Across the English-speaking world, debates have flared periodically about the impact of political correctness and left-wing ideology on the school curriculum. Education has become a central part of the culture wars and debates have centred on history teaching as well as English, especially literature, and the extent to which such subjects, so the critics argue, reinforce conservative values and capitalist, euro-centric hegemony.
As a result, in Australia and New Zealand, the integrity of individual subjects like English, history and geography has been undermined as schools are forced to redefine the curriculum in terms of new-age, PC perspectives – including multiculturalism, feminism, gender, class, environmentalism, gay theory and peace studies.
Instead of education dealing with the ‘best that has been thought and said’ and being valued in its own right, the situation is now one where the purpose of education is defined as empowering and liberating individuals and over throwing the status quo.
As to why this is so, one needs to return to late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when established certainties and accepted social practices were cast aside by a cultural revolution that swept much of the Western, English speaking world. This was a time when the introduction of the birth control pill symbolised women taking control of their bodies and choosing when to have children, when films like Easy Rider and the British film If gathered a cult following as, in different ways, they portrayed a sense of rebelliousness against what was seen as the inherent violence and hypocrisy of the establishment.
Beginning with singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, generations of young people memorised lyrics that preached about peace, harmony and fellowship in a world increasingly seen as environmentally at risk, plagued by over-consumption and exploitation and, given the realities of the cold war, in danger of nuclear holocaust.
While overseas events such as Woodstock and the hippie movement in the US and the May 1968 Riots in Paris influenced events, in Australia and New Zealand the increasing opposition to the Vietnam war, the rise of a counter culture movement among the young and books such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Mao’s Little Red Book all contributed to a sense of rebellion as conservative values were denounced as middle-class, obsolete and socially unjust.
Universities became the centre of much of the counter-culture movement, evidenced by a hedonistic lifestyle, sit-ins and the anti-war movement. Many teacher academics embraced the cultural revolution and education was identified as a powerful tool to transform society and to impose what many saw as the new utopia.
The argument that education must be employed to challenge the status quo, in part, is based on a Marxist view of society and what is termed the new sociology of education movement. Instead of accepting that education is inherently worthwhile, radical educators argue that what counts as education and how it is managed is a socio-cultural construct, that is, what counts as knowledge is determined by what those more powerful in society decide should be taught. Competition and academic excellence, a belief in the best students being rewarded and the central importance of the academic curriculum were all, and still are, attacked as inequitable and elitist.
Two US academics, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, provide one of the strongest attacks on schools when they argue that education is an essential instrument in enforcing and reproducing the class system. Not only do they suggest that “inequities in education are part of the capitalist system, and are likely to persist as long as capitalism survives”, but the very structure of schooling and what is taught, instead of being inherently worthwhile, are simply a means by which students are conditioned and controlled in order to accept their future roles in an unjust society. In arguing that schools reflect capitalist society, the argument is also put that the only way to free schools is by a “revolutionary transformation of economic life”.
A defining characteristic of Australia’s and New Zealand’s adoption of recent curriculum frameworks and syllabuses is the belief that knowledge is a socio-cultural construct and the argument that the traditional academic curriculum is an instrument used by those more powerful in society to oppress others. The result is that there is nothing special about Western science, putting faith healers and mystics on the same footing as heart surgeons, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth is deconstructed in the same way as SMS messages and graffiti.
Other examples of the deleterious impact of political correctness on the curriculum include syllabus and related documents arguing that traditional fairy tales, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, are unacceptable as the happy ending is defined as marrying the prince. Romeo and Juliet is also criticised for privileging heterosexual relationships and the children’s book Little Black Sambo banned from libraries because of its supposed unfair portrayal of ‘people of colour’.
Within Australia, the new national curriculum also adopts a PC approach by forcing all schools, government and non-government, to teach every subject from indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives. Ignored is the fact that Australia is a Western nation and the debt we owe to Western civilisation and our Judeo-Christian heritage.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, in addition to education being influenced by Marxism and the new sociology of education, what became known as the progressive movement in education also became influential. In line with the cultural revolution, where authority was questioned and the slogan ‘make love: not war’ became popular, advocates of progressivism argued that conservative approaches to education were life denying, out of date and overly restrictive.
The traditional academic curriculum, once again, was condemned as elitist and irrelevant and teachers were urged to abandon traditional methods of teaching in favour of experimental approaches represented by community schools, the open classroom, general studies and student-centred learning. The progressive movement took root in England, Australia, New Zealand and America and as noted by the American writer, Jerome Bruner, was very much a part of the cultural revolution:
Through the turmoil and idealism of these years (1964 – 1970) has run a theme of “naturalness” of “spontaneity”, of the immediacy of learning through direct encounter. A distrust of traditional ways has brought into question whether schools as such might be part of the problem – rather than a solution to the problems of education … We looked again at the appalling effects of poverty, racism on the lives of children and the extent to which schools had become instruments of the evil forces in society … Generous-minded men like Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman, in-veighing against the deadening bureaucratic hold of teachers and educational administrators, voiced a new romanticism: salvation by spontaneity, disestablish the established schools. It was a view that took immediate root in “In” youth culture.
In England, the educationalist A.S. Neil established an alternative school, Summerhill, where children were given the freedom to control their own educational environment on the basis, as stated by Neil, that “a child is innately wise and realistic”. Traditional schools, according to Neil, failed to properly educate as they were based on the assumption that children had to be regimented and coerced into learning and most of what was taught was irrelevant and deadening.
As noted in Bruner’s quotation, Ivan Illich was another influential counter-culture educationalist. Similar to Freire, Bowles and Gintis and Neil, Illich was opposed to institutionalised schooling as, he argued, it imposed a narrow and restrictive view of education based on a formal curriculum, passing competitive examinations and being certified after jumping through the necessary hoops. Illich argues that the way schools reward students has very little to do with learning in its fullest sense, rather it is a method of sorting and selecting students that benefits some and not others. While this function is disguised by the argument that anyone, given ability and effort, can succeed, according to Illich, the reality is that only those who are already advantaged and who conform achieve recognition. He adopts the expression “hidden curriculum” to denote the way in which education acts as a powerful controlling agent. The values promoted, while often presented as a natural and fair, in fact, are unjust:
Inevitably, this hidden curriculum of schooling adds prejudice and guilt to the discrimination which a society practises against some of its members and compounds the privilege of others with a new title to condescend to the majority.
Much of the educational philosophy underpinning Australian and New Zealand curriculum can be traced back to the progressive education movement and the new sociology of education, including a Marxist approach, that became so prevalent during the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a time when the traditional academic curriculum, with its focus on subjects like history, English and Mathematics, competitive examinations and more formal teaching methods, came under attack.
Advocates for change fought to get rid of externally mandated syllabuses, examinations and school inspectors in favour of a school-based approach to curriculum based on a student-centred learning where education was made immediately relevant and entertaining. It is also the case that many of those at university during the heady days of sit-ins, moratoriums and alternative life styles joined the teaching profession, became educational bureaucrats and curriculum writers and saw the long march through the institutions as one way to further the cause and to radically change society.