Sep 4, 2013

Abbott’s wild-goose chase for Marxists in the classroom

Tony Abbott says the school history curriculum is too left-leaning. But where's the evidence, asks Monash University history education researcher Anthony Taylor?

Karl Marx

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott claims leftist political interference in the history curriculum. But if there's been any politicised attempts at meddling in the history curriculum, they have come from the Right and not from the Left. Abbott told the National Press Club this week that national history curriculum "underplays the heritage of Western civilisation". Not only that but trades unions are accused of getting a guernsey while business doesn't. Improvising wildly, Abbott also thought there were a couple of Labor prime ministers mentioned in the document but not a single Coalition prime minister. What curriculum documents has he been reading? It's certainly not the one on the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority website. Leaving aside the contested word "heritage", even a quick glance shows that "Western civilisation" is dealt with in:
  • Year 3: Celebrations and commemorations in other places around the world; for example, Bastille Day in France, Independence Day in the United States, etc;
  • Year 4: European exploration and colonisation in Australia and throughout the world up to the early 1800s;
  • Year 5: A "study of colonial Australia in the 1800s. Students look at the founding of British colonies and the development of a colony";
  • Year 6: "Colonial Australia to the development of Australia as a nation, particularly after 1900 … Federation and experiences of democracy and citizenship over time … significance of Australia's British heritage, the Westminster system, and other models that influenced the development of Australia's system of government";
  • Year 7: "Students investigate ONE of these Mediterranean societies in depth: Egypt or Greece or Rome";
  • Year 8: "Renaissance Italy (c.1400 – c.1600)" and "Medieval Europe (c.590 – c.1500)";
  • Year 9: "The Industrial Revolution (1750 - 1914) …. industrialisation of Britain … the agricultural revolution, access to raw materials, wealthy middle class, cheap labour, transport system, and expanding empire) and of Australia" and "progressive ideas and movements (1750 – 1918) … emergence and nature of key ideas in the period, with a particular focus on ONE of the following: capitalism, socialism, egalitarianism, nationalism Imperialism, Darwinism, Chartism -- and World War I (1914-1918)", and;
  • Year 10: A modern Australia within a world context framework but still, we have "popular culture (1945 -- present) ... The nature of popular culture in Australia at the end of World War II, including music, film and sport", which would bring in US and British cultural influences).
It would be hard to jam anything else into an already packed curriculum of which, at a rough guess, the above represents about 50% of the total. As for any mention of trades unions, there are none at all in the primary and secondary curriculum, but there is certainly a mention of capitalism. With Labor prime ministers, there is not a single reference. And, in a fair and equitable way, there is no mention of any conservative prime minister. That doesn't mean they won't be studied; it just means that within broader topics they move more into the background when writing up a curriculum document. As it happens, Bob Menzies gets a specific must-do mention in the Senior Modern curriculum (years 11 and 12) but Labor prime ministers Ben Chifley and John Curtin are relegated to the interchange bench. Not even the Coalition's favourite deregulators Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are cited. Again, it doesn't mean they won't be studied within a broader topic. The point always when writing a curriculum document of this kind is to avoid overloading it with specifics. Good teachers will know how to handle the details. And at years 11 and 12, you tend to get the knowledgeable and experienced teachers. So what's the beef? I think I can see the Coalition might object to a couple of year 10 units -- one on environmentalism and one on rights and freedoms -- but I can assure readers that those units are in there as options because they are significant social and political movements. Good teachers will ask students to investigate their origins, activities and impact, not just use them as an occasion to spout propaganda. By the way, when referring to teachers' disposition, a research project I was involved with a few years back, clearly showed two things. First, the majority of a representative sample of secondary history teachers in Victoria lean slightly to the Left. No surprise there. Second, this leftish majority were disposed to give more time and more attention to the significance of conservative politicians than the right-leaning teachers would give to leftist politicians. That was a surprise. So much for Marxists in the classroom. *Anthony Taylor is a former director of the Australian government's National Inquiry into the Teaching and Learning of History, a former director of the government's National Centre for History Education and a former consultant for ACARA on the design of the national history curriculum.

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17 thoughts on “Abbott’s wild-goose chase for Marxists in the classroom

  1. thelorikeet

    There is a long-standing pattern in Abbott’s rantings: do something outrageous, accuse the nasty ALP of doing it, sit back and watch the uncritical media gobble it up.

    He’s done it again. A promise to politicise the curriculum; a swipe at the nasty ALP for packing history lessons with Marxist rhetoric, front page of the Oz.

    Have to respect the guy – he plays the media like an exhausted trout

  2. MJPC

    Wasn’t the Howard cause celebre the black armband view of history? Mr Tabbott has reached into the LNP pot of favourite issues to thrash to death and bought this one out for another airing to satisfy the uneducated, but will report anything LNP in some newspapers.
    I’m waiting for the Work Choices rabbit to be pulled out…it’s in the pot somewhere, possibly hiding till after the election…GHUA!

  3. Observation

    Here it comes, the confidence is starting to bleed out and with it the spots on this right wing leopard which will be glaringly obvious during his time as PM. Big business and corporations must be rubbing their hand with glee with more ferocity with every passing minute.

  4. klewso

    This is all too much like Japan and “WWII”?

    You ask what curriculum documents he’s been reading – you seem to forget his dislike for “reading (boring things, like reports)”, and his reliance on others to read them and tell him what such things mean, to them – that way he can blame someone else when things go wrong too – another fire-wall?

    [Where’s his mate (the electoragenic) Noel Pearson on this?]

  5. Jan Forrester

    His putative foreign minister has a new Colombo Plan in her drawer, her leader is already seeing reds under the desks. In fact we need to know a lot more about the region we live in, including the world’s longest civilisation, China – and those influenced by this civilisation. Doesn’t matter whether we like the current manifestation, we need to know.
    Mr Abbott’s classroom culture wars are self-defeating in the long term. But the Anglo heritage brigade don’t seem to think into the future, they are too busy reinventing the past.

  6. mikeb

    There is always a pattern behind conspiracy theories. I don’t know what that says about those who circulate them & those who choose to believe them.

  7. Mark Duffett

    The unpleasant language was uncalled for and regrettable, but nevertheless that compilation of responses was very useful in determining which parties stand with science against GM scare campaigners.

  8. Observation

    From memory, didn’t Howard have his sights set on this very subject while he was in power? Come to think of it Abbott does have the attributes of a puppet! The posture of a wooden frame when he walks like something out of the Thunder-birds. The square gaping mouth and the swiveling head. I can see him sitting on Johnny’s knee, rigid arms flapping about and head jerking from one side to the other.

  9. klewso

    Then there’s his very own Julie “Miss Penelope” Bishop …?

  10. Robert Corr

    The thrust of this article is absolutely right, but it’s disappointing that Anthony doesn’t seem to be familiar with how the Australian Curriculum is structured.

    The specific references were made in the Content Elaborations.

    John Curtin is mentioned here:

    Trade unions are mentioned here:

    And here:

    Now, apart from the fact that those references are all entirely appropriate in context, it needs to be noted that the Content Elaborations are not a compulsory part of the curriculum. They are simply indications to teachers of the level of detail and types of skills that are expected.

    As ACARA puts it:

    “Content elaborations are provided for Foundation to Year 10 to illustrate and exemplify content and to assist teachers in developing a common understanding of the content descriptions. They are not intended to be comprehensive content points that all students need to be taught.”

    So Abbott and Pyne are cherrypicking the curriculum to stir up the history wars, but the cherries do exist.

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