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.