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Rudd’s three red threads

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Kate Simonian is in her final semester of an Arts degree at Sydney University. She hopes to take her masters in creative writing. She has recently been published by Australian Reader and Blue Crow.

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  1. Hi Kate,

    “There is nothing wrong with the new curriculum that is not true of every educational system. ”

    I agree with this very strongly. I also feel that the eurocentric view of history for a long time has left us very shortsighted in terms of what the Australian identity is. I feel like we do need to have a lot more understanding of aboriginal and indigenous cultures in Australia if we are going to live here successfully.

    I also think, however, we need to have a broader view of general history… Throughout twelve years of school, I took both Australian history and ancient history, but never took more than about six months of actual modern history, and until recently remained quite bewildered by the Vietnam war and the Cold War. I could hardly miss the World Wars, but a lot of other things really slipped me by. I don’t think we ever learned about the Holocaust in history – only in english classes.

    I’m really beginning to feel we should have a broader base of knowledge than that… it seems worrying that even the elite public school I attended (and I say that with all humility), I still really had no idea.

    • Thanks for the response georgiaclaire.

      I graduated in 2005, so when I was at school we had compulsory ‘Australian Studies’ in year nine and ten. This consisted largely of watching ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ and learning about Federation. Early settler life was ignored, as was the history surrounding the Indigenous displacement.

      The current state curriculi operate on the basis of electives. This meant that by the time I was in year ten, I knew everything there was to know about Russian history, (which my teacher kept electing), but didn’t know what the French Revolution was. With this elective approach, students’ knowledge is bound to be patchy. I wish it wasn’t that way, but in order to develop any deep historical skills you have to go deep into a subject area. It would be great if early highschool years were dedicated to the creation of a more general acquaintance with major events of history and their chronology.

      I also drew a blank on the Vietnam and Cold War… but I know all about the Egyptians! And the Greeks! We spent about two years on them. (I don’t understand why either).

      I find it interesting that you learnt about the Holocaust in English. That’s the only way I ever got to learn about the history of ideas, and how various philosophies developed from and influenced actual events. Good old context, eh?

      The New Curriculum includes a lot more history material, but seems to give teachers less guidance on how to teach it. Perhaps this will lead to students getting at least a broad sweep of major events in modern history. Why not go to the ACARA website and express some enlightened discontent?

  2. Thanks for the response georgiaclaire.

    I graduated in 2005, so when I was at school we had compulsory ‘Australian Studies’ in year nine and ten. This consisted largely of watching ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ and learning about Federation. Early settler life was ignored, as was the history surrounding the Indigenous displacement.

    The current state curriculi operate on the basis of electives. This meant that by the time I was in year ten, I knew everything there was to know about Russian history, (which my teacher kept electing), but didn’t know what the French Revolution was. With this elective approach, students’ knowledge is bound to be patchy. I wish it wasn’t that way, but in order to develop any deep historical skills you have to go deep into a subject area. It would be great if early highschool years were dedicated to the creation of a more general acquaintance with major events of history and their chronology.

    I also drew a blank on the Vietnam and Cold War… but I know all about the Egyptians! And the Greeks! We spent about two years on them. (I don’t understand why either).

    I find it interesting that you learnt about the Holocaust in English. That’s the only way I ever got to learn about the history of ideas, and how various philosophies developed from and influenced actual events. Good old context, eh?

    The New Curriculum includes a lot more history material, but seems to give teachers less guidance on how to teach it. Perhaps this will lead to students getting at least a broad sweep of major events in modern history. Why not go to the ACARA website and express some enlightened discontent?

  3. It’s hard not to have a certain sympathy for teachers in the midst of these curriculum debates. In particular, when the Tories were pushing for the ‘back to basics’ approach to Australian history’, you wondered how many of the Howard ministers could imagine trying to teach an overcrowded room of bored adolescents names and dates of explorers and settlers.
    Anna Clark’s Overland essay from a few year’s back is relevant here, since she interviewed students about their reactions to what they studied. Here’s the quote I always remember:

    In a Darwin public school, Natalie finds the subject just as dull. “Australian history just makes me want to cry. It’s so boring and I can’t stand it.”

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