It’s summer holidays here in Australia, and while my little cherubs alternate between frolicking in the sunshine and telling me how bored they are, a review of the nation’s school curriculum is taking place.
About five years ago, it was decided that we needed a national curriculum to ensure that all students in Australia were being introduced to the same core knowledge across several subjects. Now, the cynic in me would say that apparently we seem to need a new curriculum every few years, regardless of whether the current one is still working. The pragmatist in me would suggest that teachers will take what the curriculum says they should teach, and look at what they’ve always taught, and take into account what they know works and what new information has come to hand in their subject area, and combine the lot into something they can do without having to reinvent the wheel, while complying with the guidelines so that their students will pass the exams.
But I digress.
The curriculum was discussed, changes were made, and some of the new courses have already been implemented by some states. I should note here that this new national curriculum was introduced by the former government (Labor). That’s important, because since then we have a new government, and last week, the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, announced that due to criticism of this new curriculum, there would be a review of it. You may remember the name Christopher Pyne, because I wrote about him a month or so ago, when I was trying to convince myself to be more open-minded about what he was saying. (I’m still having problems with that).
But it’s not Christopher Pyne who has been in the news this week as much as one of those whom he asked to review the curriculum, Kevin Donnelly. When Donnelly spoke to the media a few days ago about the sorts of changes he might suggest making to the curriculum, he argued that the curriculum as it stands, is too secular, and went on to say:
I would argue that the great religions of the world, whether it’s Islam, whether it’s Christianity, whether it’s Hinduism, Buddhism, they should be taught over the compulsory years of school.
Please know that I’m not being at all sarcastic when I say that I really like what Donnelly has to say here. Religion is a strong influence on culture the world over. We should expose our children to the thinking behind Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. Introducing these religious ideas also promotes cross-cultural understanding; it highlights the way humans have developed myths to explain the world around them, and how we have created values to help us to live together in that world.
But then he went on to say that parliaments in Australia all begin with the Lord’s Prayer. That’s not really a very interesting fact, and how is it relevant to whether schools should teach religion? Should we model our education system on the parliamentary one? Based on the way some of our politicians behave, I think not. He also noted that the preamble of our Constitution is ‘about God’ and if we ‘look at Federation, for example–1901–90% of Australians described themselves as Christian. So you can’t airbrush that from history. It has to be recognised.’
Well, the preamble mentions God. Once, directly, at the very beginning, and then rather vaguely in the third sentence where it mentions ‘Lords Spiritual and Temporal’, but I just read through it and I can’t agree that it’s ‘about God’. I think it’s about how a Commonwealth nation should form a government.
Donnelly’s reference to 90% of Australians identifying as Christians in 1901 is also irrelevant. Back in 1901, the vast majority also completely ignored the claim of Indigenous Australians had on the land they were settling. The vast majority believed in capital punishment. We shouldn’t be basing our curriculum on what people believed 113 years ago. What matters is what people believe now.
Donnelly argues that our heritage goes back to ‘Judaeo-Christian traditions’. Sure, if you ignore the heritage which includes 50 000 years of Indigenous history before Europeans even discovered this country. If you ignore the heritage of the Chinese immigrants who came to Australian in the gold rush of the mid 19th century. If you ignore the heritage of the large numbers of Greek and Italian immigrants in the 1920s. If you ignore the heritage of the Vietnamese refugees who fled here in the 1970s.
We are a very different nation than we were at Federation, and our education system should reflect that. Our society, and our schools, already do. It’s not about airbrushing out part of history. It’s simply who we are: a much richer, more interesting and hopefully more tolerant nation. What Kevin Donnelly says about religion is fine to begin with, and seems to encourage further learning about the varied cultural backgrounds represented in our society. But when he goes on to talk about the Lord’s Prayer, percentages of Christians and Judaeo-Christian traditions, it appears he is focussing on a very narrow definition of ‘religion’.
Donnelly sees our secular curriculum as a negative, whereas I believe it’s very much a positive. Instead of religion in terms of Donnelly’s interpretation, what would be wrong with our children learning philosophy as a subject which is taught throughout the compulsory years of schooling? Philosophy could involve the teaching of ethics, reasoning, logic, argument, and could address religion, and the question of faith. This would avoid a focus on any particular religion, and would allow all students to participate, without students or parents being concerned about proselytism.
I want the school my children attend to offer a broad education, to introduce a variety of ideas and to reflect the incredible diversity which exists in both the classroom and the wider society in which we live. We may have Judaeo-Christian roots. But we also have roots in Indigenous Australian religion, in Greek Orthodoxy, in Shinto, in paganism, and in atheism. Why limit ourselves by trying to focus on just teaching religion, when we could do so much more, by understanding where religions come from, by thinking about why gods are worshipped and where myths originate?
If we are going to overhaul the curriculum, let us embrace the secular nature of our schools, and leave the teaching of religion in homes, places of worship, or in religious schools. Let us create a public school system which encourages our children to be sceptical, to question, to engage on issues about ethics, politics, traditions and vested interests.
Imagine: a new generation of young people, who have been discussing religion, and culture, and history, from the age of five, until they graduate from high school. Imagine if they were invited to challenge their own beliefs, and those of others, in an environment which fostered respect and understanding? The empowerment, the self-realisation, which would come from this?
Now that is the kind of future in which I would like my children to live.