Chris Berg’s fallacy-ridden response to curriculum review critics.

With the announcement of the review into National Curriculum, and the controversy over the appointment of only two people, two white, middle-class men with outspoken conservative political views, to lead the review, it is inevitable that we are going to see a stream of oped pieces online and in newspaper columns both criticising and defending both the review itself, and Pyne’s appointments to lead the review. We are going to see a flood of arguments put forward, some of which will be valid, but many of which I expect will be instead be fallacy-ridden espousal of ideology masked as rational argument from people in dubious positions of authority. Which means, of course, that there will be plenty of fodder for this blog as I deconstruct the flawed arguments of those who would sway public opinion to suit their own ends and ideologies in the field of education. So… here goes…

This piece appeared on the Drum in which Chris Berg makes the point that people opposing the two men appointed by Christopher Pyne to review the national curriculum do so on the grounds of the mens’ outspoken conservative ideology, and claims that the national curriculum, indeed any curriculum, is already ideologically biased. He goes so far as to state that “An ideologically neutral curriculum is a contradiction in terms.” Now, on that point, I don’t disagree. All education is driven by ideology. However Berg’s goal is not to simply make that point, but to try and use that position to belittle those who oppose the review by implying that they are either ignorant or dishonest in their opposition, and to then use the acknowledgement of the inherent ideological nature of all curriculum to argue for the removal of the national curriculum all together.

Unfortunately, his argument is so filled with the holes of flawed reasoning that he may as well be trying to carry water with a sieve.

First and foremost, Berg’s article in its entirety is an example of the fallacy of a Straw Man, in which Berg sets up a false representation of his opponents position that is more suited to his own argument, and that is easier to knock down. Berg provides only a couple of quotes from the Australian Education Union, Bill Shorten and Tony Taylor about ‘culture wars’ the ‘politicisation’ of education, and the concern of ’20 years of culture war in the classroom’, and then takes those to be representative of the primary oppositions for the curriculum, while making the claim that ‘if there is a ‘culture war’, it wasn’t the right that started it. The national curriculum is already deeply ideological.’

This is a false representation of the concerns and oppositions to the review, as Berg tries to position those quotes and concerns as though they are entirely focused on the existence of ideology within the curriculum, and ignores the fact that they are clearly about the politics and ideology surrounding and motivating the very process of developing and reviewing the curriculum. When people criticise the ‘politicisation of education’, they are not, as Berg would ave his readers believe, trying to make the claim that any existing curriculum is ideologically neutral, and to my knowledge, no one has made such a claim other than Berg in his attempt to put words in the mouths of others. They are instead expressing concern about the use of education being manipulated explicitly as a tool for political ends, which is a much more complex issue and one not so easily rebutted by simply pointing out that everything in education has an ideology within it. A statement which I find to be about as insightful and sophisticated as saying that everything that is wet must have had contact with water at some point.

If you look at the April 2012 publication by ACARA detailing the development process of the Australian Curriculum, you will quickly realise that the process was extensive in scope, consultative in nature, and subject to repeated scrutiny and revision. The plan even includes the expectation of ongoing review and revision following the first stage of implementation. Such a thorough process suggests that the politics behind it included the values of consultative development and evidence & expert-opinion based decision making, which together suggest a fairly open mindset with regards to the contents of the final document. The government of the day did not go into the process announcing what they thought needed to be prescribed in the documents-under-development while claiming that such prescriptions were in the best interests of students, instead they asked the question “what is best for our students” and shaped the curriculum from there.

This stands in stark contrast to the process by which Pyne has launched the review of the same curriculum. He has appointed a panel of only two people to review curriculum in four specialist subject areas, with the expectation of the review process taking only a few months, and all the while both Pyne and Donnelly (one of the two ‘reviewers’) have been openly stating their opinion that there needs to be more religion in the curriculum, greater focus on a specific perspective on Australian history and culture, and even the prescription of specific methods of teaching. What sort of politics and values might drive such an approach? It certainly doesn’t seem to be as thorough or consultative (though the review is open for submission from the public until the end of February), and it seems pretty clear that there are already expectations on the findings of this ‘review’ that bring it’s legitimacy into question.

It is this kind of political difference that is invoked when people express concerns about politics in education, which was expressed quite concisely in an open letter from a large group of educators to minister Pyne in the Sydney morning Herald, and while concerns over the ideological nature of curriculum content may well be part of the overall concern, to focus solely on such concerns and suggest that it is the primary cause for opposition to the review is nothing short of an act of intellectual dishonesty.

Berg demonstrates a further act of intellectual dishonesty with the following statements:

Ideology isn’t a bad thing. Everybody’s thought is shaped by ideology, whether they’re aware of it or not. But it’s ideology nonetheless.

So it is bizarre to object, as Julia Gillard did on Friday, that the ideological direction of the curriculum was not dictated by the Prime Ministers’ Office. Are we supposed to feel better that a group of independent (read: unelected) education specialists (Kevin Donnelly calls them “educrats”) determined the future philosophical underpinnings of our compulsory education system?

(That rule by unelected experts is supposed to be more legitimate and morally superior to rule by elected representatives just shows how anti-democratic our era really is.)

Unless I’m mistaken, Berg here is implying that the act of engaging experts in a field to consult and act on your behalf in a field is somehow a bad thing, and indeed ‘undemocratic’.

Just to be clear, Berg, a ‘senior research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs’, who makes his living in part by being paid by other people to provide his opinion and perspective on matters that he is presumably an expert in, is decrying the practice of engaging third-parties to advise or consult on specific matters. Even more amusing is his inclusion of Kevin Donnelly’s implied condescension to such experts with the term ‘educrats’, at a time when that same individual has been appointed (not elected) to advise the current government on education, chosen supposedly because of his personal expertise in education. What is not clear here is whether Berg is decrying the entire practice of engaging third party experts and consultants to advise on particular matters, or only if he thinks it is a bad thing when it applies to education. The implication seems to be that only elected officials should be making decisions about public matters, and in doing so Berg neglects the fact that ACARA and their authority to create a national curriculum were created by an act of parliament, meaning that it was the decision of elected representatives. Would he rather than elected representatives make every decision for the population without consultation of appropriate experts?

No matter how you look at it, I struggle to see this as anything other than a very ballsy and bald-faced use of the fallacy of ‘Special Pleading. Basically claiming that the rules expected to apply to everyone else should not be applied to oneself, and only serves to further highlight his efforts to build a Straw Man through the use of such absurd and asinine statements. Furthermore, Berg also offers no reasoning or justification for why it is undemocratic, he simply makes a claim and moves on in the hope of sparking some emotional ire from his reader without asking them to think too deeply about it. Thankfully, from the perspective of a logical argument, that which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. So Berg’s point is utterly dismissable in its current form and can be rejected.

Now given that Berg’s entire article is effectively one massive fallacy of argument, having exposed it as such I might be inclined to stop here, however Berg uses his Straw Man argument to justify another, separate and somewhat concerning argument, which is that we should not have any national curriculum at all, and furthermore, we should just get rid of all forms of prescription and just let schools sort it out for themselves.

The last 12 paragraphs – the majority of which contain only single-sentence assertions – make several claims about the way curriculum in Australia ‘should’ be.  For example

At the very least, the curriculum should be handed back to the states. It is not a project worth pursuing.

Should it, really? Why can state governments do it any better than a federal government? Why is it not worth pursuing? Are there not potential benefits to getting it right and improving it over time? I don’t have immediate answer to the questions, but Berg doesn’t even acknowledge that those questions exist, and as with his statements about third-party advisors, unevidenced claims such as these can simply be dismissed.

When a population’s values conflict, we should look for solutions in political economy.

Should we? Is that the only option available to us? or are you suggesting that’s the best option? Why is it better than other options? No evidence or justification given? Then, dismissed!

Devolving curriculum decisions down to the school level ought to satisfy both critics of Kevin Donnelly and critics of the curriculum as it stands.

Ought it to? How? How would getting rid of any kind of centralised curriculum at a federal, state or regional level satisfy anyone? Donnelly has said repeatedly that he thinks more religion needs to be taught in schools, so why would he be happy leaving curriculum to schools and running the risk of some schools not teaching enough religion? How would the people who have claimed that Australian schools need to teach more about Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage feel about Islamic or Hindu schools being freed from the prescription of needing to teach such content?

Also, who said we need to satisfy critics? Is it the governments job to satisfy everyone? What if one group of critics are outright wrong in their opposition, informed by flawed values or overriding political ideology? Should we really be trying to satisfy them, or to better educate them so that their contribution to public discourse is better informed? These are just more unsubstantiated assertions from Berg that ultimately offer no value and can be summarily dismissed.

Once again we have here an opinion piece that offers little-to-no actual substance, and is either written by someone who is confused and ill-informed, or is likely written for the purpose of confusing others. It’s my assertion that Berg’s article can be treated in a manner as casually dismissive as the one with which Berg treats the need for reason and evidence to support his opinions.

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2 Comments

Filed under Just Add Logic; Won't Hold Water

2 responses to “Chris Berg’s fallacy-ridden response to curriculum review critics.

  1. Jim KABLE

    Excellent analysis. And what a pity that decent Christians with ethical principles now find themselves aligned (even if unwillingly so) with these ideologues of the Commission of the Narrow Triumvirate. DONNELLY has an IPA background – really? Is this a payback appointment? Clearly jobs for the boys but surely there is more background to it. Can it be investigated?

    • I don’t think Donnelly has a personal association with the IPA, however one of the publishing companies that has put out two of his books is closely associated with the IPA.

      Donnelly, under the guise of his own various companies and trading names, has had a long running personal relationship with the Liberal party and other clients of the IPA. To me it seems like there’s quite the clique with different public faces.

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