The Politics of Pedagogy: Civics Education and Epistemology at Victorian Primary Schools, 1930s and 1950s

By MacKnight, Vicki | History of Education Review, July 2007 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Pedagogy: Civics Education and Epistemology at Victorian Primary Schools, 1930s and 1950s


MacKnight, Vicki, History of Education Review


Introduction

It is both surprising and worrying that as recently as 1999 Denise Meredyth and Julian Thomas could comment in the History of Education Review that 'there has been only preliminary investigation of the emergence, rise and decline of civics teaching in Australian schools'. (2) As a consequence too little is known about the behaviours expected of children. More, an opportunity has been missed to more deeply understand how Australia has been variously envisioned. In the few investigations that have been undertaken, curriculum design has generally been characterised as a process of reaching a compromise between two conflicting positions. For William Bruneau the two poles are 'the (necessarily) altruistic-egalitarian objectives of a democratic moral education, and the short-term prudential requirements of the moment'. (3) Barry Down describes curriculum design in much the same way when he claims that in the years following World War Two Australian civics education was planned under 'perpetual tension and conflict between the imperatives of capitalism and democracy'. (4) The suggestion seems to be that an ideal democratic education is possible, if short-term political and economic considerations had not prevented this.

I argue that this suggestion is naive. The democratic idea is not static 'short term prudential requirements of the moment', whether concerned with war, imperialism, fear of communism, industrial development, or otherwise, create the conditions by which democratic society is defined. This definition is embedded in civics education with the hope that children might perfect that society in adulthood. But visions of the ideal society do not only concern civics education, lessons on right behaviour. Rather, the very world children are educated to see depends on the politics and economics at the time that curriculum is designed. The content of lessons, the way the lessons are taught, and the underlying assumptions about what the world is like--all are constituted by politics. Therefore, to understand civics education it is important to delve deeper and locate the epistemological basis of social studies education in the political context of its time. What children are taught about the social world as a whole should be considered before civics education can make any sense.

To make this argument I look at the two curricula used at Victorian primary schools in the mid twentieth century, put in place in 1934 and 1952. (5) Over this time there was a movement from a political need to teach children awareness of the globe to a need to focus almost exclusively on Australia. This was accomplished by a changed pedagogy, one that moved from using the imagination for inciting empathy across time and space, to one using the experiences of the child to define the relevant social links between people. As a result children learning from the 1934 curriculum were taught to see a qualitatively different world than children using the 1952 curriculum.

The cause of change can be identified by comparing Australia's role in global politics during the two decades. In the 1930s as the world suffered economic depression, Australia continued to rely on the British Empire for assistance and a sense of identity. The Great War was a recent memory, and as momentum gathered for the second instalment, the League of Nations took on a heightened significance for educators. These factors made learning a global outlook essential for Victorian school children.

By the 1950s Australia had begun to distrust the British Empire, which, compared to the United States, had done so little to protect the country on the Pacific Front. The government realised that security and prosperity would have to be produced by the population of Australia itself, bolstered by the huge immigration programme of the post-war decades. By developing its industries Australia could become a powerful global player. To encourage people to believe that this was their priority the Australian government developed a programme of newly invigorated nationalism, making support of industrial capitalism and the acceptance of new migrants appear to be a duty. …

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