The Great Australian Curriculum War

For Australians, the question is which nation they are studying: a territory invaded in 1788 by white colonialists who clashed violently with Indigenous Aborigines or a land that was settled peacefully and where conflict with the inhabitants wasn't the result of a deliberate eradication policy.
What history is taught, and not taught, speaks to a nation's sense of identity

John Zubrzycki 5 April 2014

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has complained that new textbooks gave equal weight to ANZAC Day as Ramadan and Buddha's birthday. He singled out Australia's history curriculum for "not recognizing the legacy of Western civilization and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as ANZAC Day."


Babakiuera (Bar-b-cue-area) Short Film

In January Mr. Pyne, who became education minister last September, appointed a conservative-leaning panel to review a newly introduced national curriculum to ensure that it's unbiased and tackles "real-world issues." The panel is due to report to the government by July 31.

As in many countries, what history is taught, and not taught, speaks to a nation's sense of identity. For Australians, the question is which nation they are studying: a territory invaded in 1788 by white colonialists who clashed violently with indigenous Aborigines or a land that was settled peacefully and where conflict with the inhabitants wasn't the result of a deliberate eradication policy. Today Aborigines make up less than 3 percent of Australia's population of 23 million.

Mr Pyne's review has alarmed educators who want the curriculum to reflect Australia's 50,000 year-old indigenous culture, its ties with its Asian neighbors, and the importance of environmental sustainability. The opposite camp argues that pandering to such progressive causes distracts teachers from core subjects such as math and English.

Curriculum rollout

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The review took teachers by surprise, coming after all states and territories completed the rollout of the national curriculum, which began in 2010 under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the national curriculum is the requirement that every subject must be interpreted through a prism involving three cross-curriculum priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures; Asia and Australia's engagement with the region; and sustainability. This goes beyond social sciences: high school math teachers are asked to consider the "cultures and histories" of indigenous people and the Asian region.

Kevin Donnelly, a former teacher and political consultant who co-chairs the review board, has taken issue with such guidelines. "The pendulum has moved too far towards that kind of approach and we really need to balance that with an understanding that our political, our legal institutions are derived from Western civilization," he told a recent public forum.

Kathe Kirby, the executive director of the Melbourne-based Asia Education Foundation, rejects that charge. "The majority of the curriculum is still too Eurocentric. Children aren't exiting the school system with a fundamental knowledge of the Asian region," she says.

As for the cross-curriculum priorities, she says they will help students understand the forces that will shape their future. "By the time a child starting school this year enters the workforce, China and India will be the world's largest economies," she says.

An excerpt from the 'History textbooks in crosshairs of Australia's curriculum wars' by John Zubrzycki Christian Science Monitor 5 April 2014