Friday, January 17, 2014

Curriculum should be decided by schools and parents, not governments

Labor's national curriculum isn't neutral.  Neither will be any curriculum redrafted by Christopher Pyne.  That's exactly why parents — not politicians — should be able to choose what their children are taught.

So far the debate about the national curriculum revision has been focused on which version of the curriculum will be the most ''balanced'' and ''objective''.

But the debate should not be over which curriculum all students should be forced to learn.  It should be over whether we should have a national curriculum at all.

On Thursday, historian Tony Taylor, on these pages, ridiculed the idea that there was any need to fix the Labor curriculum.  In particular, he mocked the notion that Christianity and Western civilisation deserved greater prominence.

Although Taylor and other defenders of Labor's curriculum like to pretend it is ideologically neutral, the truth is that any curriculum devised by politicians or their appointees will be political.  Labor's curriculum places far too much emphasis on ''sustainability'' and other ideological concepts, and far too little emphasis on how Australia's institutions evolved.

Christopher Pyne is right to recognise that the Labor curriculum does not give sufficient emphasis to the role of Christianity and Western civilisation in Australian history.

But Taylor argues that because Australia is now a multi-faith society, it's now less important to teach students about Christianity in schools.

This misses the point.  The history of Christianity should be taught in schools not because we want to preach Christianity to all Australian students, but because the institutions and the society that we have now are the result of our past.

Over the past 2000 years, Christianity has played a far more profound role in shaping our society than any other major religion.  Even if the proportion of Christians has declined over the past 40 years, we have inherited a society shaped by Christian values.  We cannot understand our nation — and indeed, our world — unless we understand the elements that shaped it.

But the Labor curriculum neglects the role that Christianity and other aspects of Western civilisation — including the Westminster system, democracy and liberalism — have played in shaping our society, for worse and for the better.

Instead, it teaches students to be ashamed of our past by highlighting the wrongdoings of the European settlers.  If there must be a compulsory curriculum, it should present a more balanced view.

Nor does the fact the curriculum was drafted by ''independent'' panels and academics automatically make it immune to ideology.  The fact remains that those panels and academics were appointed by the Labor government and many had left-leaning tendencies.  For example, Stuart Macintyre, who was placed in charge of drafting the history curriculum, may be an eminent historian from the University of Melbourne, but he is also a former Communist Party member and a self-described socialist.

The curricula these appointees drafted were certainly not objective.

But despite all of this, Taylor is right to be concerned about Pyne's assurance that the new curriculum will be ''balanced'' and ''objective''.

A revised Pyne curriculum that gives due attention to Christianity, the British Empire, and the rest of Western civilisation is preferable to the existing Labor version.  But that does not mean all schools should be forced to teach it.

There is no single ''honest'' version of history, just as there is no such thing as an entirely ''neutral'' account of modern-day politics.  There is always more than one historical narrative.  There always has been — ever since the ''father of history'' Herodotus wrote his great work in the fifth century BC.

History is always influenced by politics to varying degrees.  Sometimes it happens without us realising.  As such, any account that claims to be ''honest'' and — worse — ''official'' should instantly set off alarm bells.  The version of history in the Rudd-Gillard curriculum is no exception.  And nor, for that matter, is any version touted by Pyne.

And what happens when governments endorse particular versions of history?  In a democracy — which is what Australia is, thanks to the British Empire — you get the ''history wars''.  In Australia, the beginnings of these ''wars'' in education were rooted back in the Whitlam era, when the Commonwealth indirectly began to influence humanities in schools through the Curriculum Development Centre.

This is exactly why we shouldn't have a single curriculum.  No government should impose its version of history on the rest of the country.  What's more, the national curriculum will likely remain controversial for as long as it remains in place.  Since the two sides of politics are unlikely to ever agree on an ''official'' version, it is probable there will be a sweeping revision of the curriculum every time a new government comes into power — just as is happening now, and has been happening for the past 30 years in Britain.

That's why there should be no national curriculum.  Instead, there should be different private curricula available.  Schools should be able to choose the curriculum they believe best suits their students, and parents should be able to select the school that reflects their own values.  That way there would be no need for Pyne — or any other politician for that matter — to decide what all students should learn.

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