At least at first glance, the draft English national curriculum released yesterday looks reasonably good. I was pleased to see specific reference to apostrophes, and encouraged by a story in this morning’s Age that Julia Gillard is also big on apostrophes:
As a solicitor at law firm Slater and Gordon in the 1980s and ’90s, Ms Gillard would get her staff to chant: ”One cat’s hat, two cats’ hats, where do the apostrophes go?”
She told her biographer, Jacqueline Kent: ”If I got a letter with it done wrong I would draw a cat with a hat at the bottom in the hope it would come back right the next time. They all thought I was kind of strange.”
That Gillard needed to use a primary school mnemonic to teach people working in law firms how to write letters shows how badly English teaching has failed over the last generation.
Though this English curriculum may be better than those currently in use by the states, I am still strongly opposed to the idea of a national monopoly curriculum. What we should have instead is competitive curricula. Each curriculum on offer could be adopted anywhere in Australia, but none would be mandated for every school.
Though there are educational reasons for avoiding monopoly – one size is unlikely to fit all, we need better pressures than politics for innovation and improvement, etc – other stories running in today’s papers highlight the political reasons against monopoly curriculum (this is as much a criticism of the current state monopolies as the national curriculum).
From the right, we are hearing criticism that the history curriculum offers too much of the ‘black armband’ view of history. According to Christopher Pyne, ‘While there are 118 references in the document to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and culture, there is one reference to Parliament, none to ‘Westminster’ and none to the ‘Magna Carta’.
While there are basics of English and maths that every student should learn, history is a far more flexible subject. While no competent Australian school history curriculum could neglect the fact that Australia was populated prior to European settlement, or that European settlement had severe consequences for Aboriginal people, parents and teachers could legitimately have very different views of how much Aboriginal content a history course should contain. European, American, Asian and especially English history explain more about why Australia is as it is today than Indigenous history; Aboriginal culture remains peripheral to everyday non-Indigenous Australian culture.
There is no need to settle these issues politically in a winner-take-all fashion. My fellow Carlton dwellers should be be able to have a history curriculum packed with Aboriginal misery and white racism, if that’s what they think their kids should learn. Other people should be able to have a curriculum heavy on European history. In areas with large Asian populations, it would make sense to offer a curriculum strong on Asian history. Curriculum markets can satisfy many different educational preferences, and save Aboriginal history from becoming a source of white political conflict.
Monopoly curricula will always be the subject of attempts at ideological political capture. This is highlighed in an op-ed by Monash University education academic Libby Tudball. Like many left-wing academics, Tudball sees the curriculum as inherently political, as a tool to be used by the left in the service of their political agenda:
There is also a groundswell of action around the world to reorient the role of education within the sustainability agenda. This calls into question the dominant approach of educating ”about” the environment and instead reflects the need for educating ”for” sustainability, engaging young people in critical reflection on their lifestyles and actions so they can make informed decisions and changes.
John Stuart Mill had it right in On Liberty 150 years ago:
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.