Alan Tudge’s understanding of our history deserves a fail

By Keith Heggart, Peter Brett and Sophie Fenton

The Federal Minister for Education Alan Tudge says the draft History and Civics and Citizenship curriculum is not up to scratch. According to a letter seen by The Australian newspaper, Minister Tudge has suggested that the draft curriculum ‘diminishes Australia’s western, liberal and democratic values’. According  to Tudge, the curriculum provides a negative view about western civilisation placing emphasis on ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation’.

He’s not happy with any of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) draft curriculum but history came in for a belting.

Tudge also suggested that there has been an effort to remove or reframe historical events, emphasising ‘invasion theory’ over Australia Day. In addition, he is also concerned that Anzac Day is presented as ‘a contested idea, rather than the most sacred of all days’.

His comments are of particular concern to the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia (SCEAA).

SCEAA represents a diverse and experienced group of teachers, researchers and teacher educators from across Australia. The Australian Curriculum, and how it might best be taught is central to our work and advocacy. In this respect, we have provided detailed submissions regarding the  Australian Curriculum.. We are critical friends and do not hesitate to offer suggestions for improvements where we feel they are warranted. It is in this role,, and with a great deal of respect, that we respond to the Minister’s comments. In the case of History and Civics and Citizenship, we would argue that the Minister has mis-characterised aspects of the proposed History and Civics and Citizenship curricula. 

If we are to consider the Minister’s comments regarding Anzac Day, as one example, the evidence does not support his claims that it has been removed or reframed. For example, in Year 3, students are taught ‘How significant commemorations [such as Anzac Day] contribute to [Australian] identity and the content descriptor explicitly references ‘the importance’ of Anzac Day. 

This does not sound as if Anzac Day is being marginalised in the curriculum.

 There is an elaboration that allows teachers to explore the idea ‘that people have different points of view on some commemorations’. Whilst this is optional, its inclusion is consistent with the principles of critical thinking and engaging with multiple perspectives that are foundations of democratic societies. It does not demand the study of Anzac Day as a contested idea. In Year 9, students explore ‘The commemoration of World War I’. Part of this includes ‘different historical interpretations and contested debates about the nature and significance of the Anzac legend and the war’. The documents that comprise the curriculum are carefully articulated to be as close to neutral as possible; they don’t advance an ideological argument against Anzac Day.

Regarding the Minister’s concerns about ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation within the curriculum, it is important to reiterate that within History and Civics and Citizenship there is a great deal of emphasis placed on critical thinking, and considering different points of view and perspectives. In History, especially, students must engage with concepts like ‘Continuity and change’, ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Contestability’. They must do so by applying historical inquiry and skills, which includes the analysis and use of sources, and the examination of perspective and interpretations. Again, these arguments about meaning and value are central to what it means to be an active and informed citizen and member of the community, and a student of History.    

Perhaps there is some confusion about what history is, and how it is meant to be taught? In the comments above, it appears that the Minister is suggesting that young people undertake no critical thinking about the centrality of Anzac Day (or anything else) in our culture, but solely experience it as an annual patriotic rite. This positions the study of history as something that is only celebratory and patriotic. While History can promote  feelings, it should also encourage reflection, thought and reasoned debate – such as, in this case, about the continued importance of Anzac commemoration in Australia today. This understanding better reflects the experiences of our members, who after all, are those entrusted to make the curriculum a reality and who lead ANZAC day celebrations in schools. There is highly respectful dialogue and interaction between schools, RSLs and others around Anzac Day, with many opportunities for educational conversations. Furthermore, the effective study of History is one that presents multiple sides which are supported by evidence, and invites critical analysis of those multiple views on the balance of evidence, in a way that neutralises biases as much as possible rather than amplifying bias one way or another. 

As Australian educational settings are super-diverse we need to embrace a curriculum that is not monocultural and embraces and critically explores and presents our history so that all learners can relate to it and be valued. History, at its most effective form of contribution to society, is a doorway into our past in ways that help us to make sense of our present and then enable us to make better informed decisions for our future. It is not about advocating any one view, itself. The  Australian Curriculum reflects this best practice approach.

This misunderstanding also applies to the Minister’s comments regarding Australia’s western democratic values. Again, an examination of the Australian Curriculum documents might correct this. Students in Year 3 through to Year 8  learn about government, politics and democracy in Australia. For example, in Year 3, ‘students explain how citizens contribute in their community’, the role of rules and the importance of making decisions democratically’. In Year 5 students explore ‘What is democracy in Australia, how does our democracy work, and why is voting in a democracy important’. A content descriptor outlines ‘the key values, and features of Australia’s democracy, including the election process and the responsibilities of electors’. In Year 6 ‘Students study the key institutions of Australia’s democratic government. They learn how State, Territory and Federal laws are made in a parliamentary system and the role of law and law enforcement’. There is an entire sub-strand in the Year 7 and 8 called ‘Government and Democracy’ which focuses on the key features of Australian democracy and government, and also the role of political parties and independent representatives. Students are also called upon to evaluate political and legal institutions (including in positive ways!) as they ‘Explain how democratic, political and legal systems uphold and enact values and processes, and how Australian citizens use these to contribute to their local, State/Territory or national community’.

Again, there is no evidence that this represents any particular ideology. It is hard to see how the curriculum exemplifies a ‘left-wing’ bias as represented in the media coverage. Instead, what it does do is strive to meet the twin goals of ‘active and informed’ citizens and membership of the community that are present in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration; nationally agreed goals for schooling agreed to by all state and territory Ministers of Education.. Students have the opportunity to recognise what is good about our current institutions and their past, but, perhaps more importantly, how they might strive to improve and participate as informed citizens in the democratic life of all Australians. This constant evaluation of systems and processes is essential to a healthy democratic system.

Whenever a new draft of a curriculum is opened for consultation, stakeholders from all backgrounds are invited to respond and raise their concerns and questions. Such action is to be encouraged, since contributions from diverse stakeholders,  (including teachers and their representatives) strengthen education in Australia as a whole. However, these contributions must be weighed against the content of the curriculum and the practice of teachers in their classrooms.  

Australians need informed, engaged citizens to contribute to a healthy and responsible democracy. We are committed to educating young people with these kinds of qualities through our teaching in both schools and teacher education institutions.

From left to right: Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. Keith is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. In addition, he has worked as an Organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent Learning Designer for a range of organisations. Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). Sophie Fenton is an award winning founder, learning designer and researcher in education. She has taught History, Global Politics and Civics, as well as developing curriculum with VCAA and SEV. Today, she specialises in school design, curriculum adaptation and pedagogy innovation with a focus on human-centred design for the emerging cyber-physical world. 

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3 thoughts on “Alan Tudge’s understanding of our history deserves a fail

  1. Louis Helbig says:

    With all due respect the authors are playing into the Liberal’s political strategy.

    Don’t the authors – learned academics that they are – see that Tudge is fully aware of all these arguments, that there is no way that he is that stupid (though he is certainly that ideological), that this is theatre? That Tudge, likely at the instruction of the Liberal party, is wedging the electorate to mobilise what they believe the Liberal base is and crucially engage, remain legitimate and continue to have currency with the right-wing, anti-vaxer, Clive Palmer, one-nation, Craig Kelly political players and their facilitators (the Murdoch media). That this theatre has a purpose, to maximise first preference votes and obtain crucial secondary preferences.

    Can’t the authors see beyond their ivory tower and recognise that their arguments of curriculum and process (that citing ACARA and SCEAA or the curricula set out for levels 3, 4, 5 or 6) really only matters to them and a few functionaries in various Ministries of Education. That, in fact, just framing the argument around themselves their world of committees, consultations and reviews plays into this theatre where they as academics are perceived (however unfairly and inaccurately) as an elite trying to shove leftist, non-Australian, politically correct propaganda down children’s throats.

    How much more effective it would be if the authors were to tackle Tudge on the basis of his values (or absence thereof), to characterise him as an irresponsible, partisan charlatan who can’t possibly believe the nonsense he is spouting given his education (private school, Harvard). How Tudge is intentionally degrading the honour of his office by besmirching and dishonouring the experience and values of the ANZACs by appealing to and encouraging division and hate.

    How much more effective would it be to provide historical evidence of, and speak to, the lived reality, the trauma, the collective desire to avoid such a conflict of those who did the fighting, saw their mates fall. How these veterans would turn in their graves if they could see Tudge, et al, fanning the same kind of hate and division that fed that conflict. Call Tudge out for standing on the graves of these soldiers, and dishonouring them, by misrepresenting what those who survived thought, said and felt in the aftermath of their experience.

    Think of how effective it would be if the authors linked the present to the past (knowing as they should that history is about the stories we tell ourselves in the present about the past). Link the ANZAC experience and it’s ‘sacrosanct’ values to Australia’s abandoning of its allies in Afghanistan. These are decisions made by today’s leaders, Tudge being of one of them, which clearly betray the values of mate-ship, a crucial part of the national mythology, forged in WWI.

    The Liberals might very quickly become very ‘principled’ and drop this wedge issue if it was folded back into their abysmal handling of Australia’s allies in Afghanistan, people now living the tender mercies of the Taliban because Australia – that is the leadership of our country – abandoned them

    Historians are the ‘experts’ about history. The keepers of the records. Historians know that history is what you make of it in the present. Tell the authoritative story of what happened. Speak to the values, then and now. Speak to the critical thinking inherent to how the interpretation of history changes with time. Those are contradictory, for sure. But that’s OK. That’s how to model critical thinking. That how to model Civics, Citizenship, and History which our authors claim as their areas of expertise.

  2. Peter Brett says:

    Hello Louis. Thank you for engaging thoughtfully and articulately with our observations.

    Three cheers for your endorsement of the importance of young people (and indeed the general public) having the capacity to make links between the past and the present and for your endorsement of the importance of critical thinking.

    In framing our observations we felt that it was important to ‘play the ball’ rather than ‘play the man’. In general, we felt it preferable to avoid ‘ad hominem’ attacks.(and would encourage young people to pursue stronger, more- evidence-based arguments in marshalling their thinking about history and politics)..

    In engaging in public debate with people one is disagreeing with it may be safer (even if open to accusations of naivety!) to assume honourable intentions of people holding counterviews. Having said this, any critic needs to be open to the provenance of opinions and, of course, the media outlets through which the Minister chose to communicate his thoughts are likely not coincidental.

    I think it unfair to represent these debates around the History curriculum as only of interest to ‘a few functionaries in various Ministries of Education’ and a narrow world of ourselves and ‘committees, consultations and reviews’. The content and wording of curricula make a difference to the work and approaches of thousands of teachers and the learning imbibed by hundreds of thousands of young people. Thus, this is not a debate that matters solely in ‘ivory towers’ (surely a tired trope in this day and age) but in schools around the nation.

    Thanks to my co-authors Keith Heggart and Sophie Fenton. My conmments here are in a personal capacity.

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