Q and A with Anna Clark, author of Making Australian History
The “wokeness” of Australia’s National Curriculum has again made headlines and again it is more electioneering.
On Friday a Nine newspapers headline claimed the revised version of National Curriculum will elevate Western and Christian heritage. Crikey picked up on the Sydney Morning Herald headline to claim the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has “backed down” and “returned to Western Civilisation”.
Neither of these headlines is true. In fact, as the reporters wrote, the revisions needed to be discussed with the State education ministers at a meeting which occurred on Friday.
Furthermore, according to Stuart Robert, the revisions did not pass the States, with Western Australia holding out: “We have asked ACARA to go away and revise the curriculum, noting the concerns the Commonwealth and Western Australia have, and to come back to education ministers in April”.
So there is a long way to go yet, the curriculum is not “revised”, and ACARA has not backed down.
Robert claimed the problem with the Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum was that it was too busy. Most HASS teachers agree. He also said there was no mention of Gough Whitlam, of course, or Robert Menzies but that “students were encouraged to research Greta Thunberg”. On the easy resolution of this issue, Robert claimed a win by saying: “Western civilisation is something we should be proud of, and what it means to be Australian to be proud of is well and truly back in the curriculum.”
On the same day, Kevin Donnelly, who oversaw a previous review of the National Curriculum, published an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph (not available online). Most of the article pointed to funding, testing and sentiment data, but there was one unsubstantiated statement: “Too many students leave schools morally adrift, lacking resilience and unaware of what makes Australia and Western civilisation so beneficial and worthwhile defending.”
The Christian (a word not featured in any of the press briefings available to the public) and Western civilisation have been linked to the Cross Curriculum Priorities in the National Curriculum. This is the section of the document that suggests all disciplines should work to include Indigenous perspectives, Australia’s connections with Asia, and sustainability.
A moral panic, linked to these “woke” ideas, was sparked by a NewsCorp survey. The questionnaire asked Australians over the age of 18 the following leading question:
Which of the following is closer to your own view about the curriculum in Australian schools?
1. The curriculum should continue to include topics such as Australia’s engagement with Asia, Indigenous Australians and the environment
2. The curriculum has become too woke and we should have less emphasis on Australia’s engagement with Asia, Indigenous Australians and the environment than we have currently
3. Don’t know
The results of the survey were reported by Channel 7’s Sunrise program as “A new poll has revealed that a majority of baby boomers want Aussie values nurtured in classrooms and think the current school curriculum is ‘too woke’.” The program proceeded to debate the claim with commentators removed from expertise in curriculum development and interpretation (just like those surveys) . The program concluded the curriculum was not too “woke” – but the headline remained.
If truth be told, all these statements are easily refuted through a cursory search of the Internet or a quick discussion with your friendly neighbourhood educator. For example, the proposed revisions also reported that the “contestability” of the Anzac legend had been removed, but Robert reported that the contestability of Anzac day has been revised. Additionally, as Jonathan Dallimore, from the History Teachers Association of NSW explained in September (when Tehan announced the revision), “contestability” was framed in the negative.
Essentially, “contestability” in history scholarship refers to rigour in historical thinking and according to Dallimore, is only linked to “very legitimate (even safe) historical debates” in the National Curriculum.
So why all this emphasis on wokeness?
As I wrote in October 2021, it’s because there is an election coming and this storm in a teacup is campaigning. This is clear in two ways.
Firstly, emphasis on wokeness appeals to some of the crossbench, like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the newly badged United Australia Party. The large number of high profile independents positioning themselves to contest the coming election are a great a danger to the Coalition. Many of the independents are economically conservative, but progressive in other policies like climate futures and human rights. If they were to win balance of power, the Coalition has a much less predictable chance of government. It is therefore, in the Coalition’s best interest to win seats where PHON and UAP might be competitive.
Secondly, the other big-ticket items in the review, phonics and maths, appeal to nostalgia, which I have also written about previously. The removal of “balanced literacy” from the document, increased emphasis on phonics, and reform of initial teacher education to include the explicit teaching of phonics are politically smart moves for the Coalition going into an election. The Coalition can now say they delivered on their 2019 promises:
“…we will invest $10.8 million to provide a voluntary phonics health check for every Year 1 student so parents and teachers can be confident their children are not falling behind. We will also ensure that trainee teachers learn how to teach phonics as part of their university degree to ensure they can teach phonics in the classroom.”
Deliverology® is an approach to public administration that is a key service of think tanks the Institute for Public Administration Australia and the Centre for Public Impact, who both advise the public sector. This top-down approach to public service governance, is the belief that a good government is an efficient one that delivers on its promises, particularly those that deliver long-lasting results for its citizens. Every time literacy and numeracy are revised, the political reason for doing so is linked to falling test scores in PISA and NAPLAN. To successfully implement a literacy reform, regardless of its contestation, is to be able to claim a party can deliver. And that’s powerful.
Michael Barber, who developed the “science of deliverology”, insists that politicians use good data, set targets and trajectories, is consistent, and have regular reporting and reassessment of the delivery chain. So while the Coalition might claim they have delivered, they have:
1. Not used good data because mass testing data is contested and non-representative;
2. Not outlined a clear trajectory from announcement to implementation, but rather muddied the waters with false narratives;
3. Not been consistent, but moved between politically popular ideas; or
4. Not ensured the media reports progress in a clear and informative way.
So what can be done?
My answer is the same as it was in October. Politicians need to stop using education as a political pawn. Media outlets must be more responsible. Education policy research that is usually responsive to policy announcements, needs deeper analysis of the political trends that lead to policy development. This latter is where my own work sits.
Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, hstory and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.
Q and A with Anna Clark, author of Making Australian History
Q. Why has history become so contested in Australia?
Anna Clark: It’s always been contested. There were debates the letters pages of newspapers in the 19th century newspapers about what was going on on the frontier and debates over the legacy of Australia’s convict origins. In the last 30 or 40 years, it’s become increasingly contested because history has wrestled with questions about how to include the perspectives of people who had largely been excluded from the national story.
Q. Why has history now become so politicised when it comes to the national curriculum?
Anna Clark: That’s a very, very interesting question: it’s not simply a question of political debates along lines of ‘left’ and ‘right’. It’s also a dispute about the role and function of history in our education system today. For example, China is a very left wing government, which has very strong views that the role of history is to provide a proud narrative of national progress. Likewise, there are politically conservative historians who would argue that the role of history is to promote a kind of critical citizenship. So it’s not just a simple left/right divide. Much of the heat of the school history wars comes down to that disagreement over what the role of history should be.
Q: What do you think the role of history should be in a liberal democracy?
Anna Clark: It should be to help people understand their place in time, that we are all historical subjects and that we all have a past and a future. Understanding that people who were living and thinking and making decisions in 1901 or 1847, or 1945, were just as much a product of their own historical context as we are today. Teaching students to understand those historical contexts, as well as some of the skills of a historical education (such as research, communication, and interrogating historical sources) helps us to be better citizens and more capable, critical thinkers.
Q: Thinking about place and time, Anzac Day seems to be the most extraordinarily contested part of modern Australian history. Why is it like that?
Anna Clark: The idea of the Anzac legacy and even Anzac Day itself has always been up for grabs. To pretend that it’s not contested is just a total total misinterpretation of the history of Anzac Day. In the 1920s, that day was contested by many veterans who weren’t sure how to commemorate Australia’s involvement in war. In the 1960s (around the Vietnam War), Anzac Day was nearly moribund. Meanwhile, there has been a great national revival of this commemoration in recent years. ‘Contested’ doesn’t mean it has to be totally politicised, or that it’s ‘unAustralian’, but an understanding that people bring different ideas and understandings about what that day means.
Q: You’ve got children yourself, what do you hope for their history education in school?
Anna Clark: I hope they learn enough of the facts to understand the nation and the world in which they live. You know, understanding the World Wars, the Holocaust, civil rights, colonisation and imperialism But just as important as the facts are the skills of doing history, being able to get their hands dirty in proper historical research and be able to come up with historical questions themselves to ask of the past. So I hope they also develop research skills of inquiry, learn to use a library, distinguish different historical opinions, and also develop skills of empathy and imagination.
Anna Clark is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Public History at UTS and the author of Making Australian History, published this month by Penguin. Teaching the Nation, was published by Melbourne University Press in 2006 followed by History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom (New South, 2008).