OPINION: Curriculum rebalance appears one-sided

EDUCATION Minister Chris Pyne has appointed former liberal chief of staff, Kevin Donnelly, and Ken Wiltshire, professor of public administration in University of Queensland's business school, to review the national school curriculum with the aim of removing partisan bias.

Mr Pyne wants children to be taught critical thinking, but Mr Donnelly, though he makes a living from critical thinking, thinks it should be removed from the curriculum. In his 2004 book Why Our Schools are Failing Mr Donnelly rails against the belief that education is essentially a process "where students had to be 'socially critical' and 'empowered' so as to enable them to 'challenge the status quo'".

Donnelly is an associate of the right wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, and is on record criticising the whole idea of a national school curriculum. In a 2000 IPA Backgrounder on education reform he asked "what is the point of parents and students being able to choose which school they want if all schools are made to follow the same centrally determined curriculum?"

Ironically, he pointed out that "if the curriculum is centrally mandated, especially by the state, then it is very easy for it to be co-opted by whoever is in control at the time to further their own ends". Apparently this is not a concern if he and Christopher Pyne are the ones in control and doing the co-opting.

Mr Donnelly has criticised modern school curricula for enforcing "a politically correct, black armband view" and argued that schools are places where "feminists and left-wing advocates of the gender agenda argue for the rights of women, gays, lesbians and transgender people". His personal think tank, the Education Standards Institute, instead favours "a commitment to Christian beliefs and values".

The notion that schools have become too left-wing and politically correct arises from developments that began during the 1960s and '70s when many young people subscribed to a counterculture movement that questioned central aspects of mainstream materialist culture. The movement influenced schools and brought a new emphasis on equity and critical thought to schools. Teachers encouraged debate about social institutions and current news topics.

Educational curricula in many nations began to include sex education, peace studies and feminist studies and to be inclusive of the concerns of indigenous people, immigrants, people of differing ethnic backgrounds and the poor. Business leaders and conservatives attributed the growing activism of school students to the broadened school curricula. Teachers were accused of being left-wing and anti-business.

Mr Donnelly claimed in 2000 that the Queensland curriculum (presumably before it was reviewed by Mr Wiltshire in the mid-1990s) focused "on such issues as the environment, multiculturalism and social justice; all with a futures perspective to ensure that students were ready to embrace the brave new world of the politically correct".

An aim of business-driven reforms around the world has been to redefine and confine the core knowledge that schools teach and ensure it celebrates the status quo rather than questions it.

In 2006 the Australian minister for education, Julie Bishop, argued that a "back-to-basics uniform national curriculum" was necessary because left wing "ideologues" had "hijacked" the curriculum and school students were subjected to "trendy educational fads". Prime minister at the time, John Howard, noted: "Until recent times, it had become almost de rigueur in intellectual circles to regard Australian history as little more than a litany of sexism, racism and class warfare."

Today, Mr Pyne and Mr Donnelly want the curriculum to emphasise the legacy and benefits of Western civilisation. Mr Donnelly claims the current history curriculum "undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life." Mr Pyne wants "the curriculum to celebrate Australia". He insists that Mr Donnelly and Mr Wiltshire will "bring a balanced approach". He also says that "not everyone will be pleased with his choice of who will review the curriculum".

That sounds like a pretty safe bet.

Sharon Beder is a professor at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong.