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It was back to the future with John Howard last week — history wars, culture wars, school curriculum wars, the lot.

Howard zeroed in on a draft for the national history curriculum, much of which he found to be “unbalanced, lacking in priorities and in some cases quite bizarre“. And specifically? “The curriculum does not properly reflect the undoubted fact that Australia is part of Western civilisation; in the process it further marginalises the historical influence of the Judeo-Christian ethic in shaping Australian society and virtually purges British history from any meaningful role.”

No surprises there.

The national curriculum agency ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) promptly rebutted Howard’s criticisms by detailing the draft curriculum’s content at each of eight year levels, but it is unlikely that it has heard the last of the matter.

Howard’s speech was given space and broad support by The Australian, and it echoes a swingeing attack on the civics and citizenship component of the national curriculum by the right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. The group’s Chris Berg wrote in Fairfax papers recently:

“When a group of academics tries to summarise the essential values of our liberal democracy, we should pay attention. After all, they hope to drill them into every child.”

Berg alleged that the academics and their fellow travellers have discarded such fundamentals as individual liberty, the free market and respect for hard-won institutions in favour of cant about social justice, the environment and multiculturalism:

“Imagine [that] the priorities were … material progress, the Australia-US alliance, and British culture. Remember the outrage over conservative bias in John Howard’s citizenship test? And that was just for migrants. This is for every Australian child.”

Howard was less aggressive than the IPA, and conceded that an emphasis on indigenous and Asian themes was overdue, but he also sent a not-too-subtle message to conservative forces. “If something is to be done about this curriculum,” he concluded after a detailed dissection of the history draft, “then only state governments and, in particular, their education ministers can do it.”

There would have been no need for Howard to remind his audience that education ministers in the four largest states are members of Coalition governments. Debate over schooling and curriculum has long split left and right all the way from how to teach the bubs to read (phonics versus whole word) to the structure of the system (choice versus common schooling).

Argument soon shrinks into boolean options: teacher-centred versus student-centred pedagogy, fields of study versus the great disciplines, content versus process, direct instruction versus constructivism, reading the classics versus understanding genres, rigour versus inclusiveness, excellence versus equality, reward for merit versus success for all, and, of course, glories of the West and British institutions versus the world in which we live.

The political polarisation of debate prevents most participants from acknowledging that many of these appositions are false, little more than coded rallying cries in the great struggle of us against them, or, at the ballot box, Labor versus the Coalition. Howard’s argument belongs to this adversarial tradition, and arises from his perception that ACARA and the history curriculum do too.

In the absence of Hegelian syntheses the best hope lies in trade-offs and compromise. The main threat in Howard’s abrupt re-entry to the debate is not to the content of the history curriculum (still less in what teachers actually teach and students actually learn), but to slow an erratic progress toward a less politicised and more national approach to schooling.

The national curriculum, still not implemented, has been more than 20 years in the making, and it has been compromise all the way. The fact that it is organised around disciplines rather than inter-disciplinary “studies” is a concession to the conservative view. The fact that there is a national curriculum at all, rather than eight separate state/territory curriculums, is more down to Labor agitation than Coalition preferences.

But it could all so easily come unstuck, with schools the losers. One straw in the wind is the fate of a Gonski proposal to set up a national schools resourcing body to push funding one or two steps away from party politics and one or two steps towards nationally consistency. That proposal has already been vetoed by the states.

ACARA may go the same way. With its many working parties and countless consultations, ACARA has succeeded in drawing into the game state and territory governments of different political stripes, the Catholics, the independents and the govvies, the universities, the employers, the community groups and all the rest, and it has steadily put the runs on the board.

But ACARA was created by Julia Gillard when she was education minister, and it was Gillard who revived the moribund idea of a national curriculum. There is a strong feeling in conservative circles that the compromises of schooling and curriculum have been struck on struck on the progressives’ ground and reflect the pervasively soft-left, bleeding-heart, anti-conservative culture of education, much in the way of the ABC.

One option for Abbott PM would be to dismiss the whole idea of a national curriculum and send it all back to the states and territories, although at least some of them would not welcome the trouble and the expense. Another option would be to try to bend the national curriculum to his very clear cultural purposes, indistinguishable from Howard’s.

*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to many state and national agencies and ministers of education

Peter Fray

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