Civics and Citizenship Education: The Macintyre Report


Kevin Donnelly


A great deal of discussion is currently underway about the need to teach students about Australia's legal and political systems and our civic culture. Debates about Mabo and reconciliation, whether we should become a republic and what we should do to acknowledge the centenary of federation have all combined to focus the minds of politicians, academics and teachers.

One attempt to address these matters is the report completed by the Civics Expert Group entitled, Whereas the People: Civics and Citizenship Education (1994). This group was established under the Keating Labor Government and chaired by the Melbourne historian Professor Stuart Macintyre.

There is much in the Macintyre Report that is worthy of support. A public survey carried out for the report clearly demonstrates that young Australians have a poor and often superficial understanding of 'civics'. The Macintyre Report is correct in highlighting some of the mistakes in past teaching and it presents a number of persuasive arguments in support of giving all students a systematic and comprehensive knowledge of civics education.

Where there is cause for concern, though, is when the report cites the Mayer Committee's competency number eight, 'Cultural Understandings', and the Curriculum Corporation's national curriculum profile, Studies of Society and Environment, as worthwhile documents to consider when implementing a civics education.

One of the most contentious and difficult to resolve issues in education relates to 'values'. One example of this debate can be found in the critique of the traditional academic curriculum mounted by the English sociologist M.F.D.Young. According to Young education can never be impartial or disinterested. In fact, what counts as worthwhile knowledge is decided by those dominant groups in society who use the education system to oppress and marginalise particular disadvantaged groups.

In its more extreme form the argument is that there in no such thing as 'truth' as all knowledge and understanding is ideologically driven. The ideal of a liberal education is simply an instrument by which countless generations of young people have been deluded into accepting as natural what should be open to fundamental critique and re-evaluation.

Under the heading 'Philosophical Approaches to Civics Education' the 'Macintyre Report' addresses the question of values. A distinction is made between a 'values neutral' and a 'values implicit' approach. The first is based on the assumption that teaching civics should be as impartial and objective as possible. Content should be restricted to that which is uncontroversial and teachers should not reveal their personal views and opinions.

The second approach argues that a 'values neutral' stance is impossible and that teaching 'civics' should involve making values explicit. The report concludes that teachers must 'nurture active and informed citizenry' (p.34) by making explicit the moral and ethical values and issues which invariably arise from a study of civics.

What the report fails to adequately address is that there are significant differences of opinion about what is meant by 'active and informed citizenry'. Such opinions embrace the full range of political beliefs and philosophies and, as events over the last 25 years have demonstrated, there is a good deal of disagreement as to the proper role of education in promoting the values associated with citizenship.

For those who are politically correct 'informed citizenry' means adopting and promoting such concepts as 'social justice', 'equity', 'ecological sustainability', 'multiculturalism' and 'feminism'. Such concepts are generally interpreted through a 'left-wing' perspective and used to promote a 'socially critical' view of education and society.

The Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) profile reflects this bias. The early drafts of the profile have been criticised as examples of 'political correctness gone wild' and on reading through the finished document there is a good deal of evidence that the document is far from being balanced or impartial.

Multiculturalism, for example, is promoted as beyond dispute and students are told that Australia has always been a multicultural society. There is no recognition that the policy might have any shortcomings and students are given no idea of the recent debates about the extent to which multiculturalism has been championed by vested interest groups.

The SOSE document celebrates plurality and diversity to such an extent that one might be forgiven for thinking that there is no common culture, history or tradition that we, as Australians, hold in common.

The culture of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders is another subject that the SOSE document uncritically promotes. Within the 'Culture Stand' all Australian school children are expected to 'listen to and discuss Dreaming stories' of indigenous people and to investigate the biographical details of such famous indigenous figures as Pat O'Shane and Eddie Mabo.

The pervasive influence of Australia's indigenous people in the national curriculum extends to the other five areas of Studies of Society and Environment as well. When asking students to analyse business procedures and practices they are asked to '...identify best practice in managing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business enterprises'. Under the outcome that all students should be able to describe the key features of Australia's economic system they are told to 'describe the key features of land and sea trade in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander economic systems before European occupation'.

Of course, the criticism is not that students are being asked to study the culture of Australia's indigenous people, rather the problem is that one searches in vain for as detailed and comprehensive a treatment of Australia's mainstream Anglo/Celtic cultural tradition.

The Mayer competency number eight, 'Cultural Understandings', is also seen by the 'Macintyre Report' to have 'particular relevance for civic competence'. This document also presents a 'left-wing' perspective on matters educational and cultural.

Notwithstanding a mention of 'the liberal democratic traditions of Australia' the document adopts a definition of culture that uncritically celebrates diversity. Any idea of a dominant mainstream culture is rejected in favour of 'Australia's linguistic heritage and multiple traditions' and 'the cultural and linguistic diversity (which is) an inherent feature of Australian society'.

Ignored is that while cultural diversity is worthwhile it is the Anglo/Celtic tradition which has been the most influential and that pluralism only survives when there is common agreement about certain basic principles like respect for the rights and property of others, a commitment to democratic ideals and the rule of law. In fact, the very ideals associated with Australia's mainstream cultural tradition.

A second weakness in 'Cultural Understandings' is the relativistic view of culture adopted in the document. Culture is defined as 'socially created forms of human interaction and cohesion' and the argument is put that cultures are 'neither natural nor fixed' and that there 'are no fixed boundaries to cultures and that cultures always change'.

While cultural boundaries may not be permanently 'fixed' it is possible to identify certain characteristics that identify and define particular cultures. In relation to Australia, for example, the vast majority of Australians agree that some cultural characteristics are preferable, such as a respect for personal liberty and the right to own property.

In opposition to the belief that cultures always change it is also possible to identify some qualities which have endured for long periods of time, for example the desire to be rational and to care for and protect the young.

Notwithstanding the prevailing orthodoxy of cultural relativism, it is also the case that it is possible to make judgements of relative worth. In opposition to the argument that we should embrace diversity and accept all as equal the reality is that such practices as female circumcision and burning wives on funeral pyres are totally unacceptable.

On the whole, the 'Macintyre Report' should be supported. Clearly many young Australians are ignorant of the politics, history and culture of their country and the report is correct in stating that the situation must be addressed. The report is also correct in the criticisms it makes of progressive educational theory and practice which have been so influential over the last 20 to 30 years.

Implementation is where there is cause for unease. Given the acceptance by educators of a range of progressive and radical causes since the late 1960s there is a danger that the implementation of the report's recommendations will be one-sided.

Given the public controversy surrounding the national curriculum statements and profiles, and the action of the various state governments in qualifying their support for the national curriculum documents at the 1993 Perth meeting of the Australian Education Council, it will be very interesting to take note of what procedures are adopted to ensure that the 'Macintyre Report' does not meet the same fate.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Melbourne-based education consultant.


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