Brian Toohey: Australian schools about to get biblical

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Australia’s federal government is set to adopt a review of the school curriculum that will severely cut back content about Asia and explicitly celebrate what it calls the nation’s “Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs.”

Following recommendations of a review panel, the government has said it will “properly recognize the impact and significance of Western civilization” in classrooms. The new focus even extends to a proposal to scrap all computer literacy classes.

What do you know?

The changes reflect the views of Education Minister Christopher Pyne, who commissioned the review after the ruling conservative Liberal/National party coalition replaced Labor in 2013. To conduct the review, Pyne chose two academics renowned for ardently supporting Pyne’s overall approach.

Like Pyne, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a devout Catholic who had earlier championed changes to ensure that history classes no longer “underplay” Australia’s Western heritage. The reviewers endorsed Abbott’s claim that it is “impossible” to have a good education without a “serious familiarity” with the Bible. They seemed unaware that many Confucian and Hindu scholars, for example, manage to become reasonably well-educated without even a nodding acquaintance with Christianity’s sacred texts.

There should be no mistaking Abbott’s determination. The High Court, Australia’s supreme legal authority, has twice rejected the constitutional validity of his government’s appointment of Christian chaplains to all government-run schools. But Abbott is pressing ahead with a revised legal tactic, despite some states’ preferences for properly trained, secular counselors.

Looking West

The desire to stress Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage is particularly difficult to understand in the context of an increasingly diverse, multicultural society. The latest survey shows only 8% of Australians went to church at least once a month in 2011, compared with 36% in 1972. Although many of the initial settlers from Britain and Ireland (including transported convicts) called themselves Christians, Australia chose to establish a secular political system.

Contrary to the views of some conservatives, its laws are not derived from the Bible’s Ten Commandments. Moreover, many observers argue that the inhabitants of today’s turbulent world would benefit from less emphasis on the superiority of a particular religion’s “heritage, values and beliefs.”

The review’s official adviser on the English curriculum is Barry Spurr, a poetry professor of the University of Sydney whose specialization is Blessed Mary imagery in poetry. In line with Spurr’s approach, the review recommends that the curriculum put greater emphasis on the “Western literary cannon, especially poetry,” and much less on Asian and other literary texts in the existing curriculum.

Spurr gained unwanted publicity when the University of Sydney suspended him in October after the online site New Matilda revealed elements of allegedly “racist and sexist” emails he had sent. Despite what others saw as a repugnant tone, Spurr said he was being “whimsical” and claimed his email account had been hacked.

What is not in dispute is that Spurr’s written advice to the review said he could find no good examples of Asian writing. The comment is absurd, even leaving aside literary prize winners from Asia, such as India’s Aravind Adiga, author of “The White Tiger,” which won the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2008. Pyne was forced to distance himself from Spurr’s emails but is still enthusiastic about the curriculum changes.

Words versus action

The new curriculum also favors the traditions of English law that Australia inherited. Few would object to this. But this legacy is currently being eroded by claims of national security risks, something the review fails to acknowledge. Abbott and Pyne have backed the imposition of draconian legal changes in Australia, where detention without charge is allowed in some instances under anti-terrorism legislation. In other cases, the onus of proof has shifted from the prosecution to the defense. Journalists, whistleblowers and others who reveal abuses of power by the intelligence services and police during security operations can now face five to 10 years in jail. A “publication is in the public interest” law that had protected these truth-tellers was abolished in October.

While few Australians want a school system exclusively devoted to serving the economy, the new concepts are so rarefied as to be meaningless for parents, students and policymakers. They endorse the 20th-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s definition of education as an extension of a “conversation [that] began in the primal forests.” Oakeshott went on to say, “It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, … or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.”

Given the review’s evident contempt for “student-centered” learning, it is not clear how students in Australia (or Asia) could be motivated to participate in this high-minded “conversation,” let alone learn much about how to reason or make discoveries about the world.

Brian Toohey is a Sydney-based commentator on defense, economic and political issues, and was editor of the former National Times. He is co-author of “Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.”
Comments
  1. john zande says:

    Here’s hoping Abbott serves just one term.

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