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Bruce Logan

A Loss of Confidence

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I can’t resist something from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:  “liberty plucks justice by the nose; The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart Goes all decorum.”

In 1986 The Social Affairs Unit in London published The Wayward Curriculum: a cause for parents’ concern; a criticism of the new curriculum direction in British schools. A collection of 21 essays by philosophers, teachers and academics it could easily have described New Zealand ’s curriculum revolution from the 1970’s. The focus was on the loss of cultural content and the new emphasis on teaching skills disconnected from subjects.

Recent comments in New Zealand by Mary Chamberlain, the Group Manager Curriculum Teaching and Learning Design, Ministry of Education, have reminded me, yet again, just how “wayward” New Zealand education has become. The baby has been beating the nurse for a long time. Her mind has turned into ideological mush with little power of self-criticism.

Ms Chamberlain, not to be confused with the metaphorical nurse, claims “we’ve got computers, we don’t need people walking around with them in their heads…. people just have to get used to that.”  And, “there is no use (students) being little knowledge banks walking around on legs.” Moreover, the curriculum “aims to deliver key competencies.” These competencies, she says, are based on that very vague authority, the best international research.  And, surprise, surprise, we discover that these are no more than a restatement of the skills we heard so much about in the 1970s.  They include critical thinking, being enterprising and resourceful, setting goals, making plans, identifying possible hurdles, estimating time and sorting priorities.  And, of course, the emphasis on collaborative learning crops up again.

During the 1970s I taught in secondary schools in Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and in each country, the process was the same: English and history curricula became politicised.  Literature was distorted to promote ready-made social attitudes.  Instead of taking a text for study in order to learn something about human nature, literature was beginning to be used as a lever for instilling fashionable social messages around topics such as ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, or Neo-Marxist-inspired insights to ‘class consciousness’. In New Zealand, the wider reforms of the mid-1980s ensured that neo-liberal constructs of the market were added into the melting pot of curriculum reform. So, by 2006-07, the unique social and political circumstances of the early 1990’s (which gave us the New Zealand Curriculum Framework in 1993), remain extant, but have been tweaked and updated in more contemporary language. A close look at the curriculum draft issued last year reaffirms the philosophical tensions between Left and Right. From the Left and the residue of Neo-Marxism, we have the more sophisticated theories of poststructuralism and discourse analysis; while from the Right, perhaps somewhat less intrusive, the obsession with instrumentalist-inspired efforts to raise productivity.

Either way, what we are actually seeing is the continuing victory of ideology. The former approaches (i.e. pre-1970) grew out of the belief that the master knew more than his apprentice. Learning to write well certainly had something to do with skills but it was a great deal more.

In the past, the teaching of English literature and grammar was about both knowledge and character. Coming to terms with literature (and life, for that matter) demands an engagement which goes well beyond the learning of skills. For example, learning to write and speak well carries with it the power to discern and feel the worth of other speakers and writers. Learning to write well involves a durable marriage of intellectual and emotional excitement. The learning of skills and even empirically ascertained facts is not genuinely educative. They are learned along the way and are not separate from being ‘educated’. Writing or study skills, however, cannot properly be taught in isolation because it is the quality of content that provides both context and meaning.  A learner must form a relationship with an enduring insight; even with truth beyond the self.

Before the 1970s the teaching of history was not controversial because criticism was concerned with method, not content.  With the advent of the cult of relevance, the cultural levelling demands of the Neo-Marxists, the shrieks of sexism from the feminists and the race relations ideologues who saw ‘Eurocentrism’ as a great evil, everything changed.  History became what the renovators said it had been: ideology.

A new idea seeped into schools; the past was irrelevant to the needs and interests of children.  This of course is the very point that Ms Chamberlain makes in her reference to computers and children’s heads.  The Black Death, the Spanish Armada, Wilberforce, even Tasman and Cook were replaced by the need

  • to understand the world in which we live
  • to find personal identity
  • to understand the processes of change
  • to learn how to use leisure
  • to think critically
  • to learn how to set goals

Well, you might say, “what is wrong with that?”  Essentially, historical method was corrupted, and history became more like sociology.  Teachers began to accept that ‘social science’, rather than history, provided the coherent learning structure so foundational to good learning.

In a 2006 exercise book of a Christchurch year 9 pupil (age 13) social science is described as a “competency-based subject”.  Replete with jargon that a 13-year-old is extremely unlikely to understand we find that pupils will learn three key “competencies” These are defined as “using tools interactively, functioning effectively in a heterogeneous society, and acting autonomously.”  The old concrete language of literature and virtue is unceremoniously replaced by what must become little more than a sociological and psychological muddle in the mind of the pupil.  In such a scenario character is lost and morality becomes little more than identification and clarification of individual desires.

From the 1970s educational “experts” repeatedly disputed that there was any ground for pride or reverence in our study of the past. The claim was consistently made that all education is indoctrination. Consequently, all political points of view should be taught, although in practice, traditional and conservative points of view were frequently ignored or criticised.

The teaching of “what one might call moral values” is unacceptable said Ms S. Purkis, one of the many critics of traditional literature and history condemned in The Wayward Curriculum.  In a criticism of school texts written by R. J. Unstead she says, “….his selection of material is out of date and insufficient for a world where children see and sympathise with the Vietnamese boat people and become involved in schemes to buy mini-bikes from Tanzania .” Purkis, like so many of her fellow travellers seemed to be unaware that her own position was essentially a moral one.  Significantly we see how the demand for relevance, assumed to have meaning in the 1970’s has virtually none in 2007. Some new ideological cause must be found.

We should not be surprised that schools are now places in which we can find increasing violence, a lack of respect for the past, a prejudicial ignorance of religion – especially Christianity – falling academic standards, increasing failure, particularly among boys and a general atmosphere of ennui among teachers.  Ironically an increasing demand for children’s rights continues to be reinforced by the state.

Probably the most obvious reason for this bleak state of affairs is the loss of confidence in our own culture and past.  And it is that loss of confidence which permits, even insists, that the baby beats the nurse.