Breaking Banjo – How the curriculum is killing our icons

After an eight-year stint teaching at a private school, I was eager to get back into the swing of public education. After all, I spent my schooling years in the public system, and taught ‘out west’ in the early years of my career in small public schools. My roots are firmly planted in free education.

Curriculum wise, things have changed in my hiatus. The content being delivered in classrooms is not defined by the teacher or the school anymore. The new curriculum is Australia wide. The concepts being taught in Townsville are the same as those expounded in Perth.

In order to facilitate this in Queensland, the State Schools Division have developed aides for teachers to use in their classrooms, known as C2C (Curriculum to Classroom) resources. I was informed that the school to which I had been appointed was a ‘C2C’ school; meaning that the resources provided by the State Schools Division were used almost exclusively.

Having resources already prepared is music to a teacher’s ears. It means that we don’t spend long hours making activity sheets, PowerPoints or researching reading material. It’s all there, neatly packaged and sequenced.

My appreciation of these ready-made lessons turned to horror as I began to teach my Year 9 English class. The unit of work is entitled ‘Australian Identity’, and it isn’t what you’d expect. If, like me, you’d see this as an exciting opportunity to explore Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, rhyming slang, Click Go The Shears or Botany Bay, you’d be mistaken. Remember, this is an English class, so you could even read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet or Kate Grenville’s The River if you were after more modern prose. Again, you would’ve missed the aims of the curriculum by a league.

So what does this unit actually cover? Well, resources comprise mainly of two texts, one image and a flag change.

Let’s start with the good. Students are asked to read John Williamson’s True Blue lyrics, which laments the loss of Australian traditions and values. Unfortunately, after listening to the song and decoding the lyrics, students are then asked leading questions that criticise the message and the language of this well-known folk song. For example:

“…However, does the song represent all Australians? Who is not represented in the song? Are the ideas conveyed through the lyrics still applicable to 21st century Australia? Explain.”

These guiding questions insinuate that this once popular song marginalises minorities and is no longer relevant. The further implication is that any song or poem from our history that does not represent of all ethnicities in Australia is flawed and irrelevant. I guess that’s why the unit is bereft of any Banjo.

Believe it or not, that is the best part of the unit.

After subtly mocking an iconic anthem, the C2C provides the antithesis to Williamson. It delivers a text that is praised for its evocative and inclusive language, its effective use of metaphor, and its underlying message. The text in question is not something as wondrous as Dorothea MacKeller’s My Country. It’s Kevin Rudd’s apology speech.

A transcript of the speech is accompanied by a PowerPoint that highlights language features used, even if they are not obvious. For example, the text contains the words ‘page’ and ‘chapter’. The resource asserts that this is a prime illustration of an extended metaphor. I can tell you, it isn’t. There are hundreds of better examples of an extended metaphor in our literary history, so why use Rudd’s speech to teach it? This is a clear case of political ideology being shoehorned into our classrooms.

It gets worse. Next the students analyse an image. Could this be an opportunity to show off our great artists or landscapes? Will I be able to walk the students through a McCubbin painting and show them how the Australian Identity was forged, in part, by our pioneers? Heck, at this stage I’d even welcome a Dusty D’arcy Doyle. I got neither.

Instead, this is the image that is presented to the students as one which represents Australian ideals, values and culture.

The accompanying resource states: “The text relies on symbolic interpretations of objects within the frame to help convey its message. The woman is cleverly and minimally drawn to look eastern or Islamic, and has wrapped herself in the iconic Australian flag. The flag is positioned around the woman to resemble a hijab. To me this implies that we need to forget the woman’s ethnicity or religion and focus on the Australian right to freedom of speech, worship and multiculturalism. Australia is meant to be a democracy that guarantees those rights. Just as the woman has embraced the Australian flag, Australians should embrace this multicultural woman.”

Once again, the agenda is clear: this time, it’s to spread the idea that Islam is not only welcome in Australian society – it is the embodiment of our national identity.

But if that isn’t the coupe de grace to a curriculum that should encourage a sense of national pride, the last activity is. It’s a lesson where students analyse the Australian flag, then come up with a ‘better’ one that is ‘more inclusive.’

If this isn’t enough to appall even an apathetic Aussie, think of this: these are the lessons that are being taught in almost every public high school in the Sunshine State.

This unit is designed to undermine any art or text from our past, erode any sense of tradition or heritage, and promote minorities as the real Australians. Not only that, it is an English unit that is supposed to focus on Australian Identity in language and somehow misses every one of our great poets, artists and orators. Unless you consider Kevin Rudd to be all three.

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