National Curriculum Review: religion, belief systems and values

Meredith Doig / 26 October 2014

The Donnelly/Wiltshire Review of the National Curriculum was released in October 2014. Below is a section of the Report called “The place of religion, belief systems and values in the Australian Curriculum” (pp 155 to 162 of the report) with our comments interspersed in gold.

Overall, the authors of the Report demonstrate worryingly poor analytical skills by (i) mischieviously or incompetently confusing doctrinal religious instruction with education about religions and beliefs; (ii) indulging in the ‘appeal to authority‘ argument (various Prime Ministers believed children should learn the Bible, so it must be true); and (iii) overgeneralising from a politically desirable sample.

For an insight into how ‘spiritual development’ might be incorporated into a secular curriculum, see here.

“AS noted in Chapter One, no curriculum is ever value free as it either implicitly or explicitly embodies or gives voice to a particular set of values and beliefs [yes, but it’s a matter of degree. Some curricula are explicitly biassed or just plain wrong, some simply encapsulate the predominant values of society]. It is also true, when defining the purpose of education that along with more practical and utilitarian ends education, by its very nature, deals with the transcendent, including morality and spirituality. [No, it’s not “true”! Education does not ‘by it very nature’ deal with the transcendent, nor with spirituality – it may, but it does not have to].

It also needs to be understood, while the major religions of the world deal with the transcendent and emphasise moral and spiritual aspects of existence, many secular beliefs systems also explore and deal with similar matters.

The Melbourne Declaration, the blueprint for Australian schools, recognises this when it refers to ‘moral and spiritual’ when detailing the role schools play in promoting students’ wellbeing. The Declaration also defines active and informed citizens as exhibiting ‘moral and ethical integrity’ and commits itself to a curriculum that will enable students ‘to understand the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life’.

Many overseas curriculum documents also refer to ethical and moral values and beliefs when detailing aims and objectives. The Singapore curriculum, under the heading The Desired Outcomes of Education, states that students should develop a ‘sound moral compass’ and ‘a strong sense of right and wrong’.((Ministry of Education, Singapore, The Desired Outcomes of Education, Ministry of Education, viewed 30 July 2014, can be accessed at http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/desired-outcomes/))

The Finnish curriculum, when detailing learning objectives and core content of education, argues that students must ‘learn to evaluate the ethics of their actions and to recognize right from wrong’ as well as being taught ‘their respective cultural heritages, spiritual and material’.((Finnish National Board of Education 2004, National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2004, Finnish National Board of Education.)) [Nobody is arguing children ought not to be taught about right and wrong, and government schools currently do this].

The English National Curriculum, similar to the Australian Curriculum, also stipulates that the curriculum must deal with students’ spiritual and moral development and goes as far mandating religious education (RE)((While mandatory for maintained schools, parents are able to withdraw their children from all or part of such lessons.)) for maintained schools on the basis that:

RE is an important curriculum subject. It is important in its own right and also makes a unique contribution to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils and supports wider community cohesion. The Government is keen to ensure all pupils receive high-quality RE.((Department for Children, Schools and Families 2010, Religious education in English schools: Non-statutory guidance 2010, Department for Children, Schools and Families, p. 4.)) [The authors fail to note that Britain has an established religion, the Church of England, so it is no surprise they urge RE. Australia does not have an established religion]

Based on the argument that state schools are ‘free, compulsory and secular’, the argument is often put that there is no place for teaching about religion in state schools. [No, the argument is not that there is no place for teaching about religion in state schools; the argument is there is no place for instructing a particular religious doctrine in state schools]. Such an argument is bolstered by the fact that the legislation in states like Victoria stipulates, ‘education in government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’.((Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (Victoria), s. 2.2.10.))

The Western Australian legislation is similar when it states in the School Education Act, section 68(1a) that the ‘curriculum and teaching in government schools is not to promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’.

As a result, organisations like the Australian Education Union, argue that:

As part of the great education settlement in the colonies of the latter part of the nineteenth century it was agreed that public systems of education would eschew instruction of a dogmatic and specific kind. Part of the guarantee of freedom of religion in this country was to be based on freedom from religion in teaching programs. And part of respect for all citizens’ belief systems was the guarantee that one religious tradition was not to be privileged by the state over another. This is simply basic to the finely-honed and successful western, liberal tradition of Australia and in particular, its public school system.((Australian Education Union 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum, p. 9.))

Ignored is that the existing legislation in many states – contrary to the belief that there is no place for religion in state schools – allows religion to be included. [What follows is continued confusion over the difference between teaching about religion, which has become permissible in many states, and instructing in a particular doctrine, which is recognised as outside the general secular principle of public education] The Western Australian legislation in section 68 qualifies the statement that religion should not be taught, when it states:

(2) Subsection (1) (a) is not to be read as preventing – (a) the inclusion of general religious education in the curriculum of a schools; or (b) prayers, songs and other material based on religious, spiritual or moral values being used in a school activity as part of general religious education.

The New South Wales legislation requires that state schools provide religious education classes when it states, in every school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion’.((Education Act 1990 (NSW), s. 32.)) The Victorian legislation, in addition to allowing states schools to provide religious instruction, if desired, also allows for the inclusion of what is described as general religious education in the curriculum. The Victorian Act allows students to be taught ‘about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world’.((Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (Victoria), s. 2.2.10.))

Clearly, the statement that education in government schools, as opposed to faith-based, non-government schools, must be secular does not exclude special religious education classes or including teaching about religion in the curriculum in subjects like history, art, civics and citizenship, music and English (especially literature).

That religion can, and should, be included in the curriculum is acknowledged by ACARA in its draft statement titled ‘Learning about religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs in the Australian Curriculum’ which was provided to this Review.((ACARA 2014, Learning about religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs in the Australian Curriculum (draft).)) Based on the Melbourne Declaration’s belief that education must deal with moral and spiritual beliefs and issues the ACARA statement argues the Australian Curriculum ‘provides opportunities and encourages students to learn about different religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs ’.

ACARA’s argument that ‘religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs’ should be included in the Australian Curriculum is not an argument for proselytising; rather it is an argument that any balanced curriculum should teach what the Victorian legislation refers to as ‘the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world’.

As noted by one submission, important when listing ‘the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society’ is the reality that Christianity plays a major role, on the basis that ‘Historically, Christianity has had a far greater positive influence on Western Society, than any other religion’.((Julatten Family Fellowship 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum, p. 1.)) [And Christianity is, in turn, based on the philosophies of the ancient Greeks and Romans]

The ACARA statement goes on to argue that the Australian Curriculum ‘provides a platform for teaching about religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs in a balanced, informed and impartial manner’ and that this content is especially evident in the history and civics and citizenship learning areas.

Not all the submissions agree. [but many do] In opposition to ACARA’s argument that the Australian Curriculum adequately and properly deals with religion and ethical and moral values a number of submissions [how many?] suggest that there is an imbalance, especially related to how Christianity and Western civilisation are presented in the curriculum. [what is this but an admission of cherry-picking at its most obvious – choosing submissions whose messages agree with a predetermined bias]

In addition to the submissions received by this Review [now it implies that all submissions support this predetermined bias], further evidence that religion is not adequately dealt with in the Australian Curriculum is found in an analysis of the place of religion in secular education where the statement is made ‘since 2008 the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has been developing a new national curriculum. However, religion is not a focus area’.((Byrne, C 2014, Religion in Secular Education, Koninklijke Brill NV, p. 168.)) [Wrong. Byrne is simply describing a fact: that ACARA has chosen not to make the study of religion a separate subject but to allow for it in various other subjects like History, Civics and Citizenship]

In terms of the number of submissions received on this topic, it should be noted that the Review received 413 that appeared part of a campaign [what weight should be accorded submissions that are simply part of an orchestrated campaign?] arguing that the Australian Curriculum needed to be revised to ensure a more balanced and objective treatment of Christianity and the debt owed to Western civilisation.

A further submission arguing that the ‘National Curriculum should address Christianity in a way that is fair and balanced’ contained 1,647 signatures. [more evidence of an orchestrated campaign rather than rational arguments]

A number of individual submissions [how many?] have also been received in relation to what is perceived as an imbalance in the Australian Curriculum related to the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage and values and beliefs. [what follows are self-serving references to submissions from various church groups, all arguing in favour of greater privileging of their perspectives. The history of Western civilisation does indeed have a lot to do with religions, some of it positive and some negative, but as pointed out above, it owes more to the philosophies of the ancient Greeks and Romans and to the Enlightenment]

When questioning the rationale and justification for the three cross-curriculum priorities the submission by the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV) states:

The CECV is unclear as to why these particular areas of have been privileged at the expense of others. Forgotten, for example, are the foundations of our liberal democracy, shaped by our Judeo-Christian heritage.((Catholic Education Commission of Victoria 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum, p. 7.))

The Catholic Education Commission of New South Wales also expresses the concern that the Melbourne Declaration and the Australian Curriculum undervalue the ‘the role, both past and present, of faith traditions generally and Christianity specifically in the development of Australia’.((Catholic Education Commission of New South Wales 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.))

The Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s Church and Nation Committee’s submission also argues, ‘One glaring omission of the curriculum is that it fails to give an understanding of our Judeo-Christian heritage which had, and continues to have, such a great impact on our country’.((Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s Church and Nation Committee 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.))

While acknowledging the importance of the three cross-curriculum priorities the Christian Schools Australia Limited submission raises the concern that the priorities are seen as ‘dominant, almost exclusive’ and suggests that an additional priority be added. This new priority would ensure ‘the continued recognition of the Western/Judeo-Christian influences on our society’.((Christian Schools Australia Limited 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.)) [Oh, great. CSA is the organisation that promotes the teaching of creationism in science!]

The submission by The Anglican Education Commission in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney also emphasises the importance of religious beliefs and values when it states, in relation to Australia, that, ‘Our justice, government, education, health and general welfare systems are all established on the Judeo-Christian foundation of this civilization’.((The Anglican Education Commission 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.)) [Actually, not true. Australia’s institutions were established at the time of the Enlightenment and owe more to philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill]

Not unexpectedly, the Australian Christian Lobby also repeats the criticism that the Australian Curriculum underplays the ‘significance of Christianity in both Australia’s history and its modern institutions and culture’. While accepting that contemporary Australia includes a ‘rich variety of cultures and religions’ the submission regrets the fact that the curriculum fails to properly acknowledge ‘the very strong Christian influence of Australia’s European settlers, particularly those from the United Kingdom and Ireland’.((Australian Christian Lobby 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.))

The Australian Christian Lobby submission also argues that the Bible’s cultural and literary significance should not be ignored in what many submissions consider to be an overly secular curriculum. The Christian Lobby’s submission cites the well-known atheist Professor Richard Dawkins’ support for the decision in England to provide every school with a copy of the St James version of the Bible in support of its case.(Professor Dawkins advocacy for including the Bible in the curriculum, can be found at: ((http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible)) [If you read this link, you find Dawkins is actually arguing that knowing what’s in the Bible is a good way to put people off religion because of its appalling moral lessons – not a great argument in support of the Bible]

Professor Dawkins is not alone in arguing that the Bible should be included in the school curriculum. As Prime Minister, Julia Gillard made the same case when she argued in 2011 ‘It’s impossible to understand Western literature without having that key of understanding the Bible stories and how Western literature builds on them and reflects them and deconstructs them and brings them back together’.((See http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/julia-gillard-makes-stand-as-a-social-conservative/story-fn59niix-1226025066869))

[what follows here are references to the review by Prof Barry Spurr, who has been revealed as a totally biassed analyst, whose views should not only be discounted but seen as indicators of just the sort of society we don’t want to become] The argument that knowledge of the Bible is vitally important for an appreciation of Western literature is also made by Professor Spurr in his analysis of the national English curriculum for this Review. After citing Northrop Frye’s belief that the Bible represents ‘the single most important influence in the imaginative tradition of Western literature’, Professor Spurr argues the Bible also cultivates an awareness of the literal, metaphorical and allegorical uses of language.((Spurr, B 2014, Subject matter specialist report on the Australian Curriculum: English, with particular attention to Literature, prepared for the Review of the Australian Curriculum.))

Professor Spurr also makes the point that if students are expected to ‘learn to question stated and unstated cultural beliefs and assumptions’, when studying literature, then they need to have a ‘mastery of different belief systems’.(( Ibid.))

The Hon Tony Abbott MP, when Leader of the Opposition, also argued two years earlier than Ms Gillard that all students should have knowledge of the Bible when he said, ‘I think it would be impossible to have a good general education without at least some serious familiarity with the Bible and with the teachings of Christianity’.((Langmaid, A 2009, ‘All kids must read the Bible, federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says’, Herald Sun, 18 December 2009, viewed 30 July 2014, can be accessed at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/archive/news/all-kids-must-read-the-bible-federal-opposition-leader-tony-abbott-says/story-e6frf7l6-1225811885777))

It should be noted that not all the submissions received argue that the Australian Curriculum fails to adequately deal with Judeo-Christian values. The Rationalist Society of Australia, for example, ‘rejects the notion that Australia owes its foundations to some putative “Judeo-Christian” heritage’ arguing instead for the importance of ancient Greek and Roman influences and the impact of the Enlightenment.((Rationalist Society of Australia 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum, p. 2.))

In addition to many submissions putting the case that the Australian Curriculum should deal with Christianity in a more balanced and objective way, a number of submissions argue that students should study a range of religions and beliefs systems.

Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen in his submission((Institute for Judaism and Civilization 2014, Theology and the provision of the spiritual development of students, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.)), based on the Melbourne Declaration’s belief that the curriculum should address students’ moral and spiritual development, argues that case for including a subject titled theology. Rabbi Cowen, while acknowledging the special place of the Judeo-Christian ethic in Australian society, argues that students need to also learn about other religions and belief systems such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Instead of being taught through the lenses of subjects like sociology or history, often with a secular focus [a ‘secular focus’ is exactly the focus education ought to have in a secular country!], Rabbi Cowen argues that spirituality needs to be taught as a separate subject over the years of schooling [in a secular country, religions are free to do this – just not using the resources or institutions of the State. That is what secularism means]. An argument is also put, that instead of focusing exclusively on what makes each particular religion or faith distinctive, the emphasis should be on what constitutes ‘common theological categories and ethical principles’.

A second submission by the Religions, Ethics and Education Network Australia (REENA) also cites the Melbourne Declaration when arguing ‘for the inclusion of Education about Religions and Beliefs (ERB) in the National Curriculum’.((Religions, Ethics and Education Network Australia 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum.)) The submission cites overseas examples involving the UK, Quebec and Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights where teaching about various religions, ethics and beliefs is supported.

In particular, the submission refers to the Toledo Guiding Principles About Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools((For a copy of the Toledo principles see http://www.osce.org/odihr/29154)) as a useful guide to inform any decision to include teaching ERB in the Australian Curriculum. Various possibilities include developing a distinct subject ‘on diverse religions, spirituality and belief systems taught by qualified teachers’ or as part of the cross-curriculum priorities[which is how the National Curriculum has been designed]. An ERB subject would be in addition to existing Years 11 and 12 subjects dealing with religion and belief systems that are often only taught in a few schools as an elective.

The REENA submission refers to the example of Quebec, where an Ethics and Religious Culture Program was developed to help promote social inclusion and counter terrorism, as one worth considering in any attempt to develop an ERB subject in the Australia Curriculum.

A third submission relating to moral and spiritual education by the Australian Association for Religious Education (AARE) also argues for the place of different beliefs systems and religions in the Australian Curriculum. Whereas a number of submissions to the Review emphasise Christianity, this submission takes a broader view when it:

highlights the importance of a study of religious, spiritual and secular beliefs and worldviews which compose the human world and argues that the Australian Curriculum should recognize the important role these different belief systems and worldviews have in the lives of many Australians.((Australian Association for Religious Education 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum, p. 3.))

Drawing on the work of the English educationalist Paul Hirst, and his argument that there are distinct and unique forms or domains of human knowledge, the submission argues that a well-rounded education dealing with the whole person should include the rational, logical, social, ethical, moral, aesthetic, emotional and spiritual (as does the Melbourne Declaration).

In opposition to ACARA’s argument that the Australian Curriculum deals with moral and spiritual values and beliefs in a balanced and proper way the AARE submission argues, ‘The glaring omission in the selection of subjects for the Australian Curriculum is one that relates to learning about the role and contribution of religions, spiritual and secular belief systems and world views to human society’.((Ibid., p. 5.)) [as pointed out above, the National Curriculum has chosen to address these issues across the curriculum rather than develop a separate subject]

The argument that a study of religions and beliefs systems can be accommodated by general capabilities like intercultural and ethical understanding or various elements of the history or civics and citizenship curriculums is also rejected. The submission states:

It is argued, here, that such an approach is reductionist and fragmentary, reducing the knowledge of religions to knowledge about some elements of religious history and tradition, religious socialization, religious culture, religious leaders and so on. Such an approach does not recognize that religious and spiritual knowledge, in particular, provide a particular way of knowing which balances and complements other ways of knowing.((Ibid., p. 5.)) [an example of religious special pleading, that religious knowledge is somehow special and different.]

The submission notes the contribution to the theory of knowledge by Jurgen Habermas that differentiates between three different ways of knowing related to each discipline when arguing the vital importance of ‘knowing oneself’. While it is important ‘to have knowledge and understanding of others, equally as important is knowledge and understanding of self’ on the basis that ‘If one has a sense of self and a level of security in what one believes and stands for, it is easier to accept and include others’.((Ibid., p. 5.)) [there is no reason to suppose such self-knowledge cannot, and is not already, being developed in students via the existing curriculum]

When justifying its argument that the curriculum should better include teaching ‘religious and spiritual beliefs and practices’ the AARE submission notes the impact of increasing globalisation caused by changing technology and media and the increasing multicultural and multi-faith nature of Australian society. Students need to be given a ‘firm foundation that will enable them to understand, appreciate and engage with differences in society that relate to religious, spiritual and secular beliefs systems and world views’.

The submission also justifies the need for teaching religious and spiritual beliefs by referring to the dangers of racism and prejudice associated with what is becoming an increasing pluralist society and a post 9/11 world where sectarianism is on the rise. [Yes, there is a need to teach about religions and the dangers religious ideologies play].

As to how teaching about religious and spiritual beliefs might be better dealt with in the curriculum the AARE submission suggests either incorporating the study as a part of the civics and citizenship learning area or introducing it as a distinct subject. The submission by the Anglican Education Commission in Sydney puts a similar case when it argues that there be a ‘central, integrating mandatory subject called Worldview and Ethics’.

The submission from the Pathways Coalition for Diversity Education also argues strongly that all students deserve to be taught about ‘a wide range of religions and philosophies and ethical issues within a secular (neutral) pedagogy’.

In relation to how the Australian Curriculum deals with religion, especially Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, it is interesting to note that ACARA publicly released a revised version of the civics and citizenship Foundation to Year 10 document, dated 18 February 2014, that refers to Judeo-Christian traditions a number of times.((It should be noted that there was no reference to Judeo-Christian values and beliefs in the earlier drafts of the civics and citizenship curriculum.)) [an example of how ACARA genuinely listened to the groups with whom it conducted consultations]

All the more reason.