The Battle for Their Minds: Ideology and the Future of Education in Australia

This is an article that didn’t make it into the last issue of Quasimodo for 2006 due to technical issues. I didn’t want to waste it so I thought I’d use it as a filler.


Some time before he drank that fateful glass of hemlock, Socrates pointed out that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Here at Notre Dame, our Core Units give all of us an opportunity to examine aspects of life in Philosophy and Ethics, and to learn about ideas. Our Core Units and other humanities courses are opportunities for us to think.

Very recently, the Honourable Julie Bishop, Federal Minister for Education and Training, gave an address to the History Teachers’ Association of Australia conference at our lovely Fremantle campus. In her speech, she outlined the Howard/Bishop regime’s manifesto for changing the way history—stories of life, of our societies and of our world—is taught and, ultimately, examined in our schools.

Apparently, the need for this change is driven by concerns, as outlined in quite emotive language, of the dangerous “social engineers” in the education departments of the Labor-controlled states: “Ideologues who have hijacked school curriculum and are experimenting with the education of our young people”. It just makes you quiver in fear, doesn’t it?

As Aristotle observed, “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.” Ms Bishop’s policy developers appear to have come to just that conclusion.

The (Big L) Liberal plan outlined by Ms Bishop is to implement a single national curriculum to be co-ordinated by a National Board of Studies which will not be under the influence of the nasty (little l) liberal intellectual ideologues. No longer will there need to be a fear of social engineering, because, as we all know, the Liberals aren’t at all into stacking boards with their own ideologues. Appointees to the ABC, the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the nuclear-energy inquiry task-force over the last decade have all been completely, 100%, certifiably, absa-diddley-doodily ideologically neutral… or maybe not.

Paul Keating claims Howard’s regime is on its own mission for ideological domination. “Whatever John Howard believed I stood for philosophically,” said Keating, “I was never tempted nor had the temerity to subjugate professional opinion by formalising adherence to any set of rules or philosophy in government-owned media institutions … Yet the only apologia for this brazen interference by the Howard Government is the new whispered word balance, which decoded means … let’s hear more from us” (emphasis added).

The example of the new content requirements for the ABC can be seen mirrored in education policy.

The National Board of Ideology Free Studies would essentially deal with the influx of “fads” in school curricula which Prime Minister Howard has previously identified as “black armband history” that tends to apologise for facts about the past (generally in order to learn lessons for the future) which amounts to “little more that a litany of sexism, racism and class warfare.” Howard prefers the “‘traditionalist’ view of a good education… in opposition to the more fashionable, progressive views that have held sway in schools and universities.”

Oh! Shock, horror! Heaven forbid! Intellectual progress!!! Asking questions, understanding about life, our societies, the world. Now that’s bad education policy for you.

According to the Howard/Bishop regime, kids need to be learning about facts, dates and figures. Hrmm, yes, that’s a great way to get kids excited about history, since it was soooo interesting already. But actually, there’s absolutely no need to entice the kids to these classes: Julie Bishop’s history would be compulsory. Because “students need to be equipped with the fundamentals, essential and enduring skills and learning that will help make them informed and productive citizens” (emphasis added).

There have been worries that the primary function of social and political institutions such as law and education is merely the promotion of economic efficiency. And there you have it folks: students need to be educated in order to become productive citizens. Drones who know how to construct proper sentences as they work in their desk-mule jobs for corporate firms all around the country.

Ms Bishop sees the status quo as being affected by “too much political bias”. What she seems to be forgetting is that history is inherently biased: it automatically arrives from the view point of whoever wrote it down and that fact cannot be escaped. In her speech, Ms Bishop highlighted key things children should get out of their history lessons:

Every schoolchild should know, for example, when and why the then Lieutenant James Cook sailed along the east coast of Australia. Every child should know why the British transported convicts to Australia and who Australia’s first prime minister was. They should also know how and why Federation came about, and why we were involved in the two world wars.

But if we ask ourselves these questions, ideological answers cannot be avoided. Cook sailed to Australia on orders from the British Government to find more land in order to expand their empire. Convicts were transported to Australia to deal with the ever-increasing prison population in Britain and some were petty criminals who only stole out of desperation in times of economic hardship and class subjugation. Australia’s first PM was Edmund Barton, who believed that “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.” Federation came about in order to ensure the economic security of Australia and the first non-administrative act of the new Commonwealth Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth); the foundations of the White Australia Policy. We were involved in the World Wars following the lead of the British motherland seeking security in Europe.

Asking questions is actually quite subversive. She probably should’ve left the ‘why’ bits out if she didn’t want ideology taught in history lessons, and just stuck to proclaiming the importance of learning facts and dates about dead, white males.

Examining history and literary texts through ideological analysis and debating ‘themes and issues’ is a means to examine life. Because, really, what is the point if we just walk though life without giving it any thought? It is only through asking questions, seeking knowledge and making our own conclusions that we as a society can progress and improve. But as Cicero succintly lamented, “the authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”