News that PM John Howard has been micro-managing the drafting of the new history curriculum (Crikey, yesterday) should come as no surprise.

For a long time many people were fooled into the belief that John Howard worked from a set of political values befitting a conservative. As his sudden reversal on a lifetime’s support of states’ rights – once Labor had the whole set – showed, this is bollocks.

Howard is a cynical professional politician and the polls would seem to indicate that most people now share this belief. Part of Howard’s problem is that public dislike of him is now categorical – if he donated blood folks’d say he did it to get the free biscuit.

But like all cynics, Howard is not bereft of sentimental attachments to concrete objects in place of values. The Don, the flag … and those old High School Readers that taught generations of students a unitary narrative history and a particular interpretation of it.

The Victorian State Readers announced in their foreword that they were telling the “story of our Race and its role in history” (paraphrasing from memory). It wasn’t necessarily a pernicious triumphalist version – after WW1 it spoke of the role “our race” had to play in ensuring peace.

Howard seems to want a curriculum pretty much of that form, even if the R word is removed. But it’s a fantasy, a memory of schooling suited to an earlier era, when the majority of students left school at 14 or 15, in an era when sources of media and information were far more limited. Your family, your neighbours, your church, a handful of newspapers, ABC radio, a dog-eared copy of Esquire left in the barber’s … that was about it, all within a pretty much monocultural society, with international travel a dream for most.

Education has changed because childhood has changed, not because sinister lefties have been developing curriculum bombs in basements.

From the age of three or four one of the main tasks of growing up is synthesising a world-view from an oversupply of information. Kids asks questions because they’re engaged with a world in which a multiplicity of contradictory info comes at them constantly, and because they’re constantly engaging with that world.

So curriculum design includes questions because kids ask them anyway, and any history course that doesn’t include such will bore them rigid. You can try and nail down “the story of WW1” as a given if you’re fool enough – but if your class includes anglo, Turkish, Greek and Arab-descended kids you’ve got at least four perspectives before you’ve even started. They will compare it to İraq anyway, ask questions about the nature of war, invasion etc etc. Any teacher worth their salt will encourage that, and any feasible curriculum has to be designed on that basis.

You’re also educating kids for a world not of stable and unchanging trades and professions but for a world in which the world, work, etc changes rapidly, constantly, unceasingly. Education is about teaching kids how to keep revising their world view, not giving them a fixed stock of “true” info.

Having looked at the leaked framework, it seems to me that it’s got more of a narrative spine than older versions – a good thing – but that the method – questions, issues, themes – is virtually unchanged. As it cannot but be.

Should Hendo and Blainey try and nail down a recitative as curriculum, teachers simply won’t teach it. The whole thing is shaping up as another Howard fiasco.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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