Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

The Right way to teach kids

It is tempting to oppose the federal governments plan for a national schools curriculum for the simple reason that the Murdoch press has campaigned for it so long and so dishonestly.

For several months now The Australian, in particular, has scoured the nations classrooms for evidence of falling standards, politically biased teachers, hidden cultural agendas and creeping egalitarianism, trumpeting the discovery of every peccadillo with the warning that the country is facing an educational apocalypse engineered by the sinister forces of Marxism/feminism/post-modernism/unAustralianism.

Shrillest of the doom criers is someone called Kevin Donnelly, an ex-chalky who is now a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party and a former chief of staff to Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews, a job which indicates a position in the political spectrum somewhat to the right of the soup spoon. Donnelly is not actually employed by The Australian, but has been granted the extraordinary privilege of editorial space about three times a week for the past year. What makes it even more extraordinary is that he is allowed to use the space to publish what is essentially the same article, over and over again.

His thesis, if one can dignify his diatribes with such a description, is that our children are the innocent victims of a long running plot by the Left to destroy educational standards in every subject and at every level. Exactly why the Left (whoever it may be) should wish to embark on such a course is not explained; we are expected to understand that this is just what the Left does.

Donnellys conspiracy theory has been warmly embraced by the federal Education Minister, Julie Bishop, who refers to the hijacking of the curriculum by Chairman Mao-driven ideologues, thus showing a lamentable ignorance of Chinese history: for all his faults Mao Zedong did more to eliminate illiteracy than any leader in modern times. And of course our beloved Prime Minister has joined in about the need to rescue our, by which he means his, culture from the fangs of the Left.

But before examining our Dear Leaders plans to impose his own dogma, it should be noted that there are two quite distinct arguments going on. The first is about standards: measurable levels of achievement reached by Australian children in their particular courses and age groups. And here, despite the fulminations of Donnelly and his political chorus line, Australia actually does rather well.

The OECDs Program for International Student Assessment is a comprehensive survey of 15-year-old students in 41 countries. In the last published results for 2003 Australia was ranked second behind Finland in literacy, fifth in mathematics behind Hong Kong, Finland, South Korea and the Netherlands, fourth in science behind Finland, Japan and South Korea and fifth in problem-solving behind South Korea, Hong Kong, Finland and Japan. As a matter of comparison the United States, whose approach Donnelly wants Australia to follow, was well down the list below the OECD average, in fact. So while there is room for improvement it would be nice to knock Finland off the situation can hardly be said to be critical.

The second argument, the one Howard says is closest to his heart (his what?), is the one about content; and this is where it gets subjective. Do you teach the classics, and if so do you put them in a strictly historical context or do you try and relate them to contemporary theories and concerns? Is there a place for popular culture and if so where? When considering the answer to this one, remember that the noted Howard hugger Imre Saluszinsky, hand-picked as chairman of the Australia Councils Literature Board, regards Bob Dylan as the worlds greatest living poet.

Should Australian history be seen only through Geoffrey Blaineys white blindfold, or should we also don Henry Reynoldss black armband? And is it more important to have a thorough grounding in the British history leading up to the settlement in 1788 or the Asian history of our geographic neighbourhood? How about Aboriginal history and culture? And in lessons about civics, should we stick to the facts (the Constitution, levels of government, elections and parliament etc) or should we also discuss values, democratic and otherwise?

These are serious questions which deserve a serious debate, and not only from the politicians. There is surely a case for allowing each school or community or state to resolve them in its own way. But Howard and Bishop are intent on imposing their own version of the truth upon all of us, like it or not. If the ideologues of the Left are not in control now and all the evidence suggests that their influence is greatly exaggerated then the ideologues of the Right soon will be.

Here again is Kevin Donnelly: Imagine shopping at a supermarket, buying a car or choosing a holiday and being told that the only option you have is government-funded, designed and controlled, that you must choose from what the state makes available. Forget freedom of choice, the power of the market in successfully meeting personal needs and tastes, and the failure as evidenced by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union of the state monopoly represented by communism....

Instead of applying a one-size-fits-all approach to education, governments should ensure more parents, especially those least able to afford it, are in a better position to choose what is best for their children. Instead of imposing a state-mandated monopoly on education, with all its inefficiencies and flaws, governments should be freeing up the system and ensuring the focus is on improving learning outcomes and raising standards.

He was actually defending the right of private schools to access public funding; but precisely the same argument could apply against the uniform curriculum. However, you wont find it in The Australian. The Right has never been obsessively committed to intellectual diversity. Or even intellectual honesty, come to that.

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