History Textbooks in Crosshairs of Australia's Curriculum Wars

By Zubrzycki, John | The Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

History Textbooks in Crosshairs of Australia's Curriculum Wars


Zubrzycki, John, The Christian Science Monitor


In the annals of European military history, the battle for Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsular, which began April 25, 1915, is only a footnote. But for generations of Australians it forged a national identity of endurance, bravery, and mateship - a uniquely Australian brand of solidarity. Over 8,000 Australian soldiers died in Gallipoli, making it the country's worst military defeat.

The date is marked in Australia and New Zealand as ANZAC Day, a national holiday, and both countries are gearing up for a major celebration of next year's centenary.

Now the teaching of Gallipoli in Australian schools has become one of the central skirmishes in so-called "curriculum wars" that pit a conservative government against educators and their textbooks in a young, multi-ethnic country with a complex and contested history. Some blame Australia's middling scores in international science and math tests on a requirement to incorporate cross- curriculum themes, such as environmentalism.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has complained that new textbooks gave equal weight to ANZAC Day as Ramadan and Buddha's birthday. He singled out Australia's history curriculum for "not recognizing the legacy of Western civilization and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as ANZAC Day."

In January Mr. Pyne, who became education minister last September, appointed a conservative-leaning panel to review a newly introduced national curriculum to ensure that it's unbiased and tackles "real-world issues." The panel is due to report to the government by July 31.

As in many countries, what history is taught, and not taught, speaks to a nation's sense of identity. For Australians, the question is which nation they are studying: a territory invaded in 1788 by white colonialists who clashed violently with indigenous Aborigines or a land that was settled peacefully and where conflict with the inhabitants wasn't the result of a deliberate eradication policy. Today Aborigines make up less than 3 percent of Australia's population of 23 million.

Mr Pyne's review has alarmed educators who want the curriculum to reflect Australia's 50,000 year-old indigenous culture, its ties with its Asian neighbors, and the importance of environmental sustainability. The opposite camp argues that pandering to such progressive causes distracts teachers from core subjects such as math and English.

Curriculum rolloutThe review took teachers by surprise, coming after all states and territories completed the rollout of the national curriculum, which began in 2010 under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. …

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