NSW curriculum reform: deception by omission

June 1, 2021
Young people’s education extends beyond the classroom but what students learn or do not learn there has a significant and long-term impact. Photo: Tumisu/Pixabay

For the first time in three decades, the NSW school curriculum, from Kindergarten to Year 12, is undergoing a complete reform. It is important to note what is being omitted.

As Howard Zinn once suggested, the way in which we are deceived by history is not that lies are told, but that things are omitted. If a lie is told, you can check it, whereas if something is omitted you have no way of knowing.

His argument needs to be heard in this instance, in which dissenting voices are silenced and inconvenient truths omitted.

Professor Geoff Masters was commissioned to undertake a systematic curriculum review and recommend changes. A Legislative Council (LC) committee recently released its own report on his NSW Curriculum Review and added its own recommendations.

Masters’ review is written in measured terms. The LC committee’s report, by contrast, is full of incendiary language — but has the merit of making clear some of the parts it wants the new curriculum to omit.

It states it “takes seriously Minister Sarah Mitchell's public declaration that overtly political content must be removed from the classroom” and goes on to say that such political content “includes the growing trend in education for neo-Marxist propaganda like post-modernism and post-structuralism to pollute the minds of students”.

Reflecting the new national educational policy — the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, which sets out a “national vision for education” which, in reality, is an attempt to depoliticise students — the LC report is silent on climate change.

It is also hostile to the idea of retaining “sustainability” as a cross-curriculum priority, stating: “It is difficult to know why ‘Sustainability’ is a higher cross-curriculum priority than say ‘economic growth and recovery’”.

The greatest omission from the LC report is any mention of school’s contradictory purposes: preparing young people for employment and the goal of young people becoming “active and informed citizens” who “work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments”.

This tension between the economic and political purposes of education is part of the inherent contradiction between capitalism and democracy.

Less radical, but no less important, is that the LC report ignores the high rates of unemployment and underemployment — denigratingly referred to as “underutilisation” — among one in three people between the ages of 15 and 24. 

Instead, it maligns the “left-wing economic theory that the nature of work is being transformed … with automation supposedly creating mass unemployment in Western economies” and, in a striking rejection of current work place inequities, dismisses those who attempt to “punt wildly on matching up the school curriculum to unpredictable labour market trends”.

The report’s treatment of First Nations people’s history and culture is similarly dismissive. It glosses over the “significant mistakes” of colonial Australia and concludes that the colonial governors “tried to civilise those around them”.

It argues that students should be “learning about the joy and wonder of historical events” rather than being “required to question how our knowledge of history has been ‘socially constructed’”, which might encounter opposing historical perspectives.

While the LC report agrees with Masters’ review to include a standalone subject on “Aboriginal culture and history”, the latter recommended that First Nations communities “should play the central role in the development of this curriculum”.

However, the LC report said: “It seems extraordinary for the new subject to be devised by the Aboriginal community itself”. It went on: “It is unprecedented to hand over curriculum content to a group who themselves are the subject of the content. The potential loss of objectivity and historical accuracy is obvious.”

But the LC support of “a return to the linear … teaching of history, with an enhanced focus on the heritage of Western civilisation and the development of modern Australia” would lead precisely to a loss of objectivity and historical accuracy.

It would not be adequate, as the LC report proposes, to leave the “serious work” that the Masters' review neglected to the NSW Education Standards Authority, whose board is composed of 14 members, only one of whom is a First Nations person.

Masters' review and the LC report are just part of the battle over the school curriculum.

Young people’s education does extend beyond the classroom, but what students learn, or do not learn there, has a significant and long-term impact on what is considered common knowledge and what might be used as a popular platform for lasting social and political change.

Politicians understand this and thus take every opportunity to bend the curriculum towards the content and values that serve their interests, whether or not those match the intertwined goals of ecological sustainability and social justice.

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