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National curriculum the latest target of Coalition’s culture wars

Education minister Christopher Pyne has announced a review of the national curriculum, citing a need to remove its ‘partisan bias’. AAP/Alan Porritt

Education minister Christopher Pyne has announced a sweeping review of Australia’s national curriculum to weed out a supposed “partisan bias” in what’s taught in Australia’s classrooms. Announcing the changes, Pyne said:

We don’t see the Australian Curriculum as a static document, but rather one that is gradually improved over time. All Australian students deserve access to a curriculum that encourages and fosters choice and diversity.

Last November, I speculated in a satirical fashion whether or not Pyne might appoint a national curriculum review panel that would include a team of such government-friendly luminaries as historian Geoffrey Blainey, Catholic cardinal George Pell and commentator Gerard Henderson.

Today, after much puffing and huffing from Pyne over the past two years, we hear that the much-anticipated panel will actually comprise two regular News Corp columnists, former teacher and education researcher Kevin Donnelly and University of Queensland academic Ken Wiltshire.

I wasn’t too far off in my November prediction then. My take is that nobody with serious professional credibility in the field could be recruited, so Pyne had to fall back on appointing hackneyed cultural warriors, neither of whom have recent experience in the classroom or in curriculum design. However, while they may not be the first team and probably aren’t even the A-team, they are in situ and they have a Pyne mandate to meddle with the curriculum.

These appointments come as no surprise. They are entirely in line with the government’s brazen approach to appointing close supporters to positions of authority and influence. The justificatory rhetoric that surrounds the current nominations is familiar, stale and inaccurate.

Donnelly, a former Liberal Party staffer, has said that the current history curriculum “undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life”. We know that the term “Judeo-Christian” is actually a 1980s Cold War rhetorical fiction recently revived by the Christian Right and the Institute of Public Affairs.

Civics education too is attacked by Donnelly because of its alleged postmodernist relativism. Donnelly argues that the (draft only) civics education curriculum is ideologically blighted because it contains the (cherry-picked) clause:

…citizenship means different things to different people at different times.

This may be a vague assertion, but it does have a kind of accuracy, with Ancient Greek, 18th-century French, 1930s Soviet and 20th century Australian variations. But – and this is a very, very big but – one vague expression does not postmodernism make.

From this imprecise assertion, Donnelly extrapolates excitedly in arguing that the civics education curriculum is somehow a licence to mistreat women and carry out jihad. Such an ill-informed and illogical standpoint is a worrying sign of ideologically driven obtuseness. Social cohesion in modern democracies is certainly a serious topic, but it needs more complex analysis than Donnelly seems capable of providing.

At the same time, Donnelly’s fellow panellist Ken Wiltshire is quoted as saying that the national curriculum should be “knowledge-based”.

And yet, Wiltshire’s investigation of that furphy when it comes to the history curriculum shouldn’t take too long. It has, at its core, two key elements: Knowledge (facts really) and Understanding (what the facts mean when providing an explanation). If there is any criticism to be made of the national curriculum in history, it is that Years 7-10 are overstuffed with facts.

Almost all of the Pyne-led bombast surrounding this latest outbreak of the “reds behind the desks” culture wars is either confected, muddled or ill-informed about the supposed influence of what The Australian newspaper referred to as the “cultural Left”. There are indeed problems with the national curriculum – as there are with any curriculum – but they are generally more of a technical than an ideological nature.

It will be interesting to see what the Donnelly-Wiltshire panel comes up with. It has taken the best part of six years to draw up most of the current national curriculum, a process that has included 26,000 submissions and state/territory involvement all the way. Our two panellists now have a wonderful opportunity to undo all of that and bring in a curriculum of the “cultural Right”.

If they do, the fight will be on for young and old. We can look forward to 20 years of tedious culture wars in the classroom, as has been the case with the UK’s national curriculum since the Thatcher era. It would be good if Donnelly and Wiltshire realised the downside of that particular dynamic and came up with a professional report.

But what are the chances of that happening?

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