Education: an ideology free-zone

The Coalition Government was elected this year without having to disclose in any detail its real policies and agendas. We still don’t know what they really are, but the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place with various changes that have been made or announced across a wide range of fields of activity. Perhaps the best roadmap is the speech our now Prime Minister delivered to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) earlier this year.

What we should all be concerned about is the impact of ideologically based policy decisions in areas like education where policies should be directed at optimum outcomes for students and hence for society as a whole.

In response to examining the nation’s school curriculum  – item 12 on the IPA’s wishlist – Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said in September 2013, “People need to understand that the government has changed in Canberra, that we’re not simply administering the previous government’s policies or views. I know that the left will find that rather galling and, while we govern for everyone, there is a new management in town.” He said the national history curriculum played down the “non-Labor side of our history”, despite the Coalition governing for two-thirds of the past 60 years. Pyne reaffirmed his views on Q&A this week.

Then came the comments of Judith Sloan, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, in her column in the Australian and again on Q&A, that she has looked at the draft years 5-10 Australian Curriculum: Economics and Business. She opposed, among other things, one of the intended goals that students understand “the interrelated nature of economic and ecological sustainability” because “It’s a bit unclear what all this has to do with economics and business.”

She makes the common mistake of underestimating the intelligence of young people when she asks “does anyone seriously think a 10 year old can understand the concept of resource allocation?” With good teachers and a creative curriculum 10 year olds have demonstrated the ability not only to understand resource allocation but complex geopolitical problems.

Sloan is right to suggest avoiding the imposition of “half-baked, politically correct concepts on impressionable young people”, but that applies to governments of all persuasions and their ideologies.

In ‘Education is Ignorance’ (excerpted from Class Warfare) Noam Chomsky writes:

Humboldt, the founder of classical liberalism, his view was that education is a matter of laying out a string along which the child will develop, but in its own way. You may do some guiding. That’s what serious education would be from kindergarten up through graduate school… Ralph Emerson once said something about how we’re educating them to keep them from our throats. If you don’t educate them, what we call “education”, they’re going to take control –“they” being what Alexander Hamilton called the “great beast,” namely the people…In other words, we have to train them in obedience and servility, so they’re not going to think through the way the world works and come after our throats.

Even without the “new management” input, education policies seem to be problematic.  Pyne reiterated his support on Q&A for the continuation of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), which Linda Darling-Hammond, chief education adviser to the US President, Barack Obama, says has failed in the United States by narrowing the curriculum and corrupting education standards.

Reports confirm similar problems in the UK: a ‘2010 parliamentary report noted that the Achievement and Attainment Tables of school test results, the UK equivalent of the My School website, had ”inherent methodological and statistical problems”, which led parents to ”interpret the data presented without taking into account their inherent flaws”. As a result, schools felt constrained to teach to the test, narrow curriculum and push students towards ”easier” qualifications in order to maximise performance data.’

With the school system’s objectives linked to the outcomes of NAPLAN and other large scale, standardised international test programs, Chomsky may well be right to describe this as a ‘disciplinary technique’ where schools are designed to teach to the test. ‘You don’t have to worry about students thinking for themselves, challenging, raising questions.’

This is illustrated by a June survey of more than 8,000 teachers and principals, carried out for the University of Western Sydney’s Whitlam Institute, which found that thirty-nine per cent of the teachers who responded said they were teaching by rote, staging weekly tests aimed at boosting NAPLAN performances at the expense of other subjects like art, music and language.

There is a political or ideological aspect to this. Dissident viewpoints that make for social change are sheltered in free spaces like art or music classes. Contributors to the 1987 book ‘Art in a Democracy’ (Teachers College, Columbia University) suggested that several factors contribute to this.  First, free spaces offer an independent reality and existence which are distinct from the personal and the larger impersonal realities and existences. Second, they provide a forum for public debate, conflict, opinion airing, and problem solving. Third, free spaces prepare the ordinary citizen for making social change and appreciating democratic values.

Even then they did not consider the school system and the individual school units within it sites for free spaces because of their size, compulsory attendance policies, dependence on fickle funding, and consequential administrative fear of raising the public wrath. Interestingly, they felt that ‘very small units within a school system can operate periodically as free spaces if given modest administrative support through active encouragement or through passive or active administrative ignorance of classroom activities.’ But seldom does a “radical” school teacher or university professor go unnoticed, without their departments being defunded and classes cut.

Now Pyne is investigating the possibility of privatising $23 billion of HECS student debt (item number 11 on the IPA’s wishlist). Does this mean that universities will compete on fees and perhaps financing, providing facilities for private funding by commercial credit providers (underwritten by the government, of course, so the banksters don’t lose).  Is the “new management” marching towards the privatisation of higher education?

Our natural environment is in ruinous or near-ruinous condition. Political “specialists” have taken us to the brink of a nuclear disaster and the extinction of humankind, and have regularly involved us in costly and futile wars. Economics and business “specialists” have brought us to the brink of total economic collapse, and our planet and its people are paying the price of the application of their policies without proper regard to their environmental and human consequences.  Financial “specialists” have extracted rather than created wealth and put nearly all of it into the hands of a very few. It is simply naive to think that these arrangements can continue indefinitely.

Young people will be left to mop up this mess and find a new way forward. To do that they need the ability to think freely and that ability can’t be fostered unless the education system is reformed into an ideology free-zone. The reform needs to start from above: everything from basic items like curriculum texts and the manner in which they are selected, to more fundamental issues like funding programs, should be determined free of ideology by reference to the best possible educational outcome for students, and open to careful scrutiny by voters, communities, parents, teachers and students. The ideologues should have nothing to fear from such an approach: if their particular ideology truly has merit it should be able to withstand freethinking and informed analysis and criticism.

Schools and universities are not a place for those in power, and the people who influence them, to implement a political and economic ideological succession plan.

Copyright Kellie Tranter 2013. All rights reserved.

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