Teaching history and civics in Australian schools: What has the National Curriculum Review rectified, and what has it neglected?

by David Hastie
24th May 2021

This article first appeared on ABC on May 24 2021 https://ab.co/3c0dMhv

Children’s classrooms might seem like innocent enough places, but make no mistake: when it comes to cultural expectations, schools are bombs just waiting to go off. And I don’t mean the short-fuses of those impulsive little six-year-olds. All the latent expectations about who we are meant to be — as families, as individuals, as a nation — and where our nation fits in the world, are crammed into those quaint classrooms.

Hence there is nothing that is more certain to light the fuse than a National Curriculum Review.

In the responses to the draft History and Civics Consultation Curriculums released earlier this month, no doubt the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was not surprised of being accused of dumbing down, being too “woke”, not being “woke” enough, and needing to be immediately abolished as an organisation. The same kind of argument went on in 2010 when the current national curriculum was being constructed — I confess to being one of the more vocal complainants about the English Curriculum.

Such debate is par for the course in curriculum review consultation. While many groups have complained that their interests are not adequately reflected in the Draft Curriculum, the notable exception, in this case, is Australia’s First Nations peoples. Indeed, it is the huge volume of the Indigenous content and foci that have drawn particular criticism.

As a Christian, and given Christ’s stress on giving a voice to the voiceless, I both applaud and support the increase of First Nations history in the Consultation Curriculum. As an historian, I applaud and can confirm, the rigor with which the Consultation Curriculum seeks to increase First Nations history. As an Australian of Anglo-Protestant early settler and convict descent, I repudiate any sentiment that First Nations content should be downplayed in school curricula because it is not significant enough. A celebration of Indigenous Australia should be at the core of our positive national identity.

The welcome emphasis on First Nations history

The sheer volume of content and foci on Indigenous histories, cultures, and peoples is amazing, and most welcome. I coordinate the Indigenous perspectives in our teacher training programmes at Alphacrucis College, have written formal policy submissions on behalf of professional associations to governing Teacher-Education bodies, and have lived and worked among the active cultures of eight different Indigenous nations. Indigenous history and archaeology have been a passion of mine since I was a teenager tramping through the national parks looking for lost art sites. The Consultation Curriculum contains brilliant material — exactly the kind of fascinating detail that has been absent in conventional teacher training, and definitely lacking in schools.

Previously, “deep time” Indigenous history was exclusively relegated to the primary and infants’ school. In far too many instances, this boiled down to doing occasional dot painting and watching crumby cartoon YouTube clips of de-contextualised dreaming stories, followed by twee activities such as “now write your own dreaming story”. Both approaches tend to make Indigenous history — and their extremely complex, poetic, and diverse spiritualities — look silly. By the time students reach abstract thinking in secondary school, the Indigenous account in the current curricula has tended to become exclusively connected to protest, loss, and trauma, with little sense of celebrating the cultural richness and complexity of pre-, and post-, 1788.

As historian Grace Karskens recently observed in People of the River, a perpetual narrative of massacre and invasion is historically incomplete: almost wherever violent dispossession first occurred, Indigenous people actually fought back with a vengeance, with military strategy and often terrible retributive violence. There was a series of hundreds of small wars of territorial conquest between colonists and local indigenous people. It was an invasion, only less General Patton-style, and more your Roman-Empire style: set up hard scrabble colonists on the frontiers, and they will do your fighting for you, furiously defending their first little patch of dirt. It was a hundred-year-war that Indigenous peoples ultimately lost.

However, Indigenous people also shrewdly adapted themselves to the new social order while maintaining culture and law. Unlike the closed narrative of massacre and annihilation, traditional life was not completely destroyed in many places, but endured for over a century, even in frontiers as violent as the Hawksbury. It endures to this day, in places where we had been taught it had entirely disappeared. This was never, and never would be, a “dying race”.

As a teacher, and now as an education academic, I have been trying to plug up these gaps for decades. And the whole K-10 History Consultation Curriculum is, in fact, actually great content. Nevertheless, I worry about the proposed Curriculum. My worry stems from a simple reality in schools: lack of time.

To put it simply, the inclusion of one topic always means excluding something else. This process of selection and exclusion in education has the real effect of valorising one voice, and silencing another. Up until quite recently, the silencing went the other way — neglecting Indigenous Australia, with nakedly brutal intent and outcome. I lived through this, in my feral upbringing in rural New South Wales in the 1970s. History lessons were simple back then: the mighty explorers, the vile convicts, the wily bushrangers, the wild gold rush days, the Wars. I loved it: my hoary ancestors had inhabited all of these iconic moments. And yet in the class all around me, with quiet, downcast eyes, were children of a far older culture, whose history was entirely absent.

In education we speak of “the hidden curriculum”: what we are meant to learn, what we don’t learn, and what we actually learn. We all learned something about the Indigenous kids in those days, including the kids themselves. I learned that I was top of the heap, and these kids were at the bottom. And then, terribly, I believed it, and often lived it. When the adult world teaches you to be racist when you are eight-years-old, it is hard not to be racist when you are twenty-years-old. Some never grow out of it. Perhaps if I had not become a Christian at age sixteen, and learned of Christ’s love for love and justice, I might be racist still.

However, in a noble effort to give voice to the hitherto voiceless, the Consultation Curriculum has overreached, and has thereby jeopardised the cause of the Indigenous focus by providing a platform of complaint for more unsavoury voices in the public forum. First, because the sheer volume of the suggested First Nations curriculum is unrealistic, and so silencing other voices in the Consultation Curriculum becomes inevitable. The material suggested to be covered in years 7-10 Consultation Curriculum, I could not hope to cover in a semester with highly literate adult trainee teachers. It more resembles what a teacher would deliver in an entire Indigenous perspectives major in a Bachelor degree.

Second, by such a high-volume inclusion, much is lost that should not be lost. In year 7, for example, students are expected to study: “Egypt, Greece, Rome, India and China … it is expected that students will study at least two societies, with one of those being early First Nations Peoples of Australia.” And so it appears that Indigenous history — indeed, only pre-1788 Indigenous history — has taken on a significance equal to the entirety of the rest of Ancient history around the world put together.

It thus becomes easy for the anti-PC brigade to say that Indigenous history is displacing essential cultural knowledge in schooling. The year 8 Consultation Curriculum misses key moments in medieval and Renaissance history — such as the Norman Invasion, the War of the Roses, the Tudors, the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War, the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire, Magellan, Vasco Da Gama. The entirety of pre-twentieth-century Russian History is absent. The only mention of Chinese Dynasties are single mentions of the Ancient Han and Zou periods, the latter incorrectly categorised under “India”. And yet there are ten references to Renaissance Italy, and over ten to the Ottoman Empire. Absent from the year 9 History Consultation Curriculum are the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of Prussia, any mention of German Europe prior to the twentieth century, and only one mention of the American Revolution. In 7-10 there is no mention whatsoever of Captain James Cook and the arrival of the first fleet: this material is covered briefly in primary at year 4, with ten-year-olds.

Year 10 History is the most thorough in the Consultation Curriculum when it comes to covering the key events — although Mao is not mentioned, nor his atrocities, nor the atrocities of the Soviet Union both at home and in its satellite states. The history of Africa is only mentioned once in the context of Apartheid. South and Central America are not mentioned at all.

But this is all gap chasing. It is far easier to complain about what is missing, than to praise what is there: the remaining material in the existing Consultation Curriculum is excellent stuff. What to include, and what to exclude, is contestable, and will ultimately be settle by committee — which is to say, it will satisfy no one, but such is always the way with a centrally mandated curriculum.

The puzzling absence of Christianity

I write on this particular occasion, however, as a Christian educationalist, not as an advocate of the “Classical West” — and the two should not necessarily be conflated. There are many different perspectives absent in the Consultation Curriculum, and I would point out that Christianity is one of the very significant histories that is conspicuously silenced in the 84-page years 7-10 History Consultation Curriculum. Christianity only appears scantily (7 times), and then mostly in year 8, where it is relegated to the “medieval” period, and covered mostly under the description of “examples of the Church’s power”. It does not appear in Constantine’s late Ancient Rome, nor in any conception of the modern world. The Reformation is absent, as are the sectarian wars that ravaged Europe in the early modern period.

The central role of Christianity in the formation of modern democracy, enfranchisement, anti-slavery, civil rights, unions, the spread of literacy, the preservation of Indigenous languages, and universal education is entirely ignored. So are the origins of secular humanism, liberalism, and Marxism — all, as Nietzsche once put it, the “bastard children” of Christianity. Apart from the scant year 8 “medieval” appearance, the only explicit presence that Christianity has elsewhere in the Consultation Curriculum are the two mentions of the role of “missions” in the destruction of Indigenous land and culture, and one mention of “Irish Catholics” in the Australian anti-conscription movement during the First World War.

The powerful phenomenon of Christianity among Indigenous Australia, moreover, is also conspicuously absent. There is a list of fifteen key Indigenous campaigners listed to be studied in the year 10 Curriculum: of these, William Cooper, Sir Douglas Nicholls, Lady Gladys Nicholls, Vincent Lingiari, Shirley Smith, and Joyce Clague were all Christians whose faith deeply motivated in their pursuit of Indigenous justice. NAIDOC week and the national Day of Mourning started in 1938 as a combined church event. Many other prominent Indigenous figures not included in the Consultation Curriculum were motivated by Christian faith, such as Moses Uraiakuraia, David Unaipon, Neville Bonner, Jimmy Little, and so on. Entire Indigenous communities, like in the Torres Strait, strongly identify with Christianity, but this is never mentioned.

One of the broader claims of the ACARA review process is that they are decluttering National Curricula. And it must be pointed out that in the 7-10 Civics and Citizenship Consultation Curriculum, Christianity gets a much better run. In the subject rationale, “The curriculum recognises that Australia is a secular nation with a culturally diverse, multi-faith society and a Christian heritage”. When students explore the diversity of spiritualities among First Nations Australian communities, they should examine from “traditional spirituality to the adoption of other religions such as Christianity and Islam.” Students should also gain an appreciation for “the cultural and historical foundations of Australia's Christian heritage and their impact on Australian political and legal systems”, and “identify Christian traditions and values that have influenced the development of Australian society, democracy and law, including the positive and negative impacts upon First Nations Australian communities and other groups within Australian society.” Finally, students are encouraged to research a religious NGO as a part of their civics education, and “how and why they contribute to the Australian community”. Other activities, such as “identifying trends regarding religious observance in Australian society using the Australian Bureau of Statistics”, will further increase contact of students with Australian Christianity. So perhaps there is merit to the argument that what is not being done in the K-10 History Consultation Curriculum is being done elsewhere in the 7-10 Civics Consultation Curriculum.

Far worse, however, is the blended K-6 Humanities and Social Sciences Consultation Curriculum, which covers the entirety of geography, history, civics and citizenship, and economics and business in primary school. While the generic study of “religious groups” is mentioned several times, Christianity is specifically mentioned only once: “recognising that people have different points of view on some commemorations and celebrations (for example, some First Nations Australians regard ‘Australia Day’ as ‘Invasion Day’ and many non-Christians celebrate Christmas for reasons not about practicing their faith).” In contrast, “First Nations” are referred to 129 times in the K-6 HASS Consultation Curriculum.

All of which is to say, Australian children will hear no formal mention of Christianity in their entire experience of humanity and social sciences education until year 8, and then only a passing reference. And this despite the fact that the influence of Christianity on Australian history, both positive and negative, is ubiquitous from 1788 and the social justice movements — including the great petitions to gain voting rights for women — through the deep sectarianism of the twentieth century, right through to the same-sex marriage debates of 2018. Its removal from the curriculum is unhistorical.

The question of what to include and what to exclude for any Curriculum Review process is one of degree and extent. I don’t want to see less of First Nations history, but I do want to see more of something else — which, ipso facto, mean reducing the amount of something. In these drafts, the balance has moved too far in the direction of one history, to the exclusion of many others — perhaps most notably, the role of Christianity in world and Australian history.

This is not to be shrill, however. These are remarkable educational drafts, both in content and educative process. ACARA’s chief executive David de Carvalho asserted that “regardless of how much content is left in the curriculum, it is properly organised, logical in its presentation and sequence, coherent, clear and easily accessible” — and I would agree. They are seeking feedback until July 2021. I would encourage you to have your say.

Dr David Hastie is Associate Dean of Education Development at Alphacrucis College, and previously taught History and English in New South Wales schools for 18 years. He was born on Wiljarli country, raised on Gamileroi country, and more recently lived and was privileged to educate on Biripi, Dharug, Gundungurra, Gunwinggu, Wiradjuri, and Tharawal country.