No dark sarcasm in the classrooms… National Curriculum is both great and rubbish #auspol

Oh, ho!  You can almost smell the Culture Wars about to crack open, can’t you?

It seems to be the season for talking about education non-policy.  We’ve discussed the arbitrariness of university funding.  Elsewhere, people have been discussing Gonski and what Gonski means (it means more money).  Now we’re discussing the curriculum.

What all the conversations have in common is a complete lack of vision for the bigger picture.  Why do we fund universities?  Why do we fund education?  What do we want from the system?

I’m a big fan of split-stream education.  Primary school exists to supplement the education a child receives at home, getting them up to speed.  When it comes to secondary education, students and their families can decide between scholarship and apprenticeship.  Scholarship paves the way to higher education; apprenticeship paves the way towards vocation.

But I can argue coherently for this because I know what I’d like the education system to achieve.  I’m not interested in faux-equality where everybody is treated as badly as everybody else.  I’m not interested in ensuring  a certain proportion of the population has a degree in something or other.

Two things get in the way of a good education policy.  The first is the States.  They are horrible and should be abolished.  Developing a coherent model of education for all Australians is impossible when you have the States blocking every good policy, forcing you to rely on the bribery provisions of section 96 of the Constitution.  The second is the inability to see education beyond the current framework.  We look at how schools currently operate and think: ‘What can we do within this space to solve some minor problem?’

Instead, we should be thinking big.  Why have we turned the final years of high school into an extended university entrance exam?  Why have we turned the first year of a Bachelors degree into ‘Make sure everybody knows all the same things’?

There is a desperate need for a National Curriculum, but it has to be secondary to a reform of how the education system works.  It’s like trying to load a new operating system on to a Super Nintendo.  Upgrade the hardware, then shape up the software.

That’s why we get these anemic debates about whether Indigenous culture and history is ‘over-represented’ in the National Curriculum.  There’s no higher level principle or policy to guide the discussion.  You spot a bit that you don’t like and whinge, Christopher Pyne style.  Because there’s no higher level principle or policy to guide discussion, it is more difficult to shout Pyne down.  Everybody has their own assumptions about what the National Curriculum is doing; Pyne clearly believes that the National Curriculum should replace the family as the source of information on cultural values and history.

As far as a solution to the ridiculous inconsistencies between jurisdictions is concerned, the National Curriculum is great and, frankly, not controversial.  Only the doomsayers and halfwits who were frightened by the idea of the Federal Government taking a steering hand in the curriculum; State governments are a thousand times more inept and prone to quackery than the Federal government is.  Taking it out of the hands of States is nothing but a good thing.

But as far as giving us some idea of the bigger vision of education in Australia, it fails miserably.  Sure, it says ‘Asia’ enough to link to the ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ policy.  Sure, it says ‘Indigenous’ frequently enough to make it seem inclusive.  But it doesn’t have that grand scale of vision.  ‘We have listed several hundred things all students should know, but we haven’t told you why they should know them.’

Oh, and they haven’t got around to telling us what curriculum options are available for gifted children.  Never mind.

We don’t need no education… Why State funds private schools (re: @JaneCaro) #atheism

When I was younger, I argued with street preachers and door-knockers.  I loved to watch the way they could hold irreconcilable beliefs and yet assert them all forcefully and with a straight face.  The artifices of language held up by Escheriffic scaffolding loomed like a Tower of Babel: surely such batshittery must be an affront to the gods.  Most of the claims advanced were either unsupported or unsupportable.  Where were the rocks upon which God would build His church?

As I grew older, I realised that there were some catastrophic problems on my atheistic side of the fence.  Positivists roamed free, mingling with science fetishists and other carriers of diseased thought (A = A!!  The world is directly engaged by the seeeeeenses! A = A!!!!).  At every point of my engagement with the door-knockers and the street preachers, I could dismiss the problem as: ‘We just fundamentally disagree about the nature of the world.’  But with other atheists?  The same escape clause didn’t work.

Few places is this problem more clear than the issue of private schooling in Australia.  I’m a fan of religious education in schools for a lot of reasons: it makes religious education mainstream (thus making it harder for fringe lunatics to preach hate in the pulpit), it means people educated in religious schools have to be taught science properly, it means the State can punish religious schools who preach and forget to teach.  State funding is a firm leash on a potentially wild animal.

In a lengthy exchange with Jane Caro, we discussed the issue and kept coming back to the same mantras about private education in Australia.  Because private schools weren’t strictly secular (whatever that means), they shouldn’t receive taxpayer funds.  Private schools exclude (and, though I pointed out that some public schools do as well, it was correctly rebutted that they probably shouldn’t).  Private schools entrench class differences based on parents’ ability to pay.  Private schools are run by the Church.

As an example, Caro noted the excellent US system which Constitutionally divorces religion from the curriculum.  Speaking of the US system, has anybody seen Waiting for Superman? (Note the table in the trailer which puts Australian kids at number 9 in the world for competency with maths, with the US at 25).

I’m not suggesting that religious education makes kids better at maths.  I am suggesting that handwaving the US system as the gold standard to which we should be aspiring is a bit wonky.  The American system is fundamentally broken and the approach championed by the haters of the private education system will result in similar structural problems.

But let’s start way back at the beginning.  This is, as I’m sure everybody would agree, an argument about principles more than evidence.  If it were about evidence, one would merely point to our great education outcomes and say: the system of public and private seems to be working, so why change it?

The basic principle is that every kid in Australia deserves an education.  We can either couch it in obnoxious rights language: ‘Every kid has the right to an education’.  Or we can put it in more sophisticated virtue politics tones: ‘An ideal society would enable all children in that society to receive the best education which meets their needs.’

So how do you ensure that every kid gets an education?  You could start by building schools, filling them with teachers, and then allocating children to those schools by lottery.  Kids in less population dense areas wouldn’t need a lottery because they’d only be able to support one school.  So that’s buildings and teachers, but what about resources?  Should there be one Bunsen burner per student or should the Bunsen burners go to where they’d deliver better outcomes?  If a Bunsen burner out in regional Australia can only meet the needs of 5 students, wouldn’t it be better to put it in a city school where it can meet the needs of 15?  Given that there aren’t infinite resources, how do you divide the resources up between schools?

What about kids with multicultural needs?  Should Caro’s Extremely Secular High School provide prayer rooms for Muslim students?  Should school cafeterias include kosher and halal food?  Her exact words were: ‘I’d like to see them purely secular‘.  It’s unclear.

Do you know who should be able to choose the sort of educational environment for their children?  Parents.  If parents want their kids to do the International Baccalaureate instead of the Victorian Certificate of Education, who should stop them?  If parents think that their kids will be better served by technical education rather than scholarship, why should they be denied?

Because the options aren’t infinite, it makes sense to have a co-contribution system.  If parents want special education desires fulfilled, they can help make up the financial difference.  The question then becomes: why should parents be expected to meet all the costs of their children’s education?

We’ve already agreed that the State should facilitate the education of every child.  In some sense, we recognise that there’s a duty of the Government to support every student.  Why does that duty cease to exist the moment the child walks through the gates of a private school?

In a fair and egalitarian society, taxpayer funds follow the student to subsidise their parents’ choices.  The only way to disagree with that is to say that parents should be denied the right to choose academic outcomes for their child and that the State knows best.

Despite having this discussion a few times, nobody’s agreed to assert that final point.  Their argument, instead, is:

1.  Religion is bad.

2. Separation of Church and State (whatever that is).

C. The State shouldn’t be funding private schools because they’re religious and OMG Separation, Separation, Separation.

But that just delays the question.  Why shouldn’t parents be able to choose religious education for their children?  I’m an atheist and I really cannot see any problem with a parent deciding that religious education is the best option for their child.  I also can’t see why the State should be allowed to drop the ball when it comes to that child’s education just because the parents want a religious education.

The ideal education model isn’t difficult to envisage.  The State allocates a certain amount per student which follows them to wherever their parents decide is best.  If that place is a private school, the private school requests fees from that parents to make up the difference between the amount made up from students and the amount it actually costs to run a school.  Each public school would get a block grant based on a few specific factors (location, for example, would mean public schools with fewer students in regional areas would need larger block grants).  Simple.

So apart from the rabid animosity of New Atheists to religion, what argument is there against State funding of private schools?  None.

(By way of disclaimer: I received a scholarship to go to a private school.)

And you think you’re radical, but you’re not so radical… More from the Australian Book of Atheism

To what standards should we hold ourselves in our writing?  In a blog post, perhaps we’re forgiven some indelicacies and the odd [sic] or two.  In a published book outlining the position of Australian atheists, it is probably more important that the ideas are rigorous and the writing coherent.  To do less than this is to invite (quite reasonable) criticism from the detractors of atheism, making it less inviting for people in the sidelines to express their atheistic beliefs.

Max Wallace doesn’t have much of an excuse when he wrote the second entry in The Australian Book of Atheism.  He’s a clever guy: he’s the director of the Australia New Zealand National Secular Organisation.  And he has a book published!  Watch out religious-types: Max Wallace (what a cool name that is) is going to lay an almighty smack down on your woolly-headed thinking.  Plus, after the first chapter (atheists are totally persecuted just like African Americans), I didn’t think this book could get much worse.

The tax-exempt status of the monarchy and the churches is the foundation of all subsequent political structures. [Source: Max Wallace, ‘The Constitution, Belief, and the State’]


Foundation of all subsequent political structures?  The tax-exempt status of the monarchy and the churches?  Foundation?  All subsequent?

Something smells like bullshit. Continue reading

I remember when I lost my mind… there was something about the way they taught ethics

I’m going to update regarding the essay in The Australian Book of Atheism which argues:

Premiss 1: Religious education is bad.

Therefore: Religious education is bad.

But in discussing some of the ideas elsewhere, I got bogged down in an argument with @pandeiacomic on Twitter about Primary Ethics.

In NSW, the Education Act has been changed to allow students to receive ‘philosophical ethics classes’ instead of going to religious studies classes.  As an atheist myself, I think this is a bad idea.  I feel that a lot of our social problems relate to cultural illiteracy: we lack the language to construct a positive and robust discussion about our culture and society.  If religious education classes were taught well (and I happily admit that they are not — I’m not sure what educational relevance colouring a picture of Jesus holding a duck has to do with religious instruction), they would help people discuss culture meaningfully.

Sometimes, I wonder if my fellow atheists would be better equipped to discuss religion if they’d had better religious instruction (one of the essays in The Australian Book of Atheism starts discussing religion in society before going off on an irrelevant rant that the Earth didn’t begin 6,000 years ago; because, you know, hurr hurr that’s what theists believe). Continue reading