Christopher Pyne, politics & the subtle traps of language

Only a short while after recommissioning this blog to the purpose of applying critical thinking to a wider range of arguments in the public domain, I discovered this offering by Australian Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne entitled “Politics have no place in curriculum review.”

I don’t believe in fate, so I shall chalk it up to fortuitous chance that such a temporal intersection should provide me with an opportunity to not only engage in my usual exposure of logical fallacies in argument,  but to also navigate the treacherous waters of nuanced language in an effort to discern meaning and, possibly, intent.

In this opinion piece, Pyne is responding to the (overwhelming) negative response to his announce review of the Australian curriculum.

From the opening paragraph, there is strong sense of defensiveness about the language which also contains an examples of the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy, in which Pyne asserts that anyone interested in “Australia having a quality education system… should welcome the review.” The implication here is that if you don’t welcome the review, then you’re not really interested in quality education, as if that was the only reason or motivation that person might have for supporting or opposing the review.

He then changes tack slightly to assert that the Coalition have been calling for a review for a number of years.

The Coalition promised to have a curriculum review before the 2010 election. This was repeated before the election last year. Far from being a secret, it was shouted from the rooftops before, and during, the election campaign. The Coalition has been consistent about the need for a review for several years. Doubters can check the record.

The problem is, which record? From the party of the ‘non-core promise’ it is not entirely easy to find records of every statement made in public. Their official website archives don’t go back further than 2012 (at least not when the words ‘review national curriculum’ are searched for). Searching for policies in general from that election proves largely fruitless, as hits form the 2013 election dominate for as long as I can b bothered to click ‘next page’.

A google search for “Australian Federal Election 2010 policy comparison education”, two relevant sites come up on my first page. This ABC website offers an extremely simplistic reduction of both party policies, in which no mention of a review is made. This document from the NSW Business chamber offers a much more comprehensive summary of both parties policies, and not only does it not credit the Coalition with calling for a curriculum review, but it doesn’t even credit the coalition with having any policies about education other than those to modify or repeal the spending on the Building Education Revolution, standing in stark contrast to Labor’s policies as depicted in the same document.

Now I would’t be surprised to eventually find a record of a doorstop interview or other public document in which someone did call for work to be done on the National Curriculum, but the lack of easily available evidence makes it seem as though such a call was not as emphatic as Pyne would have us believe. Indeed, Pyne’s use of the idiom “shouted from the rooftops” would have us believe that the review was called for loudly and frequently as part of their election run. Sadly, this ‘record’ that Pyne somewhat flippantly suggests we check is not as readily available as one might hope in the age of the internets.

This is where I wish to draw attention to Pyne’s use of language. So far he has used two phrases whose implied meaning is subtle and manipulative.

Firstly, Pyne’s flippant imperative to “check the record” creates a sense of somewhat aggressive confidence that if someone were to check ‘the record’ that they would undoubtedly find some evidence to support the claim of having been consistent in calling for a review. He does this instead of actually offering any evidence of his claim, thereby shifting the burden of proof from himself or is argument to anyone who would challenge him. In other words, saying “I don’t have to prove my claim, you have to disprove it.” A distraction intended to put opponents on the back foot, especially if they fall for it and then try to engage in the fallacious argument.

Secondly, “shout from the rooftops”?!? This slightly old-fashioned idiom is usually used to indicate a sense of overwhelming excitement. The kind of excitement that might make someone want to climb up on their roof and yell out over the neighborhood. Is Pyne suggesting that reviewing the national curriculum is something that really excited the LNP? Or is he perhaps, like Abbott’s famous ‘suppository of all wisdom’ gaff, making use of a phrase that he thinks will appeal to his audience, but without really being familiar wit it, or understanding it’s usual use and meaning? It would be much easier to simply say “We made repeated calls for a curriculum review”, but I offer the suggestion that such a statement would be much easier to quantify than ‘shouting from the rooftops’ and thus be easily challenged. Somewhat cheesy turns of phrase are much easier to dismiss if challenged.

Two paragraphs later Pyne says “There can be little doubt the Abbott government has a firm mandate to initiate a review of the national curriculum.” and immediately brings up a favourite world-play of politicians on both side, which is the meaning of the word mandate. This site provides a reasonable exploration of the term mandate as it applies to Australian politics, and highlights what a generally disingenuous words it is for politicians to use hen discussing the policies of political parties.As I understand it, the only time a political party in government can really claim to have a “mandate” is if they win an overwhelming majority of seats in both houses of parliament, meaning that no other party can prevent them from enshrining their policies in legislation. This did not happen in the 2013 election, with the balance of power in the senate seeming to reside with a voting block made up of the Palmer United Party and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

As I see it, when a politician claims to have a mandate, they’re playing with words that sound important but are largely meaningless, and are intended to project authority and (hopefully) dissuade opposition. In a sense this is an attempt at the “Argument from Authority”, in which the authority of a person making a claim is taken as evidence of the claim’s truth rather than the claim itself being examined for truth. In this case Pyne is attempting to invoke the authority of the government and it’s ‘mandate’ rather than actually explore the rationale for the review in detail.

(And I hope everyone reading this can stop and give me some small credit for resisting the urge to make jokes about Pyne claiming to have a ‘firm man-date’.)

Pyne then goes on to say:

To suggest the review is a political ploy is disingenuous. Those who think so should have a close look at their own motives for articulating such a nonsense: partisan politics is at its worst when dressed up as public concern.

After reading this paragraph several times, I can only interpret it as a wordier way of saying “I know you are, but what am I”. Once again Pyne is trying to shift focus away from himself, and rather than trying to defend the genuine need for a curriculum review or respond to the specific criticisms made, and instead is attacking his critics. It is an Ad Hominem argument, attempting to undermine the specific criticisms by undermining the critics and their motivations, and not actually a logically-valid response.

Pyne then goes on to say that incoming governments have a right and a duty to review the previous government policies. In this paragraph he is building a straw man argument, constructing a flimsy argument that he can more easily knock down than the real argument opposing him. I agree that an incoming government has a right to review policies, however the government’s right to do this is not the primary source of criticism and concern regarding the review. Concerns relate more to the necessity (different from a ‘right’), timing, short time frame, limited scope, and appointment of only two people with clear party biases to lead the review. Pyne is using word as smoke and mirrors to direct away from the real criticisms, many of which were outlined quite concisely in this open letter from over 170 educators.

He then proceeds to offer something that seems to merge another straw man argument with an Ad Hominem. He attacks the previous labor government as being shambolic and desperate, simultaneously trying to make the negative characteristics of the Labor government the focus of argument rather than the curriculum review (Straw Man), and simultaneously undermining the existing curriculum by discrediting the government that wa sin power when it was developed (Ad Hominem). While their may be substance to justify Pyne’s attacks on his predecessors, they still do not actually address the actual concerns that have been raised in many public forums about the curriculum review.

It’s also worth noting that for an article titled “Politics have no place in curriculum review”, so far Pyne has offered little else other than politic as the reason for the review. The politics of governing, the politic of inter-party rivalries and attacks. So does this mean that Pyne is a hypocrite? that he is incapable of staying on point for a few hundred words? Or is he perhaps suffering some cognitive dissonance between what he actually knows and believes, and what he is trying to achieve through this article? I can only speculate, and I invite you to do the same and see if you can find a way to justify this seeming disconnect between the stated purpose of this article and its contents.  Chances are, no positive justification will come forth.

Pyne carries on to say that there are good educational reasons for this review, and at this point, my incredulity spikes well into the red. Why? Well, if you’ve been following the media on the review, you’ll have seen that one of the most significant and frequently repeated criticisms of existing curriculum used to justify the review is the inclusion of “Indigenous and Asian perspectives” and “Critical and Creative Thinking” as general capabilities in all subjects. So when, in this paragraph and the next, Pyne says that Australia is “faced with globalisation and increasing international competition” and that there are doubts “The national curriculum, in it’s present form, is meeting those policy demands.”, then I find myself no longer able to believe that Pyne is being sincere in his argument.

We need to prepare students for globalisation, but are unhappy that they’re being taught about the region of the world that will likely be the world’s largest superpower before the middle of this century?

We need to prepare students for a increased international competition, but we don’t want them to learn to think in the critical and creative ways that promote new ideas, problem solving & entrepreneurship?

I suspect that either Mr. Pyne and I have radically different understandings of what the new curriculum actually contains, or I have misunderstood his point, or he is being deceitful in his representation of matters.

Also, no matter how you look at it, these matters are all explicitly political, relating to Australia’s place in the international landscape,  once again contrasting with the assertion of the title that “politics have no place in curriculum review”.

Pyne then closes with an obfuscation, another Straw Man, an a closing remark that belies some ideological confusion.

The obfuscation lies in Pyne’s assertion that the review is public and independent, and that the report will be made public. All technically correct, but what Pyne fails to tell is that, as it is not a parliamentary inquiry, there is no requirement for all of the submissions to be made public. This means that there is no way for the public to check that what is contained in the final report is actually an accurate reflection of the submissions made to the review panel.

The Straw Man lies in his claim that most of the criticism is about the review panel members, because anyone in such a position is ‘likely to attract criticism’. True, but it doesn’t actually address nor effectively dismiss the criticisms themselves. Namely that the two men appointed to lead the review are both middle-aged white males with outspoken conservative views on most issues, one whom is a public-policy expert (not an education expert) and the other who, while he has a Ph.D. in the teaching of English in Victoria in the ’80s, has spent most of his life since then as a consultant and Liberal party faithful, with little-to-know current academic work in the field of education.

Finally, he asserts that :

Petty personal attacks before we even get to the result of the review serve no purpose other than the political – the last thing we all need.

Now Pyne has spent the majority of this article providing political reasons, both domestic and international, for why the review is valid and justified, and yet here we have an assertion that serving political ends is not what we need – and he dismissively characterises every opposing statement as a “Petty Personal Attack”, once again poisoning the well against any future criticisms by denigrating them, and thus avoiding the actual substance of those criticisms.  Personally, I would assert that it is not actually possible to separate any action from the surrounding politics. All human activity exists in relation to its governing political structure. Either a person acts in accordance with government directions (or laws!) and thus reinforces them, or acts in defiance of them and this challenges the authority and collective will of any governing body. Choosing to review the curriculum is a political act, the people appointed to lead the review were chosen on political grounds – maybe not strictly party-political grounds – just as it would have been a political decision to deliberately appoint one or more opponents of the government to the panel. The discussion surrounding the review has been explicitly political, mentioning the need for more religion in schools and reduced focus on Indigenous and Asian perspectives in the classroom.

By its every nature, everything about the review is political, so to assert that politics has no place in the review is to deny the very nature of government and its relationship to human activity. Either that, or it belies a deep misunderstanding of just what it means for something to be political.

So if the conclusion of this analysis is that perhaps Pyne doesn’t actually understand the nature of politics and is actually just speaking in defense of his own preferences and point of view, then I suspect that may be a conclusion that a lot of people would be inclined to agree with.

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1 Comment

Filed under Education, Just Add Logic; Won't Hold Water, Politics and Policy

One response to “Christopher Pyne, politics & the subtle traps of language

  1. Jim KABLE

    Excellent analysis – but how sad that we have to expend energy dissecting this Pyne nonsense. Nonetheless if it becomes a set text for students to study – Pyne’s words/your analysis – then it may have greater importance indeed. Critical thinking, indeed!

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