Is Treasurer Peter Costello correct when he argues there is a left-wing, anti-American bias in our education system? Is Education Minister Brendan Nelson also correct when he argues that the 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic have been redefined as the republic, reconciliation and refugees? Judged by the actions of the Australian Education Union (AEU), the answer appears to be yes.
The 1960s and 1970s were not only about Woodstock, Vietnam moratoriums and flower power. At the same time, education became a key battleground in the Left's attempt to take over the commanding heights of the nation's culture.
Former Victorian education minister Joan Kirner once argued that the work of schools had to be radically redefined. Instead of education being impartial, she said, it had to become "part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system".
Fast forward to the early months of 2003 and the war in Iraq. The AEU told classroom teachers to tell students that the US-led war was illegal, that allied troops should be immediately withdrawn and to "support students who take an anti-war stance".
More recent evidence of the AEU's left-wing bias is evident in President Pat Byrne's prepared remarks at the 2005 Queensland Teachers' Union biennial conference on June 21.
Once again, education is defined as a key battleground in the culture wars as teachers are urged to regroup after last year's re-election of the Howard Government. In the eyes of the AEU president, the prime minister's success, like that of President George W. Bush, is illegitimate. Instead of the Australian electorate getting it right, the cultural warriors of the Left argue voters were duped. As Byrne put it:
The ALP identified trust as a major weakness in the Coalition's armour. The strategy was to focus on one of our most fundamental values and to exploit the Government's failings - children overboard, the Iraq war, just to name a couple. It should have worked. As we know, however, they were hopelessly outmanoeuvred when the Coalition turned the trust argument into: "Who do you trust to run the economy?"
Not only does the AEU president bemoan the election result and the Left's response to the ALP's defeat, which she describes as "unedifying", Byrne also argues that to win the hearts and minds of voters before the next election, "we have to start with being on the progressive side of politics".
We haven't begun to reframe our position in a way that can successfully counter the culture war which is currently being fought. We are still so affronted, so assaulted by the conservatives that we are only thinking about immediate defence.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the AEU's prime responsibility is to raise standards by ensuring more effective teaching and greater accountability. Not so. The reality, especially at election time, is that the AEU acts as a sub-branch of the ALP. During last year's federal election, the AEU spent $1.5 million across 28 marginal seats in an attempt to have Mark Latham elected as prime minister. According to the AEU's curriculum policy, the justification for this partisan political stance is because the teachers' union believes Australian society is unequal and socially unjust. Based on the works of Marxist intellectuals such as Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu, the union also argues that the education system, instead of providing a ladder of opportunity, is instrumental in marginalising disadvantaged groups.
Competition and examinations, academic subjects and non-government schools are all attacked as reinforcing privilege and the union argues that schools must enforce a politically correct view on issues, such as the environment, multiculturalism and peace studies.
No wonder parents are voting with their feet. And no wonder the number of Australian children attending non-government schools has risen from 22 per cent in the 1980s to 32 per cent in 2005. In Victoria, at years 11 and 12, the figure rises to more than 40 per cent.
Instead of addressing the reasons why parents are disillusioned with government schools, Byrne argues that parents are simply misled by conservative political spin:
The Coalition has cast the education debate in the terms of conservative values. It has framed the debate in terms of choice, excellence, quality, values, discipline, and has done it very effectively," she frets. "We are furious - affronted, assaulted. We defend. We provide facts, as if telling the truth is all that is needed for people to say, “Oh dear, we've been wrong all this time. We'll vote Labor next time.”
That Byrne and the AEU confuse education with indoctrination is cause for concern. It is even worse when such organisations refuse to accept that the Australian electorate generally gets it right and the days of Woodstock and flower power are long over.