The never-ending story

While The Never Ending Story was a great title for the 1984 fantasy film, it’s also perfect to describe the cultural wars over the history curriculum.

Always contested

The content of the history curriculum has been, and always will be, contested. Who holds the pen, and who has the ear of the writers, are likely to determine the curriculum. Trying to move through the conjecture is difficult and the comments here will be contested by many, including Christians who themselves have a variety of views on the current curriculum, what is being proposed and what they themselves would like.

The content conflict is exacerbated by the time constraints of the curriculum. Each designer and writer is constrained and must make decisions about what it is that is so important for students to know and understand at each stage of schooling. And then there is the overlay of skills and perspectives that all students should gain through a study of history. So, who makes the decisions about the final product – academics, bureaucrats, politicians, teachers, interest groups, curriculum writers?

Current controversy

The current draft national history curriculum has already had considerable consultation and one might think that the final product reflects broad community opinion. However, from past experience, consultation has often been a matter of including what you want and attributing it to someone or groups within the consultation. Anyone wanting to challenge a draft has to mount overwhelming resistance to have an impact. For example, Alex Mills, a TCF member and one of the original Freedom Riders with Charles Perkins, has lobbied the NSW and national curriculum authorities and politicians for several decades about the lack of acknowledgement of the religious, especially Christian, motivation behind many of the key people and decisions in the history of Australia. Some of his efforts have now overflowed into the concern that the Christian and western foundations of liberal democracy, and Australia in particular, are not sufficiently recognised in the latest draft. But the pen remains firmly in the hands of secular writers whose lack of acknowledgement of religious influence suggests both ignorance and prejudice.

Currently, it is the Commonwealth minister who has raised concerns that have brought the cultural wars discussion to a head. His claim is that the draft national history curriculum would teach students a negative, miserable view of Australia leading to a lack of commitment to defending liberal democracy. His comments about Indigenous history and the sacredness of Anzac Day have been highlighted in the media. It will be the state and territory ministers who have the final say and their views are likely to be influenced by the education bureaucrats supporting their state or territory. But this final say on the curriculum will not be final, because for years, what is taught in schools has been determined by teachers, who have the practice of resisting any change they do not like. As evidenced by Aboriginal history and perspectives over the last forty years implementation has been slow and difficult. Any changes coming from this new history curriculum will similarly take decades to implement in Years K-10 where no external examinations drive change.

Moving forward

In his article We have some yawning gaps in balancing the history we teach (SMH16/11/21) Dr David Hastie, Associate Dean, Education Development at Alphacrucis College believes we need a balanced curriculum and that imbalance is at the base of minister Trudge’s comments. This curriculum balance is between three ideologies – skills (economic usefulness), cultural heritage (passing the “best” on through generations), and emancipation (questioning and opposing oppressive power structures). Hastie argues that all three are important and questions if emancipation has been overdone at the expense of cultural heritage reminding readers that emancipation without an understanding of cultural heritage is like a literary critic that hasn’t read anything.

These three ideologies are helpful for defining the debate, but should they have equal importance in defining the curriculum. Is balance between the three appropriate? Currently, the argument is that emancipation should dominate and that the skills students gain to interrogate our history are important for our future. Some see this as an imbalance.

Christian perspectives

As Christians we want to participate in the debate and honour God. Because we live in a liberal democracy that has deep Christian and western roots, we seek involvement in public discussion and debate. This witness makes God known in the wider community and answers the call to be the light and salt of society. However, Christians will still have a variety of views about the draft history curriculum and how history is currently taught in schools. But not participating in this debate will both weaken the focus on how Christianity has influenced our history and leave it to secularists to continue to mould a distorted history that fails to recognise the Christian values, people and beliefs that have helped to make Australia.

While these debates seem never ending, Christians know that they will end, and that perspective is also of great importance.

John Gore