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The long march back to reason

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 2 November 2006

Education Minister Julie Bishop's call for a national curriculum and her criticism of ideologues in the education bureaucracies met a predictable wave of outrage. How dare she, cried the teachers unions and their friends. Concerns about curriculum being politically correct, the argument goes, are simply a ploy used by conservative governments to maintain power.

Pat Byrne, the head of the Australian Education Union, reflected this view when she argued last year, "The challenge for us is to frame our position in a way that can successfully counter the culture war that is currently being fought ... This is not a good time to be progressive in Australia; or for that matter anywhere else in the world."

Never mind students being made to deconstruct the classics in terms of "theory". Never mind Australian history being taught from a black-armband view. And never mind geography being redefined in terms of deep environmentalism and multiculturalism. The late 1960s and early 1970s was not only about Woodstock and moratoriums. That period was also about the Left's decision, drawing on the works of Marxists Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu, to take control of society by taking "the long march through the institutions".


Bourdieu argues that education is a powerful tool used by those more privileged in society to consolidate their position. Based on the concept of cultural capital, the argument is that there is nothing inherently worthwhile about academic studies or the Western tradition.

The Left's belief that the education system is simply a tool used by the capitalist class to reproduce itself explains much of what has happened since the early 1970s. The much-criticised Victorian Certificate of Education developed during the 1980s was based on Premier Joan Kirner's belief that schools must be transformed as "part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system".

Meanwhile, teacher education became controlled by activists such as Doug White, Bill Hannan, Bob Connell, Dean Ashenden, Simon Marginson and Allan Luke. In a textbook widely set for education courses entitled Making the Difference, the argument is put:

In the most basic sense, the process of education and the process of liberation are the same. At the beginning of the 1980s it is plain that the forces opposed to that growth (have) become increasingly militant. In such circumstances, education becomes a risky enterprise. Teachers, too, have to decide whose side they are on.

Many of those students radicalised during the 1960s and 1970s went on to become teachers and bureaucrats and they identify education as a key instrument in overturning the status quo. For many, such as the AEU, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, education was, and continues to be, a key instrument to change society.

In 1998, ACSA published Going Public: Education Policy and Public Education in Australia, described by Alan Reid as a manifesto outlining the "political strategies that might be employed to protect and enhance the social democratic values that lie at the heart of progressive aspirations about public education".


The impact of the cultural Left on education has been profound. Competition and failure are banned. Feminists attack traditional texts such as Romeo and Juliet as enforcing gender stereotypes. In history teaching, instead of focusing on significant historical events and figures and celebrating past milestones, the focus is on victim groups, such as women, migrants and Aborigines.

Over the past 30 or so years schools have been pressured to adopt a Leftist stance on issues as diverse as multiculturalism, the environment, the class war, peace studies, feminism and gender studies.

Worse, the idea that education can be disinterested and that teachers should be impartial has given way to the argument that everything is ideological. Meanwhile, the teachers' unions deny any agenda.

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First published in The Australian on October 20, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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