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Should we teach more religion in schools?

By Meredith Doig - posted Friday, 17 January 2014


Abbott Government Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a review of the national curriculum, claiming "concerns have been raised about the history curriculum not recognising the legacy of Western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day." (The Australian, 10 January 2014) But is this true?

Just who is concerned?

Certainly not to those most involved in education. Monash Deputy Dean of Education Deborah Corrigan says "there's nothing to indicate (the national curriculum) warrants a review at this stage." Ingrid Purnell, History Teachers Association curriculum manager, rejects suggestions the curriculum is biased: "I'm surprised by (that) concern." (The Age, 11 January 2014)

So who is concerned? Well, at least three people. Kevin Donnelly, principal of the Education Standards Institute, which comprises one person – Kevin Donnelly. Also possibly Ken Wiltshire, a known conservative who described the national curriculum as "a failure" – hardly an unbiased position from which to approach a major review. And Christopher Pyne.

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What are those concerns?

Christopher Pyne wants to remove 'partisan bias' from the national curriculum but he begins by appointing a two person, politically-biased, six month review of a curriculum that has taken knowledgeable education experts from across all States and Territories six years to develop.

Let's just look at what the national curriculum actually contains.

The Australian Curriculum, Reporting and Assessment Authority (ACARA) is the national body overseeing the development of the national curriculum. Over the past six years, ACARA has carefully and methodically built up a set of educational standards for all schools to use. The foundation for these standards is the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. These Goals were extensively debated by all Ministers for Education from the Commonwealth, the States and the Territories and adopted in 2008 as a common aspiration. They include:

  • That Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence.
  • That all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Hardly controversial stuff. But how are these fine aspirations to be achieved in practice?

Over the last six years, ACARA consulted with those who know most about education in academia and in the school education sector to develop the content and achievement standards to make these common goals a reality in a new national curriculum. They also looked to the best international standards to ensure Australia's curriculum would be world-standard.

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The new national curriculum sets challenging standards, particularly in maths and science in primary schools, but at the same time tries to avoid the curriculum becoming overcrowded. Teachers will be able to include local content that suits their regions while a number of 'general capabilities' are addressed, things like critical and creative thinking, teamwork and ethical behaviour.

What ACARA has developed is a world class curriculum that would do much to take Australian classrooms into the 21st century. What Pyne, Donnelly and Wiltshire are really concerned about is that this modern curriculum does not promote their own ideological view of the world.

Should more religion be taught in schools?

Among their concerns is one that relates to the place of religion in schools. Donnelly claims that the curriculum "undervalues Western civilisation and the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life" (ESI blog, Nov 2013). But does it?

The ACARA curriculum promotes learning about liberal parliamentary democracy, civil behaviour and civic duty. Pretty much the defining characteristics of Western civilisation, wouldn't you say? And not only learning about these important institutions and values but also learning how to put them into practice. Surely we could do with a bit more civility in public and private lives.

Is Australia based on the Judeo-Christian values?

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.

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About the Author

Dr Meredith Doig is President of the Rationalist Society of Australia. After a career in blue chip corporates, for the last 10 years or so she has had a portfolio of directorships on commercial, government and non-profit boards. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a Moderator with the Cranlana Colloquium on Ethics and the Good Society. She has also been a passionate motorcyclist since the age of 18 and still rides a BMW 650GS.

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