A cultural imbalance: the draft curriculum disserves Western traditions and values - The Centre for Independent Studies
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A cultural imbalance: the draft curriculum disserves Western traditions and values

Australia’s first Prime Minister believed in free, compulsory and ‘unsectarian’ education, backing the 1880 NSW Public Education Act to revolutionise access for those aged between 6 and 14. The youngest of nine children, whose mother founded a girls’ school, he honed his debating skills at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts.

What would Barton make of the uncertainty around Australian education in the 21st century? Looking at decades of national and international test results, government reports and public commentary, he might well conclude that the nation’s youngest citizens are not thriving academically.

Given the current controversy over a perceived imbalance in the study of Indigenous and Western cultures, how might Barton frame a submission to the 2021 Review of the Australian Curriculum?

After years of travel across a vast and sparsely populated continent, writing and making speeches to encourage shared purpose and a national mindset, he would surely sympathise with the federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, in whose lap this project ultimately falls.

The Australian Curriculum should be a succinct, nation-building document offering every student, teacher, parent, employer and taxpayer reasons for optimism and pride. Without compromising the flexibility of jurisdictions and schools to adapt the curriculum to meet their students’ particular needs, it remains the education instrument with the greatest potential to unite schools and teachers in achieving better academic outcomes for all Australian children, reduce duplication of effort and bring economic efficiencies.

This latest Review reveals longstanding deficits in education strategy that prevent progress and attract unnecessarily divisive debates about how and what our children should learn.

The immediate concern, however, is ACARA’s failure to base this Review on a succinct, academically rigorous framework to guide the writers in all decisions to ‘refine and reduce the amount of content … to focus on essential content or core concepts’.

With only the nebulous 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration and intellectually hollow Shape of the Australian Curriculum (Version 5.0 – June 2020) to guide the process, it is no wonder that Minister Tudge and others cannot readily accept aspects of the draft now available for national consultation.

According to the Alice Springs Declaration, the national curriculum should ensure that ‘As reflective, active and informed decision-makers, students will be well placed to contribute to an evolving and healthy democracy that fosters the wellbeing of Australia as a democratic nation.’

Despite stated aims to instil ‘an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture’, the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration never formally acknowledges the richness and complexity of thousands of years of Western civilisation.

The Shape Paper mirrors this deficit:

The Australian Curriculum must ensure young people have a good understanding of the nature of Australian society within which they will be living and working as adults. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and perspectives are an important part of the development of our nation, as are the traditions and values of what is often referred to as ‘Western society’.

The Declaration’s near silence on ‘the traditions and values of what is often referred to as Western society’ may help to explain any cultural imbalance in the draft curriculum, seen most clearly in the History and Civics and Citizenship material but also reflected in English, the Arts, Languages, and other learning areas.

When we teach our children the golden rule – to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves – we demonstrate awareness of an ancient ethical behaviour that has its origins in Buddhism, Christianity, Confucian and other belief systems.

This is just one of the values at the heart of our commitment to equality, compassion, and the rule of law, being essential knowledge for our children in the debate about how best to organise society for the common good.

Comparing her son’s education to her own and that of her parents, one mother has written about her concerns. Emma McCaul, 2019 Thawley Essay prize winner and author of As History Fades Into History, points to the irony that ‘Indigenous Australians know that history and culture must be fought for and proudly expressed if it is to be preserved and passed on to their children, but other Australians seem to have lost the will to take this path.’

Self-evidently, loss of interest in the past means students will have far less capacity to become, as the Alice Springs Declaration puts it, ‘successful lifelong learners [who can] make sense of their world and think about how things have become the way they are.’