Worrying developments

Maurie Mulheron

Some good news, of sorts. I may have found an education minister more antagonistic towards education and public school teachers than Christopher Pyne.

As well as announcing cuts to education and questioning the need for teaching qualifications, you will also recall that soon after taking office Christopher Pyne announced a review of the Australian Curriculum that was going to deal with bias in the new curriculum. Two curriculum areas that particularly trouble him are literature and history.

How was he going to deal with this bias? By appointing a former Liberal Party chief of staff to then minister Kevin Andrews to review the curriculum.

Apart from being appalled at Kevin Donnelly’s appointment, not many educators have taken his review too seriously. He’s loved by the Murdoch press — say no more. The other reviewer to this review into curriculum bias, Ken Wiltshire, had also declared his opposition to the curriculum. So let’s get this straight — political appointments with a bias against the curriculum were asked to review bias in the curriculum. Interesting approach.

Given the cuts of billions of dollars from education announced in the Budget, I wonder just how much the review is costing.

Kevin Donnelly is often introduced as the director of the Education Standards Institute. Many people would be forgiven for thinking that this is an august research body, perhaps even one that an Australian university faculty of education might have established. But no, the Education Standards Institute is the trading name for a company called Impetus Consultants Pty Ltd. And who owns Impetus? You may be a step ahead of me. It is a business registered to the K Donnelly Family Trust.

Some time ago Kevin Donnelly worked for Phillip Morris, the tobacco giant. He helped design a curriculum resource for the company about peer pressure and decision making. Guess what aspect of peer pressure and decision making was omitted? That’s right, the health risks associated with taking up smoking.

As Christopher Pyne has said, “I’m very confident that Ken and Kevin will bring a balanced approach.’’

But, as I said at the beginning, I may have found an education minister even more antagonistic.

Let me give you some context. Recently I was invited to dinner with a delightful group of teachers in a beautiful small town on the western edge of the Snowy Mountains. I found myself chatting at the table with a very interesting English teacher with an obvious deep love of literature. One of his children is even named after a central character in one of the world’s best-loved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird.

But this head of English at the local high school may need to keep a close eye on Pyne, given his predilection for interfering in what schools teach and for borrowing ideas from overseas. We should be even more worried if Pyne is seen taking off for London any time soon.

This week, Pyne’s UK equivalent, and political ally, education secretary Michael Gove, has banned a number of works of literature from being studied in English schools. Among the literature banned is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Extraordinary decision — banning school children from being taught one novel that deals with racial intolerance and the courage of one man to act with integrity and another that deals with the lives of the poor and the dispossessed.

The banning of The Crucible, however, has a particularly delicious irony given that, while the 1953 play’s setting is Salem of 1692 during the trials of witches, its real power is that it is an allegory for the notorious McCarthyist era of the United States of America in the 1950s. This was a period in US history when writers were gaoled or were blacklisted and their works banned. Some writers, unable to work and facing imprisonment, committed suicide. Across America at the time, libraries emptied the shelves of these authors’ books. Many writers were forced to write under pseudonyms or went into exile. At the time, many went to London to find work.

Miller was blacklisted, received a prison sentence after being found in contempt of Congress, and had his passport confiscated.

We should all be a bit worried about these developments given that Pyne has imported from overseas just about every one of his policy ideas including ‘principal autonomy’, ‘independent public schools’, funding cuts and the downgrading of teacher qualifications, to name just a few.

Pyne talks of the need to promote a more nationalistic view of Australian history. Perhaps he would want to extend that to Australian literature and ban international works too, just like Gove. But I wonder if Pyne would still give Henry Lawson a guernsey?

But now that we have made the land
A garden full of promise,
Old Greed must crook ’is dirty hand
And come ter take it from us.

So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.

We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!”

Maybe not.