Grab your rose-coloured glasses, run up the Union Jack and get spotting those black armbands. Yes, the culture wars are back.
Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne fired the latest salvo in our Federal-Election-campaign-that-isn’t, today. His target was the National Curriculum, specifically, the study of History – and the irony quotient was thick on the ground.
We shouldn’t take a ‘black armband view’ of history. We ‘should know the truth about it’. Best of all, ‘we shouldn’t allow it to colour our present and our future’. And what does all that mean? Why, that our National Curriculum is too ‘politically correct’ and that we need to ‘restore’ the importance of Anzac Day and our (wince) ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’.
Take a moment. Pick your jaw up off the floor – or stop laughing.
No, this isn’t some weird moment of de ja vu. You haven’t been transported back to the Howard era, and I haven’t been reading the fantastic imaginings of Keith Windschuttle. This is right now. Today.
Pyne says it will be the Coalition’s ‘first education priority’ to rewrite the National History Curriculum. It must be done! Our kids are in danger! They will not learn the truth about Anzac Day and our national identity! Why, we even have an expert – a one-man think tank named Dr Kevin Donnelly – telling us so.
Back up a minute, Nelly.
Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the truly astounding notion that it’s more important to shred the National Curriculum than, say, deal with issues of literacy, school funding, special programs, etc. (But, wow, couldn’t we go to town on that?) Just exactly how is this dreadful curriculum destroying Our Way of Life?
Here’s a novel idea. Let’s take a look. The document is freely available, after all.
Let’s see, now. Prep (or Foundation) level focuses on family history, and how family events are commemorated. Seems okay. Ditto Year 1 – oh, but wait. The kids are taught to look at how family structures may be different ‘now’, as opposed to in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. Potential minefield there. Heaven forbid they learn about blended families, single parent families, ‘grandparent’ families or even – gasp – same-sex families.
Perhaps Mr Pyne wants to make sure kids deny the evidence of their own experience? Or is it just that he doesn’t want his government to be seen condoning such terrible situations?
Uh, Mr Pyne? Your Coalition has made damned sure that none of us are under any illusions there. We know what you think of us.
We move on, to local history in Year 3 (complete with projects that encourage kids to look at structures like local war memorials). Nothing wrong with that – but uh-oh, here’s where it gets ‘unacceptable’. Here we have the first mention of indigenous peoples. Kids are taught about the important of Country and Place, and about national holidays. Oh, they get taught about Anzac Day, but they also get taught about National Harmony Day, and Sorry Day. How dare we ask kids to think of anything to be as important as Anzac Day?
It gets worse! Now, we’re supposed to ask kids to consider Anzac Day as a holiday similar to Christmas Day – or Ramadan – or Chinese New Year! Or Independence Day in the US!
We have to teach them about our first contact with indigenous peoples, Asian migration to the goldfields, giving the vote to women and to indigenous people, the contribution of migrants, the environment movement, reconciliation around the world, Asia (specifically China) in the modern world, and even (horror of horrors), the spread of Islam.
Terrible, isn’t it?
Now, maybe if that was all our kids were being taught, Pyne might have a point. Except it isn’t.
Our kids also learn about Anzac Day … and the ancient world … the rise of Christianity … Federation … World War II … the First Fleet … the Eureka Stockade (whoops, better not include that one, we might give the kids the idea we approve of unionism) … Aussie Rules football (for goodness’ sake) … Kokoda … etc … etc.
Now, I went through school (in the 70s and 80s), but I’ve got a pretty good memory (and some of the textbooks, dear me). From Grade Prep to 6, we learned virtually no history. In Year 7, we had some fun learning about ‘cavemen’ and ancient Greece (history, apparently, started with the Greeks). Year 8 was medieval European history (specifically Christian-based – those evil Saracens, dontcha know), and Year 9 was Australian History.
It’s worth pointing out that when I say ‘Australian’ history, I’m talking ‘British’. There was a nod to the Aboriginals who came out to watch the First Fleet, but otherwise, the concept of terra nullius was firmly entrenched. All those explorers – Dampier, Cook, Burke, Hume – apparently wandered around or landed on a really big island with strange animals and no people. Except for the occasional ‘native tracker’, who seemed to spring from nowhere and act the part of the good little servant, we didn’t find out anything about the indigenous peoples. Oh, except for the occasional anecdote about ‘savages’ who attacked the white settlers.
We did spend a lot of time learning about Gallipolli – how it was all about mateship, and our brave men playing cricket on the beaches at Anzac Cove. At no time did we learn that it was a terrible defeat, or that our war dead were virtually led into a killing field. We had Australia Day dress-ups (oh, those colonial bonnets) in Primary School and Anzac Day ceremonies in High School.
(And while we’re on the subject of Anzac Day, you really have to wonder why Pyne and his ‘expert’ are so worried. Thanks to former Prime Minister John Howard, all our schools have flagpoles – and they use them. Anzac Day is commemorated every year with the minute’s silence. Primary kids learn about the origins of Anzac Day, are allowed to take the day off to march in the parade for their grandfathers, or even accompany marchers from battalions associated with their school (as my own children did last year, marching with the 2/14 Battalion in honour of Bruce Kingsbury, VC, after whom their school was named). It’s a part of school life in a way it never was during my early years – back then, we stood in silence but never really understood why.)
We learned about Chinese people on the goldfields, but not about the White Australia Policy. We learned about Changi and the Burma Railway, but not that we interned people in camps during World War II.
In short, we learned a piecemeal version of the history of our own country, and largely pretended the rest of the world didn’t matter. The National History Curriculum offers a much more comprehensive course that gives us ‘warts and all’ – as any student of history knows, you have to read the good with the bad, or you end up learning nothing. So where, exactly, is the ‘very one sided, politically correct view’ that so worries the Coalition?
You have to love that phrase, ‘politically correct’. It’s such a good insult to throw around. Say something that makes people uncomfortable? You’re politically correct. Point out where privilege is operating and people are/were disenfranchised? Likewise – and worse, you have a ‘black armband’ view. The Coalition seems to think it’s important that we don’t tell our kids what we did, what our ancestors did, what our country was like in the past and what its place is in the world.
This is a very dangerous way of thinking. It’s a truism that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What the Coalition proposes is not that we forget the past, but that we actively bury it. That we distort it. That we lie to our children and tell them that nobody really got hurt in white settlement, that Gallipolli was glorious and that we’re a homogenous, ‘Judeo-Christian’, white society – and that, by implication, everyone else is not really ‘Australian’.
It’s not just a step backwards. It’s a giant leap straight into the arms of propaganda – because, make no mistake, that is exactly the aim of the Coalition’s proposed ‘rewrite’. Donnelly, claims that those responsible for drafting the National Curriculum ‘are hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that make this nation unique’.
The key phrase there is ‘grand narrative’. Simply put, a grand narrative is an overarching story-of-stories that is used to replace smaller, more detailed stories. Most of the time, such a narrative leaves out or obscures more than it explains. In this case, Donnelly claims that the National Curriculum undermines the grand narrative of Australia’s British heritage and its debt to Europe (read: Britain, or at least northern Europe, possibly France if we’re feeling generous).
And well it should. However much Donnelly, Pyne and Howard would like it to be otherwise, Australia is not – and has never been – a little piece of Britain. We are far more complex, and our history is far richer. We do every student a disservice by trying to teach them otherwise.
You might not agree with the current (or proposed) school funding split. You might think NAPLAN is a horrible idea, and MySchool a waste of time. But when it comes to either teaching our kids the whole story, or giving them a pretty meagre pick-n-mix view of history – it should be a no-brainer.
And if giving the kids a perspective on Australia’s place in the world, our indigenous history, and the way we’ve been shaped by religions, cultures and political beliefs of all kinds – if giving them that makes us politically correct …
Let’s aim for a score of 10/10.