What Is Education for? Situating History, Cultural Understandings and Studies of Society and Environment against Neo-Conservative Critiques of Curriculum Reform

Article excerpt

This article explores some of the debates about the nature and purpose of education in the social sciences in the Australian curricula. It examines recent attempts in studies of society and environment and history curricula to prepare students for global citizenship and responds to neo-conservative critiques that our 'politically correct' curricula does not impart the 'truth' about our 'European' heritage. This article argues that while the neo-conservative discourse makes claim to traditional views of knowledge and rationality, its discursive field does not address the broader questions of what sort of education our students require for the twenty-first century.

Introduction

Few would doubt that the next generation of Australians will inhabit ethnically diverse, complex, globally-linked communities. As General Peter Cosgrove noted recently, the past one hundred years have seen:

the gradual transformation of Australia from an overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic, homogeneous population ... to one of the world's most multicultural societies. (Cosgrove, 2003, p. 23)

The changing nature of Australian society and its connectedness to the global community will provide many opportunities for young Australians. However, recent events such September 11, the war in Iraq, the Bali bombing, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunamis and attacks in Madrid and London remind us that Australians must be prepared for an increasingly uncertain world. Education is one of the most effective means of preparing students for these local, regional and global challenges. Yet as Rizvi (2004, p. 157) reminds us, there is a lack of consensus on the implications of globalisation for education policy. In broad terms, globalisation describes the complex ways in which the lives of the world's people have become increasingly linked and new ways in which local and national communities relate to each other (Tikly, 2001). As Scholte (2000, p. 14) observes, globalisation can represent increasing progress and prosperity while others associate this process with deprivation and doom.

Despite the complexities of globalisation and debates about education policy directions, there is agreement amongst key stakeholders that education has to prepare young Australians to deal with its manifestations. Through the Australian Education Council (AEC), ministers for education from all state and territory governments have sought to define the common aspirations of their various systems, aiming at a consensus on the role of schooling in dealing with the challenges of globalisation. The AEC's Adelaide Declaration of National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century (MCEETYA, 1999) states that:

   schooling should assist young people to contribute to Australia's
   social, cultural and economic development in local and global
   context. (p. 2)

However, others are threatened by 'the realities of new times' (Tudball, 2003, p. 2) and attempts by the education system to respond to local, regional and global realities via curriculum reform. Such reactivists look inward and argue that:

   education provides a moral framework and a cultural context in which
   young Australians both define themselves and address the question:
   what constitutes the good life? (Donnelly, 2004, p. 6)

Critics such as Donnelly argue that the education system has been 'undermined by a series of ideologically driven changes' (Donnelly, 2004, p. 16). In particular, the Key Learning Area (KLA), Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE), has been targeted for critique and labelled 'politically correct'.

Such claims need to be interrogated for, as Kemmis (1990) reminds us, 'debates about curriculum reform reveal the fundamental concerns, uncertainties and tensions which preoccupy nations and states as they struggle to adapt to changing circumstance' (Kemmis, 1990, p. 82).

This article identifies four aspects of the neo-conservative critiques against SOSE (Bolt, 2000; Donnelly, 2004; Mason, 2000; Thomas, 2000). …