The decline of literature

by Institute of Public Affairs on November 28, 2014

This is what the editorial of The Australian had to say about Australia’s English curriculum earlier this month:

As well as ensuring young children are taught to read and write properly, classic literature — prose and poetry — must be dusted off and taught to students at the appropriate ages. This sounds like straightforward common sense to middle-aged Australians who grew up with JM Barrie, Norman Lindsay and Rudyard Kipling, then discovered Victorian novels, the war poets, Shakespeare and TS Eliot. But it will involve a profound shift in education values and teaching.

Institute of Public Affairs research scholar Stephanie Forrest summed up the problem yesterday when she said the national English curriculum, like most state-based curriculums in recent years, was geared to shaping students’ attitudes and ethics. Overtly political content deserves no place in a sound English curriculum. English class is not the place, as an optional “content elaboration” in the Year 9 curriculum suggests, for “debating the reliability of the coverage in a range of news media of a contentious issue such as commercial logging of old-growth forests”. Such politicisation detracts from the foundational elements of English: reading, writing, spelling and grammar. It also deprives children of the opportunity to study classic literature at school… When deprived of classic literature at school, children who are not encouraged to read at home and whose families have few books miss out the most.

The editorial followed the release of the IPA’s major report on the National Curriculum for English — Australia’s English Curriculum: A Critique.

The report highlighted two big problems with Australia’s current English curriculum. First, it ignores the importance of classic literature — great writing that has stood the test of time.

The curriculum is silent on greats such as Jane Austen, Dickens, Milton, and Orwell. Even Shakespeare — probably the most important writer of the English language — is mentioned only in the glossary.

Second, the curriculum includes a lot of overtly political material that is not strictly related to English — including one content elaboration in Year 5 which suggests that students investigate ‘the qualities of contemporary protest songs’.

You can view the full report here and the IPA’s media releasehere. The main arguments are also summarised in my articlefrom The Australian on 4 November and in this piece in the latest edition of the IPA Review.

The IPA’s Hannah Pandel appeared on the Alan Jones Breakfast Show and Ben Fordham’s Sydney Live show to talk about classic literature. You can listen to the full interviews here and here.

200 years since Waterloo

2015 will be a year of important historical anniversaries. First, Anzac Day next year will mark exactly 100 years since the landing at Gallipoli. The First World War featured in theNovember edition of Horizons last year, and here is a piece that IPA executive director John Roskam wrote about the significance of Anzac Day and Gallipoli from 2007.

Second, according to tradition, 15 June next year will mark exactly 800 years since King John of England set his seal to Magna Carta – a document that later became foundational to the rule of law and parliamentary democracy. This was the feature of the August edition of Horizons.

And third, 18 June next year will mark exactly 200 years since the Waterloo – the decisive and bloody battle which ended the Napoleonic Wars and opened up Europe to almost a century of relative peace.

In the November edition of Standpoint Magazine, historian Andrew Roberts speculated that Waterloo is probably ‘the world’s most famous battle’ and revises two of the best books that have been recently published to commemorate the anniversary.

Andrew Roberts was the keynote speaker at the IPA’s 2011 Foundations of Western Civilisation Symposium. You can view the keynote address here.

The first book in his review is Waterloo: Myth and Reality by historian of the Napoleonic Wars Gareth Glover, which is available on Amazon here. It reassesses various myths that have evolved about the battle over the last two centuries.

The second is The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo by Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, who specialises in international relations. This book, which is available here, is about La Haye Saint – a farmhouse that was at the centre of the battle.

For more on Waterloo, here is a timeline of the events that led up to Waterloo, and here is a page that lists some of the preparations that are being made to celebrate the bicentenary in Europe.

Reading, Watching, Listening

In an excellent article in The Telegraph earlier this week, Dan Hannan wrote of English philosopher Roger Scruton:

Roger will be read and remembered when many of the prominent literary figures of our day are footnotes – partly for the keenness of his intelligence and partly for the consistency of his vision, but mainly for the grandeur of his prose. He can ennoble almost any subject – economics, cooking, telephone boxes – by his gentle logic and his courteous insistence on treating readers as his intellectual equals.

In the article, as well as suggesting that Scruton ‘has as good claim as any to be the cleverest living Englishman’, Hannan outlines the central contentions of Scruton’s latest book, How to be a Conservativewhich was published by Bloomsbury last month.

Roger Scruton, of course, was the keynote speaker at the 2014 Foundations of Western Civilisation symposium. You can view the keynote address here and a panel discussion with Roger Scruton, Andrew Bolt, and John Roskam here.

In the November edition of The New Criterion, American English professor Mark Bauerlein wrote this very insightful piece on how identity politics is destroying the humanities.

And on 29 October in The TelegraphAdam D’Souza explained why the next generation should be educated in ‘history, classics and languages’.

Earlier this week, Kevin Donnelly wrote a piece in The Conversation about a UK study on classroom methods in Shanghai. The study was intended to demonstrate why Chinese students are so successful in school compared to their UK counterparts. Unsurprisingly, it suggested that it might have something to do with the fact that the UK – like Australia – has been abandoning traditional teaching methods.

On 21 November, Heather Pringle of National Geographic wrote an interesting article about the familial intrigue that surrounded Alexander the Great and the archaeological investigations of the mysterious ‘Amphipolis tomb’ in what is now northern Greece.

Boris Johnson on Winston Churchill

by Institute of Public Affairs on November 3, 2014

Next January will mark exactly fifty years since Winston Churchill’s death.

Two weeks ago, Boris Johnson’s important new book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made Historywas published by Hodder & Stoughton. The book was reviewed by Con Coughlin in The Telegraph.

You can also read a preview of the book in The Telegraph here.In it, Johnson talks about how Churchill changed history on 28 May 1940, when, shortly after becoming Prime Minister, he convinced his Cabinet to continue fighting Hitler:

These days we dimly believe that the Second World War was won with Russian blood and American money; and though that is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Winston Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won. At several moments he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940.

There is no doubt that Churchill was an immense historical figure – in fact, a 2002 poll voted him ‘the greatest Briton of all time‘. He was also a significant writer. Perhaps his most famous book, A History of the English-Speaking Peopleswas included in the IPA’s 2009 monograph 100 Great Books of Liberty.

That is one reason that Johnson’s take on his life is especially interesting. One of the themes he repeats throughout is that Churchill’s achievements are in danger of being forgotten.

In 2012, for example, then-Education Secretary Michael Gove was alarmed that Churchill was not mentioned in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

Coughlin says in his review of Johnson’s book:

Johnson believes that, with the soldiers of the Second World War gradually fading away, we are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice, and he argues there is a danger that we might forget the scale of Churchill’s achievements.

Johnson is a Classicist, ex-journalist, and London’s quite charismatic mayor. The BBC wrote this profile of him upon his election in 2008. His earlier books include The Dream of Rome(2007 – reviewed here by Labour MP Denis MacShane in The Independent) and Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World (2012 – reviewed here by Ashley Prime in The Globe and Mail).

Another interesting feature of this particular biography is that Johnson includes an analysis of Churchill’s style of speaking. You can watch an interesting video here, in which Johnson explains how to talk like Winston Churchill.

For a more serious biography on Churchill, a popular choice is the official biography by Martin Gilbert, which is outlined here on The Churchill Centre website. It is also available in the single-volume abridgement, Churchill: A Life.

Also of note are Paul Johnson’s Churchill, The Last Lion series by William Manchester (in three parts: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932Alone, 1932-1940, and Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965), and Churchill’s own autobiography, My Early Life: 1874-1904.

Reading, Watching, Listening

In a special edition of Horizons earlier this month, IPA Research Fellow Hannah Pandel talked about the release of the Federal government’s National Curriculum Review. You can see the full review here and the IPA’s media release here.

As the media release argues, the review confirms the previous findings of the IPA’s research on the National Curriculum, which were summarised in this submission to the government Department of Education in March 2014 and in the IPA’s 2010 monograph The National Curriculum: A Critique. The full monograph can be viewed online here.

Here is a quick overview of some of the other responses to the review. Two weeks ago, one of the heads of the curriculum review, Ken Wiltshire, wrote this opinion piece ($) in The Australian explaining its conclusions. This article in the Sydney Morning Herald argued that the culture wars ‘fizzled out’ with the curriculum review. Finally, on 14 October Chris Berg wrote inThe Drum about the futility of the National Curriculum project in general.

Historian Lynn Hunt’s latest book, Writing History in the Global Erapromotes a new trend in history called ‘global history’. Here($) is a fascinating critique by Brendan Simms from the Wall Street Journal, which raises some arguments to the contrary – namely, ‘global history’ is not new and tends to ‘ignore classic international relations’, such as the impact of war on society.

Simms’ latest book, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Presentwas published last year. It surveys the history and politics of Europe since the fall of Constantinople and was reviewed in The Telegraph by Noel Malcolm in April 2013.

In this month’s edition of the IPA Review, I wrote that classic literature is being progressively locked out of Australian classroomsHere ($) is an article from The Australian by Christopher Bantick, a senior literary teacher at a Melbourne independent school, who makes a similar argument about the degrading of young adult fiction and the disappearance of good literature from classrooms.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate has created a series of fascinating videos that tell the story of George Washington’sYorktown Campaign (1781) – a crucial part of the American War of Independence.

Connor Court recently published The Fragility of Freedom by Peter Fenwick. This book details the heritage of Western Civilisation, the values of liberty, prosperity, and free enterprise, and the challenges that these values face today.

Very relevant to the topic of the fragility of freedom is James Allan’s latest article in The Spectator on freedom and the Coalition and Dan Hannan’s interesting piece on Habeas Corpus and the threat that it faces in present-day England.

Leonard Liggio, Executive Vice President of Academics at Atlas Network and a great promoter of classical liberalism, passed away earlier this month on 14 October 2014. For more on Liggio’s achievements, read his biography here and see a video archive here, prepared by the Liggio Legacy Project.

Special edition: Release of National Curriculum Review

by Institute of Public Affairs on October 13, 2014

Welcome to a special edition of Horizons.

Yesterday the Federal government released the much-anticipated Review of the Australian National Curriculum by Professor Kenneth Wiltshire and Dr Kevin Donnelly. You can read the review here and the government response here.

This is the media release the IPA issued yesterday on why this is the ‘beginning of the end’ for the National Curriculum. 

The IPA has been critical of the National Curriculum’s ideological imbalance, exposing its hostility to Western Civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and the contribution of entrepreneurs and free markets.

This Review confirms IPA research that the National Curriculum is politically biased, deficient and overcrowded.

It states that the National Curriculum – particularly the History Curriculum – fails to ‘adequately deal with the historical impact and significance of Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage and values and beliefs.’

And it describes as ‘grossly deficient’ its failure to acknowledge that the unprecedented reduction in poverty experienced in recent decades has been the direct result of economic freedom, market liberalisation and increased international trade.

A very important section of the report is its analysis of the Economics and Business Curriculum from pages 198 to 203. Professor Tony Makin and Dr Alex Robson’s report on the subject is highly critical, slamming the omission of key economic concepts – such as the role of entrepreneurs – and the inclusion of inappropriate materials like the ‘benefits of government intervention with no discussion of … the costs of intervention.’

The examination of the Civics and Citizenship Curriculum by Professor Anne Twomey on pages 193 to 198 identifies significant gaps and the substandard nature of the curriculum, declaring ‘no one who had been taught it could graduate with a clear understanding of the system of government’.

You can read a thorough analysis of the National Curriculum by contributors such as Professor Tony Makin, Dr Alex Robson, Professor Anne Twomey, and Professor Gregory Melleuish here.

A highlight of the Review is its critique of the cross-curriculum priorities. It observes that the cross-curriculum priorities are inappropriate and ideologically driven, and it was ‘a mistake to endeavour to embed each of the three themes across the whole curriculum.’

The Review argues that the English curriculum specifically ‘should be revised to place greater emphasis on a more structured and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness approach during the early years of reading.’

Finally, a strength of the Review is its criticism of the faddish teaching methods the curriculum promotes. Prevalent throughout the curriculum is the idea that one pedagogical approach to teaching – constructivism and student-centred learning – is better than all the others. The role of the teacher is as ‘facilitator’ of the learning process, as opposed to ‘expert’.

Every child is different. Every discipline had different needs. And every pedagogy – whether it be constructivism, behaviourism, or direct instruction to name a few – has significant strengths and weaknesses. The privileging of constructivism and student-centred learning fails to take into account the realities of a classroom, the fact that different subjects are best served by different pedagogies, and that a teacher with deep curriculum content has more to contribute than as a passive facilitator.

Then shadow education minister Christopher Pyne first announced the Review of the National Curriculum in this important speech to the Institute of Public Affairs back in January 2011, upon the release of the IPA’s monograph The National Curriculum: A Critique.

In March this year, the IPA made this submission to the Federal Department of Education on the National Curriculum. The IPA’s submission is quoted extensively in the Review. We argued that the National Curriculum should be scrapped and that any cross-curriculum priorities must be abolished. You can view the IPA’s media release here

There may be hope for Western Civilisation yet

by Institute of Public Affairs on October 1, 2014

At some point in the 1970s, Australia lost touch with its heritage.

The educational establishment severed ties with the British Empire and embraced an ideology of ‘cultural-relativism’. Education academics swung from understanding Australia’s British origins to being extremely anti-British and anti-Western Civilisation in general. It became fashionable for some academics to dismiss anyone who encourages the study of Australia’s Western roots and the origins of democracy as ‘nationalist’ or ‘anti-multiculturalist’. As a result, many school-age students now cannot see the value in our system of government.

That was what Kevin Donnelly argued in The Sydney Morning Herald last week.

Along with Kenneth Wiltshire, Kevin Donnelly was appointed to review the National Curriculum by Education Minister Christopher Pyne in January this year.

We will have to wait to hear the results of the review, but this education update from last month gives some promising signs. The review is expected to recommend a cut back on abstract learning objectives – perhaps including the notorious cross-curriculum priorities, ‘sustainability’, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’, and ‘Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia’.

Instead, the focus will be on the traditional objectives of education: literacy and numeracy.

As I argued on pages 5 and 6 of the IPA’s submission to the Department of Education on the National Curriculum, a focus on the basics and a move away from abstract learning objectives can only be a good thing.

On the same topic, Chris Ashton wrote an excellent article on On Line Opinion last month critiquing the National Curriculum’s ‘cross-curriculum priorities’.

Reading, Watching and Listening

Steven Johnson’s latest book – How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World demonstrates just how important technology has been throughout the history of Western society. You can read a preview of the book here and a review on Newsday.

A somewhat more scholarly introduction to the topic of innovation in history is David Edgerton’s bookThe Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. It was reviewed by Chris Berg in the Summer 2007 issue of Policy Magazine.

The August edition of Horizons explored the lack of medieval history in Australia’s universities. It highlighted the fact that none of our universities offer subjects specifically on medieval England, despite its importance to Australia’s political heritage. This means that if you are especially keen to study Magna Carta and Plantagenet England at an undergraduate level, you would be lucky to find a subject that covers either.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just medieval history that has vanished. In the last edition of the IPA Review, I wrote about the rapid disappearance of British history from university history degrees. The article can be viewed online here.

In the same edition, Richard Allsop wrote a fascinating review of Catherine Hall’s new book Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain.

Last month saw the passing of the 2,494th anniversary of the Battle of Salamis and the failure of the Persian invasion of Greece. Here is an interesting piece in the Toronto Sun on what we owe to the ancient Greeks.

Also on the topic of historical debate, here is a fascinating post by Daniel Hannan on the Nazi-Soviet pact and why it is often disregarded in accounts of the Second World War.

A Californian school has earned media attention after banning Christian books from its library stating that it does not allow ‘sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves’. Aside from everything else that could be said about this, it does not do justice to the importance of the legacy of Christianity to Western Civilisation – which Chris Berg highlighted in this article on the end of slavery.

Edmund Burke and the rediscovery of our political heritage

by Institute of Public Affairs on September 2, 2014

Edmund Burke is often remembered as the father of modern conservatism, and for good reason.

Born in Dublin in 1729, Burke was a statesman and philosopher, most famous for his support of the American War of Independence, his criticism of the French Revolution, and his tenure as a Whig member of Parliament.

In the more than two hundred years since his death in 1797, his voluminous writings have had a profound impact on politics and political thought.

Burke was opposed to the theories of ‘abstract rights’ that gained popularity during his lifetime, and called for a ‘human heart-based’ government founded on practicalities rather than abstract theories. He emphasised the importance of historical rights inherited from the ‘ancient constitution’, which he saw extending back to Magna Carta. He maintained that society was ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’

Because he considered Britain to have breached the ‘ancient constitution’ in its treatment of the American colonies, he was opposed to royal efforts to crush the American War of Independence. In his most famous and most controversial work, however – Reflections on the Revolution in France – he correctly predicted that the French Revolution would end in terror and tyranny, because the revolutionaries had disregarded all tradition and existing institutions and sought to create an entirely new form of government founded on rationalism and ‘abstract rights’.

He also coined the term ‘little platoons’ – small voluntary associations of ordinary people – which was a major theme inJanet Albrechtsen’s speech at the Foundations of Western Civilisation Symposium earlier this year.

Burke is certainly not the best-known of philosophers. In fact, in most Australian universities you would be very lucky indeed to find a single subject on him. Nevertheless, Burke has had a profound impact on conservative philosophy and political thought, and his ideas continue to be important today.

Here is some good news: the last two years have seen something of a ‘Burkean revival’. In other words, if you want to read up on the life and times of the great political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke, there is no shortage of newly-published books available.

First – in May 2013 – was this book by Conservative British MP Jesse Norman. It was reviewed by Richard Allsop in the November edition of the IPA Review and by Daniel Hannan inThe Telegraph.

Second – in December 2013 – was this book by Yuval Levin, on Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the beginnings of the left-wing/right-wing divide. You can watch Levin talk about his book at the Heritage Foundation here.

Third and most recent is this book – The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke – by David Bromwich, which was published by Harvard University Press in May this year. You can read an excellent review in The New York Times.

Reading, Watching and Listening

As I wrote in the August edition of Horizons, last month marked100 years since the beginning of the First World War.

To celebrate this incredible milestone, here are some links that might be of interest. First are these chilling montages of World War One photos from The Sydney Morning Herald.

Second is this exhibition – WWI: Love & Sorrow – which is about to open at the Melbourne Museum.

And here is a fascinating tribute to the first Australians to die in the War.

Here is another equally as astonishing milestone: 19 August marked 2,000 years since the death of Augustus, the first ‘Emperor’ of Rome.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s book – Augustus: First Emperor of Rome– has just been published by Yale University Press in celebration of the anniversary. Here is an interesting take on his violent and sometimes ruthless career and deeds.

And 22 August marked 529 years since the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. This would not be especially noteworthy, if it were not for the interest the anniversary has received from the general public this year. Who said that history is boring?

On a similar note, for anyone who is looking for a good grounding in the history of England in the High Middle Ages,The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is an excellent start. Here is a very positive review from The Telegraph.

The Plantagenets was published back in May 2012. Jones’ second instalment in the series on the Later Middle Ages – The Hollow Crown – was published this month. Here is a review from The Telegraph.

A new book was published in July on Pericles, the legendary Athenian general and oratorHere is a review from The Telegraph.

Finally, in July the pseudonymous ‘Professor Neve R Stenning-Stihl’ prepared a very amusing – if not highly concerning – compilation of excerpts from undergraduate essays, which was published in The Monthly.

Due to a flurry of criticism, The Monthly was required to publishthis follow-up last month defending its decision to publish it and assuring everyone that the extracts were, in fact, genuine.