Who’s afraid of the big bad broadsheet?

The Safe Schools’ Coalition’s All of Us teaching manual is the newest battleground in the ongoing culture war over school curriculum, which flares up every now and again over issues of bias, ideology, values and standards. When The Australian’s new education editor Natasha Bita published her ‘exclusive’ about the Gillard-era program on 10 February this year, the war exploded on all fronts.

‘Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools’, screamed the page 10 headline. The story was familiar, even if the details were new. Left-wing activists (unions, teachers) were infiltrating classrooms and poisoning the minds of innocent children with their divisive (in this particular case, gay rights) agenda – and getting taxpayers’ money to do so. Malcolm Turnbull and his Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, initially tried to emphasise the program’s independence from government, but the right sent in its troops – Cory Bernardi, Kevin Donnelly, the Australian Christian Lobby, George Christensen, Barnaby Joyce – and within a fortnight had won a review. Never mind that schools’ participation in All of Us is voluntary, to the point that they can choose which elements of the program to teach.

On 25 April, Bita launched another salvo in The Australian: ‘A new sex education course funded by taxpayers is quizzing 12-year-old children about sex and masturbation and teaching them to search online for sexual information.’ The (also voluntary) course called The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships was developed by La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, and was also funded by the Gillard government. La Trobe also employs Roz Ward, who was instrumental in developing All of Us.

The Australian fights its culture wars in a particular – and now well-documented – way. It plays the man, or the woman, instead of the ball. It goes in hard, and it targets individuals who aren’t necessarily prepared for a fight (or at least one that’s very public, very national, and very much on The Australian’s own terms). Until March, Roz Ward was an activist for queer rights who was known in those circles, and spoke at rallies. She also published very occasional pieces in Red Flag, the magazine of the Socialist Alternative. But the Trotskyist link was a – well, a red rag. On 1 March, the newspaper plucked Roz Ward from obscurity and made her into target practice, as it has done for countless other academics, researchers and professionals over the years, with one of its special exposés.

Only one of the sides fighting the culture wars is energised by them. The so-called left is battle-weary, in part because the war is fought on turf that’s actually quite far from home. The right’s culture warriors consistently misrepresent their imagined enemy by applying forgotten labels – one Coalition MP called All of Us ‘Marxist propaganda’ in a party-room meeting in February – but their enemy’s ideology is liberal humanism, not communism.

‘The Left’ exists only in the right’s imagination. Socialist Alternative is a very long way from being ‘a dominant force among university radicals and the broad-left activist movement’, as the paper claimed in its feature on Ms Ward, but it won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

In the end, the right goes in so hard to defend ‘traditional values’ that it emerges as a force for little more than prejudice and ignorance. The Safe Schools Coalition is ‘a national coalition of organisations and schools working together to create safe and inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families’. Other than a bigot, who could be against that aim? The implication of the right’s opposition to this work is that the right believes that schools should not be safe places for students who aren’t heterosexual.

That’s not how the right frames the issue, of course. Its warriors prefer to invoke the ‘golden age’ myth: that issues of homosexuality and homophobia, same-sex marriage, queer identity and the rest of it just didn’t exist before left-wing activists made them issues. What the right wants to believe is that the Safe Schools Coalition is making its own Long March through the Institutions to brainwash our kids with leftie nonsense. The right struggles to articulate the goal to which it imagines its left is advancing, but that hardly deters it.

The right has a worthy target on one front of the curriculum wars, and that’s on the matter of standards. It’s not acknowledged often enough by educators, ironically for fear of playing into the right’s demonology, that far too many students are graduating after twelve years of compulsory schooling – and then entering university – without the ability to confidently write a sentence, let alone a paragraph, a report or an essay. Widespread functional illiteracy is a sleeper issue, the implications of which are difficult to assess. There are many causes and contributing factors. But it’s unlikely that one of those factors is the introduction into the health and physical education curricula programs that promote respectful relationships. The right says that schools need to get back to their core business. Presumably what the right means by that is that schools need to prepare children for the world. It’s difficult to see that promoting respectfulness and inclusiveness is not part of the core business of schools in a multicultural, multifaith and diverse Australia of the early twenty-first century.

The right has a problem of its own. Its campaign to have respectful relationships curricula banished from the nation’s schools to protect children’s innocence doesn’t square with its parallel insistence on the virtues of market solutions. Whatever they’re doing or not doing in the classroom, children are consuming porn, advertising and prejudicial attitudes outside it. On the right’s own terms, this should be recognised as market failure. If one accepts that, educators say, then one should also accept that classrooms – which can be among the most diverse of all microcosms – are perhaps the best places to explore assumptions about gender and identity that would otherwise go unexamined, in a safe and structured way.

But the right doesn’t accept that at all. From American neoconservatism it has adopted the view that the state is inherently an illegitimate break on the freedoms of the individual. Never mind the welfare state’s role – potential and actual – in expanding the sphere of freedom for most individuals. Curriculum is a tool of the multicultural, liberal state, and therein lies the rub: the right sees only ‘social engineering’ and rejects it impulsively. Never mind the enormously successful social engineering projects that gigantic corporations and their well-resourced armies of marketers (complete with squadrons of psychologists and behavioural economists) pursue at the expense of the public good. Ironically, the right has backed itself into such an ideological corner that it’s found itself defending the state’s power to shut down the free discussion of evidence-supported findings in classrooms – on the arbitrary basis that the participants in that free discussion are children.

There is a deeper problem with the right’s aggressive attacks on relationships education. What this kind of education is actually aiming to do is to expand young people’s agency – including their sexual agency. Our denial of young people’s sexuality is probably a projection of our own sense of lost modern innocence. But in doing so, we’re consigning children to passive roles: as consumers of hypersexualised content; as recipients of prejudiced value systems; and as victims of sexual exploitation. While the right continues to fire rockets at the very idea that children should be encouraged to engage critically with cultural attitudes and consumerist values, it’s in danger of knocking down their most effective protections from exploitation and prejudice.

The evidence is quite clear. Same sex-attracted and gender-diverse children do suffer disproportionately – and often silently – through their schooling, if they survive it at all. (This finding emerged from, among others, a study funded by Beyond Blue, whose public face is Jeff Kennett.) The problematic gender assumptions conveyed through marketing and pornography are influencing the way young people relate to each other, including between the sheets. And one of the most effective ways of countering these effects is to expose them to critical discussion in school classrooms. What does the right do with this evidence? As with scientific evidence generally, the right attacks it.

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Image: Toni Brient/Flickr

Russell Marks

Russell Marks has worked as a criminal defence lawyer and academic. He is an honorary associate at La Trobe University, and author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015).

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