National Curriculum gets our history badly wrong

Bookmark and Share Education | Chris Berg
The Sunday Age 9th January, 2011

Julia Gillard began the development and implementation of the national curriculum as minister for education in the somewhat happier days of the Rudd government. It hasn't gone well. The curriculum's implementation problems keep piling up. It's not at all ready to be taught.

The plan was to have the curriculum rolled out in the 2011 school year, but only the ACT will meet that deadline.

New South Wales and Western Australia have decided to delay the curriculum to 2013. The Victorian government announced recently it would do the same. But there are problems with what's in the curriculum too.

Take, for example, the history syllabus. After a full quota of compulsory schooling, Australian students will be none the wiser about the origins and central tenets of liberalism: the basics of individual rights, representative democracy and the market economy, and the importance of civil society.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are the absolute fundamentals of Western civilisation. And they are missing from the national curriculum.

One need look no further than how the curriculum purports to teach ''struggles for freedom and rights'', a ''depth study'' for year 10 students.

The struggle for liberty against tyranny is one of the most important themes of the history of the past 500 years. From the English Civil War to the American and French revolutions, the proclamation of the rights of individuals has given us a rich inheritance of liberalism and civil liberties. That, at least, is how you'd think it would be taught.

But according to the national curriculum, the struggle for individual liberty started in 1945. Because that's when the United Nations was founded.

To hinge the next generation's understanding of individual rights on such a discredited institution is inexcusable. And it says a lot about the ideology of the curriculum's compilers: as if individual rights were given to us by bureaucrats devising international treaties in committee.

Do we owe our liberties to centuries of effort by moral philosophers and revolutionaries opposed to repressive governments? Or do we owe our liberties to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, devised by governments, and which only took force in 1976? The curriculum implies the latter.

Students go on to study the fight for freedom in the developing world and battles for rights of developed-world minorities. Worthy topics. But oppressed minorities were seeking the same rights held by the majority. Aboriginal Australians wanted full political rights. Black Americans wanted an end to discriminatory Jim Crow laws. To teach the struggle for minority rights without mentioning how the idea of universally applicable rights came into being is to distort history.

We could dismiss this distortion as an accident if not for the strong impression it would give students - that the history of Western civilisation is primarily characterised by the oppression of minorities, not the long, slow, spluttering development and expansion of political freedom, liberalism and prosperity.

Rights denied to racial minorities is a stain on our past, but it is not the sole attribute of our history. If the struggle for individual rights against the tyranny of government is one pillar of the history of Western civilisation, the other crucial pillar is the boom in wealth and well-being over the past two centuries.

Here too the national curriculum is distinctly lacking. The year 9 study of the Industrial Revolution includes weeks pondering ''the 19th-century concept of progress'' - insinuating that a belief in progress is anachronistic. The syllabus keeps students' attention on labour conditions, social problems and the slave trade. Again: worthy topics. But it is an accepted historical truth the Industrial Revolution was the bed on which our affluence was born. Hopefully that can be squeezed in between discussions on dark satanic mills, machine-breaking and limits to growth.

And the Industrial Revolution was the period in which slavery was ended. Slavery has been a constant throughout history. Its elimination is humanity's greatest achievement. But introducing slavery in the Industrial Revolution unit suggests something else: that the invention of modern capitalism was somehow to blame for this ancient crime.

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Industrial Revolution is one we should encourage in students.

Yet the word ''entrepreneur'' appears nowhere in the curriculum. And when the curriculum talks about ''wealth'', it only refers to the distribution of wealth, not the creation of wealth.

Sure, the ideological assumptions in the national curriculum are subtle. But they're pernicious.

Students will not be taught the origins of their world. They'll learn only of Western civilisation's mistakes, while staying ignorant about its extraordinary achievements.

So Canberra's inability to implement the national curriculum may be for the better.