Amid the culture wars, an old history teacher delivers a report card for the political class

2021-history-greg


Old History teachers like me are triggered by federal Education Minister Alan Tudge’s ruminations about the National Curriculum. He fears the recommended approach to teaching young people about war may lead to them being unwilling to take up arms for Australia.


He suggests Anzac Day should not be a “contested idea”. Yet Australians questioning war is nothing new, from Archbishop Daniel Mannix to the Cold Chisel hit Khe Sanh. I should know: in 1972, I burnt my draft card.

Though I respectfully considered David Hastie’s defence of “balance” in history in the Herald and The Age on Monday – “We have some yawning gaps in the history we teach” – my early education by Irish Catholic nuns nursed me in nuance. Hastie nobly suggests that “balance” in history teaches our children what is “best, good, honorable and beautiful” and should be served in equal measures with what he terms “emancipation” (a concept with its own convict heritage). For those less blessed by colonialism, cultural heritage and dispossession can be one and the same.

The chimeric notion of “balance” is a distraction in a debate that demands a franker assessment of the performance of our federal Minister for Education and his colleagues. In that context, it seems timely to provide some feedback and assessment of how our political class in general has performed in education this year. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of our elected representatives once enjoyed report cards. I can almost picture them as youngsters, eagerly brandishing their academic results and lavish praise from favourite teachers at unwitting passers-by.

Our expectations of our political representatives are modest at best. A basic understanding of the school system (simply having attended school at some point years ago will do), a passing regard for intellectual values and a willingness to learn will suffice. Unfortunately, on the latter two requirements, some of our leaders have not applied themselves in 2021. Like every teacher, I have great hope we can improve on this in future.

Does it really matter if the engagement of our political leaders in the public debate about education is stultifying? Some of their mob simply seem to be spoiling for a fight about everything from phonics to jingoism. Call me woke – and the cancel-culture conservatives will – but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that people making policy decisions about schooling respect critical thinking, questioning and the contest of ideas.

As educators, we believe everyone has the capacity to learn. Our political leaders would do well to listen more, particularly to teachers and others who have genuine expertise in the field of education. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not referring to carbon-copy cant from a cabal of conservative columnists, representatives of right-wing think-tanks or others who lend a veneer of respectability to anti-intellectualism.

This year, COVID-19 highlighted strengths and flaws in our federalism. Some days, our federal government risked irrelevancy as the states sorted it out. In a similar vein, my colleagues in schools and education leadership are very excited about the opportunities afforded through the ongoing work towards a new NSW curriculum. This work, and what it means for students and school staff, matters. As when we responded to the pandemic, let’s look and listen to the experts.

As a result of COVID-19, it was agreed that school reports should focus on sharing useful information for improvement. For the same reasons, I’m not going to give our decision-makers an A to E grade, just a comment: must try harder. And perhaps, when it comes to working for change that might, as David Hastie puts it, “propel us towards the great social goal of redemption and restoration”, so must we.



Greg  
Greg Whitby is the executive director of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta. Follow him on Twitter @gregwhitby
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