Proposed National Curriculum (2010+)

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This document presents a CPDS submission in relation to the proposed National History Curriculum. This suggests that the proposed curriculum, while providing a great deal of information about the diverse traditions that impact on Australia, would not ensure that students gain the understanding of that history needed for success in their emerging environment.

Also attached are documents illustrating the difficulty of judging which information should be presented, including:

  • an email (Faith in Science and Reason: How much is Right?) which suggests that both Enlightenment claims about positive human knowledge and post-modern claims that knowledge mainly reflects social assumptions have validity at times but can be misleading if taken too far;
  • an email (Bringing Balanced Understandings about Islam into Australian Schools) which suggests that a document prepared for schools by the Australian Curriculum Development Association (Learning from One Another) presents an idealistic version of Islam, and that experience of the practical (eg social, political and economic) consequences of the widespread  acceptance of Islam within a community is needed for proper balance.

Given these difficulties it would seem highly desirable to encourage diversity (rather than uniformity) in school curricula.

In 2015 it seemed that the vacuous nature of Australia's national history curriculum was becoming widely apparent (see Callick R., Sweep of time lost as history focus narrows to sex and movies, The Australian, 18/7/15)

Information without Understanding +

Australia's Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?
(Email sent 2/3/10)

Communications Officer,
Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority

Re:  History strand on Australian Curriculum Consultation Portal

I should like to express reservations about the proposed national history curriculum.

The basis of my concern is that, while the proposed curriculum would provide students with a huge amount of historical information about the diverse traditions that impact on Australia, it would not provide them with the understanding of that history (especially in terms of how a society's culture and ideas affects history) that they will need to succeed in their emerging environment. These concerns are outlined in more detail below.

By way of background I note that, while I have no involvement as an educator and am by no means a qualified historian, for about 25 years I have attempted to study the relationship between culture and the development of societies (with an initial focus on the relationship between Western and East Asian societies, later extended by passing attention to the Muslim world and aboriginal societies). An overview of some of this is in Competing Civilizations on my web-site.

John Craig

Outline of Concerns about the Limited Understanding Conveyed by the Proposed National History Curriculum

One of my concerns is that culture is treated as a consequence, rather than a cause, of history. For example, the proposed Year 1 Content Item H1KU4 refers to considering: 'How the roles of individuals and groups have evolved over time to meet changing human needs". The problem is that the curriculum does not seem at any stage to require considering how "roles of individuals and groups" (ie how people behave individually or corporately, as a consequence of their cultural assumptions) can affect history. For example, the ability of societies to change (socially, politically and economically) is a function of the "roles of individuals and groups" within the society, and an ability to change is in turn a major determinant a society's success or failure in terms of technological / economic advancement and influence relative to other societies (eg see Competing Civilizations). And the weak "role of individuals and groups" in dealing with change has apparently created major challenges that still need to be faced by Australians with indigenous ancestry (see The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement).

A closely related concern is that the curriculum would not provide any depth of understanding of the way in which ideas have influenced history. The curriculum would certainly introduce various historical ideas - specifically those of: (a) Egypt or Greece or Rome (H7KU16); (b) China or India or Australasia (H7KU22); (c) Medieval Europe (H8KU13); (d) the Renaissance (H8KU19); and (e) radicals (H10KU4). However this would not lead to a coherent understanding of:

  • the particular ideas that have been the foundation of Australia's culture, institutions, society and economy. For example, a growing scientific understanding of the natural world could emerge in Europe at the time of the Renaissance and subsequently accelerate economic advancement, only because of Christendom's expectation that the natural world would be lawful. Many of the ideas that are needed to understand Australia's heritage seem unfortunately to be either absent from, or optional components in, the proposed curriculum;
  • the way in which different ideas (or the absence interest in abstract ideas) have led to different outcomes. For example, constraining the ideas that may be considered to those consistent with the world-view that Islamic scholars have elaborated around the Qu'ran arguably has significant (adverse) implications for Muslim dominated societies (see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science). And the absence of Western societies' commitment to abstract ideas and universal values in some Asian societies (because they lack a classical Greek heritage) can lead to ways of doing things that are quite different ways to those Australians have any basis for understanding (eg see East Asia in Competing Civilizations).

Professor Stuart Macintyre, who spoke about the history component of the proposed curriculum in ACARA's Video Transcript ('Development and Consultation Overview: K–10 Draft Curriculum’, March 2010) emphasised: engaging those with diverse backgrounds; increasing understanding of Australia's regional context and of others; and promoting sustainability.

However there is a sense in which the proposed curriculum's worthy goal of encouraging acceptance of others as they are, conflicts with the need to understand what works and what doesn't work, and perhaps even the distinction between good and evil.

Moreover functionally-useful understanding of Australia's place in a region in which dominant societies lack the commitment to the abstract ideas and universal values that Western societies derived from the West's classical Greek heritage requires far more than brief references to Asia's history. Without much deeper understanding, cultural differences that are 'invisible' to those with 'Western' world views could put Australia's liberal and democratic traditions at risk (eg see Babes in the Asian Woods).

Note - Added later: Other observers perceived defects in the 'Asian' component of the proposed national history curriculum. For example:

  • there is a need for massive further funding to equip teachers if Asian component is introduced to curriculum - as teachers are not yet able to deliver on Asia literacy (according to Kathe Kirby - Asia Education Foundation). The draft curriculum was seen as very Eurocentric [1];
  • attempt to tell Australian story in Asia context was 'lame and impotent' according to Tony Milner (ANU) - as it fails to prepare Australians for the world they are moving into. WWII needs to focus not in Europe but on Japanese conquests in Asia. The curriculum focuses on rights / liberty / progress which does not have same impact in Asian societies [1].

A reasonable case can be made that many of the dysfunctions and conflicts that plague human societies are the unintended outcome of the failure of intellectuals to critically evaluate the consequences of differences in cultural assumptions (see Competing Civilizations) . It would not be constructive at this time to reflect this weakness in Australia's national school history curriculum.

Faith in Science and Reason: How Much is Right?

Attachment A: Faith in Science and Reason: How Much is Right? (Email sent 7/6/10)

Terry Sweetman
Courier Mail

Re: 'Subject beyond belief', Courier Mail, 4/6/10

As I interpreted it, your article (which is outlined below) suggested that 'creationism' should not be included in the national history curriculum under the heading of ancient controversies (as is reportedly proposed). Rather you suggested that it should be mentioned only in modern history (ie as a theory that was discredited by the victory of science over belief in the Age of Enlightenment).

However, while some of the proposed curriculum seems to be included indiscriminately and could mislead students, your insistence that only one creation theory should be seriously studied seems unreasonable.

In some respects the proposed national history curriculum seems to reflect a dangerous level of 'open-mindedness' - as it includes information about diverse societies and cultures without ensuring that students come to understand what makes their own society work (eg their classical Greek and Judeo-Christian heritage; and the scientific revolution that was facilitated by the Renaissance). However your articles' insistence that 'evolution theory' is so solidly proven scientifically that it should be included in the curriculum without seriously considering alternatives seems like an example of a 'closed mindedness' - as that theory is not as secure as you suggested.

My reasons for these observations are outlined in more detail below.

John Craig

Outline of Article and Detailed Argument

An interpretation of Sweetman T., 'Subject beyond belief', Courier Mail, 4/6/10: It was recently reported that creationism is to be taught in schools under the proposed national curriculum. In a Christian bookstore one book referred to a theory of creation in six days. This sort of invention is an outrageous trespass on young minds - and involves exploiting the power adults have over children. The credibility that is given to creationism (and its off-spring intelligent design) should make us cautious. There is a need to avoid being defined by what we teach, or believe that Australia is constitutionally a Christian nation. Creationism is to be offered in ancient history as a 'controversy' in relation to human origins (according to Kay Bishop, Queensland History Teachers Association). However there can only still be controversy in minds that are closed to facts and stifled by belief. The beginning of the end was Huxley's demolition of Bishop Wilberforce's objections to Darwinian theory in 1860, while the Scopes Monkey Trials of 1925 must have finally discredited Biblical creationism. Darwin's voyages and theories and past evolutionist / creationist debates are facts. They should be studied in modern history which encompasses the victory of science over belief in the Age of Enlightenment. Creationism should not be discussed without being rejected. We know this, so we should teach it. Pre-Copernican views of the universe are historical fact, but we should not pretend that the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe has scientific support. Even more caution is required about intelligent design in the curriculum than about creationism. It is a fundamentalist stalking horse that was suggested in 2005 should be part of curriculum. Evolutionary theory is based on observations of the natural world and can be tested scientifically. Intelligent design suggests that life is too complex to have emerged without divine intervention (ie that which can't be understood must be ascribed to supernatural -- which is a retreat into mythological nonsense). Mike Archer (Uni of NSW) described intelligent design as creationism in another form (Ie a mishmash of theology and science which has been adopted because fundamentalists can no longer get a hearing for their literal creation beliefs). Lynne Doneley (Associated Christian Schools) suggests that new curriculum cements a faith-based approach to teaching. She argues that students are presented with science from a faith perspective, and asked to make up their own minds. But why not embrace other beliefs (eg the atomic table)? Faith and science are not mutually exclusive, but creationism / intelligent-design are long divorced from science and have little relationship.

Insufficient Faith in Science and Reason

There is no doubt, as the above article argued, that children should be taught what we know; and that things that are known to be false should not be taught.

However there appears to be an emerging crisis in education (especially in the humanities) related to a post-modern unwillingness to discriminate between what can reasonably described as 'truth' (ie a realistic description of how the world works) and ideas that have little basis other than being what people believe to be true. The unfortunately-complex issues involved were:

  • outlined in Eroding the Foundations of Western Culture and of a Liberal International Order (in Competing Civilizations, 2001). The latter: (a) highlighted the post-modern assumption that much knowledge is merely a social construct; and (b) noted the validity of this view in relation to some knowledge, and the damage that can result from taking this assumption too far;
  • illustrated by a controversy at the Queensland University of Technology. The latter was nominally about a particular student's PhD thesis, but more fundamentally seemed to be about postmodernism and the nature of knowledge (see A Crisis in Education at QUT?, 2007).

This problem appears to bedevil the proposed national history curriculum - as the latter would provide students with a huge amount of historical information about the diverse traditions that impact on Australia, but will not necessarily lead them to an understandings of how a society's culture and ideas affect its prospects (see Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding? March 2010).

Western societies, for example, have succeeded as a result of particular characteristics derived from their history (eg from: their classical Greek and Judeo-Christian heritage, Roman Law, the Renaissance / Reformation / Enlightenment; the scientific revolution; the development of democracy and capitalism; etc) - see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths (in Competing Civilizations, 2001). Yet the proposed national history curriculum does not seem to make this clear to students, and thus would probably impede Australia's ability to adapt appropriately to its emerging environment. Those who do not understand the foundations of their society can easily neglect some of those foundations, and find that things unexpectedly fall apart around them. The Decay of Australian Public Administration (2002) arguably illustrates this risk.

Thus the proposed national history curriculum may in some respects reflect a potentially-risky level of 'open mindedness'.

Excessive Faith in Science and Reason

By contrast the theory of creation that was endorsed in the above article may reflect a prematurely closed mind. That article suggested that the 'evolution theory' of creation is based on observations of the natural world and can be tested scientifically. Unfortunately the creation theory that was favoured is not as solidly based as the article implied.

In the first place, despite the article's suggestion that intelligent design has been completely discredited, the problem of irreducible complexity (ie how anything as complex as a single cell could emerge from random variations) has currently "put the ball back in the court" of those who advocate purely materialistic theories of creation. There does not yet seem to have been an adequate rebuttal of this objection.

However there are far more fundamental problems.

In the first place, the faith in the reliability of human knowledge that the above article expressed is unrealistic. For example, Is 'science, reason and critical thinking' solid? notes that:

  • human rationality (which was effectively 'deified' by the Enlightenment) frequently fails in dealing with systems that are too complex to be expressed in terms of simple concepts. This failure is widely recognised in theories of management, public administration and economics (eg the inability of central planners to acquire the information required to make sensible decisions, is mainstream economists' primary rationale for a market economy). Moreover rationality, though widely respected in Western societies, is not relied upon much as the basis for social, economic or political organisation in increasingly-successful East Asian societies;
  • science also is a limited path to truth (eg consider the notions of (a) 'falsificationism' ie that theories are never proven, merely not yet shown to be false; (b) the 'theory dependence of observations' ie that people tend to have trouble seeing things they do not expect to see; and (c) the 'logical invalidity of induction', ie that valid universal 'laws' can never be derived from limited observations); and
  • post-modernism (despite the disastrous consequences of taking it too far that were mentioned above) has become one of the major intellectual trends of recent decades because to some extent all writings reflect the beliefs of their authors.

Within their limitations reason and science, like postmodernism, are useful techniques, but those limitations need to be kept in mind.

In particular, science needs to be recognised as a technique for gaining understanding how the universe works (ie what relationships exist) through experimentation. However, for reasons suggested below, science probably can't really help in showing how those relationships came to exist (eg how the universe or anything within it came to be as it is at any point in time, or how it is likely to change / evolve in future).

Science seeks to express relationships in the natural or social world as 'laws' which show how the future state of a system can be predicted from its initial state. Such 'laws' do not, on their own, either explain or appear to permit the changes in relationships that are implicit in the emergence of new order (eg as implied by evolution). Theories of creation through a purely-materialistic process of evolution, envisage change starting with random variations within some system which: (a) make it better adapted to its environment; and (b) are thus preferentially reproduced. However the deterministic laws of physics conserve information, and thus do not permit randomness (ie a loss of information about the system). Thus something more than the 'laws' which science seeks to discover seems necessary to explain changes within any system. Such change appears always to depend on information from outside a given system, and this would render any internal materialistic theory of change inadequate (see Did God design a better argument? and Problems in an Internally Deterministic Worldview).

It is naive to suggest that the truth about human origins was effectively settled by debates in the 19th or early 20th centuries so that educators should now authoritatively teach only one particular creation theory. Until early in the 20th century science had generally taken the view that the universe was unchanging, but the probability that there had actually been a creation event was then recognised when observations showed that the universe was expanding. Progress in science during the 20th century discredited the purely mechanistic understanding of the natural world that had dominated in the 19th century and which out-of-date analysts rely upon in arguing against the possibility of events that can't be explained mechanistically. The limitations on science and human rationality have been increasingly recognised by philosophers. It was only in the 1980s that problem of reconciling changes in the information state of any system with the time-reversible deterministic physical laws (eg the loss of information implicit in the Second Law of Thermodynamics) was recognised,

A much more open minded approach to creation is appropriate than is revealed by the above article.

Bringing Balanced Understandings about Islam into Australian Schools

Attachment B: Bringing Balanced Understandings about Islam into Australian Schools
(Email sent 12/7/10)

Katherine Schoo,
Executive Director,
Australian Curriculum Studies Association

Re: Learning from One Another: Bringing Muslim Perspectives into Australian Schools

My attention was drawn to your teacher resource booklet jointly published with the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Education, through an article in Brisbane's Sunday Mail

My interpretation of that article: Every Australian school student would be taught positive things about Islam and that Australia is a racist country under a plan outlined in Learning from One Another: Bringing Muslim Perspectives into Australian Schools which was published by Australian Curriculum Studies Association and Centre for Excellence in Muslim Studies (Melbourne University). It argues that prejudice and ignorance about Islam and Muslims requires that students embrace difference and diversity. The authors are offering seminars to teachers. ('Positive Islam pushed', Sunday Mail, 11/7/10)

Might I respectfully suggest that considerable care is needed in developing any such document to ensure that a balanced perspective is provided, as there seems to be dysfunctional 'baggage' associated with Islam that wouldn't be revealed by Islamic idealism any more than it would be obvious by simply considering radical Islamism. The nature of that 'baggage' (ie politically and economically damaging practical consequences of the world views that have been elaborated around Islam) is speculated in Thoughts on Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Australia.

It is not constructive to simply provide indiscriminate information to teachers without helping them to understand what works and what doesn't work (as argued more generally in relation to Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?). More than a 'beginners' approach is necessary in relation to understanding the Muslim world, just as it is in relation to East Asia where a 'beginners' approach seems to be considered sufficient (see Babes in the Asian Woods). Even in meeting the needs of Muslim students, teachers must be aware of more than the ideals of Islam. People are more important than ideology.

I would be interested to learn what steps your Association has taken to ensure a balanced perspective in this document, ie one which takes account of the practical political and economic consequences of Islamic assumptions.

John Craig

Australia's National History Curriculum: Making Education Futile and Highlighting the Importance of Christianity?

Attachment C: Australia's National History Curriculum: Making Education Futile and Highlighting the Importance of Christianity? (email sent 29/12/10)

David Daintree,
Campion College

Re: ‘Christianity has role in learning’, The Australian, 29/12/10

Your article noted the role of Christianity in Australia’s heritage and society, and objected to the fact that it is not mentioned in the proposed National History Curriculum. I should like to suggest that your argument, while valid, does not go anywhere near far enough.

Education is a waste of time unless knowledge can be used effectively in problem solving. In many social and political systems abstract knowledge (and thus education as understood in Australia) is of little value, because for very complex problems rationality doesn’t work well for individuals (as citizens, managers or politicians). The economic and political advantages that Western societies have enjoyed in recent centuries have depended mainly on their ability to create artificially simplified social environments in which individuals can use rationality (and thus their acquired abstract knowledge) for effective problem solving. And creating such simplified problem spaces for individuals has, in turn, depended on widespread Christian adherence in the community, complemented by various social innovations (eg a rule of law).

My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in more detail below.

I submit also that the draft Curriculum may be very useful in achieving your apparent goals. Though clearly not its authors’ intention, the biggest contribution of the proposed Curriculum may ultimately be that its very weakness forces public debate and recognition related to the role of Christianity in Australia’s heritage.

John Craig

Outline of Article and Detailed Comments

My interpretation of your article: Development of the National History Curriculum seemed likely to provide an opportunity to debate the influence of Christianity on history. However the draft ancient history curriculum does not mention Christianity – and only mentions religion at all in the context of Indian history and in relation to the effect of racism, religion and European cultures in Asia. Oikophobedia refers to ‘fear of ones’ home’, but can be expanded to also mean repudiation of one’s heritage (fed by vanity about a new and supposedly enlightened way of viewing the world). Christianity is particularly odious to some oikophobes – who see it as having brought mainly problems. Evidence for such views can be found (eg in Crusades, Inquisition, eradication of Albigenians, Thirty Years War, some people’s indifference to slavery, treatment of Jews, conflict in Northern Ireland, and brutish behaviour of some clergy towards children). But evil has been counterbalanced by good (eg systematic care of poor / prisoners, establishing hospitals / schools / universities, self-sacrificing clergy, resistance to authoritarian bullies, prohibition of slavery, and improving position of women). Even in current (post-Christian) era, many remain committed to Christian ethics, though they have lost the faith. Draft national history curriculum simply does not mention any of this – which is inept / dishonest. An honest curriculum would discuss role of religion in the world since late antiquity, and particularly the role of Christianity in Australia’s heritage. For believers Christ’s incarnation was the greatest event in human history, though this claim angers many non-believers. Many who are opposed to Christianity hope to engage a war of attrition hoping that it will just disappear, and this seems to motivate those who framed the history curriculum. Others are willing to debate Christianity, while rejecting its metaphysical dimensions. Often such people suffer from a lack of understanding of what is involved. Christians should challenge those who contest the veracity of their faith.

The advantages that Western societies have gained from their unique ability to create artificially simplified environments for rational / responsible decision making is argued in Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths (in Competing Civilizations, 2001). The key point is that the Judeo-Christian tradition places responsibility for the morality of behaviour in individual consciences responsible to God, and thereby allows: (a) the creation of legal and governance systems that presume individual liberty; (b) individuals to confront an economic environment in which rationaliy can work fairly well (though some social innovations are also required to facilitate this) ; and (c) governments to operate on relatively uncomplicated problems (because they are not required to determine the nature of, and enforce, moral behaviour).

Analysts in Western societies have trouble perceiving this advantage, because it is so pervasive in their environment – just as fish presumably have trouble perceiving water as anything special. Thus numerous other factors are seen to explain the success that Western societies have enjoyed in recent centuries. However when one looks at non-Western societies there is an expectation that social elites / communal pressures will enforce moral behaviour. This creates systemic obstacles to rationality (and thus to the practical application of abstract knowledge), and makes the West’s advantages that derive from its Judeo-Christian heritage quite apparent. Under East Asian traditions (for example) the role that Confucian social elites have in determining the nature of, and enforcing, morality makes rationality ineffectual, and entirely different (and authoritarian) systems of socio-political-economy have emerged (see East Asia). While those alternatives have strengths, they also have serious weaknesses (see see Ending the West's Global Predominance?). In Muslim dominated societies, the expectation that communal coercion, rather than individual consciences, will ensure morality seems to be the foundation of chronic authoritarianism and economic backwardness (see Islamic Societies).

The social and economic benefits of education are vastly different depending on whether societies create social environments in which rationality (and thus abstract knowledge) can be useful in individual problem solving. Within the traditional social and political context of some societies (eg tribal societies, Islamic societies) education will produce limited benefits, because there is little to be gained by individuals using abstract knowledge for rational problem solving. In an East Asian context, education is of great value as part of a process of individual or community transformation, but not as a basis for individual rationality.

In Australia, the advent of an officially ‘post-Christian’ environment (as illustrated by the failure of proposed National History Curriculum to mention Australia’s Christian heritage that you drew attention to) has significant practical implications. Numerous social symptoms of declining individual morality are emerging, and diverse groups and individuals are claiming to be the new source of moral authority to combat those evils. They are thus inadvertently putting at risk: (a) the separation between church and state; (b) individual liberty; and (c) the economic and political advantages of that liberty (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

In relation to various matters mentioned in your article it is further noted that:

Attachment D: A Big Picture View of Problems in Maths Curriculum

A Big Picture View of Problems in Maths Curriculum - email sent 18/7/12

Professor Norman Wildberger
University of NSW

Re: Ferrari J.,New maths course inadequate, The Australian, 18/7/12

I should like to suggest for your consideration that the problems that you have identified in the proposed new national curriculum for Year 11 and 12 maths are likely to have a systemic cause which implies a need for a different curriculum development process. While this will not be immediately obvious, the cause of the problem is likely to be the biases that limit the effectiveness of ‘rational’ centralised decision making.

Your reported criticism was that "The draft national curriculum replaces core material such as algebra, geometry, and applications of calculus with a lot of advanced statistics and, for the higher strand, tertiary-level topics”. As an engineer who has done a lot of work related to the social sciences, it seems to me that the proposed national curriculum is biased towards to needs of (say) social science and medical research in which statistics play a major role, at the expense of the algebra / geometry / calculus needs of the applied sciences and engineering.

It can be noted that the national history curriculum contains a similar dysfunctional bias (see Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?, 2010). And, as with the proposed national maths curriculum, this bias reflects a lack of concern for practical issues.

Explanation: The national history curriculum sought to impart understanding of diverse societies, without ensuring coverage of the societies and ideas that had contributed directly to Australia’s institutions and character. Culture has practical consequences which are significant in causing history – so it is important to ensure that students gain a solid understanding of those that have led to practical success (and why this is so). The national history curriculum does not seem to do this. Though this will not be immediately obvious, the importance of ensuring understanding of what has led to success and failure in history can be seen by considering current unresolved concerns about Australia’s response to asylum seekers (see The Biggest Issue Missing from the Asylum Seeker Debate).

In both these cases the problem is arguably that reform proposals have been developed (and in one case already implemented) on the basis of a particular point of view, and this has not taken account of other considerations that are outside the expertise and experience of the persons involved. In relation to this, it is further noted that:

  • There are limits to human rationality that are recognised in management, public administration and economic literature. For example, the inability of central planners to acquire the information required to make appropriate decisions is economists’ primary justification for a market economy;
  • The application of reforms to governments and universities which involved an autocratic implementation of particular ideologies has led to severe problems (eg see Toward Good Government in Queensland , 1995 and A Case for Restoring Universities, 2010). In the Queensland Government case (which was replicated in various ways Australia wide - see Decay of Australian Public Administration, 2002) attempts to ‘reform’ government across-the-board on the basis of particular (but narrow) understandings of what was required led to the elimination of much of the knowledge and skills which was vital for practical success in government operations - but which the ‘reformers’ did not appreciate. Crisis prone government administration across Australia over the past couple of decades is the consequence. A general account of the problems facing government in Australia is in Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building (2003+). This emphasises the need for institutional reforms for which one important focus involves enabling complex issues that are beyond simple ‘rational’ prescriptions by potential reformers to be better managed.

A better approach to developing curriculum (as with the other concerns above) would involve a shift away from centralised attempts to make ‘decisions’ towards centralised efforts to identify the issues requiring change while encouraging proposed responses to emerge from existing practitioners. This would ensure that new curriculum would build on existing strengths while taking into account new requirements, rather than being biased towards the central decision maker’s perception of the new requirements while potentially eliminating existing strengths that are not centrally understood.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Attachment E: Big History

Big History - email sent 7/11/12

Professor David Christian
Macquarie University

RE: Big History: why we need to teach the modern origin story, The Conversation, 7/11/12

I noted with interest your outline of the moves towards teaching Big History. However I suggest caution because of

  • the risk noted in the first paragraph of your article that: “All human societies construct and teach creation myths or origin stories. These are large, extraordinarily powerful, but often ramshackle narratives that try and tell the story of how everything came to be”; and
  • your later suggestion that: “The failure to teach a modern origin story is curious because such a story lurks at the heart of modern science, waiting to be teased out”.

I should like to submit for your consideration that (if authority in relation to explaining how ‘everything came to be’ is expected to emerge from modern science) there is a very real risk of teaching an inadequate ‘creation myth and origin story’. There are problems at the heart of modern science which limit its ability to provide useful information about how things came to be, even though it is very useful in discovering how things are (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?).

In brief there seems to be a need to give serious attention to assumptions about science, because science assumes that the future state of a system can be predicted from knowledge of is initial state and fixed deterministic laws / causal relationships. This has limitations that are most obvious in relation to the way in which it is possible to ‘create’ new causal relationships in social systems. For example, economics tries to be a ‘real science’ like physics and to find models of economic systems that can be used for predicting outcomes – but fails because (in trying to be a ‘real science’) it does not get to grips with information-driven changes in causal relationships – see Probable Breakthrough in Understanding Economic Development. The same seems certain to apply to biological and ecological systems. Science’s fixed time-reversible causal relationships are incompatible with changes in the information state of living systems and thus inadequate on their own in explaining change / development / evolution in such systems (see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview). The latter suggests that for any system (including presumably the universe as a whole) the environment is always involved in internal change / development / evolution – and that while science’s laws can explain part of this, they are not sufficient in themselves.

Another point that is worth considering is the incompatibility between the notion of a ‘universal origin story’ through Big History and the intellectual traditions that underpin the East Asian societies that are presumed to be the core of the so-called Asian Century – as the latter are based on rejection of the abstract concepts and ‘universals’ that have been the foundation of Western societies (eg see Epistemology: The Core Issue abd Competing Thought Cultures).

In brief: Though the issues are complex, an impression of what is involved might be gained by recognising that the core precept of Daoism (China’s traditional religion) is that ‘the Dao (way / truth) that can be named in not the true Dao’ – which is simply a statement of the lack of faith that societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage have in the rationality / reason that is the basis of Western societies' social, political and economic organisation. And that precept is apparently: (a) the foundation of the economic ‘miracles’ that have been able to be achieved in East Asia to potentially upset the global order (which are real ‘miracles’ in the sense that they were not the result of the initial state of those economies or of the causal relationships they initially embodied and thus could not be predicted on the basis of a deterministic / 'scientific' approach to economics); and (b) a major factor in the global financial crisis – once again for complex reasons.

My 2010 speculations about what might need to be emphasised in teaching history in Australia based on the sorts of issues outlined above are in Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

F: Ending 'Politically Correct' Education

Ending 'Politically Correct' Education - email sent 15/1/14

Christopher Pyne,
Education Minister

Re: Crowe D., Pyne tackles ‘bias’ in classrooms, The Australian, 10/1/14

You were quoted as suggesting that there is a ‘cultural Left’ bias in Australia’s national school’s curriculum, and that there is a need to restore a more orthodox curriculum.

However, while there are undoubtedly seriously dysfunctional biases in the current national school’s curriculum, the solution is not to formulate yet another national curriculum (which would inevitably be seen to reflect a different set of biases). Rather the possibility of bias should be eliminated altogether by: (a) ensuring that there is no official / enforceable ‘national’ curriculum; and (b) encouraging the emergence of a diversity of competing curricula supported by research bodies that approach curriculum issues from various viewpoints.

My interpretation of the above article in which you were quoted: Abbott Government will reshape education by appointing critics of national curriculum to review it – because of concern that it reflects a ‘cultural Left’ agenda. Education Minister suggests that the need for remedial classes in universities shows the curriculum’s problems. Review will be led by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. This could change history curriculum that favours ALP over Coalition. Kevin Donnelly has criticised ‘relativism’ in teaching, while Ken Wilshire rejects emphasis on ‘competencies’. This review could resurrect the ‘culture war’ (reflected in former PM’s Howard’s criticism of neglect of Australia’s history, and PM Gillard’s introduction of national curriculum in 2010). Christopher Pyrne advocates curriculum free of partisan bias. There is concern that curriculum seeks 7 general competencies, rather than specific knowledge in areas such as Maths, English, History. Paul Kiem (former history Teacher’s Association president) suggest this leads to ‘tick the box’ approach – a view shared with Tom Alegounarias (former NSW Board of Studies President). Kevin Donnelly warns against ‘subjective’ view of culture that neglects Judeo-Christian values at core of Australian institutions. This does not provide people with understanding of their responsibilities as citizens. Professor Wiltshire suggested that curriculum needs to be based on a set of values – yet it is almost impossible to tell what values were used to define current curriculum. Some state education ministers have challenged Mr Pyne over his ‘command and control’ approach to the teaching program. The current curriculum has three priorities across subjects: indigenous culture; Asia; and sustainability. Mr Pyne questions their value (especially in maths and science).

There is no doubt that the new national curriculum suffers serious deficiencies. For example, it fails to ensure that students would appreciate how and why Australia’s fairly successful liberal institutions emerged (eg see Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding?, 2010+). And by doing so the national curriculum ignorantly risks undermining the very purposes of education as it has been understood in Australia (see What Should be the Core of the Curriculum?). In Western societies the purpose of education is to enable students to understand as a basis for rational decision making as citizens / employees / employers / administrators / politicians. This is by no means the traditional purpose of education everywhere (eg see Education in ‘Asia’ and About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science). Moreover ‘understanding’ is only likely to lead to practical benefits in the liberal social, economic and political institutional settings that resulted from the historical influences that actually determined the way Australia’s institutions work – noting the limits on rationality / understanding that are widely seen to exist in complex situations.

Centralization of control is a major source of the increasingly obvious problems that governments in Australia have been experiencing – because of: (a) the limits to rationality; and (b) the reduced scope for decentralized / collaborative rational initiative based on individual understanding that has been the strength of Western societies (see Centralization is Part of the Problem: Not the Solution). This problem is just as severe in school curricula as it is in other government functions. Irrespective of whether a ‘national curriculum’ is based on the biases of the ‘cultural Left’ or seeks vainly to be ‘free of partisan bias’, the rigidity of a ‘politically correct’ way of teaching complex topics that need to be viewed differently for different purposes and are likely to change constantly (ie the rigidity of a ‘national curriculum’) is a major obstacle to an effective education system.

The desirability of avoiding a ‘politically correct’ way of teaching can be illustrated by specific issues mentioned in the article outlined above, ie:

  • the suggestions that: (a) a curriculum needs to reflect a set of values; and (b) that the Judeo-Christian values that are at the core of Australia’s institutions should not be neglected. While those suggestions are valid, it is not possible to maintain Australia’s liberal institutions if it is government that seeks to define and promulgate a particular set of values. Doing so (and thus building and maintaining the social foundations needed for liberal institutions) has been, and must remain, the role of others if liberal institutions are to be maintained (see comments on Upgrading Queensland's Education System);
  • the national curriculum’s requirements that indigenous culture, Asia and sustainability be a priority in all subjects. It is anything but clear what should be taught about ‘indigenous culture’ (for reasons suggested in The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002). It is futile to try to teach children about ‘Asia’ when adults don’t yet seem to understand (see Understanding China: Focusing Education on the Under Fifteens Would be Fatal). And teaching about a politically-contested topic such as the requirements for ‘sustainability’ can never be freed from the assumptions of the individuals who frame a curriculum. A diversity of contending views (rather than ‘political correctness’) is the solution to the latter difficulty.

John Craig

G: Contributions to Western Civilization

Contributions to Western Civilization. - email sent 18/1/14

Dr Meredith Doig

Re: Should we teach more religion in schools?, Online Opinion, 17/1/14

I was interested in your suggestion about the need to carefully consider whether (say) the Judeo-Christian tradition and / or the Enlightenment had made the greatest contribution to Western civilisation. However I suggest that the issue is more complex than your (very brief) comments suggested.

Your article suggested that: “It's often bandied about that Western civilisation is based on Judeo-Christian values, and to an extent, that's true. But Christianity's key ideas were already familiar territory to those living two thousand years ago. Early Christianity was itself already based on the moral philosophies of the ancient Greeks – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Golden Rule for example, in the Sermon on the Mount – 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' – appears in the Egyptian and Babylonian traditions, and is better expressed in Confucianism – 'Do not impose on others what you would not choose for yourself'. The Greek philosopher Thales put it this way: 'Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing'. Further, what's always left out of these claims is the crucial role of the Enlightenment, from which we get most of our secular values: freedom of speech, universal education, the scientific method, freedom from dogma, separation of church and state, tolerance, and of course the big three – liberté, egalité , fraternité. So let's not get distracted by the call for 'Judeo-Christian values'. If there's any gap in Australian education, it's that there's not enough recognition of the foundational role of the ancient Greeks in ethics, the ancient Romans in law, and the Enlightenment.”

As you pointed out the moral principles embodied in Christianity are by no means unique.

However what is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and critically important in achieving liberté, egalité , fraternité in ways that the French Revolution did not, is that compliance with those moral principles is left to individual consciences responsible to God (eg see Luke 6:37) – rather than being enforced by human authorities or communal coercion (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions, 2010). The notion of a ‘secular’ state (ie one that deals with everything but religion) follows from Jesus’ teaching (eg see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009 and Comment’s on Church’s Mission) and does not seem to exist outside the sphere of ‘Christendom’.

Liberté, egalité , fraternité were no means a feature of (say) Confucianism despite its endorsement of a form of the Golden Rule. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was apparently primarily intended to purge Confucianism from China because it was seen to have oppressed Chinese people (eg see Communism Versus Confucianism: The Continuing Contest in China, 2011). Rome had a system of law that was backed by force (and at times the claims to moral authority by ‘divine’ emperors) which was unable to withstand the spread of Jesus’ teachings. The contributions of ancient Greek philosophers led in many different directions. For example:

  • Medieval Scholasticism, which was derived from classical Greek philosophy, apparently involved an adherence to ‘idealism’ (ie the view that reality is / should be determined by ideas / philosophy / divine revelation) rather than ‘realism’ (ie the view that reality should determine ideas). The challenge to ‘idealism’ by the ‘realism’ implicit in Copernicus’ development of a theory of astronomy based on observations (which became the basis of modern science) was opposed primarily because this upset the then dominant scholastic world view (ie that new ideas had to be consistent with existing knowledge – such as those of Aristotelian physics). Paradigm shifts were not part of classical Greek philosophy. However Christianity had been revolutionary partly because Jesus: (a) challenged the notion that traditional teachings were invariably correct (Mark 2:27 ; Mark 7:5-9); and (b) did away with the detailed prescriptions of the moral law derived from historically-different circumstances (see Matthew 22:35-40).
  • And scholars in the Islamic world apparently continue to draw upon the rigidities implicit in classical Greek philosophy (presumably because this complements other sources of rigidity in their world views) and this is quite counter-productive to their progress – eg see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science

And while the Enlightenment was indeed an important feature of Western history it can be noted that a reasonable case for a Christian origin of universal education has recently been made by an Indian writer (see Mangalwadi V., The Book that Made Your World). And the Enlightenment world-view or the power of rationality and science is in some need of reconsideration (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?).

I should also like to draw your attention to: (a) some observations about the proposed review of the National Curriculum are in Ending 'Politically Correct' Education; and to (b) suggestions about issues involved in religious education in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig