Flat White

Australian schools: reading, writing and revolution

23 November 2018

1:47 PM

23 November 2018

1:47 PM

Revelations this week that schoolteacher Regina Wilson had vowed to “ensure that the next generation of voters in my classroom don’t vote Liberal” have been held up as proof of the rampant left-wing bias of today’s education system.

Yet for anyone with familiar with the state of schooling in Australia, the only thing surprising about Ms Wilson’s post was its honesty.

There is virtually no aspect of Australian school education that’s conducive to developing a worldview sympathetic to free markets, individual liberty and a healthy respect for our societies traditions and institutions.

Australia’s National Curriculum – one of the Rudd and Gillard Governments’ greatest hits – prescribes three ‘cross-curriculum priorities’ to be embedded in the teaching of all subject areas: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and sustainability.

For years K-10, the National Curriculum mandates that students study the  “contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the Australian nation,” the “significance of Dreaming and the perspectives and meaning in Dreaming stories.”

In comparison, ‘Christendom’ is mentioned in the text of the National Curriculum once and ‘Christian’ also once, and only in the context of mentioning other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Judaism and Islam.

The individual state-based subject curriculums aren’t much different. The Queensland Year 10 English curriculum mentions ‘grammar’ once and ‘punctuation’ twice in 50 pages. Variants of ‘culture’ are mentioned 41 times and ‘critical’ 16 times.

At an institutional level, one in three teachers are members of the Australian Education Union – a staunch supporter and funder of the Labor Party that pays for thousands of operatives to stand at election day polling booths telling voters to put the Liberals last. The AEU has bucked the broader trend of falling union membership, adding 30,000 new members since 2003. Measured by raw numbers, teachers play a more active role in the cut-and-thrust of politics than construction workers, wharfies or train drivers.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that Australia’s school system skews left are the views of students who have gone through it. As polling commissioned by the Centre for Independent Studies revealed in June this year, six in ten young Australians have a favourable view of socialism, with roughly the same number believing that capitalism had failed and that government should exercise more economic control.

The far more revealing aspect of Ms Wilson’s post than her antipathy towards the Liberal Party was found in the second limb of her post:

I won’t tell my students what to think, but I teach them how to be critical thinkers who question those in power and especially those who seek to keep the status quo for the rich, upper classes and refuse to acknowledge the rest of us.

You see, according to Wilson, ‘critical thinking’ means speaking truth to power by taking to task the wealthy and successful who invariably make a crust by conspiring against the interests of the hapless everyman. It also means breaking down the ‘status quo’ – presumably, the institutions and power structures that keep working people down and stack the deck in favour of a lucky few.

Suffice to say, teaching children to view the world through such a jaundiced lens has little to do with cultivating a capacity with independent thought.

In truth, Wilson’s Facebook diatribe was just a recital of the basic tenets of critical theory – a neo-Marxist school of sociological theory whose primary concern, according to theorist Max Horkheimer is “[liberating] human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”

Much like doctrinaire Marxism, critical theory views society as a power struggle between identity-based collectives. Thus, economics becomes a battle between capital and labour; history a contest between oppressors and the oppressed and politics a showdown between warring classes. Its defining traits are an unswerving belief that all power is ill-gotten, and that society is best understood as a hierarchy of victim groups struggling against institutionalised inequality.

Critical theory is why school students today can talk about how corporate greed is pushing the Earth to the brink of environmental catastrophe, but can’t explain any of the factors that led to the outbreak of World War 1.

Critical theory is why students in this writer’s Grade 11 English class were instructed to write an essay drawing parallels between The Crucible – a play based on the events of the Salem witch trials – and the West’s ‘overreaction’ to 9/11.

Critical theory is why more than 100 academics at the University of Sydney have signed an open letter voicing fierce opposition to any partnership with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation on the grounds that a degree based on the great works of the Western Canon amounts to “chauvinistic, Western essentialism.”

One of the problems with making critical theory the focal point of modern education is that its dismal outlook sits uneasily with the unprecedented prosperity that’s become the norm in free and democratic countries like Australia today. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, more than 1.1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The period spanning the post-war era until the present is universally regarded as the most prosperous period in human history. That feat is not the product of revolution, but a singular achievement of the “status quo” those like Wilson rail against.

The biggest problem overlooked in today’s classroom culture wars isn’t that students are being indoctrinated to hate the Liberal Party. It’s that the education system’s blinkered-focus on training students to criticise the world around them is teaching them to hold ironclad opinions about complex issues they actually know very little about.

The dogma of critical thinking is actually depriving students of the ability to reach reasoned, genuinely independent judgments about the world around them. Far more than left-wing bias, that’s the real threat to school education.

John Slater is Research Director at the Menzies Research Centre

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