The education of journalists and teachers has been captured by social activism within the university sector. This is why I restructured the way this paper covered school education after returning to The Australian 17 years ago, hoping to offset progressive biases in journalism and teaching.
Schools are not easy to cover at a national newspaper, given they are largely a state responsibility.
Coverage in the state-based papers focuses on school building, scarcity of resources and teacher wage campaigns.
The drivers of such coverage are not the needs of students and parents but the campaigns of education activists, mostly from state and national teacher unions.
Education reporters here were asked to look at curriculum issues, especially the development of national standards. Informing the round was international testing that showed Australian students falling behind even though state and federal spending on school education was booming.
I was reminded of all this last Saturday week reading a piece in The Sydney Morning Herald by a former journalist from this paper, Tom Switzer, now the Sydney-based director of the Centre for Independent Studies.
The CIS last year released a survey of millennials’ attitudes to socialism and capitalism.
Tom lamented at the time that the study was under-reported in the Fairfax papers and on the ABC. No surprise there.
The survey showed young Australians had a benevolent view of socialism, a poor view of capitalism and seemed to know nothing of the past of communism, a system responsible for 100 million deaths last century, according to The Black Book Of Communism.
Obviously the survey results reflected worldwide revulsion at the crimes of US bankers that culminated in the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and a long period of slow international growth.
Tom’s piece cited separate figures from the US showing 57 per cent of Democrats support socialism and only 47 per cent back capitalism. He pointed to support by UK Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn for former Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez. Separately, US Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is running again in 2020, is a self-described socialist and NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says capitalism is “a blatant failure”.
To my mind favourable attitudes to socialism among the young reflect the dominance of left-wing thought in school education. Here are some quotes from Australian teacher union officials, teacher educators and politicians on driving the left’s social agenda through education.
Former Victorian premier and minister for education Joan Kirner: “Education has to be reshaped so it is part of the socialist struggle for equality … rather than an instrument of the capitalist system.”
Dr Gregory Martin, former lecturer in the school of education at the Griffith University: “A major task for leftist academics is … to connect education with community struggles for social Justice.”
Pat Byrne, the former head of the Australian Education Union: “We have succeeded in influencing curriculum development … conservatives have a lot of work to do to undo the progressive curriculum.” That was in 2005, near the end of 12 years of John Howard’s conservative government.
Education writer Kevin Donnelly, discussing the national English curriculum in Quadrant in 2010, wrote: “Drawing on the writings of the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire, the belief is that texts must be analysed in terms of their role in reinforcing capitalist hegemony over the disempowered and disadvantaged, such as women, migrants and the poor.”
Donnelly and this newspaper have argued that many of the techniques of literary deconstruction are more suited to university literature courses than school-age education and are killing a love of reading.
Former federal minister for education David Kemp, in last year’s book The Land of Dreams: How Australians Won Their Freedom, argues the national curriculum places more emphasis on indigenous history and spirituality than on western civilisation and traditional economic and personal liberalism, which “despite its vast significance for the Australian story, received almost no mention in the Australian National Curriculum”.
Teachers and educators rightly say the world in changing, old curricula derived from the UK no longer take account of the increasing importance of east Asia, and that in an age swamped by mass media children need to be taught how to think for themselves rather than what to think.
All true, but the best education systems privilege traditional rigour and the role of teachers. International studies confirm this and point to Singapore, Japan, Finland and Shanghai for their success, while Australian students slip on international comparisons.
The Left here used to accept the importance of a rigorous education. The Hawke and Keating governments saw expanded year 12 retention rates as part of a micro-economic reform program to help working Australians compete in an open global market. The highly educated workforces of China and India do not owe cosseted young Australians anything.
Now in an increasingly post-material Australia, left-wing thought derides the idea of competition in global labour markets. Yet the neo-liberalism criticised by The Guardian’s Van Badham on ABC TV’s Q&A last Monday has generated almost three decades of growth in this country and built the welfare and tax transfer systems to the point where half of all households pay no net tax.
Jordan Peterson asked the right question when quizzed on the same program by Kath Larkin about how Peterson’s focus on personal responsibility could help with the problems that concern her: climate change, a precarious jobs market and “the economic crisis”. An economist might have said Australia will meet its Paris emissions targets, unemployment is at 5 per cent and near historical lows and there is no economic crisis.
As a psychologist, Peterson responded with a question all young people need to ask themselves: “Do you think you’re worse off than your grandparents?”
Millennials need to be careful what they wish for lest they discover how hard life was without the growth neo-liberalism has generated.
They could try to find out why Scandinavians have abandoned the dead hand of state socialism.
And they could ponder how their grandparents and great grandparents coped as young people with two world wars, the Great Depression, the Korean and Vietnam wars. Rigorous education, hard work, saving and personal responsibility rather than government-imposed socialism lifted them from poverty.
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