The Australian left just can’t help themselves. When the prime minister and his allies launch a political argument
about history teaching, they could just stand back and pose as
defenders of academic neutrality. Instead, they confirm all of the
right’s worst fears by jumping in with politicisation of their own.

Speaking yesterday to the annual conference of the Australian Education Union, president Pat Byrne, as reported in The Australian,
“warned that the debate over curriculums is being hijacked by
conservative commentators.” So far so good. But she went on to attack
the government over industrial relations, racism and RU486. Fair enough
for a union leader to talk about IR, but to rave on about other
political issues just plays into the government’s hands.

Hence also the damaging quotations that Kevin Donnelly was able to produce yesterday in his attack on teacher education. Things like “an equal and liberating school system requires a
revolutionary transformation of economic life,” or the “commitment to
social justice and equity as the purpose and outcome of both school and
teacher education,” or that “Australian society is ‘disfigured by class
exploitation, sexual and racial oppression and in chronic danger of war
and environmental destruction’.”

Very possibly Donnelly is quoting some of his enemies out of context.
Certainly he seems to mix up leftist ideology with foggy but
non-ideological bureaucratese. And some of his barbs are off-target:
what’s wrong with seeing education as “socially and historically
constructed”? And is it really a bad thing “to produce young adults who
would challenge the status quo through skills of critical inquiry”?
(Better surely than producing dull conformists who can’t think for
themselves; society has enough of those already.)

But the left has given its critics the ammunition. You don’t actually
have to be a right-wing ideologue, or even a Howard supporter, to think
that, for example, narrative thread in history is a good thing, and to
try to teach history to beginners without it is going to be confusing
and alienating. As Greg Melleuish said earlier in the week, “Narrative is also an indispensable tool
for the study of history because there are sequences in history and it
is impossible to understand historical events without knowing what came
before.”

Peter Fray

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