SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Education at sea without a moral compass
, December 9, 2006
Kevin Donnelly believes Labor is losing the argument about school values.Education has traditionally been an electoral plus for the ALP, but not any more. As a recent Newspoll survey reveals, the Coalition Government has orchestrated an eight percentage point turnaround and is running neck and neck with Labor in terms of positive voter perception.
Jenny Macklin, the federal Opposition education spokeswoman, argues the Howard Government's improvement is the result of cheap populism. She is wrong. As outlined in my book Why Our Schools are Failing
, Australian parents are worried about significant issues such as falling standards, schools not being held accountable, the curriculum being awash with political correctness and, with government schools in particular, education failing to inculcate proper values.
That the Left has been wrong-footed in the education debate is clear to see. Remember the electoral impact of Mark Latham's hit list of non-government schools?Mock outrage
More recently, take the Prime Minister's decision to finance religious counsellors in schools. When announced, the decision met with the usual mock outrage associated with the cultural Left.
Andrew Gohl, president of the South Australian branch of the Australian Education Union, says: "It is totally inappropriate for the Federal Government to try to impose ideology in public schools."
The Independent Education Union of Australia, an organisation not normally associated with the Left, reveals it has also been captured by the PC brigade when it suggests the Federal Government is being divisive.
"Australia is a multicultural, plural society; the strength of its values lies in the richness of its diversity," it says. "But John Howard and his Government consistently undermine this diversity with policies and commentary that divide the community and engender distrust."
Even Bob Carr, a former politician usually guaranteed to be balanced and perceptive in his public comments, cannot resist hyperbole when he argues: "What if a poorly attended parent meeting chose a jihadist imam from a small Muslim prayer hall?"
Reality check: far from pushing a so-called conservative agenda, the Government is providing a resource that individual schools, government and non-government, can choose to take up or not. Quite rightly, while counsellors will not be restricted to any one religion or denomination, there will also be restrictions on who can be employed.
That the AEU argues against the Government's initiative by describing it as ideological is also a bit rich. Consider how the union's curriculum policies have forced a politically correct, cultural-left agenda on schools, redefining the three Rs as the republic, refugees and reconciliation.
An uncritical promotion of multiculturalism and diversity, advocated by the IEU, also ignores that the overwhelming majority of Australians describe themselves as Christian and that our history, political and legal institutions have arisen out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Instead of condemning the initiative to give students a clear and unambiguous moral compass to decide right from wrong and to identify a proper balance between rights and responsibilities, opponents of the scheme should be applauding it.
For far too long, education has failed in its duty to address such issues. Beginning with the progressive education movement of the 1960s and '70s, the belief is that children should be left to their own devices and that adults should not impose a strong moral framework.
The self-esteem movement of the '80s and '90s, when education was reduced to therapy on the basis that nobody failed, compounded the problem as lessons focused on what was immediately entertaining and relevant to the world of the student.
Classic myths, fables and legends such as The Arabian Nights
, Aesop's Fables
, The Iliad
and The Odyssey
gave way to popular magazines and social-realism stories about youth suicide and dysfunctional families. History as a subject disappeared, replaced by the study of the local community or figures such as Diana, princess of Wales.
The most recent example of our failure to give students a viable moral code is the belief that there is no right or wrong, as all values are relative and truth is simply a socio-cultural construct.
As noted by John Paul II in his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio
(Faith and Reason
): "A legitimate plurality of positions has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based on the assumption that all positions are equally valid, which is one of today's most widespread symptoms of the lack of confidence in truth."
Historically, the education debate has focused on issues such as more money, smaller classes and more teachers. Equally important is the cultural significance of education, something the Prime Minister clearly understands.- Kevin Donnelly is the author of Dumbing Down: Outcomes-Based and Politically Correct - The Impact of the Culture Wars on Our Schools (Hardie Grant, forthcoming). This article originally appeared in The Australian, November 25, 2006.