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Jan 31, 2011

Memo to Pyne: you're reading the wrong history curriculum

When it comes to Christopher Pyne, lawyer, republican and politician, a couple of things. First, as a lawyer, it is always important to read documents carefully, writes Tony Taylor co-editor of the upcoming History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives.

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Yesterday I sent off to a US publisher the final draft of a book — History Wars and the Classroom. The final sentence of one of my chapters, in dealing with history curriculum in Australia, reads as follows: “Of course, if a Labor federal government is replaced by a conservative administration, we start all over again.”

Little did I know that Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne would be on the case quite so quickly.

This morning, I’m reading The Age and there it is, the muesli-choking story. “Coalition would scrap curriculum” blared the headline, the story going on to say that if the Coalition gets into power it’s all change. This will especially be the case when it comes to history, Pyne added, criticising all that Asian and Aboriginal stuff and insisting, amongst other things, that classical civilisations Magna Carta, Christianity and (irony of ironies) the Bill of Rights/English Civil War should be highlighted and/or inserted.

The comments were taken from a speech to be delivered at the Institute of Public Affairs this morning (after I finish this piece) at the launch of an IPA review of the national curriculum with contributions by Chris Berg and Greg Melleuish. Berg wrote an op-ed article on this very subject for The Sunday Age a few weeks ago. I read it and dismissed it as someone who doesn’t know much about how education or history works.

As for Melleuish, a historian, it was he who was selected by the Howard government to design a national curriculum at the 2006 Australian history summit (remember that?) which was killed off by the summiteers within a couple of hours of its being tabled. And I do remember seeing Melleuish at two recent national curriculum forums where he was in a position to speak up loudly for the Magna Carta, etc.

As I remember it he remained silent throughout. When it comes to Pyne — lawyer, republican and politician — a couple of things. First, as a lawyer, it is always important to read documents carefully. My impression, from the reporting of his remarks, is that he must have been reading a different curriculum document from the one that I possess.

Classical civilizations (Egyptians, Greeks Romans) are dealt with in some detail in Year 7, together with some of that Asian stuff — mainly the ancient societies of China and India. As for that baron-benefiting beano to curb arbitrary rule of one (the king), the Magna Carta, it’s covered in Year 8 under the Feudalism overview and political features of medieval life in Europe.

Not that it’s explicitly mentioned but, as a teacher, you’d be daft not to spend some time on Runnymede, investigating a pioneering constitutional event, short-term dud that it was, but a long-term and major pan-European and pan-colonial accomplishment. Christianity is covered in Year 8 under “the spread of Christianity”, medieval Europe under the Crusades (not so good, that bit), the medieval dominance of the Catholic church and the Spanish conquest of the Americas (another not-so-good bit).

As for the Bill of Rights and the English Civil War, the former is covered in Year 10 under the optional “egalitarianism” and the latter is arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume).

By the way, in the current UK national curriculum Key Stage 3 program of study, where you’d expect to find Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Civil War — they’re not mentioned.

It doesn’t mean they’re not studied because, as with the Australian curriculum, the UK design is concept-led, not fact-led. Note to Pyne: if we had a curriculum that was fact-led, we’d have a very, very, very, very long chronicle, not a history. Second, and final point, and it’s yet another irony.

Pyne mourns the alleged absence of the Magna Carta and is quoted as saying: “I am happy to go back to the drawing board and start again. Until I am satisfied the curriculum is an improvement on what we have now, I won’t be going ahead with it.” What was that again about the Magna Carta and arbitrary rule of one, Christopher?

*Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University. He has just finished co-editing History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives. The book contains chapters on Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, UK and USA.

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