SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Dumbed-down Australian history curriculum
, May 1, 2010
On release, the proposed Australian history curriculum, similar to the English document, was warmly received by commentators and the media, especially The Australian newspaper.
Many argue it represents a welcome return to history as a discrete subject, the end to the culture wars in areas like black armband history and that it imparts a rigorous and impartial knowledge of significant historical events, ideas and people.
The ex-communist and historian, Stuart Macintyre, strongly defends his new creation as balanced and impartial and argues that critics have failed to analyse the history curriculum in any detailed way.
Federal Liberal Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne disagrees with this favourable reception and criticises the history curriculum for privileging indigenous and Asian content and perspectives to the detriment of Australia's Anglo-Celtic tradition, the debt we owe to Western civilisation and the importance of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Federal Liberal shadow parliamentary secretary for education and curriculum standards, Senator Brett Mason, in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald
(March 22), also criticises the proposed curriculum for lacking balance when he states:
"Indeed, the curriculum contains 118 references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture and history (with Grade 5s studying "White Australia" and Grade 9s Aboriginal massacres and displacement).
"But there is only one reference to Parliament, and none to Westminster or the Magna Carta, the aspects of our political and cultural heritage that have made Australia perhaps the most peaceful, successful and prosperous democracy in the history of humanity."
Christopher Pyne and Brett Mason are correct to express misgivings about the new curriculum. Concerns about the history curriculum include:
• In the years K–2 and 3–6, the curriculum adopts a child-centred approach where learning centres on what is immediately accessible and relevant. Ignored is the importance of introducing children to the strange and exotic.
• In relation to 7–10, comments like, students "look for and value learning that is perceived as relevant (and) is consistent with personal goals" (p.3) and that history should "engage students through contexts that are meaningful and relevant to them" (p.3) provide further evidence of this child-centred approach.
Jerome Bruner's criticism of progressive education made nearly 40 years ago could well be applied to the history curriculum. Bruner argued, "A generation ago, the progressive movement urged that knowledge be related to the child's experience and brought out of the realm of empty abstractions. A good idea was translated into banalities about the home, then the friendly postman and trashman, then the community, and so on" (The Relevance of Education
• Apart from one mention of Australia's debt to Britain (see Year 6 content, p.16), when compared to the detailed treatment of indigenous, Asian and Pacific cultures, the curriculum fails to do justice to Australia's debt to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The curriculum makes no mention of key documents like Magna Carta, concepts like habeas corpus, institutions like the Westminster Parliament or safeguards like the separation of powers. The document suggests that students should develop an awareness of "justice and fair play" (p.3) and argues that civics and citizenship are "strongly linked to history" (p.6), but fails to detail the knowledge and understanding needed to achieve such outcomes.
• Teachers will be forced to teach the "significance of Dreaming and the perspectives and meaning in Dreaming stories" (p.12), the "contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the Australian nation" (p.12) and to "explain the key features of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies" (p.13) without any requisite treatment of Australia's Anglo-Celtic heritage or what we owe to Western civilisation. Suggesting that events like Australia Day, ANZAC Day and Sorry Day are equivalent and that the Australian flag has the same historical importance as the Aboriginal flag illustrate this sense of cultural relativism.
• In opposition to the view that Australia is predominately a Western nation, in terms of language, legal and political institutions, education and history, the document defines Australia in terms of a "diversity of values and principles" (p.5) and "intercultural understanding" (p.5). While reference is made to "moral and ethical integrity" (p.5) and the "common good" (p.5), on reading the history curriculum there is little sense of what is unique about Australia's history and culture that leads to privileging such a way of life and values.
• Australia owes a great deal to Christianity and much of what defines us as unique (political and legal systems, culture and moral values) arises from our Judeo-Christian heritage and teachings. The history document refers to Christendom once (p.22) and Christianity also once (p.22) but only in the context of studying other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Judaism and Islam. Studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Asia/Pacific history, beliefs and culture receives greater emphasis.
• The integrity of history as a discipline is weakened as a result of teachers having to teach cross-curriculum dimensions like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, the history of Asia and sustainable patterns of living (p.5). In addition, schools have to teach seven general capabilities, including information and communications technology (ICT), thinking skills, literacy, numeracy, creativity, intercultural understanding and ethical behaviour (p.4). The adoption of an "inquiry-based model of teaching" and the document's clear preference for child-centred learning are further illustrations of how content has been sidelined.
• Similar to Australia's much discredited outcomes-based education (OBE), many of the history descriptors are vague, generalised and fail to give teachers clarity as to what should be taught. In addition, many of the curriculum descriptors when describing skills, instead of growing in complexity or difficulty as students progress through school, are either exactly the same from year to year or so similar that they are indistinguishable from one another.
• At some year levels, there are so many topics that teachers and students would find it impossible to deal with what is expected. Instead of promoting so-called deep learning, the curriculum promotes a sketchy and shallow approach (see Year 7 and Year 8, in particular).
• Many of the topics at Years 9 and 10 are left-of-centre favourites and lend themselves to enforcing a new-age and left-wing view of sensitive social and political issues. Topics like, "The motivation, behaviour and legacy of individuals and groups who rebelled against social conditions and society" (Year 9, p.26) and "White Australia policy, exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, voting rights for women and the introduction of the basic wage" (Year 9, p.26) are generally taught from a left perspective.
Similarly, at Year 10, the following topics are generally presented in a one-sided fashion:
• "Significant social movements and changes concerning women, migration, religion, land rights and the environment" (p.27);
• "The transformation of the modern world as a consequence of radical political actions and ideas, global conflict and attempts to deal with these through international cooperation ..." (p.27);
• "The origins and consequences of anti-colonial movements and civil rights movements" (with students choosing one of the following: India's struggle for independence, the US civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, p.28); and
• "The civil rights struggles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with reference to government policies (including protection, assimilation, integration, reconciliation and self-determination, the 1967 Referendum, the Mabo decision and the Apology to the Stolen Generations, p.29).
One doubts whether students will learn about the failure of socialism as an economic system, the millions killed by communist dictators (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot), the success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in staring down totalitarian regimes, the corruption of the United Nations and the fact that democratic ideals such as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are uniquely Western in origin and steeped in Christian commitment and belief.Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute. He taught for 18 years in Melbourne government and non-government schools and is the author of Australia's Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars (2009) and Dumbing Down: outcomes-based and politically correct - the impact of the Culture Wars on our schools (2007). This article originally appeared in Australian Conservative, March 26, 2010.
What use is literature?
Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn't unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement.
Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence.
It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. ...
Can anyone think that there is more understanding to be gained about the human heart from Freud than from Shakespeare - that the studies of Dora or the Wolf Man approach anywhere near to the profundity of understanding embodied in Macbeth or Lear, with their unflinching elucidation of man's (and woman's) capacity for evil?
Can anyone think that the studies of Margaret Mead or Alfred Kinsey tell us anything nearly as true as Ovid or Turgenev?
Does the sociobiology of E. O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins tell us any more than we learn from Homer or Virgil?
What's wanted is wisdom: the ability to see into the heart of things.
This is the kind of knowledge that Plato describes so poetically in that most literary of all philosophical passages, the allegory of the cave: the knowledge that sees through the world of appearances to the Truth, of which the appearances are but an emanation - a knowledge that requires a lifetime of reason and study to attain but that comes finally in a flash of intuition, because the Truth is in us, in an inner nature we can glimpse by introspection and intuition, as well as in the world.
And this is the knowledge - a knowledge, one might say, that resides in our souls as well as in our minds - that great literature embodies.Extract from Myron Magnet, "What use is literature?", City Journal (New York), Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer 2003.