Michael Stuchbery’s arguments in favour of curriculum reform are at best populist, and at worst flawed. No doubt we have a crowded and imperfect curriculum, but when one clamours to have the curriculum amended claiming it does not prepare students for the real world, one ought to at least get one’s facts right.
As a Higher School Certificate student, I can attest to the existence of misconceptions in Mr Stuchbery’s polemic. Take English, for example — despite Mr Stuchbery’s contention that students ought to study just a “few great texts” and not the swathe of texts they study now, an average HSC English student will spend hours a week for a year only three to four texts, along with a handful of texts of their own choosing studied at home. The great works of the English canon are by no means omitted. Coleridge, Keats, Orwell, Donne, Blake, Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen join Emily Dickinson, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats on the current English prescriptions as possible texts to study for the HSC. Students might also study influential Australian authors, directors and poets such as Baz Luhrman, David Malouf, and Tim Winton.
Stuchbery also seems to think that students learn only a story in history, suggesting that more historiography be taught. Every HSC Ancient History student learns about an ancient society and a historical period, each of which includes the study of “relevant historiographical issues”, as well as an ancient personality and a study of Pompeii, each of involves learning how interpretations of the historical record have developed. After a year of Ancient History, I can discuss what modern writers such as Rawson, Hoyos and Syme think of Caesar, or what Aristotle, Plutarch and Xenephon wrote about Sparta in antiquity. A shortage of historiography is a product of Mr Stuchbery’s imagination, not a flawed syllabus.
Mr Stuchbery’s suggestion that students be obliged to learn mathematics shows an understanding of what is taught far removed from reality. I am a perfectly capable student and the twelve years of maths preceding Year 12 no doubt provided me with all the mathematical skills I will ever need. Given that I do not intend to pursue a career that involves calculus, conics, or polynomials, studying mathematics in Year 12 would be hours of study wasted on student who neither needs nor wants such knowledge. In suggesting that each HSC student be compelled to study Life Skills Mathematics, Mr Stuchbery is seeking to compel students to study a course intended to provide post-compulsory schooling opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities. One does not need to explain how that is a poor appropriation of the course’s purpose.
It is fortunate how ineffectual years of political bickering over what is taught in schools has been, and how far it is removed from reality. However well-constructed the arguments from each side of the debate might be — whether objective, factual, traditional education or contemporary, progressive education is being championed — one is always impressed at how little characterisations of the curriculum represent reality.