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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.

Peter Fray

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