The Australian Financial Review today ran an opinion piece by Ramsay Centre CEO Professor Simon Haines on a proposed new national curriculum for Australian schools. To access the article via the Australian Financial Review website click here
Is it a national curriculum if it does not reflect the heritage of most Australians, is disregarded by most states and is more of an agenda than a teaching resource?
Aug 23, 2021 – The OECD’s student ranking system reports that Australian school performance has been declining relative to other developed countries. A new national curriculum that has been “decluttered, realigned and refined” claims to address this downward trajectory. It will soon be handed to state and federal education ministers for approval.
Remarkably, this new version from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has already managed to alienate many in the education community even more than the current curriculum.
Mathematicians are incandescent. They see the draft as no less cluttered and even more driven by doctrinal concepts (“exploring”, “problem-solving”), even less by good pedagogy (methodical instruction in basic mathematical proficiencies).
Other educators, notably Noel Pearson, have commented on the draft’s underlying prejudice which favours inquiry-based or discovery learning, as opposed to teacher-directed instruction.
Ironically, this “national” curriculum isn’t even offered to most students; several states publish their own versions.
At the Ramsay Centre we believe young people have a right to be taught in a systematic, clear-eyed and even-handed way about their major cultural inheritance.
The years 7-10 civics and citizenship curriculum purports to foster “a deep understanding of Australia’s federal system of government and the liberal democratic values that underpin it” but really just rounds up the usual suspects (imperialism, colonialism).
The bulkier and less coherent English and history curricula are worse. Two of the three “cross-curricula priorities” force-fed into every subject – Asia and sustainability – are given a much more sustained focus than they are in the current version, while the third priority, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, is now, quite simply, ubiquitous.
No such priority is offered to the explicit teaching or recognition of Western history and cultures: the West’s foundations in Greek, Roman and Jewish antiquity; its development in the Christian Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the modern and contemporary epochs; and the story of our own nation, with its historical and constitutional roots in British history. These should be fundamental to the structure and focus of a national curriculum, not be offered as occasional options within a larger framework.
Instead, the First Nations’ perspective is everywhere invoked, almost ritualistically, as the key determinant of Australian identity. The notion of “deep time”, a key sub-strand in the history curriculum, is a complex geological and anthropological concept. Here it is used unreflectively to elevate and privilege sheer duration over all other historical phenomena.
Presumably the intention was to foster among the 95 per cent of school students not of Indigenous descent a deep respect for and awareness of the beliefs and traditions of the extraordinary culture that has inhabited and formed this land for so long, and which offers a spiritual and cultural perspective so utterly unlike contemporary Western ones.
But such an explicitly contrarian agenda, pushed so hard, must result not in reverence but in disenchantment, especially in the absence of a truly “deep” exposure to experienced elders and practitioners in an oral tradition, rather than to a classroom catalogue of rights and grievances.
Meanwhile, in English, the fundamental question asked about all authors seems to be whether they are First Nations people. A subsidiary binary is whether the author is Australian or “from around the world” (mainly Asian). There is little in-depth consideration of whether or how an author might be significant in the long and illustrious English-speaking literary tradition of which Australia is an important part.
We are heirs of one of the world’s great linguistic and literary heritages, deeply involved with several other major European languages and literatures. Is this not something to initiate our young people into as a priority?
This curriculum would bring about a narrowing, not an opening, of minds and spirits. It would disenfranchise most students of both the literary tradition they might have entered by heritage and the oral Indigenous one they can never fully enter, without helping students of Indigenous descent understand the English-speaking world they simply have to enter. The result? None of them will know, or like, who they are.
We owe our young people, our teachers and our future something better than this, with or without ACARA.
Professor Simon Haines is chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.