Teaching critical thinking is a foremost goal of education. We need this for understanding ourselves, others, and the unprecedented challenges that lie before us, like climate change. So, how is our education system performing under the close watch of our political leaders? A critical look reveals a lot to criticise

Alan Tudge, of course, is the federal Minister for Education and Youth. And as we have seen over the past several weeks, there’s a lot more to education than simply knocking out a new national school curriculum every five years.

Is there anything more important than educating the young? 

Apart from delivering knowledge, education teaches young Australians “how to think” rather than what to think. Which is easy to set as a primary goal but much harder to achieve, it seems.

That aside, and once again, a monumental kerfuffle has been brewing over what should be taught in schools to young Australians. And for those who are not aware, we are in the final throes of the 2021 revision to the Australian Curriculum for Foundation to Year 10 students.

In April this year, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released its draft proposal for public consultation, inclusive of possible changes.

Consultation about proposed changes (what should be taught) closed on July 8, 2021, and can be viewed on the ACARA consultation website. The final curriculum will be released early in 2022. 

Although the consultation process involved as many as 360 current teachers and curriculum specialists, all recommended revisions are subject to sign-off by the federal, state, and territory education ministers.

Compared to other rich countries, Australia is an outlier when it comes to education

For the past 20 years, structural failures that funnel disadvantaged students into disadvantaged schools have contributed to a steady decline in overall student achievement. Which is, indeed, unsustainable.

The average 15-year-old student in Australia is now a year behind 2000 standards. And in mathematics, they are now 14 months behind 2000 standards and three years behind the average Singaporean student of the same age. This, despite increased funding and an explicit acknowledgement that things are going awry. 

It seems that the coalition of education experts, teachers, and politicians are incapable of rectifying the decline. A conundrum of the utmost gravity that consistently attracts polemic debate.

To arrest the declining standards in STEM subjects, proposals include the scaling back of humanities subjects and focusing on problem-solving in mathematics and inquiry learning in science.

This was highlighted in June last year when the Morrison government increased the cost of humanities degrees and reduced the cost of degrees in teaching, nursing, engineering, science, and maths. In the endeavour to steer students into the latter.

Ironically, however, as author and Professor of English David Foster Wallace wrote: “a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think.'”

Our war on history

Still, it seems that the decline in maths and science is not nearly as contentious as what we teach in history. Most notably, the history of Australia’s colonisation (1788-1901) and our conception of ANZAC Day.

As Alan Tudge recently declared: “We have an opportunity to enrich the history curriculum with more emphasis on indigenous history and indigenous perspectives. … But as our greatest historian, Geoffrey Blainey, has said, it should not come at the expense of the teaching of classical and western civilisations and how Australia came to be a free, liberal democracy.”

Thus, Minister Tudge has been busily campaigning against overly explicit accounts of the dark side of our colonial past that might paint a picture not so acquiescent to a free and liberal democracy.

As if somehow a factual account of the British colonisation of Australia—in all its vividness and brutality—would diminish Australia as “one of the most prosperous egalitarian societies in the world” in the eyes of young Australians. A status that must be “protected and defended“, in the words of Mr Tudge.

Understandable, but to what end?

But does such a mantra come dangerously close to “historical negationism” (also called historical distortion or denialism)? Defined as the falsification or distortion of the historical record by an institution or an individual, religious or minority or ethnic group. Succinctly, to rewrite or reinterpret certain historical events—usually involving war crimes or crimes against humanity—in a more favourable light via illegitimate historical revisionism.

“Historical revisionism”, on the other hand, is the legitimate scholastic re-examination of existing knowledge about a historical event, usually upon the discovery of new evidence.

In terms of historical negationism and Indigenous Australians, we can point to Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal HistoryVan Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, for instance, that at the time of its publication, was given unprecedented exposure by the Australian newspaper.

In this 2002 book, Windschuttle claimed that previous “left-wing historians” had fabricated evidence of Aboriginal massacres to support appeals for compensation and a redress for crimes against Aboriginal peoples.

Windschuttle’s version of history was formally rebutted with the publication of Robert Manne’s 2003 book Whitewash: on Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History. The intrinsic takeaway was that Windschuttle’s Fabrication told a version of history that everyone wanted to hear, rather than a factual account of what actually happened.

And therein is the problem: supposed civilised societies are often loath to recognise and own their inhumane acts of brutality. There is a preference to bury them by engaging in semantics and selective evidence.

Feeling good about oneself should not be at the expense of an accurate account of history

Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard (1996–2007), in his 1996 election campaign, when asked about his vision for Australia going forward, replied: “An Australian nation that feels comfortable and relaxed about three things: about their history, about their present and the future.” 

Which sounded innocuous at the time but has since been cited as surreptitiously stoking the History Wars. In short, it was politicking—to rouse a nationalist fervour. Howard wanted Australians to feel “comfortable and relaxed” about their past, a sentiment that appealed and still does to a powerful patronage. 

Australian political scientist and writer Judith Brett summed up this sentiment in her 2005 book Relaxed & Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia. Noting that the Howard government has done what all successful Liberal governments have always done, positioned itself firmly at the centre and presented itself as the true guardian of Australia’s national interest.

Likewise, with the current revision of the national curriculum, Alan Tudge said he didn’t want students “leaving school with a hatred of their country”. Me too, but not at the expense of distorting history.

As if an accurate and comprehensive portrayal of Australia’s colonial past, inclusive of alternative interpretations of ANZAC Day and the two world wars, was too graphic and too abhorrent to be taught to young people.

Teaching “critical thinking” is the foremost goal of education

“Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity. Since one cannot educate adults, the word ‘education’ has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretence of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education (1954)

Agreed that there is an intrinsic need to feel good about oneself—”comfortable and relaxed”, as John Howard put it. But this also suggests that young students cannot think critically about the past—both the good and the bad. And teaching critical thinking is the foremost goal of education.

With that in mind, we might reasonably argue that politicians with vested ideological interests and preoccupied with spin, more recently demonstrated by their convoluted COVID messaging, fail spectacularly when it comes to “critical thinking” and thus effectively solving problems of the utmost consequence. 

Think of racism, sexism, ageism, domestic violence, and the destruction of our natural world.

Think also of poverty and Bob Hawke’s famous 1987 pledge that “by 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty”, albeit seemingly sincere.

We can also point to our own private Climate Wars—ongoing for over half a century. And our History Wars that have been boiling away in the background since the anthropologist W E H Stanner delivered his lecture The Great Australian Silence via the ABC in 1968.

Which underscores the need to ensure that political ideologues and their ideologies are kept well away from the formulation of school curricula.

As Jean Jacques Rousseau declared in A discourse on Inequality (1755): education became an instrument of politics to shape a nation’s children. In this way, patriotism could not only be created but moulded by government to its desired aspirations. That is, in essence, people are what governments want them to be.

I would add that compassion and truth-telling is a better way of feeling good about oneself. And although I have placed the onus squarely on our political leaders here, it is also our own apathy as parents and educators that must share the blame.

It’s not just about improving students’ performance or drafting a curriculum that everyone can agree on or feeling relaxed and comfortable about one’s history and oneself. It’s about truth telling

The historical facts of the British colonisation of Australia burn deep for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As we have come to understand, knowing what happened — telling their story and their history — is a necessary process for reconciliation. That is, reconciliation cannot be achieved without Truth Telling. Truth Telling has the power to set people free from a tormented past. 

Mindful also that relationships are built on trust. Not only the people’s trust in the government, but the government’s trust in the people. Both of which are at low points.

And hey, the history of an occupied Australia did not begin with its colonisation, settlement, or invasion by the British. It’s a story that’s more than 65,000 years old and needs to be told in its entirety and not selectively through an ideological lens. Irrespective if one feels uncomfortable about what it says.

What we teach our young people is an expression of what we want our country to be

I’m not an educationalist but simply a parent and product of the Australian education system from primary school to PhD. I spent my first year of university in the library, reading everything I could. And I’m of European descent.

From my own personal perspective, and something that I periodically remind my kids of, along with myself, is this:

When you displace a collective of dispersed communities who have been merged by a shared experience over millennia, and you forcibly dispossess them of the reality of their world and insert them into a highly pressurised, artificial environment, and they learn how to survive, they’re using all their basic survival skills just to exist, like any displaced group would. 

And where they once possessed an innate affinity with their traditional Country, they are now confronted with one that is alien and hostile—one cluttered with objects and processes that have no meaning and for which they have no words. In this way, they are culturally deprived and being schooled, not educated.

Therefore, a contextual approach must be taken towards teaching and learning and every other educative interaction with individuals and collectives of a different reality. Which takes some work in a Western society founded on cultural uniformity and bounded by a disposition for order and individual competitiveness.

Life’s education: “This is water

It’s fitting to leave you with an excerpt from the late David Foster Wallace’s most illuminating 2005 essay, This is Water:

“It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

This is water.

This is water.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching sustainable development and sustainability economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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