A redesign of the National History Curriculum has resulted in a restoration of Christian content and eternity. I aAssociate professor David Hastie of Alphacrucis University College asked why Christianity disappeared, what brought it back, and whether we’ve come to a balanced outcome. Hastie participated in the final drafting of the latest version of the curriculum.
1. Is Christianity Back in the National History Curriculum? What happened?
In a word, yes.
Draft 8 of the National History Curriculum (published for public consultation in May 2021) showed an almost complete absence of religion from the elementary through the sixth-grade curriculum (infants and elementary). There was more in the 7-10 History Curriculum, but still alarmingly less than was historically accurate.
Though suspected in some quarters, some radical secular agenda was quite low on the causes for these shortcomings. They were much more caused by the cumbersome bureaucratic processes used to draft the curriculum, a lack of broad representation on the original committees, and poor editing/repetition.
The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) immediately responded to public and ministerial criticism by deploying an additional layer of academic and education experts. The expanded team rewrote the curriculum in version 9. All Commonwealth and State ministers signed this version in early April. 2022.
Version 9 added 20 references to Christianity in the 7-10 curriculum, bringing the total to about 30 in quite sophisticated ways. These were also complemented by quite an explicit presence in the year 7 Civics Curriculum. The primary and preschool curricula also doubled the references to Christianity, but they were quite low in the first place.
Well, first of all, to point out that the curriculum is not as prescriptive as most people assume. The curriculum structure has mandatory ‘content descriptions’, which are fairly general. These, in turn, are populated by hundreds of proposed ‘Elaborations’. These “Elaborates” are where the Christian content resides, along with most other content, but “Eddies” are not mandatory.
Teachers, therefore, have a choice whether or not to teach these elaborations. If they chose all the historical figures associated with Christianity, they could study in elementary school:
Bennelong, Rev. Richard Johnson, Lachlan Macquarie, Maria Lock, Mary Reibey, and Mary MacKillop. They could also study other, especially Christian governors, though unnamed, such as Bourke, and other unspecified personality studies open to choice. They may also explore a range of Christian festivals, symbols, and buildings.
In the years 7-10, key figures in Christian history were added in version 9: Emperor Constantine, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Martin Luther, Cromwell, Pope Leo XIII, as well as the multiple figures (though explicitly unnamed) in the abolitionist movement, the Christian Women’s Temperance Movement, the global missionary movements, First Nations Christianity, and Australian religious sectarianism. Christians are also being restored to their central place in the early rights and protest movements of the First Nations. Other topics related to Christianity were added: Christianity and Judaism in the early Roman Empire, a more balanced approach to medieval Catholicism, the Reformation, and the English Civil War. The fact that European history will now be mandated in Year 8, where it was previously only one of nine options, will also increase the focus on Christian history. Including Jesus Christ as a personality study, alongside other options such as Augustus or Marcus Aurelius, opens up a world of possibilities.
It is noteworthy that ACARA added these changes without hesitation – recognized as simply historically correct: further evidence that the curriculum writers were not particularly doctrinal in the initial absence of Christianity in version 8.
3. What will students learn about the role of Christianity in our history?
Again, depending on how teachers interpret the curriculum, students could better understand Christianity’s contribution to the Australian nation and world history. They could also (rightly) learn about the negative effects of Christianity when it is yoked with imperialism, including the Crusades and the British Empire. However, the impact of Christianity on First Nations Australia is somewhat more balanced than in previous curricula, where Christianity was largely portrayed as a cultural wrecking ball. The destruction of culture was combined with a complex embrace of Christianity and aspects of colonial culture (including widespread intermarriage) by many Indigenous Australians in the post-colonial fusion.
No national curriculum will satisfy everyone, including Christians. They are as many symbolic documents about the priorities of our culture as they are about learning. Like all documents designed by consensus committees, compromises have to be made. So yes, there are weaknesses. I will focus purely on religion for the question and answer, but many other areas can be pointed out.
More reference is needed to religion in infants and primary school – especially more opportunities to discuss and explore the spirituality of the students’ homes. ‘normalize’ large amounts of subject matter. However, the F-year 6 curriculum is on the low side regarding religion, giving the impression that soft secularism is normal, while secularism in Australia is just one of the guests at the table. Religious experience and history are part of the ‘norm’ for most Australians and a fascinating variety of spiritual experiences. Even though the curriculum introduction states that students will learn about “Australia’s Western and Christian Heritage,” a line in an opening does not make a curriculum.
The History 7-10 curriculum is quite good. Still, it would be improved by more explicit references to Christianity’s role in bringing about most of our social institutions, including state education, banking, human rights, and the trade union movements. Likewise, more opportunities to discuss religious pluralism in the Year 9 and 10 Civics Curriculum would be helpful, if only to give the multicultural experiment a greater chance of success.
The large volume of First Nations content in the new curriculum inevitably leads to an emphasis on indigenous spiritualities where there are fewer references to other religions. But that said, I’m not too concerned about the current nature and presence of indigenous spiritualities in version 9 of the curriculum. At most points in the “elaborations,” they do not contradict biblical Christianity. Some recent criticism of the curriculum as promoting “green paganism” points to a misunderstanding of First Nations spirituality. The spiritualities of the First Nations – as we know it – bear little resemblance to the “paganism” defined in Western taxonomies since Roman times or even to conventional religion. Many native Christians saw (and see) Christ not as a white man’s Messiah but as their own Messiah; not as a rejection of their own culture for an imposed one, but as a fulfillment of an old one. For example, one of the festivals mentioned in the new curriculum is Torres Strait’s mass event, “Coming of the Light,” a celebration of the arrival of the Christian gospel to the islands. Many First Nations Christians often have, and rightly so, reverted to the gospel of Christ as a critique of white Christianity and its compromises with violent colonialism. Thus the first indigenous protest movements were born. This opens up opportunities for discussion about belief rather than presenting a problem.
I’m much more concerned that First Nations spirituality itself will be poorly taught, and that could teach children to view spirituality more broadly as irrelevant in what we call “transferable skills” in education: this includes the risks of conducting from ‘Dream Stories’ way too early (Year 1 in version 9) and far too homogenized, based on a ridiculous but widespread assumption that there was a generic precolonial First Nations culture. Over the years, I’ve seen too many dream stories in schools that were treated like cartoons – with a poor cartoon learning outcome. First Nations spirituality is incredibly complex, intrinsically local, land-related, and guarded by gender and age initiation layers in over 200 languages. No gods are shared across the continent, mythologies, or art styles. Much of it has therefore been banned to outsiders, and tragically much has now been lost. Inadvertently teaching First Nations spirituality as simplistic, monolithic, or cartoonish can have the unintended “transferable skill” effect of teaching little children to view all spirituality as bizarre, especially those that primarily express truths using narrative and poetic genres, rather than rational empiricism (which, by the way, would encompass almost the entire canon of the Christian Bible…).
About half of all Australian students are at least three years away from learning it. All states have agreed to teach the national curriculum, and several states will begin immediately. However, NSW and Victoria will rearrange the curriculum within their frameworks, pedagogy, and priorities while still committing to incorporating the content of the national curriculum.
Funding for education will be another challenge. As already discussed, the National History Curriculum is quite broad, so that te, Rachell relies on intermediary documents – lesson plans provided by the states and commercial textbook manufacturers. There are entire sections of the curriculum—such as the study of precolonial deep-time First Nations Archeology in Year 7—about which many existing teachers would have little knowledge of the new resources that will be needed. Martin Luther has not been taught compulsory history since time immemorial, and the Women’s Temperance Movement, as far as I know, has never been taught for shame. My great-great-great-grandmother, a staunch Salvationist on the Victorian goldfields, signed the great ‘monster’ petition to the Victorian Parliament in 1891 to ask for votes for women. But she was not a fiery suffragette about whom Australian students have been learning for 20 years. Previously a tough Temperance League Christian, sick of the Bendigo men guzzling all their family wages, she accurately concluded that men could no longer be left alone to run the country independently and sought her divine democratic right. Such stories can now be told in the classroom about time.
Associate Professor David Hastie is deputy vice president of development at Alphacrucis University College. He served as ACARA’s academic advisor during the final drafting of Version 9 of the 2022 Australian History and Civics Curriculum.