Friday, March 05, 2010

Mixed Messages

by Pants

I've just been reading through the proposed new national curriculum for Australia. Up until now, individual states have been responsible for the content of educational programmes, which they have interpreted with astonishing diversity. The large number of students who move interstate each year - I think I read somewhere that it's about 80,000 - invariably find themselves repeating a year because they are ahead in some subjects and behind in others.

Finally, someone is attempting to rationalise the learning experience. Apart from a few initial grumbles that the proposed curriculum is weighted too heavily towards society and culture, the launch has gone remarkably well. Even more remarkably, I am down with the vox populi. It certainly does contain a fair bit about how societies function and the challenges we face in getting along together. The question of how we are to live ethically in the future seems more important to me than following the economic rationalism that suggests education should be providing job-ready drones cut to the specifications of the most powerful employers.

A few pundits half-heartedly claimed a prominence of the indigenous creation story, The Dreamtime. This suggestion contained an inference of condescension, of diluting quality education in order to humour indigenous people. That would have been an ugly state of affairs. Even a cursory reading of the curriculum draft reveals the claim is completely unfounded. There are elements of Aboriginal understanding that clearly fit within a science agenda and contribute to world knowledge, (astronomy, biology and medicine), and others that are sociological (religion, language, art, history). It seems to me that the curriculum separates these out very well and honours them in their appropriate contexts. At last Australian children may get the chance of a coherent overview of our Aboriginal heritage and a real opportunity to appreciate its contribution to our shared history.

It's a relief to find so much clarity in this curriculum, especially in the separation between the factual and the spiritual. It has felt like religious orthodoxy was successfully annexing the moral landscape this last decade, leaving children with no other viable model for being a decent human being. This seemed to be happening by default, as a counter-position to the dominant ethic of greedy capitalism, whose failure presented an open target. A place must be found in all our learning culture for the adoption of a serviceable secular moral model. Of course, it still has to be turned into lessons and taught, but I have hope for the national curriculum.

Finding a definition for being good in the new millennium is a big ask. Many of our great public intellectuals have been hard at work on it, not least of all Christopher Hitchens who has been crafting an update to The Ten Commandments since 2003 or thereabouts. It has been an exhaustive research exercise by all accounts, not least of all because of the several versions in existence. He eventually settles on the most wellknown decalogue for the purposes of his examination.

As he rightly points out, these are the demands of a god who is jealous, fickle, sexist and quite possible mentally unstable. I couldn't agree more. The first commandment, the one that says you shouldn't have any other gods but himself is clearly obsessively possessive and the one about not taking his name in vain, just plain paranoid. If one wanted to be terrorised by a mad despot, one would go work for Gordon 'Scrooge McDuck' Brown.

The Hitch finally cracked it. You can read about it here, in the latest copy of Vanity Fair, where you can also watch a video of him unveiling his brand new commandments. He is slightly the worse for claret and probably won't dislodge Charlton Heston from the Easter TV schedules but it is a superb effort. My favourite is No. 7

Turn off your fucking phone.

His advice for us - don't swallow your moral code in tablet form. If one must have a deity, let it be an unambiguous one. Thank you St. Christopher.