A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Indoctrinating Our Children? The Proposed National History Curriculum

I'm all for our public schools teaching our children history... especially local history. Personally, I take the position that every child should learn some history (whether he or she becomes a butcher, baker or candlestick maker) because as the saying goes, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Plus there's also the all-important fact that butchers, bakers and candlestick makers do become taxpayers and voters. But there is huge a difference between teaching the facts and figures, on the one hand, and on the other hand, trying to pummel our children with a particular view point or ideology. Over the weekend, a news item appeared in the Melbourne Herald Sun that caused a reaction in some circles:

HISTORIANS say the new national modern history curriculum for schools reads like a Marxist manifesto that ignores popular aspects of our past and neglects Australia’s role in world politics and war.
The course, designed for years 11 and 12, is heavily focused on revolutionary struggles, colonial oppression and women's struggle for equality...

Historian Andrew Garvie said the course agenda should be altered to give a more balanced view of history.
"This appears to be a very trendy, right-on curriculum. It looks heavily influenced by a Marxist view of history - there's lots about about revolution and struggles against oppression," Mr Garvie said.
"But it lacks an appreciation of Australia's place in the world.
"There seems to be very little about our military history or our links with Britain. Gallipoli and Kokoda appear to be just footnotes to the whole thing."
He said the course also seemed to be organised as a "slice of life" approach to history.
"It seems to me students will be given bits of history to study. They may not gain an appreciation of the whole of an era or century," Mr Garvie said.
Education consultant Russell Boyle said the history curriculum was too selective.
"The ancient history curriculum spans the period from pre-history to 500BC, while the period of investigation in the draft modern history curriculum is from the late 18th century through to the end of the 20th century," Mr Boyle said.
"There is much in the period in between that would deepen students' understanding of the events and issues that have shaped humanity and our contemporary world."

On reading this, it immediately disturbed me that our public education system is being employed a) to promote a certain worldview and b) to compel young learners to think in a certain way. Still it isn't the first time and it won't be the last.

However, reminding myself that it's hard to judge the merits of the proposal just relying on someone else's opinion, I felt, as a literate individual and parent, that it was vital for me to check out the Modern History curriculum for myself as a stake holder in this process of drafting educational material for our children. I chose the Modern History curriculum mainly because it's the area of history that I'm most familiar with.

Some initial thoughts. 
A cursory look at the draft curriculum does suggest a kind of piecemeal, bitsy overview of history. I'd be quite interested to see how it all fills out contentwise. While I wouldn't throw around words like "brainwashing" or "propaganda" as readily as some have, I would say that the curriculum does adopt a Marxist lite approach to making sense of recent history. A Marxist approach, if memory serves, tends to dwell on conflict and oppression as a major theme of history and is stridently political in its outlook. Marxism by its nature, is inevitably divisive because it perceives the world in terms of competing interests battling it out in the public sphere for political status.and credibility
I am also someone who is of the opinion that Marxism with its political expression in Communism, with its underlying atheistic, materialist focus was ironically the harbinger of much conflict in the 20th century and some of its aftershocks can still be felt in this new century.

While I accept that a reasonable argument can be made for adopting a model like this at some minor level it concerns me that it can skew a young person's sense of history in a particular direction and perhaps lead to a misinformed cynicism. While I do agree that the twentieth century is marked by a great deal of global conflict, I am not sure that a Marxist approach will cover the scope of western history. My other problem with the Marxist worldview is its tendency to deal in simplistic dichotomies of oppressors and oppressed, colonizer, colonized etc without taking into account the complexities within social groups or give consideration to the historical context in which these relationships take place. It bothers me that a lot of thinking about history today has a tendency to impose our modern sensibility on people who lived 50 years or a hundred years ago. A case in point is slavery... often seen as an exclusively imperialistic European practice which really had been going on for thousands of years practiced by many world superpowers throughout history.

I am also in agreement with Russell Boyle, who was quoted in that article, that the time period needs to be stretched out a bit more covering significant periods such as The Enlightenment and the Age of  (European) Exploration. It always surprises me that the Enlightenment, which has had such a significant impact on Western Civilization (for good and bad) gets very little play in public discourse.

I think there is a place for young people to be exposed to to multiple view points as they do when they enter university after they've been properly equipped to think for themselves. I don't think I can depend on the public school system to do that for my children. Like it or not, it behooves us as parents to be proactive in our children's education, whether we use the public system, enrol our children in private schools or opt for home schooling.

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