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Where does the west begin and end in education?

By Fotis Kapetopoulos - posted Monday, 13 January 2014

Recently the Minister for Education Christopher Pyne announced his intentions to review the national school curriculum as reported 'amid fears a "cultural Left" agenda is failing students' (The Australian). Mr Pyne wants to restore an "orthodox" curriculum and named former teacher Kevin Donnelly and business professor Ken Wiltshire to lead the review.

Mr Donnelly has already expressed a view that the curriculum had become too secular and the federation's Judeo-Christian heritage should be better reflected in the curriculum, (ABC Radio-News). This is an interesting term, which from around the 1950s began to reflect an ideological value rather some historical reality.

On the whole the idea of reviewing and re-examining the western and later Christian values of our nation is not bad in itself. A genuine enquiry could revisit the ethics and values upon which the West was built.


This enquiry may examine the historical and cultural links between the West and East from pre-Christian times, through to Eastern Christian Churches in the Middle East, Byzantium and, even Ethiopia. But, an enquiry into ethics and values would look at the Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian, Confucian ethics and Hindu values. The four great pillars of rational, functional, human-centred civilization Greece, Israel, China and India, need some thought.

Conservative social values underwrite major faiths. Many of us who believe in western ethics and values are also anti clerical. We view religion at best as cultural tradition, which should be respected in liberal democratic society, and worse as a threat to western democracy and rationalism.

Too often under the guise of multi-faith values or traditional values, secularism, rationalism, individual liberty, academic enquiry and science, take second place. Worse, our very western liberal values are sacrificed to religious sensitivities.

Somehow, I can't help but believe that the Judeo-Christian values touted by Mr Donnelly through the media seem to be confined to a narrow band of modern Catholic-Protestant values.

I would be excited at the prospect of Australian school students examining Western values pre-dating Christianity by thousands of years, values that were reborn to attack ignorance and church autocracy.

In 2006, as a participant in a delegation to China, we visited the ancient city Xi-An and my hosts - knowing of my Greek background - showed me ancient steles of philosophical writing in Hebrew, Greek, Hindi and Mandarin. These historical artefacts reflected the ongoing links between west and east which predate any notion of east and west reflected in Australian neo-Conservative minds An assessment of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman histories and values requires an examination of Asian, Asia Minor and Middle Eastern and African traditions. This would benefit Australian students. They would be aware of the importance of western heritage, and be prepared to engage with the Middle East, Africa and Asia with a sense of dignity, historical respect and knowledge. Let's face it Athenian democracy, Spartan discipline, Hebrew justice and Roman republicanism had far the most impact on the development of the west. As Paul Cartledge, the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University underscores the British public (private) school system owes more to Sparta and Athens than to any church. The late Thomas McEvilley, a distinguished historian of Greek and Indian philosophies, revealed the constant transference of ideas between Greek and Indian societies over thousands of years.


Let's move forward to a space that Minister Pyne and his enquiry colleagues may feel more comfortable with, Anglo-Saxon values. Surely they are built on Greek ethics, Hebrew law and Roman statism.

The rod that holds up British liberalism, French and American republicanism, Nordic and German social democracy was forged in Ancient Greece. Christianity, the Hellenic rebranding of Hebrew humanism and law, comes later and needed Aristotle's ethics to secure an institutional legitimacy in Byzantium, then the Holy Eastern Roman Catholic Empire. Sadly, it seems that the enquiry may commit the same intellectual laziness of the postmodern left. By using 'Judeo-Christian values' to leapfrog ancient Greek and Asian ethics, history, values and political discourse we may never find the appropriate balance in our education system between function and value. Professor Harold Bloom at Yale University and author of The Closing of the American Mind a major critique of "relativism" and openness saw the need of maintaining Greek, Roman, Jewish, Byzantine and later European history.

The notion of Judeo-Christian values, especially in the minds of the ideological right, may simply add to the miasma of the postmodern curriculum that many of us are concerned about. Only by knowing how the west was born and how it impacted on the east, and vice versa, can we articulate a more rational understanding of the world, and Australia's place in the world. As American scriptwriter, teacher and humorist, Leo Rosten the son of Russian Jewish immigrants said, "A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they're dead."

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About the Author

Fotis Kapetopoulos heads Kape Communications Pty Ltd a cultural communications consultancy. He was Multicultural Media Adviser to Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and former editor of Neos Kosmos English Edition. He lectures in communication and marketing at various academic institutions and will be undertaking a PhD at the University of Canberra.

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