The curriculum wars

Years later, after the curriculum wars were over, the young ones used to ask me what it was all about. They’d been told not to – I’d had my episteme carved up at the Battle of the Somme, and I couldn’t look at a discourse without going into PTSD. Every time the Wheeler’s Centre’s ‘symposium’ sirens went off I hit the dirt – and the kids were naturally curious, when they weren’t immersed in 4D instamovie global chat holobody infolandscape searches on their i-implants.

‘What was it all about, the curriculum wars?’
‘Well there was this bloke called Christopher Pyne …’
‘Was he a bad man?’
‘Let’s just say he was a very naughty boy … and he had a friend named Kevin Donnelly, and Kevin Donnelly believed that we were losing touch with our Judeo-Christian heritage.’
‘What’s that?’
‘That was the thing supported by the 7 per cent of the population who went to a church or synagogue more than once every three months, at the time the war started … Kevin thought everyone was being taught relativism.’
‘What’s relativism?’
‘That’s when you look at competing explanations for a phenomenon or event, without deciding beforehand that one of them is true and the others false.’
‘But isn’t that … education?’
‘That’s what we thought … that’s what we thought …’

– from Curriculum 2080 source materials: Oral histories of the culture wars.

God, did the Hundred Years’ War feel like this? Are we going off to fight the curriculum wars again? Everything about this engagement feels so incurably second-rate. With the installation of the Abbott government, the old one-two has been instituted – something is floated in the Oz, and then a Lib stands up in parliament and says ‘we must look into this’ and then six articles come forward. Or vice versa. Sometimes there’s a third loop through the IPA. There used to be a fourth through Quadrant, but that has become such an incurably whacko outfit that it is generally shunned these days.

The Howard years saw this process at its height – partly because thirteen years of Hawke/Keating, whatever the economic policies, had provided an umbrella under which a lot of left cultural/institutional stuff got done, and the Howardistas were beating it back, with only limited success. Howard’s ’96 electoral success had been built on a repudiation of ‘political correctness’. But it’s a measure of how times have changed that Abbott ensured his success by abandoning any sort of culture war attacks, ruling everything from multiculturalism to abortion pushback pretty much off the agenda.

That curriculum has snuck back on, now the Libs are in government, is instructive. First, it is an exploratory gesture for a larger campaign on ‘free’ state/public schools. But second, it’s because very few in the heartland care about it. For most parents, curriculum processes are a black box – they feel the same bewildered exclusion from school processes as adults that they did as schoolchildren. It’s noticeable that News Ltd’s curriculum surge – half a dozen articles in as many days – does not extend to the tabloids: the Daily Tele and Hun have nothing on it, and one doubts it will make the network news.

Distraction, decoy, private obsession? All three? Who knows? But that is a tactical question. The unquestionable fact remains that a curriculum developed over five years, with the establishment of a hands-off process, and a commitment to a multi-perspectival approach is being thrown over by a review with a one-dimensional commitment to Anzac and ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage. Since a lot of this can be changed through regulation – that is, without going through parliament – not fighting it, as Jeff Sparrow notes, is not an option.

But the reluctance of others to enter this terrain is understandable. It is a staged fight, in which it is easy for the Right to appeal to a series of concrete myths, against a notion of enlightened inquiry and truth-testing, which many adults will identify with tedious afternoons in the classroom in any case. It also plays to the universal notion of a ‘fall’ – things have gone to hell, what are kids are taught etc – all good fodder for the shockjocks.

Yet defending against that, raises the question: defending against what? For anyone from a materialist leftist perspective, wherein reality consists of a series of layered, externalised processes and education is in part a mastery of knowledge of these, the base curricula seem fine.

Despite the repeated claims that ‘business is never mentioned in the curriculum’ etc, here are two of the Year 9 modules for history:

Progressive ideas and movements (1750 – 1918)

  1. The emergence and nature of key ideas in the period, with a particular focus on ONE of the following: capitalism, socialism, egalitarianism, nationalism, imperialism, Darwinism, Chartism (ACDSEH019)

The Industrial Revolution (1750 – 1914)

  1. The technological innovations that led to the Industrial Revolution, and other conditions that influenced the industrialisation of Britain (the agricultural revolution, access to raw materials, wealthy middle class, cheap labour, transport system, and expanding empire) and of Australia

Note that ‘capitalism’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘imperialism’ are all listed under ‘progressive movements’, which seems to be a rod for the back. Why call them progressive movements? Why not simply call them transformational movements, and teach the process? Weirdly, of course, it should give the Right less to object to, since they do see such movements as progressive. (The history curriculum was designed by Stuart Macintyre; I have no idea how much control he had over the larger structure into which it was placed.)

More problematic still are the ‘cross-curriculum priorities’ for the F–Year 10:

Here’s the intro:

The Australian Curriculum has been written to equip young Australians with the skills, knowledge and understanding that will enable them to engage effectively with and prosper in a globalised world. Students will gain personal and social benefits, be better equipped to make sense of the world in which they live and make an important contribution to building the social, intellectual and creative capital of our nation.

So much of that is subjectivist, instrumentalist and behaviouralist, it’s enough to make you howl. I want kids to be able to question whether the notion of ‘social, intellectual and creative capital’ is the best way to think of human life activity, not to be primed to accumulate it unquestioningly!

Once the topics are opened, it gets worse. Here’s a section from the first:

Australia has two distinct Indigenous groups, Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities maintain a special connection to and responsibility for Country/Place throughout all of Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have unique belief systems and are spiritually connected to the land, sea, sky and waterways.

That is simply ‘noble savagery’ given a souvenir-shop spin. The largest Aboriginal population is around the Mt Druitt-Blacktown area, where they were decanted after the breaking-up of Redfern. Yes, different ‘senses of place’ and much more besides survive, but the idea that every black kid in an urban housing estate has – over and above their own life/class circumstances – necessarily a common essence with a Torres Strait Island kid who has never seen a traffic light or someone who isn’t a cousin is simply absurd.

Equal criticisms could be made of the ‘Asia’ cross-current, which underplays our history as part of an imperial system that was exploiting Asia. Or the ‘sustainability’ cross-current, which marginalises the possibility that the world is unsustainable under the current political-economic system – something which kids would be better equipped to understand if they were simply taught hard-science principles (with whatever pedagogical techniques are required to make them interesting and teachable), rather than having overarching ‘themes’ pushed in.

The sensible thing would have been to limit these inadequate cross-currents to the interpretive, high-content subjects, such as history and geography. Presumably on the principle that the Right don’t have enough ammunition, they are advanced thus:

Cross-curriculum priorities are embedded in all learning areas. They will have a strong but varying presence depending on their relevance to the learning areas.

Because nothing helps you master long division or the function of the adverb quite like thinking of its relevance to cross-cultural nationhood, Admiral Cheng Ho or salination.

The upshot is that while many of the modules of the curriculum are well-made and uncontroversial, the overarching thing is a ghastly, top-down design, oriented towards creating a generation of high-functioning growthbots, who would never question that the good life is two 60-hour week jobs, an unaffordable home in The Ponds, and a wide range of screen-based devices. It is redolent of the worst of Rudd-Gillardism: it closes down of any wider notion of how we should live.

So we are hamstrung in defending it. And that is partly because we, the materialist left, never mounted a criticism and offered an alternative in any case – one which affirmed the need for a curriculum separate from the modish concerns of the day, both of the cultural/liberal ‘left’, and the fixed content model of the Right.

This is only one of a number of areas in which the work on a positive, specific policy framework hasn’t been done (save in some places by the Greens, whose worldview and policy models are a mix of the materialist left and cultural left approaches). Why hasn’t this been done? Partly because a political model has been inherited – revolutionary Marxism – which explicitly did not pose pre-transformational policies; partly because large parts of the system do now require a transformation for which a mass refusal is a prior step. But something like the curriculum question is somewhere a positive policy, or range of possibilities should have been suggested; preceded, of course, by a critique of the existing options.

Still, never too late. Such a thing should be done now, in book form, or as a series of interconnected articles. It should advance a critique and a positive materialist position, from which it is possible to demolish both the Right’s fetishisation of Anzac Day (and Labor’s: it was Tim Soutphommasane who first suggested, in Reclaiming Patriotism, that Anzac/Gallipoli should be a mystical event which intellectuals should refrain from interrogating in order to aid national solidarity), and a cultural ‘left’s’ insistence that the Dardanelles Campaign be assessed for its environmental impacts. I ain’t going to the culture war for that.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Over the trenches it would seem, because we failed to win the previous round of the curriculum wars. I’m not sure I agree with everything you describe though as you caution, let’s first figure out why the curriculum wars are on again before we decide how to respond.

    I agree this is not aimed at mums and dads – they do not engage in the process of curriculum development. But I would add, that for quite a few decades now, neither do teachers. (Or at least when some try to it is in vain as they have no influence or control over the process). There has been a slow but concerted erosion of the teaching profession – and therefore of their involvement in matters beyond classroom discipline and exam preparation. That in part explains the point we have arrived at. And why there was little opposition to the current docile and still quite prescriptive curriculum. Hardly anything for a materialist Left, or anyone in the vicinity, to cheer about. And yet, the current order of things is what unions and teachers will now hope to salvage. How to pose something different when there are so few curriculum/pedagogy experts that have not been captured by the technocrats under Rudd/Gillard? Or those that are qualified to take this on are quietly working away inside universities not engaging with the public debate. I think most of us will remain in a state of outrage as Pyne & co reveal more outlandish propositions for what they’d like to fill children’s minds with.

    Something else to keep in mind as we figure out how to proceed: the real battle will be around a far more radical reform of school funding and the introduction of charter schools. We just need to look to the US to see what that holds in store.

  2. I’m a little comforted by the fact that I have teacher-friends who I presume would still be able to work with this curriculum and teach it in a more informative, diverse way – to extend upon it, rather than merely follow it and teach it blindly. A question might be, how important is the teacher’s role in working with a curriculum that has an agenda behind it? And can a significant difference be made possible through HOW it is taught.

    I guess I’m being a bit optimistic here; my teacher-friends tend to be very open minded and would likely go out of their way to elaborate on curricula, when perhaps many other teachers wouldn’t. And I suppose there would be certain time factors and boundaries involved; though I’m sure I’ve had teachers before who by-passed similar boundaries.

    Isn’t the curriculum, generally speaking, always going to reflect economic agendas, so long as schools and universities are still catering to a workforce that consists largely of a business world? Of course, opening younger generations’ minds to the infinite gateways of diverse thinking is something most people see as a good thing, but a lot of people also still see more formal, traditional education (leading to secure employment) as more important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *