April 2010

Comment

National curriculum

By Waleed Aly
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In late February, the Legislative Assembly in South Dakota passed a resolution urging public schools throughout the state to teach that “global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact”. Perhaps that’s true: I lack the scientific training to agree or disagree definitively. But then, I suspect the South Dakota legislature is in the same position, judging by some of their other curricula requests, for example:

That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect [sic] world weather phenomena …

Astrological? Really? Is that a scientific theory, too?

That’s the thing about meddling with a curriculum: it is an inescapably political, often ideological, exercise. I do not, for instance, need to tell you where South Dakota’s legislature sits on the issue of climate change. Theirs is not a scientific judgement, despite their willingness to tell science teachers what they should be teaching. It is a form of political activism.

Our own education debates are scarcely less politicised, even if the focus is more on history and English than on science. Last month, when the Rudd government announced its plans for a new national curriculum, it described the enterprise as something Australian governments had been attempting for 110 years. I can’t say whether or not that’s true, either – perhaps I never got a decent education in Australian history – but it is abundantly clear that the failures of our education system have occupied a significant place in this country’s culture wars in the past decade or so.

Perhaps the starkest example of this was John Howard’s outburst in 2006, lamenting the “dumbing down” of the English syllabus with “postmodernism”. This was a frequent theme of Howard’s rhetoric. Earlier, he had attacked the teaching of Australian history in schools, saying that “too often, history has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism, where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.” The assault on postmodernism was not accidental: it was a central plank of Howard’s cultural war against the “elites”. It also informed his opposition to multiculturalism and his frequent advocacy of Australian values. Howard lived in a world of certainties, where “there’s high-quality literature and there’s rubbish” and where Australian history is an “objective record of achievement”. While it is difficult to deny that not all literature is equal, or at least that some texts make better studying material than others, the point for Howard was a broader one. It was about the undesirability of notions of relativism in the classroom. Howard wanted students to learn facts, rather than have them undermined by endless deconstruction. He wanted them to study the classics, not modern multimedia concoctions.

For Howard, the subtext was this: elites in society had embraced a series of new, vague, half-baked ideas, characterised by relativism and political correctness, which they were now inflicting on the unwilling mainstream. In the process they were undermining the nation’s belief in its own worth. This is why the history wars were so important to him; he directed so much vitriol at the “black armband” view of Australian history precisely because it contradicted his nationalist impulses.

The implications for education were entirely predictable. It was time to return to the old certainties: spelling, grammar, maths, Shakespeare and historical fact (disclosing, of course, that objective record of achievement). In short, a return to the type of learning endured by past generations. The education debate was a distillation of Howard’s approach to cultural politics (as so many debates about education are): spruik the familiar and nostalgic, and talk the language of common sense – comfortable, relaxed.

Of course, some of Howard’s criticisms were valid. As a grammar obsessive myself – even my text messages are written with punctuation and in full sentences – I am sympathetic to its formal inculcation. As someone who went through high school with minimal exposure to history, I accept it deserves greater emphasis as a stand-alone subject. Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE), the present montage that combines the social sciences and history into a single subject, strikes me as a very good way to avoid the thorough teaching of either of its component disciplines.

I raise Howard’s commentary on education, not to stand in defence of every ‘postmodern’ syllabus, but to identify the ideological drive behind his discourse and to point out that – like the agenda of the good congressmen and -women of South Dakota – it did not exist in a vacuum. It expressed Howard’s politics, and explained the vigour of his culture warring. Those wars are meant now to be over. Kevin Rudd more or less declared their demise in August last year in a speech to launch Tom Keneally’s history of Australia. Rudd pleaded for us to leave behind “the polarisation that began to infect every discussion of our nation’s past”. Here Rudd is playing Obama: the post-ideological “Third Way” politician striding over the partisan gulf that so defines our politics.

Certainly, Rudd is a less ideological politician than Howard (his lengthy denunciation of neo-liberalism in this magazine notwithstanding). In part, that’s his problem. “Love me or loathe me, the Australian people know where I stand,” said Howard on the eve of the 2007 election. It was a terrible pitch for re-election but, as a statement of fact, it was entirely correct. Howard was a neo-liberal neo-conservative; he was pro-business, anti-labour, and belligerent towards anyone – including migrants – he considered outside his “mainstream”. Rudd, on the other hand, is a far less transparent ideological figure. If, as the pundits are presently saying (and Labor’s internal polling must be confirming), a popular view is emerging that we don’t really know who Rudd is, then perhaps he lacks a clearly demonstrable world view. In one of the best lines in Australian political commentary since Rudd took office, the Australian’s George Megalogenis wrote, back in 2008, that Rudd is in danger of becoming Australia’s first ever “federal premier”. His countless promises and new initiatives are a problem, as is his barrage of announcements, or more aptly, ‘announcables’. This is administration rather than governing: it’s performance.

That is what makes Rudd’s national curriculum so fascinating to observe. It is an unavoidably political policy initiative from a prime minister who so far has been relatively apolitical. Is this finally a concrete expression of this government’s ideological leanings? Is this the Rudd government finally putting its stamp on the country, Education Revolution and all?

Well, sort of. Certainly, the idea of a national curriculum, displacing the various state-determined curricula that currently prevail, sounds suitably muscular and revolutionary. It has the resonance of ‘getting serious’, of ‘raising standards’ – of whipping our kids into shape. But only very modest changes have been made to the maths and science curriculum we presently have, and these changes will actually make the materials less dense, with an increased focus on statistics and probability. The biggest change is history – which will now actually be taught in its own right – but even here, the revolution is incomplete. And who, exactly, is going to teach it? There are only 16 classes in the country for training history teachers at the moment. Ten of them are in New South Wales, mainly because that is the only state that kept teaching the subject when everyone else had been seduced by SOSE. Does the government have any plans to overcome this shortfall or will it rely on tertiary institutions to take the initiative?

Rudd’s curriculum is built on three central themes that Howard could never have championed: Indigenous affairs, engagement with Asia and environmental sustainability. Here we see Rudd’s most discernible convictions: his interest in Asia is long established, and his opening acts as prime minister were to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and apologise to the Stolen Generations. The Opposition’s response – briefly rekindling the culture wars – was straight from the Howard songbook: there’s too much Indigenous whining and not enough celebration of our British heritage. Where, boomed Christopher Pyne, is the Magna Carta? Possibly a question he should have asked while the Howard government was cheerfully eroding liberty in the name of security, but one with a very different meaning in this context. In the eyes of the Coalition, the black-armband elites are back in power. It has threatened to scrap the entire curriculum if it ultimately finds it too distasteful. Clearly, Howard’s legacy lives on.

This legacy offered Rudd a chance to define himself more sharply as the prime minister of a modern Australia, engaged more deeply in the region and preparing the nation for its contemporary environmental challenges. It is a message Rudd sold well before he was elected. And yet he has opted since to retreat. The phrase clearly intended to define this policy, repeated ad nauseam by both Rudd and Gillard in their associated media blitz, had nothing to do with being forward-looking or modern. Indeed, it barely reflected the curriculum’s central themes. Instead it was “back to basics” with spelling, grammar, punctuation, addition, subtraction – the kind of stuff they taught in the good old days when education was done properly. No more “dumbed-down” syllabi. Sound familiar?

You could be forgiven for assuming Australian students have become an embarrassment when it comes to literacy and numeracy. Nobody seemed to listen when Peter Freebody, the lead writer of the English syllabus, said that “Australians are more literate now than they were when grammar was taught intensively, but in isolation from language use and literary studies.” Freebody’s point was that “the basics” are no panacea, and have to be combined with a study of literature. But Gillard chose to stand before the media scrum, spelling – “c-a-t, cat”. As it turns out, the government was never going to sell the increased focus on Asia. After it bungled the emissions trading scheme, it was not going to spruik its new focus on sustainability, either. Instead, it chose to sell a meat-and-potatoes curriculum. Nothing highfalutin or exotic. Common sense. Practical. This is a very conservative revolution indeed. Howard with a smile.

Perhaps this is a natural consequence of Third Way politics. Even in this most ideologically charged terrain, Rudd finds it difficult to define himself sharply. Perhaps Rudd remains haunted by Howard’s ghost when it comes to anything resembling the politics of culture, where, at key points, he relinquishes his own voice and begins to sound like the man he defeated in 2007. All this is part of the public confusion that surrounds Rudd. He takes a step in his own direction, only to then retreat towards his predecessor. Recall, for instance, his discourse on asylum seekers: initially humane, then tough, then both. Rudd seems keen to appear more modern and humane than Howard, while fearing that this might make him unelectable. At the heart of Rudd’s actions appears to be a belief that Howard’s brand of cultural politics retains electoral punch, even after his electoral demise. The result is a lack of clarity that means any affection voters have for Rudd can only ever be fragile, as he is now discovering.

The most urgent question is what this timidity will mean for education policy. My fear is that parts of the new curriculum will succumb to the cult of common sense and practicality, to the detriment of diverse and challenging teaching. As Burkard Polster and Marty Ross argued compellingly in the Age, inherent in the new maths syllabus is the risk of diluting quality. The desire to keep maths concrete, to emphasise areas such as statistics and probability, has undermined the teaching of maths as a subject driven by abstract concepts and ideas. Calculators and measurement are in; algebra and geometry less so. And who could possibly have a political objection to this? Geometry doesn’t resonate as common sense the way statistics does. And calculators are not too postmodern.

Waleed Aly
Waleed Aly is an ABC Radio National broadcaster, former practising solicitor and a lecturer in politics at Monash University. He is the author of People Like Us and Quarterly Essay 37, 'What's Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia', published in 2010.

Cover: April 2010

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