The Culture War Distraction

And so, yet again, a Liberal politician has made predictably crass comments in regard to a review of the National Curriculum. In a particularly arrogant and self-defeating move, Mr. Tudge then summarily blocked a swathe of teachers on Twitter, some of whom offered only mild criticism of his remarks. Needless to say, there has been a good deal of criticism of his position already, much of it eloquent and well-considered. But the danger, once again, is that the debate surrounding the National Curriculum will become fixated on these issues of historical interpretation.

Why do I say “once again”? And why do I describe this as dangerous? Because this has all happened before.

Nearly eight years ago, when another education minister was setting his sights on the National Curriculum, I wrote an article for a now-defunct internet journal. The article was called The Culture War Distraction. All these years on, I would barely change a word, and I feel it is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the current debates. It is presented below.

Anyone with even a passing interest in education will undoubtedly have been following the recent media stoushes between the supporters of Christopher Pyne’s “review” of the National Curriculum and their ideological opponents. Inamongst the obsessive word-counting, the raking up of the past history of the various participants and the predictable exhumation of various glib slogans (“culture war”, “leftist slant”), the real issues surrounding the National Curriculum have been completely ignored.

It is, perhaps, inevitable that the “culture war” aspects of the National Curriculum have gained the most attention. After all, of the three “cross-curriculum priorities” embedded in the curriculum, two (Aboriginal affairs and sustainability) reflect the contemporary obsessions of the inner-city left while the third (engagement with Asia), while unlikely to rile the neocons unduly, still plays awkwardly before an electorate which, less than a generation ago, made an instant political star of Pauline Hanson.

Yet it is perfectly obvious, on a little reflection, that the effects of such “cross-curriculum priorities” on everyday teaching and learning will be minimal. The areas of the curriculum in which it is genuinely possible to take account of such bureaucratic nudging amount to perhaps a fifth of any student’s class time, and it is only in specific parts of those subject areas that one can push students’ minds northwards or encourage them to adopt an acceptably miserabilist view of Australian history.

But even then, Pyne and his myrmidons ignore a screamingly obvious consideration. An individual teacher’s political leaning will be infinitely more important than some quasi-mandatory curriculum stipulation in influencing the views of students. The likes of Kevin Donnelly are utterly deluded to believe that they can significantly alter the forming of political opinion among Australia’s youth just by tweaking some words here and there in a centralised curriculum. (It should be added, however, that this delusion was widely shared by those who originally designed it.)

Teachers are, by and large, generally fairly left-wing. They are also, however, generally fairly sensible, and when asked to take account of various new requirements in a curriculum, they generally incorporate them as summarily and painlessly as possible. They are busy enough without having to take all the current bureaucratic obsessions too seriously, and the sort of curriculum wording that creates indignant headlines in The Australian actually makes hardly any difference to teachers’ usual classroom practice. 

More importantly still, most teachers are far more aware than smug bureaucrats and zealous academics of the need to keep education free of political indoctrination.  If some contemporary education academics had their way, students would be far more interested in attending protest rallies than in mastering the fundamentals of chemistry or understanding the concept of aggregate demand. This attitude, however, tends not to extend beyond university education departments, and we can all be thankful for that.

The real problem with the National Curriculum is twofold. Firstly, a National Curriculum is just, well, not needed. Education is still administered almost entirely at the state level, and moves towards a nationwide matriculation system have been glacial; this in itself is reason enough to suggest that there is little need for a centralised curriculum as yet. Few people realise how recent a phenomenon ACARA is: it was instituted only in 2008, as part of the centralisation obsession of the Rudd government. Teachers were at best indifferent to it, and the public barely knew about it. Yet from some of the recent op-ed pieces supporting the National Curriculum, you would think that (a) there was widespread support for ACARA among the teaching community when it was introduced, (b) its work is vital. Neither of these assertions is remotely true.

ACARA provides further employment for the usual gang of “experts”, generally former teachers who decided very early on in their careers that the office was a much better place to be than the classroom. Typically of such experts, for whom verbal complexity is often a mask for intellectual vacuity, they have produced a National Curriculum which manages to be wordy and yet extremely vague. Here, for instance, are some samples from the English curriculum (expressed in the now de rigueur “students learn to” terms):

Interpret, analyse and evaluate how different perspectives of issue, event, situation, individuals or groups are constructed to serve specific purposes in texts

and:

Analyse and evaluate how people, cultures, places, events, objects and concepts are represented in texts, including media texts, through language, structural and/or visual choices

You get the idea. The above “content descriptions” could be made to apply to just about any classroom activity that an English teacher chose to do.

There seems to be a perception, again among those who have written in support of the new curriculum, that in “successful education systems” (whatever they may be) a centralised curriculum is used. In most cases, however, such a curriculum is drawn in very broad terms, and is not organised under the endless subheadings of ACARA’s newborn. Basic guidelines are fine; the jargon-infused waffling of the National Curriculum simply constitutes a waste of public money. Christopher Pyne, however, seems to think that not enough public money has been wasted just yet.

The more significant problem with the National Curriculum is that in the subjects which actually depend on technical knowledge, standards are likely to drop. The reason for this is simple: when the curricula of the different states set varying standards, the tendency will always be to go for the lowest common denominator, so as to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Experienced Mathematics and Physics teachers of my acquaintance have told me that this has already happened with the National Curriculum at the senior secondary level, and there are clear potential knock-on effects at tertiary level.

So the next time you hear either one of Pyne’s neocons or one of the education bureaucrats mouthing off about the national curriculum, you can safely change the channel or fold up the paper. It’s 99% certain that they will be talking about the wrong issues.

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