December 17th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The death penalty and Van Tuong Nguyen

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Contenders for the Howard succession

CULTURE WARS: Fighting to defend civilisation

SCHOOLS: Truth and beauty to exchanged for 'relevance'

OPINION: Abortion drug victimises women

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Burma, ASEAN and selective breast-beating / Latham was right / Asia for the Australians / News item

FOREIGN DEBT: Greenspan issues warning over foreign debt

PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE Private funding 'more expensive'

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS: Global significance of China-India relations

IRAQ WAR: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction

ENVIRONMENT: Ensuring sustainable agriculture

TIMOR LESTE: 'Thanks for helping East Timor'

Compulsory voting a necessity (letter)

Disabled people at risk from euthanasia (letter)

ABC insults Australia's war dead (letter)

Low pay and joblessness (letter)

BOOKS: HOW MUMBO-JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen

BOOKS: FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy

BOOKS: THE CASE FOR DEMOCRACY: The power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror, by Natan Sharansky

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Truth and beauty to exchanged for 'relevance'

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, December 17, 2005
Students are being denied an appreciation of the classics, writes Kevin Donnelly.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World presents a future where life centres on comfort and happiness instead of beauty and truth.

"Feelies" and "soma" keep the population passive, and high art, in the words of the Controller, is sacrificed on the altar of stability and control. Judging by recent debates about English lite - where Shakespearean language is treated the same as an SMS message or an internet blog - it is clear that Huxley's world is closer than we think.

As a result of Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education (OBE), with its focus on the world of the student and what is relevant and accessible, much of what students learn is focused on the here and now and what is of immediate use.

OBE advocates, as illustrated by the jargon-ridden and faddish curriculum documents produced in the ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia, argue that "essential learnings" such as personal futures, social responsibility and world futures must be given priority over traditional subjects and, as a result, students are denied their cultural heritage.

Casualties in the curriculum

The report of the recent National Review of School Music Education suggests that literature is not the only casualty, stating: "[Essential learnings] describe what is to be learned in schools in broad, general terms using outcomes that are based on the interrelated organisers such as 'thinking' and 'communication' rather than identifiable subjects such as music."

Examples include the Tasmanian curriculum, in which music disappears into the "communicating - being arts-literate key element outcomes" along with "visual arts, media, dance, drama and literature". There is little, if any, recognition of music's unique character.

In the ACT, while mention is made of multi-modal texts, technology and the need for students to "use artistic expression to develop and communicate their own subtle and complex feelings and their ideas about self and the world", music is ignored as a distinct area of study.

The result is that "many teachers, particularly inexperienced primary teachers, note the need for more direction and assistance in choice of curriculum content and strategies to help give them confidence to teach music".

Although not specifically discussed in the report, a further factor that leads to students being denied an appreciation of the classics is OBE's emphasis on making learning immediately contemporary and accessible.

The new WA music course of study, to be put on trial and introduced during the next two years, offers an illustration. Whereas subjects such as literature and music were once based on the assumption that there are canonical works that students must encounter, the OBE approach is to belittle content and place the student centre stage.

The WA study states: "Students should be given the opportunity to set their own goals and negotiate the nature of learning activities they undertake ... Student activities in music are undertaken in contexts that are meaningful for students, and relate to issues that are relevant to their lives and culture."

Shallow and insipid

So much for music's ability to transcend the here and now and to introduce students to worlds unimagined and inspiring. Also ignored is that today's pop music is a shallow, insipid diet.

Such has been the outrage among West Australian music teachers against the draft OBE-inspired music study that music teachers at the Churchlands Senior High School have mounted a campaign in defence of real music.

The Churchlands teachers argue, as with much of OBE, that the proposed WA music study fails to provide a detailed syllabus.

An added concern is that, whereas the existing senior school music course rewards the student who has spent years mastering an instrument, the new course potentially treats a classical vocalist the same as a rapper.

That much of the new course elevates sociology over classical music is an added cause for alarm.

As one teacher notes: "[It] will encourage teachers and students to consider only shallow, commercial and market-driven production values and will lead to the neglect of deeper and more artistic aspects of music composition, performance and literature."

  • Kevin Donnelly, author of Why Our Schools are Failing, is executive director of Education Strategies and author of the recent primary curriculum benchmarking report funded by the federal Department of Education, Science and Training. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, December 3-4, 2005.

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