A few years ago the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said the national school history syllabus should portray Britain as “a beacon of liberty for others to emulate“. Last Friday, others did emulate, with Australian Minister for Education Christopher Pyne announcing a review of the national school syllabus, because it doesn’t give enough credence to the “benefits of Western civilisation“.
Publicising the review, Pyne said the school syllabus should acknowledge that Australia’s historical treatment of Indigenous people was “less than ideal” but that the strengths of Western civilisation deserve a greater place. According to Pyne, two aspects of Australian history are paramount, the first being Indigenous history, and the second being “our beginnings as a colony and therefore our Western civilisation, which is why we are the kind of country we are today“.
This means for example, a greater focus on Anzac Day. Anzac Day is a national day to commemorate the Australian and New Zealanders who have died in war, which began as a commemoration of the battle of Gallipoli in World War I. It’s already in the curriculum, but according to Pyne, we need more.
One of the two men appointed by Pyne to lead the review, Kevin Donnelly, has criticised the current Australian syllabus for underplaying “the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life”, not to mention “uncritically promoting diversity”.
By shifting the focus off diversity and on to war heroes and mother England, the Australian syllabus would be working to construct an Australian national identity that is primarily White, Christian, and at war.
No one is forgetting that Australia was colonised by the British, but promoting certain values on the basis of this historical moment is worrying. In emphasising the importance of Western civilisation to Australia today, Indigenous sovereignty is belittled and Australia’s formative history of immigration is side-lined. An array of cultural and philosophical influences makes Australia the kind of country we are today. By shifting the focus off diversity and on to war heroes and mother England, the Australian syllabus would be working to construct an Australian national identity that is primarily White, Christian, and at war.
This complements the broader agenda of the current Australian government. Just consider Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s rhetoric in relation to asylum seekers arriving by boat. Around the time the educational review was announced, Abbott was comparing the government’s clandestine approach to its abusive treatment of asylum seekers as akin to the need to keep secrets from enemies during wartime. Australia is at war, apparently, with people smugglers and with boats. Before he was elected, Abbott said, “I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door”, in reference to asylum seekers travelling by boat.
On colonisation, Abbott has reflected that “Western civilisation came to this country in 1788 and I’m proud of that“.
The consistency of the rhetoric among Abbott, Pyne, and Donnelly is alarming, as is their sentiment that history should be written by the victors.
One supposed shortcoming of the current school syllabus is its acknowledgement that topics can be understood from different perspectives.
In a blog on the website for his education think-tank, Donnelly has criticised the way “Australian teachers are told to be facilitators, to base learning on the child’s world and to embrace open classrooms.” In the same piece he condemns a draft civics and citizenship curriculum for its “postmodern, subjective definition of citizenship, one where ‘citizenship means different things to people at different times and depending on personal perspectives‘”.
Is it fair to shrug off definitions that acknowledge subjectivity as indulgent postmodernism? Citizenship does mean different things to different people, especially in a country where Indigenous people were only given the full rights of citizens in 1967.
Like all nations, our history includes moments of tyranny and oppression, and moments of courage and foresight.
What is being taught in schools will always be subject to politics; at one stage or another all states grapple with the question of how to present divisive topics like history and national identity to school students. Beyond this, what is seen as true or appropriate information regarding sexual health, climate change, and even evolution continue to be wildly contested in classrooms around the world. It is not only an issue of syllabus of course; bias will exist in the views of teachers, the values of each school, the writers of textbooks and more. But this can be minimised by having an independent body to review the curriculum, and by teaching students that information is presented and interpreted from different perspectives.
Students need to know about spin.
The review that has just been launched in Australia looks as if it will run counter to such safeguards.
Angelica Neville is an independent writer from Australia currently undertaking her postgraduate studies at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.