Media arts has taken the fall for the ongoing culture war over the National Curriculum, writes Ben Eltham.
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Australia is getting a new national curriculum for our schools.
First announced by the previous Labor government of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the Abbott government is still going ahead with it – but it is putting the whole thing under review.
As with all things related to schooling, the Curriculum Review has proved hugely controversial. In October, after a relatively mild reception to the Abbott government’s review of the National Curriculum, education analyst Dean Ashenden was able to write that the long culture war over schooling seemed finally to be abating.
He wrote too soon. Within days, independent news website New Matilda had published a cache of emails from one of the curriculum’s reviewers, University of Sydney academic Barry Spurr. (Disclosure: I am a paid columnist for New Matilda.) The emails contained explosive revelations of Spurr’s private comments about the curriculum, and were peppered with racist and misogynistic epithets.
Spurr responded by taking New Matilda to court on privacy grounds, with both parties now awaiting a further hearing later this year. New Matilda responded by arguing that the disclosure was in the public interest, given Spurr’s repeated recommendations to reduce the amount of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature in Australian schools.
The Spurr controversy has since almost completely derailed sensible discussion of the Curriculum Review itself. That’s a shame, because one of the key recommendations of the Review concerns Australia’s school curriculum for the arts.
A national arts curriculum has been a long-cherished dream for many in the arts and cultural sector. A substantial body of international literature suggests that exposure to culture and creativity is highly positive for students from an early age. The impact of this research is now recognised by the OECD.
The value lies not just in the intrinsic value of learning an instrument or acting in the school play. In fact, several studies have shown robust spill-over benefits for students studying creative arts. Music, for instance, helps children understand complex mathematical concepts. Visual art classes are correlated with better geometrical reasoning. Drama builds crucial interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
It was for well-founded reasons, then, that academics and artists lobbied hard for a comprehensive and meaningful national arts curriculum under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. A huge amount of work went into the national arts curriculum over a period of years. Though eternally controversial, the arts curriculum delivered. Core artforms like music, visual art and performance were honoured with dedicated subjects from prep through to year 10. A new and innovative subject entitled “media arts” was also created, which recognised the dominant role of screen-based culture in the lives of 21st century citizens.
The Curriculum Review seemingly puts much of this in jeopardy. It recommends subsuming media arts into the other disciplines, and making only two of the original five compulsory across all schools. Music and visual arts get a guernsey. Drama, dance and media arts miss out. The Review also recommends a significant diminution of the amount of arts content across the curriculum.
One of the reviewers, Sydney Grammar School’s John Vallance, slammed much of the curriculum. 'What I have seen of the Australian Curriculum suggests that it is characterised in general by a tendency towards the elimination of rigour,' Vallance wrote in his review.
The media also picked up on the criticism. Fairfax Media’s Matthew Knott wrote a story headlined 'Review blasts patronising, vague arts curriculum.'
The arts sector is understandably concerned. In a media release, the National Advocates for Arts Education point out that the Review seems to have got many of its facts wrong.
'We have major concerns about the number of contradictions, assertions and factual errors in the report,' NAAE write.
In particular, NAAE point out that the Review seems completely mistaken about the nature of the five arts subjects. While the curriculum has five separate arts subjects, the Review seems to think they’ve been combined into one catch-all container called 'arts'. 'Even a cursory inspection reveals that The Australian Curriculum: The Arts does not combine five art forms into one curriculum,' NAAE responds. 'There are five stand-alone subjects.'
There’s also considerable alarm that media arts might disappear from the curriculum. At a time when younger Australians are living more and more of their lives online, it seems a strange decision. The peak body for media education in Australia, the Australian Teachers of Media, contributed to the NAAE response. 'We reject the statement that Media Arts does not appear to have been satisfactorily defined in educational terms,' the advocates write.
Why has media arts taken the fall in a supposedly impartial and apolitical review process?
The answer appears to be that the review process is far less impartial than it first seemed. As more scrutiny has been applied to the Review, the conservative sympathies of many of the reviewers has come to light.
Media studies make an attractive target for conservatives in a contested space like this.
The idea of studying media has alarming taints of post-modernism, unlike far safer and more established disciplines like music and visual art. It’s hard not to draw some connections to the ongoing campaign by many of the publications in the News Limited stable to the supposedly left-wing tendencies of Australian media and journalism academics. In other words, the culture wars go on.
Now that the Spurr revelations have come to light, the eventual fate of the Arts curriculum remains in considerable doubt. The real worry is that the Spurr imbroglio distracts attention from the quiet junking of an innovative and important new arts framework for Australian students.
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