Given that we have until 23 May to review the new National Curriculum, I recently shouldered my civic duty and had a look. What caught my attention was this: there will be three ‘cross-curriculum dimensions’ running through the main subject areas of English, math, science and history. These are ‘Indigenous history and culture’, ‘Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia’ and ‘sustainability’. Bereft in an ocean of board-approved phrases, I tried to figure out exactly what this meant.
Christopher Pyne, Shadow Minister for Education, has criticised the curriculum for its ‘over-emphasis on Indigenous culture and history’ and the ‘entire blotting out of our British traditions and heritage’. He identified the ‘118 references in the document to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and culture’ in comparison to the absence of one reference to Parliament, Westminster or the Magna Carta. He has described the new curriculum as a return to the ‘black armband’ view of history, whereby bleeding-heart liberals attempt to politically correct errors of the past at the expense of education.
Setting aside the hyperbole of the ‘history wars’, it seems that the galvanising question is whether the teaching of Indigenous culture will trump the European. And that is a matter of whether we should study a culture that still dominates our discourse, or actively forge a new Australian identity.
The syllabus goals in relation to Indigenous culture, found on the ACARA website, are worth quoting at length:
In developing the Australian curriculum, ACARA is committed to ensuring that its curriculum work acknowledges the need for all Australian children to ‘understand and acknowledge the value of Indigenous cultures and possess the knowledge, skills and understanding to contribute to, and benefit from, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.’ (Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians)
The above would suggest that the syllabus is going to engineer empathy and actively promote reconciliation. I personally advocate reconciliation, giving equal attention to Sorry and Anzac Day, and including more Indigenous texts in the English syllabus. However, I cannot deny that the ‘teaching’ of tolerance is technically a form of indoctrination.
No doubt, the changes may level a playing field dominated by white, phallocentric perspectives. After all, if we want to broaden the Australian viewpoint, then Indigenous points of view will have to be forcibly inserted into the limelight. But who decides what should be placed inside the Australian line of sight, and how often? Note how the curriculum does not aim to produce global citizens, nor allocate Indigenous studies the amount of time proportionate to their place in the world at large. Given the inclusion of Asian studies in the curriculum, rather than less nationally significant continents, we can assume that Rudd is using the educational system to not only prepare for, but also actively bring about, his vision of a new Australia.
This is not to say that educational systems can avoid partiality. All it means is that the new curriculum is just as politically motivated as its predecessors. Just as the current system can be accused of a Western bias, so the new curriculum can be accused of a relativistic, humanistic one. Such affirmative action may have practical benefits, but because it is based on the process of arbitrary selection that it seeks to avoid, it is theoretically suspect.
There is nothing wrong with the new curriculum that is not true of every educational system. However, in creating a document that is going to have a great ideological impact on the nation, the government has an obligation to make the public consultation window much larger. The Australian public should have been involved in the draft-making process, rather than given a moment’s chance to tack addendums onto the tailcoats of a syllabus hurtled through the system.