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A is for apple, B is for brainwashed: The conservative agenda in Australia’s secondary education

Political change first requires an acknowledgement of the politicisation of Australia’s curriculums

Artwork by Lauren Moore Artwork by Lauren Moore

At university, it is quite easy for us to think our politics developed and, in some cases, began in the halls of the Camperdown campus. After all, for most of us, high school was a fundamentally apolitical space. There were no political parties recruiting, no autonomous collectives, and the SRC was for over-achievers looking to organise a fundraiser rather than a vicious fighting ground for zealous students. When compared to university, then, high school really does seem like a ‘simpler time of yesteryear,’ unsullied by the political battles we face today. However, a closer inspection of high school classrooms across the country suggests our rose-tinted glasses may, in fact, have misled us.

There are quite a few obstacles that come in the path of analysing secondary education in Australia. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the exact content being taught varies depending not only on which state one is in, but the type of school (religious, private, comprehensive etc.). Secondly, past curriculums are often quite inaccessible, making it difficult to track the ways in which secondary education has changed over time. Finally, although there is a significant degree of academia on certain subject areas, on the whole, histories of education in Australia are missing. However, despite these limitations, an examination of three particular subjects expose how a seemingly apolitical high school curriculum politicises students to influence their understanding of the world around them.

HSC Economics: the freer the market the freer the students

On the inside cover of the 2010 edition of Tim Riley’s preliminary economics textbook sit two side-by-side profiles of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. The profiles are decontextualised and make no critical claims of either figure, opting instead for a descriptive account of their major works. They begin with a brief biography, followed by a summary of works like the  Wealth of Nations before finally telling us how these works are applied in society today. Yet somewhere in the seemingly neutral representation of Smith and Friedman’s theories, the unassuming reader is nudged ever-so-slightly towards recognising their works less as theories and more as laws. And so, before even reading the first words of their two-year course, students are exposed to the critical flaw of the HSC economics syllabus    its conflation of the descriptive with the normative.

At a glance, HSC economics appears to be quite an appealing subject despite its falling enrolment numbers. Its purpose, as stated in the Economics Stage 6 Syllabus, is to give students an understanding of “contemporary economic problems and issues facing individuals, firms and governments.” Broadly speaking, the course is divided into economic issues and responses to those issues, while also positioning Australia in the global economy.

The economics syllabus, however, does not limit itself to a mere historical account of the Australian economy’s functioning. Rather, it quite clearly sets itself the aim of equipping its students with the capacity to identify problem areas in the economy and evaluating the policy responses to it. It is on the path to achieving this aim that HSC economics seems to lose its way.

A major flaw in the treatment of “economic issues” by the HSC economics course is that it decontextualises the problems it is dealing with. Taking unemployment as an example, the course covers definitions of the types of unemployment which exist, statistical trends which relate to unemployment and seemingly rational explanations for why unemployment may occur. What it largely fails to consider or raise are the socio-political realities associated with these “theoretical” issues. Subsequently, two problems emerge. Firstly, not only do students have little engagement with political influences on the economy but also consider such socio-political factors to be entirely separate from the economy. This leads students into an incredibly superficial account of the reasons behind social problems like high unemployment rates amongst First Nations peoples or ethnic migrant communities.

Secondly, in their lack of exposure to the tangible impacts of unemployment on people’s lives, students don’t have access to an appropriate metric through which they can evaluate economic concerns. For example, in discussing microeconomic reform in Australia, students are encouraged to evaluate government policies over the last decade or so. In this evaluation, which usually tends to fetishise the deregulation, a student who is given little to no background about the real impacts of policy may consider long-term GDP growth to be a fair and reasonable trade-off for short term structural unemployment. In making that assessment, it is likely that  no consideration is given to what that GDP growth really means (i.e. who benefits from that growth) or the disastrous impacts which structural unemployment may have on people’s’ lives.

Beyond its inability to equip students with necessary evaluative skills, the economics curriculum also provides little in the way of alternatives to the dominant ‘free market’ ideology of the status quo. This means that students are exposed to a limited range of economic ideas and thinking. In terms of microeconomic reform, there is a strong adherence to neo-classical economic theory which promotes the deregulation of markets in its fetishisation of “efficiency.” On a macroeconomic scale, it involves the application of Keynesian principles, which suggests government spending is a tool to stabilise growth in the economy.

The consequences of this limited exposure to diverse economic ideas are twofold. Firstly, they tend to produce a sort of “is/ought” fallacy in the minds of students. By analysing solutions through a singular framework, the course limits the imagination of students in addressing economic issues in society and leads them to the conclusion that neo-classical economics is inherently the most rational option.

Defenders of HSC economics may respond by arguing that the course merely informs students of how the economy currently operates rather than prescribing methods of dealing with economic issues. This claim seems questionable, given the syllabus’ express desire to equip students with the ability to “evaluate” and “discuss.” Moreover, the ways in which the economics course describes the status quo appear to have a legitimising effect on neo-classical economics. Often, abstract benefits like growth and efficiency (enjoyed mostly by a select few within the economy) are overstated at the expense of discussing legitimate negative outcomes brought about by policies like labour market deregulation. The upshot of this is that students, albeit implicitly, are encouraged to consider neoliberalism as the ‘most rational’ option.

Secondly, by constructing economics in the status quo as inherently rational, students also begin to perceive neo-classical economics as trans-historical. This is particularly emphasised in the “global economy” section of the curriculum, where liberalisation and, by extension, globalisation are treated as inherently beneficial. Essentially, the disparities in economic ‘advancement’ between the developed and developing world are attributed  to overbearing governments whose markets are ‘closed off.’ A corollary of this claim is that developing countries are always benefitted by free trade agreements, causing students to often consider ‘more trade’ valuable in and of itself. Almost no attention is given to factors like colonialism that affect the modern distribution of wealth and the power relations that underlie most trade agreements. Additionally, global organisations like the International Monetary Fund who have frequently  pushed agendas of neo-liberalism are granted a position of deference with little incentive to consider the real contextual factors that determine the appropriate path for a nation’s economy.

The consequences of these gaps in the HSC Economics Syllabus don’t merely stop at students being misinformed about the economy or ill-equipped to properly evaluate historic policies. They also bear a normative influence on the ways students consider the economy and society more broadly, as they move into later life. Perhaps our own university campus is quite a good example of this. It is common to hear claims by students that they are “economically conservative but socially progressive.” It is uncommon to question the system of education that made it possible to abstract the economy from society.

I am, You are, We must be Australian

History is neither a small and easily digestible subject nor a mere list of facts to be memorised. Decisions about what parts of our global and national history students learn are inherently political — they will shape how a young person comes to understand the legacy behind their home, and the historical forces that have culminated in their present-day privileges and disadvantages. The Australian curriculum is not excused from this reality.

In a context of ongoing settler-colonial structures, inherited from two centuries of dispossession and subsequent collective amnesia, it is unsurprising that governments would want control over how kids understand their history of place. Where politicians have control over the history curriculum, we should expect them to act in the hope of creating a national identity advantageous to their own ideology. This is particularly the case with conservative politics, which relies on viewing the past as something to be preserved, and thus requires social consensus on the enduring moral character of a nation.

Of course, for university students, this reality should be unsurprising. Ongoing disagreement over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation comes from an aversion towards allowing explicitly conservative ideologues to infiltrate otherwise autonomous academic spaces — the stakes being the sensibilities of young, future community leaders.

This thinking also explained the Australian ‘history wars’ spanning back to the 1990s. Like efforts in Britain during the 1980s, Liberal Prime Minister John Howard sought to challenge what he perceived as a “black arm-band” view of Australian history. According to him, emphasis on Australia’s violent colonial past was unnecessary, out-of-proportion and unhelpful for the modern settler-project. In addition to endorsing revisionist historians like former Honi Soit editor Keith Windschuttle (famous for The Fabrication of Aboriginal History), John Howard encouraged Australians to celebrate a constructed agglomerate of Australian history. This meant celebrating ‘Australia’ on 26 January and those conscripted to fight in imperial conflicts on 25 April.

Howard’s project eventually reached into what Australian school children learnt between 9am and 3pm. Although not an especially well documented period of our nation’s past, scholarship has begun to catch-up on this matter. Zeb Woodward’s 2013 history honours thesis marks the swings in Australia’s history curriculums have undertaken as a result of its politicisation between 2006 and 2013.

As Labor governments would come to do in their own ways, and in the same vein as politicians before him that pushed a neo-classical understanding of economics, Howard sought to shape the civic sensibilities of future voters. On 25 January 2006, Howard stood before the National Press Club and announced his intentions for a revolution to how history was taught, seeking to reflect “Australia’s crowning achievement, borne of its egalitarian tradition… its social cohesion.”

The social context underpinning Howard’s announcement should not be forgotten. It came on the back of a month of race-fuelled violence in Cronulla, years of villainising refugees and pre-empted his paternalistic occupation of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. In Howard’s view, “young people [were] at risk of being disinherited from their community if that community lacks the courage and confidence to teach its history.”

Although no national curriculum would come from the 2006 History Summit following Howard’s speech, his initiative would come to formalise his position from the History Wars. Robyn Moore, a Graduate research assistant at the University of Tasmania, describes how history textbooks continue to espouse a “white” vision of Australia into the 21st century, meaning that Aboriginal history is often relegated only to the first chapter of the history, and then forgotten, as if erased in the strong march to a ‘better future.’[1]

When Howard was eventually voted out and replaced by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, this politicisation felt a marked shift. A conspicuous effort was made to shape Australia’s curriculums with the aim of helping ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous and non-indigenous communities. This meant giving more time to studying frontier-violence, analysing Australia’s racist past as embodied in  the White Australia Policy, and acknowledging broader narratives of intergenerational colonisation. Compared with the active involvement of conservative politicians in Howard’s curriculums, the introduction of a national curriculum under the supervision of the independent Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) reflected some attempt to separate educators from politicians.

And yet, even without the active infiltration of conservative propaganda, Australia’s history curriculum continues to be shaped towards something which trains young Australians to be largely proud of their past, and to therefore, accept a modern settler-government as legitimate.

Oddly-enough, this was made clear by the conservative response to changes in the curriculum.[2] In 2013,  Prime Minister Tony Abbott decried the curriculum’s emphasis on Labor Prime Ministers like Gough Whitlam and the victories of labour unions (clearly advantageous topics for a Labor hegemony), whilst calling for a heavier focus on Australia’s history of business strength, and the inclusion of prime ministers like Robert Menzies.

ACARA curriculums are themselves not innocent. This is evidenced, for example, in the narrative underlying Australia’s colonising past. Students are still taught that Australia has gone through the development of policy-stages: from ‘protection,’ to ‘assimilation,’ before finally arriving at ‘reconciliation,’ despite the settler-colonial reality of our present. Where our violent history is taught, it is often not explained to its full extent, and even further, is not complemented by a genuine pre-contact history of Aboriginal societies. In this context, First Nations’ cultures and communities exist in the Australian psyche merely in reference to colonialism, thus struggling to maintain relevance in a purportedly post-colonial present-day Australia.

It is vital to acknowledge that Australia’s history curriculum is far from apolitical. It is worrying that these undercurrents go under-examined, especially given the lack of critical-thinking modules in the history curriculum. Only through a subject like Extension History in New South Wales can you be trained in historiography — the craft of analysing the making of history, such that young adults may reconcile contradicting historical narratives sold to them by politicians.

(Political) Development and Physical Health

From its earliest stages, the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) syllabus seeks to teach students to identify “who they are and how people grow and change.” A natural feature of this aim is standardising the ways in which people treat and understand not only their own bodies, but those of others. Although this outcome appears to be a noble one, in reality, it bears a significant socialising impact on students. And when politicians begin to interfere with the structure of courses in the aforementioned ways, a subject mostly treated as a fun sports break begins to have a far more pernicious impact on students’ later lives.

A telling example of the constraints of the current PDHPE syllabus has been the contemporary dispute over social and personal issues relevant to LGBTQI+ students. For a course intended to prepare students for their personal development, it seems quite uncontroversial to provide teachers with content on gender identities, sexualities and their place in a school environment. However, when The Australian characterised Safe Schools Coalition Australia as a “tax-payer funded gay manual in schools,” the ideological battle over controlling students’ social education becomes unfortunately crystallised.

Ultimately, Australia’s PDHPE curriculum has long been gatekept by conservative ideologies, such that the information which reaches young children about their own bodies is contested and to their own immense disadvantage.

A significant problem in the PDHPE syllabus is its isolation of physical health from social forces. For example, in discussing sexually transmitted infections, little acknowledgement is given to the politicisation of sexual health, particularly during the AIDS epidemic, where politicians weaponised “public health concerns” to oppress queer communities. The consequence of this is that students consider issues of their physical and sexual health to be inherently personal in nature, leaving them lacking in the critical skills to evaluate and properly understand the factors that influence health policy in the real world.

The extent to which the young body and its welfare are politicised extends far beyond LGBTQI+ issues. In 2014, ‘The Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education’ was updated to its sixth version, including more progressive and inclusive approaches to defining sexual health (including reference to “pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence,” and sexuality (including reference to “gender roles and identities, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction” in its definition).

Despite these changes, which were themselves the product of significant lobbying and a far-cry from curriculums 30-years prior, students are still left wanting in many parts of Australia. Family Planning Victoria released a response to the new curriculum, acknowledging its advancements, but concluding that it introduced this information “too late” in children’s development. Moreover, they did “not incorporate sufficient exploration of topics in relation to sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing… exposing the risk of teachers not covering important components.” This is especially true should one’s individual teacher not be well versed in the topics, feel uncomfortable discussing it, or feel some ideological opposition to the material.

In failing to sufficiently guide teachers in how to promote knowledge about  positive consent, how to use contraception or what the gender spectrum is, governments are complicit in endangering the futures of their youth population. In much the same way that the NSW Liberal government politicises the bodies of people with uteruses by denying them free access to abortion, the gate-keeping of crucial information via-insufficient curriculums curbs children from living agency-filled lives.

The conservative calculus which determines how the PDHPE syllabus is set is quite clearly enunciated in the comparative ease with which Judeo-Christian reforms entered high schools. Whilst the Safe Schools program, costing the public $8 million over 3 years, was met with furious outrage, the School Chaplaincy Program (costing 30 times more and rejected by the Australian Education Union) found easy passage into federal policy. This hypocrisy is equally visible in the announcement of an extra $1.2 million to support the Bachar Bouli program, which seeks to better “integrate” (read: assimilate) Muslim children into Australia by teaching them Aussie Rules football.

It seems, then, that what is deemed acceptable to include in our education system’s student welfare program depends upon whether it fits the state’s project of socialisation. Unfortunately, this means that programs which confront issues of sexuality and gender head-on fall to the wayside.

From little tories big tories grow

There are very obvious and serious immediate harms to the faults in our syllabuses. Queer students are left to fend for themselves, students of colour are exposed first-hand to the state’s nationalist project and the realities of class are kept out of our minds. Importantly though, the effects of conservative influences on the education system outlive six years of secondary education. Lines of argumentation in debates on abortion, invasion day or welfare reform are not too far removed from the ideology that subtly finds it way into Australian textbooks. Ultimately, to bring change in public discourse, we must first question the ways our own education has set the boundaries of what that discourse should include. That questioning relies on an acknowledgement of the politicisation of Australia’s curriculums.