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Teaching history with no regard for civilisation



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Teaching history with no regard for civilisation Published 1/2/2011

The starting point for a national curriculum has to be that it improves upon each of the eight state-based curricula - some of which have been roundly criticised for many years, in fact for decades by some commentators, as being mediocre, too focussed on skills at the expense of knowledge and failing to generate excellence among Australia's school students.

Late inclusion: even the Magna Carta just scraped into our history curriculum.

One has to ask the question - would we bother to invest in a national curriculum if it doesn't meet that test? The answer to that in my opinion is no. As Education Minister, I would not sign up to a national curriculum that does nothing to improve upon what already exists. It is not worth doing if it simply embeds under a national umbrella the failures that have been identified over many years at the state and

territory level.

Unfortunately, the proposed history discipline is found wanting. It is not something that I would be prepared to accept as Education Minister. If elected at the next federal election, it would be my intention to initiate a review of at least the history discipline in the national curriculum to ensure that it achieves the all important goal of filling young minds with the knowledge of why Australia is like it is today. In other

words, how did our society develop and from what well spring did we come?

No history curriculum in Australia can honestly address these questions and impart knowledge in this subject without tracing the history of Western Civilisation. Yet that is exactly what the drafters of the history curriculum have attempted to do.

The history curriculum is piecemeal, tangential and oblique. It covers aspects of our society's history without having to confess what the drafters must regard as an historical embarrassment - that we are who we are today because of our Western heritage. It is our Western heritage that gives us our belief in the rule of law, tolerance of religious and political minorities, embrace of many cultures within the Australian culture, our respect for individual rights as embodied in our Parliamentary

democracy and the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and the Parliament.

The history curriculum as drafted manages to avoid any reference to the English Bill of Rights or the English Civil War between the Parliament and the King! The Magna Carta was only included as an afterthought in the December 8 draft. Yet Australia would not be as we know it today without these events and movements in our history. The history curriculum ignores them rather like an embarrassing relative at Christmas Day lunch whom it was hoped couldn't make it this year but did.

In yet another example of the inadequacy of the history curriculum as drafted, an in depth study of the impact of Christianity, despite it being undeniably intertwined with the development of Western Civilisation for two thousand years, doesn't make it into the curriculum, as David Daintree writes in the Institute of Public Affairs-Mannkal monograph on the curriculum: "the compilers of the draft curriculum have chosen the simplest strategy of all: deliberate, pointed, tendentious and outrageous silence."

Instead, the curriculum has been informed by three themes - indigenous culture, Australia's engagement with Asia and sustainability.

While all three are important, how did ACARA arrive at these themes being the most vital to inculcate students with a knowledge of Australian history? ACARA needs to explain how the development of Western Civilisation is less important to an understanding of who we are and why our society works in a particular way than sustainability, indigenous culture and engagement with Asia? Until they can convince me of that, why would I, as a potential Education Minister should the Coalition win the next election, adopt as the Australian history curriculum a document that is so flawed?

There is another question I would add to that - what sort of Minister - or Prime Minister - would enthusiastically embrace such a curriculum that is so manifestly inadequate?

In continuing to champion this document, it is clear that the Minister has either not taken the trouble to study the drafts that he has signed up to, or the Minister is indifferent to the curriculum's content. Either way, he stands condemned.

There is still time to address these many concerns. The most recent meeting of education and schools Minister's determined that the introduction of the curriculum be delayed until 2013.

Greg Melleuish points the way forward in his piece for the IPA-Mannkal monograph. He outlines the elements that would impart to students aspects of our shared "significant past" that, as he puts it:

"Australians should be aware (of) if they are to make a reasonable fist at understanding the world in which they live and thus be able to act as good citizens."

Briefly, those elements would encompass - "environmental factors that have shaped the past"; that "individuals matter" (for example, without Alexander the Great there would not have been a Hellenistic period); "the distinctive features of the traditions that have shaped the civilisation of which they are part"; and the particular history of Australia including, of course, the history of the indigenous people of Australia.

If we agree that a national curriculum is right for Australia at this time, then now is the time to revisit the content of the proposed curriculum for the history discipline.