralisation.

There is, simply, no good reason to have a national curriculum.

The first moves towards federal government involvement in the curriculum were initiated, hesitantly, by Malcolm Fraser as John Gorton’s education minister, who complained that there were “unnecessary differences in what is taught in the various states”.

Since then a national curriculum has been a persistent goal of the Commonwealth education department and the small world of education academics.

The intellectual case for a national curriculum, developed over half a century, has involved a lot of theorising about democracy and nation-building and civic virtues.

But now the defenders of the curriculum are trying to pretend these great philosophical goals never existed – that their curriculum is a pragmatic, neutral, unambitious thing.

The utilitarian case for Commonwealth curriculum control has always been absurdly weak. It rests on the desire for “consistency” for the tiny proportion – less than 3 per cent – of students that move interstate during their schooling.

At the very least, the curriculum should be handed back to the states. It is not a project worth pursuing.

But better yet would be a system of multiple, competing curriculums which schools and parents can choose from, according to their own values, tastes, preferences, and philosophies of education. This is not as far-fetched as it seems. Australian schools already offer the International Baccalaureate, Montessori, and Steiner curriculums.

When a population’s values conflict, we should look for solutions in political economy.

Don’t want Christopher Pyne deciding what your children are taught? Perhaps a curriculum imposed by the Commonwealth Department of Education is not for you.

Devolving curriculum decisions down to the school level ought to satisfy both critics of Kevin Donnelly and critics of the curriculum as it stands. And it would instantaneously end the culture war that everybody seems so worried about.

The national curriculum is a high ground. It was designed to be that way. Bulldoze the high ground, end the war.

Schools Might As Well Tell Students Who To Vote For

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.

National Curriculum: Labor’s Big Failure

Less than two months after the Rudd government took power, education minister Julia Gillard announced her national curriculum, and announced it would start in 2011.

Just four subjects, mind you – English, Maths, Science and History. The rest were to follow later.

The deadline was missed, and introduction was delayed until 2012. (Kevin Rudd nevertheless listed the national curriculum as one of his achievements in his farewell speech.)

But the replacement deadline was missed too – bumped down the track to 2013. Now last month New South Wales said it would hold the curriculum back until 2014 at the earliest. And teachers’ bodies have urged education ministers across the country to follow NSW’s lead.

Three years seems like a short time to enact a four-subject curriculum across the country. But for it to take six years is a debacle.

Sure, it hasn’t got one-tenth the publicity of the Malaysia Solution, or pink batts, or the mining tax and health reform reversals. Or even GroceryChoice. But the national curriculum should be one of the Government’s most embarrassing failures.

This is not the first national curriculum proposal to flounder.

In 1989 the Commonwealth government (Labor) got together with the states (also mostly Labor) and tried to forge a uniform curriculum. Education is, of course, a state responsibility. You can’t make a national curriculum without the consent of the states. But when the states started to turn Coalition, the deal collapsed.

That seems to be happening again. The Commonwealth’s authority to drive curriculum change relies entirely on the acquiescence of the states. While the new Coalition state governments in Victoria and New South Wales were initially supportive, they are turning hostile.

Perhaps a national curriculum is quixotic. But for decades it has been an article of faith among bureaucrats and the education establishment that Australia needs a national curriculum.

There are a large number of politicians and academics who seem to believe a policy is not serious unless it is a federal policy, a “national” approach is inherently and unquestionably better, and the Commonwealth Government is better placed to make good policy than state governments. Those beliefs are more ideological than anything else.

No doubt some state curricula are sub-optimal. But the Commonwealth has a less-than-absolute success rate in policy formation and implementation too. Simply claiming you want a “world-class curriculum” is no guarantee you can design one. And the slipping implementation of the curriculum does not inspire much hope.

In 2005, the academic Alan Reid argued in a Department of Education research paper previous attempts collapsed largely because they “failed to develop a rigorous rationale for national curriculum collaboration”.

Indeed, the practical arguments for a national curriculum stretch the bounds of credibility.

Gillard – and now Peter Garrett – speaks of the need to provide a consistent education to the 80,000 students who migrate between states each year.

It’s an old claim: in 1968, the federal education minister Malcolm Fraser spoke of the “very real difficulties faced by children who move from one state to another”. And it’s one which sounds convincing until you realise 80,000 is less than 3 per cent of the entire student body of three million.

Reforming the entire school system to cater for these students is absurd – even if we grant the doubtful assumption those students struggle terribly to adjust to their adopted state curricula, and that it’s a problem the Government must tackle urgently. (There are probably simpler ways to ease the transition for these few children.)

When the Howard government was considering their own national curriculum, Julie Bishop claimed it was necessary because “ideologues” had “hijacked” the state curriculum bodies.

This makes even less sense. It’s easier for ideologues to hijack one national curriculum than eight separate ones. And much more rewarding.

After all, under a national curriculum every single student in Australia will be taught from one song sheet. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority speaks about “shaping the lives of the nation’s future citizens”, how the curriculum must teach students to “work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments”, and ensure they are “responsible global and local citizens”.

These are heady sentiments. The curriculum is explicitly designed not just to teach, but to “shape”.

So if the curriculum presents a distorted view of, say, the Industrial Revolution (an historical event which profoundly influences our understanding of the contemporary economic order) it matters. Do markets oppress or liberate? Is economic progress good?

Or if the curriculum suggests, as this one does, that human rights were given to us by treaty-makers at the United Nations, that strange but suggestive view will be embedded in future generations when they come to consider debates over rights in Australia.

Yet even as its implementation problems pile up, the national curriculum has still not been given the same critical examination as this Government’s other policy flops. That needs to change.

Taylor confirms curriculum motivated by ideological antagonism

Finding the philosophical assumptions that underpin a curriculum is careful work. It involves looking less at what’s included than what’s absent.

So it was refreshing to see an article in Crikey on Monday by Tony Taylor, which confirmed everything we discovered in The National Curriculum: A Critique. Taylor simply and forthrightly spells out the curriculum’s ideology in a stark few hundred words.

Of course, that’s not his intention. Taylor drafted a previous iteration of the history curriculum, and claims to be a consultant on this one. He intends to defend the curriculum, but he accidentally condemns it.

Take Taylor’s apparent rebuttal of David Daintree’s claim in our book that the curriculum largely ignores and consistently denigrates the role of Christianity in Western civilisation:

Christianity is covered in Year 8 under “the spread of Christianity”, medieval Europe under the Crusades (not so good, that bit), the medieval dominance of the Catholic Church and the Spanish conquest of the Americas (another not-so-good bit).
Could there be any more concise summary of the curriculum’s hostility? Certainly, as Daintree points out, Christianity, and religion in general, is responsible for much historical wrongs. But religion is responsible for much good too.

But weighing up the pros and cons of religion is, contra Taylor, not the point. It’s an undeniable historical truth that Christianity is one of the keys to understanding the development of Western civilisation. Europe’s advances in law, philosophy, and even science have been conceived of in largely Christian terms, by largely Christian people. To imagine that Christianity’s importance can be neatly summarised by a) the Crusades and b) the conquest of the Americas is not only unhistorical, it’s dishonestly antagonistic.

Taylor would be welcome to hold that view in a polemic. But such polemics should not be imposed on a curriculum that will be imposed on every Australian school student.

A much less typical view of Taylor’s is in response to the shadow education minister Christopher Pyne’s view that the curriculum unjustly underplays the English Civil War:

As for the Bill of Rights and the English Civil War, the former is covered in Year 10 under the optional “egalitarianism” and the latter is arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume).
“Just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles” is a strange way to describe the revolt of parliament over the monarchy, the trial and execution of the King of England (an extraordinary break with the past) the declaration of a republic, and its disintegration into dictatorship.

The English civil war echoed through the intervening centuries. It was just as important as the French Revolution. If not more: the principles that were developed after the civil war have become the principles on which liberal democracy has been implemented around the world.

There is a direct line from the Rump Parliament to the Declaration of Independence, to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and, even, to self-government in Australia.

This is a strange thing to have to remind one of the designers of the national curriculum.

If the intention of the national history curriculum is — or should be — for Australian students to understand how their world became, then Taylor’s bizarrely dismissive attitude about one of the foundation events of that world is astonishing.

And if we needed confirmation that the national curriculum is motivated by an ideological antagonism to the history of Western civilisation, Taylor’s short column is it.

National Curriculum Gets Our History Badly Wrong

Julia Gillard began the development and implementation of the national curriculum as minister for education in the somewhat happier days of the Rudd government. It hasn’t gone well. The curriculum’s implementation problems keep piling up. It’s not at all ready to be taught.

The plan was to have the curriculum rolled out in the 2011 school year, but only the ACT will meet that deadline.

New South Wales and Western Australia have decided to delay the curriculum to 2013. The Victorian government announced recently it would do the same. But there are problems with what’s in the curriculum too.

Take, for example, the history syllabus. After a full quota of compulsory schooling, Australian students will be none the wiser about the origins and central tenets of liberalism: the basics of individual rights, representative democracy and the market economy, and the importance of civil society.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are the absolute fundamentals of Western civilisation. And they are missing from the national curriculum.

One need look no further than how the curriculum purports to teach ”struggles for freedom and rights”, a ”depth study” for year 10 students.

The struggle for liberty against tyranny is one of the most important themes of the history of the past 500 years. From the English Civil War to the American and French revolutions, the proclamation of the rights of individuals has given us a rich inheritance of liberalism and civil liberties. That, at least, is how you’d think it would be taught.

But according to the national curriculum, the struggle for individual liberty started in 1945. Because that’s when the United Nations was founded.

To hinge the next generation’s understanding of individual rights on such a discredited institution is inexcusable. And it says a lot about the ideology of the curriculum’s compilers: as if individual rights were given to us by bureaucrats devising international treaties in committee.

Do we owe our liberties to centuries of effort by moral philosophers and revolutionaries opposed to repressive governments? Or do we owe our liberties to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, devised by governments, and which only took force in 1976? The curriculum implies the latter.

Students go on to study the fight for freedom in the developing world and battles for rights of developed-world minorities. Worthy topics. But oppressed minorities were seeking the same rights held by the majority. Aboriginal Australians wanted full political rights. Black Americans wanted an end to discriminatory Jim Crow laws. To teach the struggle for minority rights without mentioning how the idea of universally applicable rights came into being is to distort history.

We could dismiss this distortion as an accident if not for the strong impression it would give students – that the history of Western civilisation is primarily characterised by the oppression of minorities, not the long, slow, spluttering development and expansion of political freedom, liberalism and prosperity.

Rights denied to racial minorities is a stain on our past, but it is not the sole attribute of our history. If the struggle for individual rights against the tyranny of government is one pillar of the history of Western civilisation, the other crucial pillar is the boom in wealth and well-being over the past two centuries.

Here too the national curriculum is distinctly lacking. The year 9 study of the Industrial Revolution includes weeks pondering ”the 19th-century concept of progress” – insinuating that a belief in progress is anachronistic. The syllabus keeps students’ attention on labour conditions, social problems and the slave trade. Again: worthy topics. But it is an accepted historical truth the Industrial Revolution was the bed on which our affluence was born. Hopefully that can be squeezed in between discussions on dark satanic mills, machine-breaking and limits to growth.

And the Industrial Revolution was the period in which slavery was ended. Slavery has been a constant throughout history. Its elimination is humanity’s greatest achievement. But introducing slavery in the Industrial Revolution unit suggests something else: that the invention of modern capitalism was somehow to blame for this ancient crime.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Industrial Revolution is one we should encourage in students.

Yet the word ”entrepreneur” appears nowhere in the curriculum. And when the curriculum talks about ”wealth”, it only refers to the distribution of wealth, not the creation of wealth.

Sure, the ideological assumptions in the national curriculum are subtle. But they’re pernicious.

Students will not be taught the origins of their world. They’ll learn only of Western civilisation’s mistakes, while staying ignorant about its extraordinary achievements.

So Canberra’s inability to implement the national curriculum may be for the better.

Schools Should Be Free To Teach What They Want

Most people seem to have missed the point about the national curriculum.
 
The opposition certainly has. If the national curriculum is as bad as Nationals senator Ron Boswell says – it “reads like a Marxist learner…to prepare our young for the anti-capitalist class struggle” – in a way, that’s the (decidedly not Marxist) Howard government’s fault.
 
Taking control of the curriculum out of the hands of the states and into the loving arms of the federal government didn’t begin when Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election.
 
In a speech in 2006, Julie Bishop, the then education minister, argued Canberra needed to grab the school curriculum “out of the hands of ideologues in the state and territory education bureaucracies and give it to, say, a national board of studies”.
 
But last week, after having seen the national curriculum in its proposed glory, Christopher Pyne, the coalition’s education spokesman, claimed it imposed “a particular black armband view of our history”. Obviously Bishop’s plan didn’t work.
 
There’s a lesson here. Whether we get an Abbott government after this election, a Turnbull government in 2013, or a Joyce-Tuckey government in 2016, that government will need to realise any new powers they grant themselves won’t be theirs forever.
 
Nevertheless, Boswell and Pyne are wrong. The proposed curriculum is hardly the vanguard of the international socialist movement. But it does have its peculiarities.
 
The science curriculum’s insistence that science should be taught as a cultural endeavour – with Asian and Aboriginal perspectives such as the Dreamtime – seems more like cultural studies. Worthy in their own right perhaps, but teaching myths in science class is a bit odd.
 
And its emphasis on “the human responsibility to contribute to sustainability” seems just a touch ideologically loaded.
 
The history curriculum in year 10 investigates “struggles for freedom and rights”, which is great. But it starts its investigation with the United Nations, as if the concept of human rights just popped up in 1945.
 
And perhaps having kids learn about “Sorry Day” is laudable. But it seems a bit much for the apology – which is a distinctly political achievement of the Rudd government – to be given curriculum status so soon.
 
Nevertheless, it’s probably not an awful curriculum. Unfortunately, “not awful” is the best we’re going to get from a curriculum designed to be imposed across the country. It is supposed to equally serve the needs of students attending both Camberwell South Primary School, with 496 relatively well-off students, to Gochin Jiny Jirra School, a remote school in the NT with just 25.
 
The professed reason for the national curriculum is that there are 80,000 students who move interstate each year. But there are 3 million students all up. So the curriculum is being imposed for the convenience of just 2.3 per cent of the student population.
 
Still, if we know anything about our Kevin Rudd, we know he loves to be in charge of stuff. A national curriculum is right up his alley, even without John Howard’s beat-back-the-leftie-historians agenda.
 
The federal government seems to believe a national curriculum will be inherently better than state curriculums. But “national” is not a synonym for “awesome”.
 
If we really wanted a revolution in education, we’d give schools flexibility to tailor the curriculum to the needs and profile of their student body.
 
At the very least, the study of history, which can be subject to many more interpretations than mathematics, could be left to the discretion of schools. After all, most of the bitterness over the history wars was about ideological control over the curriculum.
 
If some parents wanted their children to be taught that capitalism has brought misery and oppression and darkness, they could choose that. If other parents wanted their children to understand how market relationships lead to mutual gain, and free trade alleviates poverty, they could choose that too.
 
Until the government gives control of the curriculum back to schools, parents and students will always be somewhat unsatisfied with what Australian children are taught.