Dr Kevin Donnelly AM

What does it mean to be educated and what is the purpose of education?  How such questions are answered is crucial as education, in addition to being essential for the wellbeing and continuation of one’s community and society, distinguishes civilised cultures from those that are primitive and less advanced.

Education also deals with the physical, moral, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of each individual and how she or he finds happiness and fulfilment.  To be educated is to appreciate what constitutes the good life and to be able to identify right from wrong and true from false.  Education, in addition to providing entry to employment, also addresses existential questions about the meaning of life and the nature of universe in which we live.

No approach to education is neutral or value free as all curriculum frameworks, syllabuses and pedagogy, to a greater or lesser degree, reflect the beliefs and values of their designers and other curriculum theorists and practitioners.  As argued by Neil Postman:

… by definition, there can be no education philosophy that does not address what learning is for.  Confucius, Plato, Quintilian, Cicero, Comenius, Erasmus, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Russell, Montessori, Whitehead and Dewey – each believed that there was some transcendent political, spiritual or social ideal that must be advanced through education.[1]

One approach to education centres on what Australia’s Brian Crittenden describes as a liberal education.  An education involving:

… a systematic and sustained introduction to those public forms of meaning in which the standards of human excellence in the intellectual, moral and aesthetic domains are expressed and critically investigated.[2]

As noted by Alan Barcan[3] and Geoffrey Sherrington and Hannah Forsyth[4] for most of the 20th century curriculums across state and territory schools, and universities for that matter, were closely associated with a liberal view of education.  A view of education associated with the educational philosophy of Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman and that can be traced back via the Enlightenment, the Reformation and Renaissance to the ancient Greek philosophers and sophists. 

Drawing heavily on the new sociology of education movement a second approach to the question of the nature and purpose of education involves a rainbow alliance of theories including classical Marxism, neo-Marxism and feminist, gender, queer and postcolonial theories as well as postmodernism and deconstructionism.  While often in disagreement what such theories hold in common is a radical critique of a liberal view of education and education’s relationship to society and the world at large.

A third approach involves adopting a child-centred, inquiry-based approach to education and the curriculum where a student’s interests and motivations are centre stage and essential content is secondary to the process of learning.  More recently, child-centred learning has been renamed as personalised learning where teachers, instead of being masters of their subject, are described as ‘facilitators’ and ‘guides by the side’ and students are described as ‘knowledge navigators’ and ‘digital natives’.

A fourth approach to deciding what constitutes a worthwhile education, based on the belief that we have entered a post-industrial, digital age where the new technologies dominate, is to champion 21st century learning.  Advocates argue that as it is impossible to know the future, especially in relation to the changing nature of employment and the impact of the new technologies on society and the world at large, that education must focus on generic competencies and skills such as: learning how to learn, working in teams, communicating ideas, solving problems and collecting and analysing information.  As a result, an argument is put that any curriculum based on the established disciplines is inflexible, irrelevant and obsolete.

Closely associated with 21st century learning is a utilitarian approach that defines education in terms of the types of technical knowledge and skills needed to strengthen the economy, improve productivity and to make Australia more internationally competitive in what is an increasingly globalised world.  Instead of being committed to the search for wisdom and truth universities, with a few exceptions, are more like corporate organisations focused on increasing market share and responding to government initiated policies and initiatives.

While the four different approaches to defining the nature and purpose of education have an important role to play in the school curriculum and an individual’s education not all are of equal value or worth in terms of what it means to be educated in its fullest and most enriching sense.  In the following I shall argue for the preeminent place of a liberal education and the need to ensure that all students have the right to be introduced to and become familiar with what Matthew Arnold, when detailing the nature and significance of culture, describes as:

… a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters that most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.[5]

An argument will also be put, notwithstanding the vital importance of a liberal education, that since the mid-to-late 60s its place in the school curriculum has been undermined and weakened and, as a result, increasing numbers of students are completing their school education culturally impoverished and morally and spiritually adrift.

(1) A liberal education

If then we recognize education as an initiation into a civilization, we may regard it as beginning to learn our way about a material, emotional, moral and intellectual inheritance, and as learning to recognize the varieties of human utterance and to participate in the conversation they compose.[6]

Contained in the above quotation is a definition of the purpose of education that centres on the need to initiate each generation into what Oakeshott describes as a ‘conversation’. To be educated, by definition, requires becoming familiar with and able to participate in a conversation “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of the centuries”.[7]

Neil Postman, when arguing against what he sees as the destructive effects of the new technologies, also refers to the idea of education involving a conversation when describing what he refers to as a broader, more enriching view of the curriculum.  One where:

… to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems; to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said has been produced; to learn how to participate, even if as a listener, in what Robert Maynard Hutchins once called The Great Conversation.[8]

This view of education is based on the premise that education does not arise spontaneously or by accident and that it requires a prolonged and sustained initiation into the major forms of knowledge, understanding, dispositions and habits of mind traditionally associated with the academic disciplines that have, since the time of the ancient Greeks, evolved and changed over some hundreds of years.  While drawing on other cultures over an extended period of time it is also the case that a liberal view of education is intimately associated with Western culture and Western civilisation.

Such a view of education, unlike vocational education and training, is not immediately practical or utilitarian.  As suggested by John Henry Newman when detailing the nature of a university education, it involves a:

… process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed for some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade of profession, or study of science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its higher object, and for its highest culture[9]

T S Eliot, when defining the nature and importance of culture and the place of universities within the context of Western civilisation, makes a similar point when he argues that universities should be independent of government and not centred on training.  Instead, Eliot argues universities “should stand for the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom”.[10]

A liberal view of education, in addition to being centred on the pursuit of truth and wisdom, is also committed to objectivity and balance.  Instead of succumbing to short term political expediency or a particular ideological view of the world the ideal is one where education is concerned with critical inquiry, reason and impartiality.  As such the purpose of education is to:

… facilitate independent evaluation of social practice… as instruments of insight and criticism, standing apart from current social conceptions and serving autonomous ideals of inquiry and truth.[11]

Critical in this regard is that a liberal education is not one where what counts as accepted truth is moribund or ossified.  As noted by Arnold, the ideal is one where education, and culture more generally, turns “a fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”.   Especially in disciplines like mathematics and science once accepted theories and beliefs are always open to contestation and, if found wanting, are reviewed and changed. 

In relation to science James Anthony Gibbons makes the point: “Proposed explanations are tested against the physical world and, depending on their success in accounting for that physical world, may be accepted as a step in the search for truth”.[12]

At a time when schools are being pressured to define educational success in terms of literacy and numeracy results as measured by the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 it is also important to recognise that a liberal education embraces a broader view of education.  One that deals with what a Victorian Ministry of Education report describes as our “best validated knowledge and artistic achievements”.[13]  Subjects like mathematics, science, history, music, art, language and literature form the basis of such an education and are vital if students, to use an expression associated with E D Hirsch Jr, are to be culturally literate.[14]

A liberal view of education is also based on the premise that to understand the present and to be in a better position to shape the future one must acknowledge and learn about the past.  Disciplines and subjects like mathematics, science, philosophy, music, poetry, drama and ethics can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks and, as a result and as argued by Bloom:

Such an education is largely dedicated to the study of the deepest thinkers of the past, because their works constitute a body of learning which we must preserve in order to remain civilized and because anything new that is serious must be based on, and take account of, them.[15]

In addressing the question “What is the point of education?” David Albert Jones and Stephen Barrie[16] touch on another significant aspect of a liberal education – the central importance of education dealing with ethical and moral beliefs and values.  Education in its fullest and most rewarding sense deals with the “integral formation of the person through cultivating the virtues”, especially the “cultivation of moral and intellectual virtues, for the good of the person and for the common good of society”.  In exploring this aspect of a liberal education the authors refer to the works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ambrose and Augustine.  Also acknowledged is the influence of Christianity on Western civilisation’s concept of a liberal education and the importance of introducing students to a transcendent and spiritual sense of one’s self and the wider world.

As previously mentioned, notwithstanding the strengths and benefits of a liberal education since the mid-to-late 60s it has been replaced by a number of curriculum innovations and theories that have acted to undermine its legitimacy and central place in the school curriculum.

(2) The new sociology of education movement and the impact of theory

As argued by Roger Kimball[17], Allan Bloom[18] and Alan Barcan[19] the late 60s to mid 70s was a time of dramatic and far reaching change across Europe and the English-speaking world symbolised by: the rise of the counter-culture movement, Woodstock, Vietnam moratoriums and a revolt against the status quo and established authority.

Kimball, citing the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the German cultural-left radical Rudi Dutscke, argues this was a time when student radicals and sympathetic academics decided that the most effective way to undermine the status quo and transform society was to take ‘the long march through the institutions’, especially schools and universities.  If Western style capitalism could not be overthrown by the revolution then the strategy would be to take control of key institutions and continue the fight for change from within.  As argued by Michael Gove:

The thinkers of the Frankfurt School revised Marxism as primarily a cultural rather than an economic movement.  In place of anger at traditional capitalism, scorn was directed at the reigning values of the West.[20]

Such was the dramatic and far reaching impact of the cultural-left’s long march through America’s higher education system that Allan Bloom described what was happening as a “dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry”[21].  Universities, instead of being committed to the liberal ideals of objectivity and the search for wisdom and truth, become politicised as subjects like history, literature and political science were attacked as uncritically accepting the strengths and benefits of Western civilisation – a civilisation, supposedly, guilty of imperialism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia and ignoring the plight of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. 

According to Barcan what became known as the cultural revolution:

 … favoured relativism; (where) absolute beliefs, based on Christianity or liberal humanism, became unfashionable.  Politically, a new radicalism and a new concern for minorities emerged.[22] 

As a result the American academic Christopher Lasch argues that instead of the university curriculum embodying a universal, transcendent truth, cultural-left critics condemned it as disguising the self-serving power of “white Eurocentric males”.[23]  Lasch also makes the point that if knowledge is not inherently worthwhile or based on rationality and reason then:

… it is no longer necessary to argue with opponents on intellectual grounds or to enter into their point of view.  It is enough to dismiss them as Eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic - in other words, as politically suspect.[24]

Education, especially the school curriculum and the relationship between schooling and society, became a prime target for those on the cultural-left committed to radically reshaping Western society.  The new sociology of education movement, drawing extensively on a range of Marxist and Neo-Marxist theories, argued against a liberal view of education based on the belief that it is conservative, inequitable and elitist.  As argued in the introduction to the 1976 publication Schooling and Capitalism A Sociological Reader:

Schooling is not just one among many of the social institutions which contribute to the perpetuation of the capitalist mode of production, it is arguably the most important… the education system has been credited with the power to aid economic progress, to alleviate social ills, and develop and push forward our cultural heritage while providing for the fulfilment of the individual.  The rationale for this collection of articles takes as its central purpose a critique of this liberal ideology and its practice.[25]

Contributors to the collection of essays included a number of influential cultural-left authors including: Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Pierre Bourdieu, Michael W Apple, Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire.  A common theme, drawing on Althusser’s concept of ‘the ideological state apparatus’, is that education is central in reproducing and reinforcing the values and ideology that underpin capitalism.  The reason why so many are not committed to radical change is because a liberal education, supposedly, normalises the status quo and is instrumental in spreading what Friedrich Engels describes as “false consciousness”.[26] 

As a result, the English sociologist M F D Young argues that the type of academic curricula associated with a liberal education, instead of having in intrinsic value or worth, is a socio-historical construct reinforcing the dominance of those already privileged and in control of society.  He argues what constitutes academic curricula:

…can be seen as social definitions of educational value, and thus become problematic in the sense that if they persist it is not because knowledge is in any way best made available according to the criteria they represent, but because they are conscious or unconscious cultural choices which accord with the values and beliefs of dominant groups at particular times.[27]

Lasch makes a similar point to M F D Young when referring to the cultural-left’s argument that “knowledge equates with power” and the belief the more traditional view of education is responsible for keeping “women, homosexuals and ‘people of color’ in their place”.[28]

In Australia during the 70s and 80s the new sociology of education movement had a significant influence on teacher education courses and what constituted a valid and worthwhile curriculum.  One textbook widely set for education courses, Making the Difference, argued “schooling reproduces the structure of inequality itself”[29].  As a result, the authors argue teachers “had to decide whose side they are on”[30], especially given that:

Education has a fundamental connection with the idea of human emancipation, though it is constantly in danger of being captured for other interests. In a society disfigured by class exploitation, sexual and racial oppression, and in chronic danger of war and environmental destruction, the only education worth the name is one that forms people capable of taking part in their own liberation.[31]

Another text widely used in education courses also critiquing what was seen as a more traditional and conservative view of education was titled Undemocratic Schooling Equity and Quality in Mass Secondary Education in Australia where the argument is put, notwithstanding some changes leading to greater diversity and increased equality, that certain kinds of knowledge are still privileged, leading the authors to conclude:

… this hierarchy acts as a machine, translating social power into academic merit and thus conserving the wider social structure itself.[32]

According to cultural-left critics a liberal view of education based on meritocracy, competitive examinations, streaming and an academic curriculum that acknowledges the importance of Western civilisation is inequitable and guilty of reproducing disadvantage.  As a result the school curriculum, in the words of the Australian Teachers’ Federation, must be re-designed to take into account:

2.2.2 The pronounced inequality of the distribution of social, economic, cultural and political resources and power between social groups, which restricts the life development of many, and

2.2.3 The role of the economy, the sexual division of labour, the dominant culture and the education system in reinforcing inequality.[33]

In Victoria the Year 12 Higher School Certificate (HSC) was targeted by the Education Minister and later Premier, Joan Kirner, and the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association as epitomising all that was wrong with the education system.  In arguing that the HSC should be replaced by the Victorian Certificate of Education critics condemned the HSC for favouring elite non-government school students (who generally outperformed government school students in relation to academic results and tertiary entry) and for being overly academic and competitive.  Such was the opposition to Year 12 competitive examinations that one of Victoria’s more influential educationalists, Bill Hannan, argued that tertiary selection should be by ballot as ability was decided by “social distinctions, such as wealth, educational background, ethnic grouping and so on”.[34]  When arguing for what he described as “educational socialism” Hannan also argued:

I believe that income, status, privileges and so forth should be levelled as quickly as we can… We don’t have to wait for society to change before education can change.  By changing it, we help to change society.[35]

Underpinning the argument for change was the belief that the Year 12 curriculum and examination system needed to be radically overhauled on the basis that education, according to Joan Kirner, had to be redesigned to be: “Part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system”.[36]

While the new sociology of education movement’s critique of a liberal education embraced a Marxist view of society and the role of education in reproducing capitalism a more recent attack is represented by a rainbow alliance of cultural-left theories including: postmodernism, deconstruction and feminist, post-colonial and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) theories.  While reflecting a range of viewpoints and assumptions about the nature and purpose of education and the relationship between schools and society what all hold in common is a far reaching and radical attack on a liberal view of education and Western civilisation.  The Italian philosopher, Marcello Pera describes the argument put forward by the cultural-left as follows:

The notion that the judgement of cultures or civilizations constitutes an invalid mode of inquiry has been put forward, most notoriously, by the school of thought known as relativism.  Various names have been given to this school today: post-enlightenment thinking, post-modernism, “weak thought”, deconstructionism.  The labels have changed, but the target is always the same: to proclaim that there are no grounds for our values and no solid proof or argument establishing that any one thing is better or more valid that another.[37]

One of the central tenets of a liberal view of education is the belief that while it is not always possible to identify what is true and what is false it is at least possible to recognise what more closely approximates the truth in an objective and impartial way.  Frank Furedi, as a result of postmodernism, suggests such is no longer the case when he writes:

It is frequently argued that there is no such thing as the truth.  Instead of the truth, people are exhorted to accept different opinions as representing many truths.  Michael Foucault’s claim that there is ‘no truly universal truth’ has gained widespread influence in academic circles.  Truth is rarely represented as objective facts; it is frequently portrayed as the product of subjective insight, which is in competition with other equally valid perspectives.[38]

Whether denying the referential quality of language, the argument that how one responds to literary texts is subjective or a belief in cultural relativism and that Western science cannot be privileged as it is simply one science among many the impact of postmodernism and deconstruction has had a profound impact on education and the curriculum.  Gary Marks offers a similar critique as Furedi when arguing that postmodernism “explicitly rejects Western and scientific ways of acquiring knowledge”.[39]  After briefly describing the theories put forward by advocates of postmodernism, including Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, in relation to education, Brian Crittenden concludes:

If we were to accept the doctrines of postmodernism and its interpretation of contemporary society, anything like a systematic education would be impossible.  Although the details vary, the fundamental problems with all versions of postmodernism are the advocacy of a radical form of relativism and the dissolution of the self in a montage of ‘discourses’ or ‘language games’ by which we happen to be shaped at any given time.[40]

In relation to the school curriculum, while not as dramatic as what has occurred at the tertiary level, the impact of cultural-left theory has been significant and far-reaching.[41]  Literary texts, instead of being valued for their moral and aesthetic character, are deconstructed in terms of power relationships; especially the new trinity of ‘gender, ethnicity and class’.  The definition of what represents a worthwhile text for study has been exploded to include: popular magazines, SMS texts, cartoons, videos, films, graffiti and students’ own writing.  Drawing on the more extreme elements of reader response theory and deconstruction students are also taught that how one interprets a text is subjective and that texts are socio-cultural constructs.  Leading to a situation where there is a:

… turning away from literature as literature and an eagerness to transmogrify it into a cultural artefact (or “signifying practise”) to be used in waging an always anti-establishment ideological political struggle.[42]

The Western Australian Curriculum Council’s Years 11 and 12 ‘Texts, Traditions and Cultures’ syllabus provides a clear example of the impact of ‘theory’ on the school curriculum when it argues:

The concept of literary is socially and historically constructed, rather than objective or self-evident.  Constructions of literacy are embedded in social contexts, reflecting particular knowledge, values, assumptions and power relationships… Constructions of the literary are subject to dispute and can privilege certain groups and ideas and exclude or marginalise others.[43]

Drawing on the works of the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire the concept of literacy, instead of being conceived as teaching the ability to read and write based on the learning the alphabet and a phonics and phonemic awareness approach, also became radicalised.  Freire, who toured Australia in 1974, condemns the more traditional approach to education for disempowering individuals by treating them as passive receivers of knowledge and failing to teach ‘critical literacy’.  Freire made famous the idea that traditional learning was based on a ‘banking concept, one where:

Our traditional curriculum, disconnected from life, centered on words emptied of the reality they are meant to represent, lacking in concrete activity, could never develop a critical consciousness. Indeed, its own naive dependence on high-sounding phrases, reliance on rote, and tendency towards abstractness actually intensified our naiveté.[44]

Even though Freire worked mostly with illiterate peasants in South America a number of cultural-left education academics and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) argued his theories should also apply to Australian classrooms.  At a national conference in Brisbane organised by the AATE the argument was put there needed to be a greater focus on teaching ‘critical literacy’, especially concentrating on “the need to critique and re-work Freirian approaches to critical literacy in the light of feminist, poststructuralist and socially-based linguistics”.[45]

As a result of cultural-left theory History teaching, instead of dealing with the grand narrative associated with Western civilisation, presents students with a fragmented, politically correct interpretation where the focus is on marginalised and disadvantaged groups and issues and topics considered contemporary and immediately relevant.   Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark describes the more radical approach to history as “history from below”. A situation where history was “no longer an authoritative account of decision-making written from the official record but as the lived experience of ordinary people”.[46]

In his submission to the 1999 national inquiry into history teaching Mark Peel describes the new history as involving:

… themes and concepts rather than supposedly desiccated chronologies (one that) emphasises the wider value of problem-based learning especially suited to historical investigation, privileges the study of representations and methods of textual analysis, highlights the problems of perspective and evidence, insists upon sensitivity to cultural differences and the inclusion of different perspectives silenced by ‘grand narratives’… [47]

The Australian National Curriculum, developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) also represents an illustration of the impact of cultural-left theory on the curriculum.  Subjects like history and literature are interpreted through a politically correct prism involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Asian and sustainability cross-curriculum priorities.  Early drafts of the history curriculum left out any reference to Magna Carta and as argued by Greg Melleuish in his analysis of how Western Civilisation is treated: “… we get a quasi-Marxist view and the exclusion of the most important modern political philosophy, liberalism”.[48]

(3) Child-centred and Process Driven

Curriculum documents are now much more likely to be talking about ‘learning’ than ‘knowledge’. There has been a movement towards emphasising students rather than teachers; to prioritising process over content; to wanting subject–learning to be thought of in terms of what the learner should be able to do as a result of that teaching.[49]

While Oakeshott’s metaphor of education as a conversation implies an interaction and dialogue between the student and teacher since the late 60s and early 70s critics have characterised a liberal view of education as being too subject-centred, guilty of being delivered ex cathedra and for undervaluing the world and interests of the child.  One Australian publication criticises the more traditional approach for treating the student as a “receiver of transmitted knowledge” while the more progressive model allows the student to be an “active constructor of knowledge”.[50]  Another publication written by the Victorian Committee for English in Technical Schools[51] also privileges a child-centred view of education when it refers approvingly to an Ontario report that argues:

Never lose sight of the fact that the child, as the learner, is not only the centre of the school system the only reason for its existence.[52]

Associated with the argument that education should be child-centred is the belief that the process of learning (often described as inquiry-based or discovery learning) is more important than teaching what Jerome S Bruner describes as “the structure of the discipline”.[53]  In their account of developments in the school curriculum during the years 1975-2005 Lyn Yates and Cherry Collins describe the period as one where:

… there was a strong shift over the period we are examining from an emphasis on knowing things to being able to do things. In the interviews we conducted with senior curriculum actors we also noted how rarely ‘knowledge’ came into the frame of their talk about curriculum, compared with a focus on outcomes, politics and management of resources; or compared with a focus on the developing child (from a cognitive developmental perspective).[54]

Developments in Australia reflect progressive education in England where the 1967 Plowden Report into primary school education also adopts a child-centred view of education when suggesting teachers should emphasise learning through “individual discovery” and “first-hand experience” and that “that knowledge does not fall into neatly separate compartments”.[55]  As a result many primary schools, and secondary schools for that matter, both in England and Australia introduced innovations like: general studies, electives, open classrooms and learning being immediately contemporary and relevant to the student. 

A.S. Neil, the founder of the English school Summerhill, provides a clear illustration of what is meant be a child-centred view of education.   Neil justifies establishing Summerhill on the basis that:

Well, we set out to make a school in which we should allow children to be themselves.  In order to do this, we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction… My view is that a child is innately wise and realistic.  If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.[56]

As noted in the above quotation the assumption, left to their own devices, is that children learn naturally and teachers and a formal, subject-based curriculum are unnecessary.  Drawing on a Rousseauian, romantic view of childhood the belief is that children are inherently good and display a willingness and ability to learn unsupervised by adults or constrained by a subject-based, more formal curriculum.

The American educationalist John Holt argues in a similar vein when he argues “children have a style of learning that fits their condition, and which they use naturally and well until we train them out of it”.[57] Both Neil and Holt oppose the more formal approach to education based on discrete subjects and areas of learning taught by teachers in a formal and explicit way.

More recently, the New Zealand Curriculum Framework published in 1993 provides another illustration  of what is meant by a child-centred view of education when it states that the curriculum is based on the belief “that the individual student is at the centre of all teaching and learning”.[58] 

A publication by the Australian Council of Deans of Education published in 2001 also promotes a child-centered view of learning when it argues that the curriculum must allow students to “move from assisted learning to autonomous and self-directed learning”.[59]  The ACDE justifies the need for what is described as ‘New Learning’ by characterising the more traditional subject-based approach to the curriculum as “learning by rote and knowing the ‘correct answers’” and where what was taught was “too often narrow, decontextualised, abstract and fragmented into subject areas artificially created by the education system”.[60] 

A critique is also made for what is described as “knowledge for its own sake” and education privileging “received bodies of knowledge and fixed skills sets”[61] on the basis that it is more important to emphasise “self-awareness, problem solving and intercultural skills – strategies, in other words, for dealing with diverse settings and rapid change”.[62]

Closely associated with a child-centred, process model of education is what is known as ‘constructivism’ – a style of teaching and learning where students negotiate what they want to learn, learn at their own pace and are not taught in a structured, teacher controlled classroom. During the 1990s what was described as Outcomes Based Education (OBE), as noted by the one-time head of Australia’s Curriculum Corporation Bruce Wilson,[63] became the dominant curriculum model across Australia’s states and territories and central to OBE was constructivism.  A theory based on the belief that:

… the classroom is no longer a place where the teacher (‘expert’) pours knowledge into passive students, who wait like empty vessels to be filled. In the constructivist model the students are urged to be actively involved in their own process of learning. The teacher functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, prompts, and helps students develop and assess their understanding.

A more recent interpretation of child-centred learning relates to what is described as personalised learning.  A 2007 Victorian Department of Education publican, under the heading “Learners are central” describes personalised learning as an approach to education that involves:

  • a highly structured approach that places the needs, interests and learning styles of students at the centre;
  • engaged learners who are informed and empowered through student voice and choice;
  • assessment that is related to meaningful tasks and includes assessment for and from students; and
  • a focus on improving student outcomes for all and a commitment to reduce the achievement gap.[64]

Associated with personalised learning is a heavy reliance of information and communications technology (ICT) on the premise that the new technologies provide a flexible, dynamic, interactive and resource rich approach to education.  Students are described as ‘digital natives’ and ‘knowledge navigators’ and teachers, instead of teaching in a more formal and explicit way, are described as ‘facilitators’ and ‘guides by the side’.

While there is much of value in adopting a child-centred, process approach to the curriculum there are also significant flaws.  Ignored is that information is not knowledge and understanding is not wisdom.  To be educated in its most enriching sense is to be introduced to and appreciate Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said” and such an initiation requires teachers and human interaction.

Critics of the more traditional approach associated with a liberal education are often guilty of setting up a ‘straw man’ that misrepresents and simplifies what is being critiqued.  As previously mentioned, Arnold is clear when discussing culture that equally as important as learning about the “best that has been thought and said’ is the need to turn “a fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”.[65]  T S Eliot makes a similar point when arguing that the need is “to maintain the continuity of our culture – and neither continuity, nor respect for the past, implies standing still”.[66] 

Oakeshott’s metaphor of education involving a conversation also implies that there is a dialogue and an interaction between the student and the teacher that is more than simply one-sided.  Bruner, while acknowledging the importance of the learner, signals a further danger in adopting a child-centred approach where what is learned relies on the child’s interests, motivations and local environment.  Bruner argues:

A generation ago, the progressive movement urged that knowledge be related to the child’s own experience and brought out of the realm of empty abstractions.  A good idea was translated into banalities about the home, then the friendly postman and trashman, then the community and so on.[67]

(4) Competency based and 21st Century Learning

Research suggests that to cope with the demands of the 21st century, students need more than core subject knowledge (Bruniges 2012). Students also need some different skills from those learned by students in the 20th century, and skills identified as 21st century skills are those needed to succeed in a complex, competitive, knowledge-based, information-age, technology driven economy and society.[68]

The fourth approach to addressing the purpose of education involves a utilitarian approach focusing on preparing students for the world of work and what are described as 21st century capabilities and skills.  According to this approach the so-called traditional curriculum drawing primarily on a liberal view of education is obsolete, irrelevant and incapable of preparing students for a digital age dominated by the new technologies.  As argued by a media release published by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute detailing a report titled Preparing Young People for the Future of Work:

Our education system was formed in the manufacturing era… Young people need different skill sets to what is taught in the traditional curriculum if they are to thrive in high-tech, global, competitive job markets.[69]

While a liberal view of education draws largely on the established disciplines on the assumption that to be educated is to be familiar with an evolving corpus of knowledge that has stood the test of time the competency-based movement looks to the future where the new technologies have radically changed how we perceive ourselves, interact with others and what constitutes both leisure and work.  The Mitchell Institute’s justifies its focus on 21st century learning on the basis that:

Education systems have not been designed to foster the types of capabilities needed to navigate complex environments and multiple careers… Future generations will navigate a vastly different world of work to that of their predecessors.  Technology is rapidly disrupting how we live and work”.[70]

In the Australian context the advent of the competency movement, one where knowledge of specific disciplines is secondary to allowing students to develop work related competencies, is best illustrated by the Finn[71] and Mayer[72] reports released during the early 1990s.  While including aspects of the more traditional curriculum in competencies such as Language and Communication, Mathematics and Scientific and Technological Understanding the Finn report also sought to include Cultural Understanding, Problem Solving and Personal and Interpersonal Characteristics.  Such competencies are presented as generic in nature and not grounded in any particular subject or discipline.

The Mayer report represents a purer form of the competency movement with its argument that if young people are to “participate effectively in the emerging forms of work and work organisation” they need to be familiar with the following key competencies: Collecting, Analysing and Organising Information; Communicating Ideas and Information; Planning and Organising Activities; Working with Others and in Teams; Using Mathematical Ideas and Techniques; Solving Problems and Using Technology.

Once again the assumption is that such competencies can be taught without reference to particular disciplines and that essential knowledge is secondary to developing work related transferable competencies and skills.  Clearly, the purpose of education is not knowledge and understanding for their own sake but to ensure a more productive, flexible and adaptive workforce.

The more recent example of the competency movement relates to what are termed ‘general capabilities’ that form a critical part of the Australian National Curriculum.  These are listed as: literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding.

The capabilities are described as “an integrated and interconnected set of knowledge skills, behaviours and dispositions that can be developed and applied across the curriculum”.[73]  Similar to the argument used to justify the Finn and Mayer competencies ACARA argues that the capabilities are essential if the curriculum is to meet the “changing expectations of society and to contribute to the creation of a more productive, sustainable and just society”.

While there is no doubt that Western society, as a result of the new technologies and the increasing interconnected nature of the global environment, is ever changing the principle fault with the competency and capabilities movements is that both confuse education with training and acquiring work related dispositions and skills.   While such dispositions and skills are important equally, if not more important, is the need for students to be educated in its fullest and most enriching sense.  Being familiar with and appreciating the significance and value of what the Blackburn Report describes “as our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements”, while not directly contributing to a more efficient and productive workforce, is essential for one’s sense of what it means to be human and what it means to be fully alive.

As argued by Hirsch it is also the case that so-called generic skills and competencies do not arise in a vacuum – the reality is that as they are domain specific they can only be effectively taught in the context of particular subjects and disciplines.  Hirsch argues:

The real-life competencies that people need, such as the abilities to read, to write, to communicate, to learn, to analyze, and to grasp and manipulate mathematical symbols, have major components that psychologists have found to be “domain-specific”.  This means that an ability to think critically about chess does not translate into an ability to think critically about sailing.[74]

The ability to be critical and creative when analysing a literary work such as poem is very different to analysing and evaluating the significance of an important historical movement or event.  Similarly, the way one communicates ideas and information varies according to the subject matter and what constitutes the relevant concepts, language and ideas.

The NSW educational psychologist John Sweller puts the same argument as Hirsch when he states “We should be teaching domain-specific knowledge, not generic skills” and “Initial instruction when dealing with new information should be explicit and direct”[75]. In his submission to the Review of the Australian National Curriculum Sweller goes on to argue:

There is little more useless than attempting to teach generic thinking skills and expecting students to be better thinkers or problem solvers as a result. Despite decades of work, there is no body of evidence supporting the teaching of thinking or other generic skills.[76]

It is also the case that a number of what are listed as work related competencies, such as ethical understanding and Personal and Interpersonal Characteristics, are essential aspects of a liberal view of education that are best taught in the context of established subjects.  Studying literature and history, for example, involves ethical values and judgements and the development of character and how best to relate to and interact with others. 


As previously argued, no approach to the curriculum or pedagogy is ever value free or neutral and over the last 30 to 40 years it is possible to identify four major educational theories that have impacted on state and territory schools.  The four approaches to defining what it means to be educated and the purpose of education include: a liberal education; one based on the new sociology of education and theory; one that is child-centred and process driven and the fourth that is competency-based and focused on 21st century learning.

While an argument can be put that each approach has a place in the school curriculum not all are equally beneficial or worthwhile.  Defining education in terms of power relationships where the belief is that Western civilisation is riven with injustice and inequality and that the status quo must be overthrown confuses education with indoctrination and what is politically correct.  The argument there are no absolutes or self-evident truths, as knowledge is a social construct and how one perceives the world is subjective and relative, leads to either silence or epistemological suicide.

The danger in restricting learning to the world of the child and his or her local environment is that such an educational experience is superficial, patchy and limited.  To be properly educated is to be introduced to a corpus of knowledge that is often foreign and not immediately relevant or useful to the world of the child.   Education in its broadest and richest sense challenges and enlarges the child’s understanding and allows the individual to encounter and appreciate what was previously unknown and unimagined.

Basing the curriculum on competencies and 21st century learning ignores the fact that generic skills and dispositions do not exist in a vacuum as they are domain specific.  Bruner’s admonition to teach “the structure of the discipline” reinforces the point that particular competencies are best taught when they are embedded in particular subjects.  Overemphasising 21st century learning is not only unduly utilitarian in its approach, it also ignores the reality that there is much about human nature and the world in which we live that is unchanging and best taught by acknowledging the past. 

Human nature and emotions like love, hate, jealousy, ambition, pride, self-sacrifice and loyalty have not changed since the time of the ancient Greek playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides.  In the same way much of current philosophy can only be fully appreciated and understood by recognising the contributions made by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

In opposition to the three approaches to education briefly detailed above it is a liberal education that best addresses what it means to be educated and the purpose of education.  Education in its fullest and most enriching sense is not concerned with practical skills and training but addresses fundamental questions out the nature of reality and one’s significance and place in the wider universe.  As noted by T S Eliot a liberal education stands “for the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom”.[77]

Closely associated with a liberal education is a commitment to rationality and the ability to more closely approximate the truth of things and to identify what constitutes right and wrong reason.  A liberal education is also based on the established disciplines of knowledge that are an essential part of a conversation that predates the individual and that is on-going.  A liberal education is also inherently ethical and moral as it deals with what constitutes good and bad behaviour and how best to contribute to the common good.


[1] Postman, N. 1993. New York. Vintage Books, p 171.

[2] Crittenden, B. 1982. Cultural Pluralism and Common Curriculum. Parkville. Melbourne University Press, p 88.

[3] Barcan, A. 2004. ‘Ideology and the Curriculum’ in Smith, N (Ed, 2004).  Education and the Ideal. Epping, New South Wales. New Frontier Publishing,  p 16.

[4] Sherrington, G and Forsyth, H. 2012. ‘Ideas of a Liberal Education an Essay on Elite and Mass Higher Education’ in Boschiero, L (Ed). 2012. On the Purpose of a University Education. North Melbourne. Australian Scholarly Publishing,  pp 48-66.

[5] Arnold, M. 1968 Edition. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, p 6.

[6] Oakeshott, M. 1991. ‘The study of ‘politics’ in a university’ in Oakeshott, M. 1991. Rationalism in politics and other essays.  Indianapolis. Liberty Press, p 188.

[7] See Oakeshott, M. ‘The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind’ in Oakeshott, M, Ibid, p 490.

[8] Postman, N. 1993. Technopoly The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York. Vintage Books, p 188.

[9] Newman, John Henry. 1852. The idea of a university defined and illustrated.  Retrieved 22 May, 2017 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24526/24526-h/24526-h.html

[10]  Eliot T S. 1948. Notes towards the Definition of Culture. London. Faber and Faber, p 123.

[11] Scheffler, 1. 1969. ‘Reflections on Educational Relevance’, in Peters, RS (Ed), 1973. The Philosophy of Education.. Oxford. Oxford University Press, pp 75-84.

[12] Gibbons, J A. 2004. On Reflection. Adelaide. Flinders University Institute of International Education, p 29.

[13] Victorian Ministry of Education. 1985. The Ministerial Review of Postcompulsory Schooling. Report Volume One. Ministry of Education. Melbourne, p 16.

[14] Hirsch, E D Jr. 1988.  Cultural Literacy What Every American Needs To Know. New York. Vintage Books.

[15] Bloom, A. 1990. ‘The Democratization of the University’ in Giants and Dwarfs Essays 1960-1990. New York.  Simon and Shuster.  p 374.

[16] Jones, D A, Barrie. 2015. Thinking Christian Ethos The Meaning of Catholic Education. London. Incorporated Catholic Truth Society p 53.

[17] Kimball, R. 2000. The Long March. San Francisco. Encounter Books.

[18] Bloom, A. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind. New York. Simon and Schuster.

[19] Barcan, A. 1993. Sociological Theory and Educational Reality Education and Society in Australia since 1949. Kensington, NSW. New South Wales University Press.  p 104

[20] Gove, M. 2006. Celsius 7/7. London. Weidenfield & Nicolson.  p 64

[21] Bloom, Op Cit, p 313

[22] Ibid. p 104.

[23] Lasch, C. 1996. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York. W. W. Norton & Company.  p 12.

[24] Lasch, C. Op Cit, p 13.

[25] Dale, R, Esland, G and MacDonald, M. 1976. Schooling and capitalism A Sociological Reader. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul.  p 1.

[26] Engels, F. 1893. ‘Engels to Franz Mehring.’ Retrieved 6 June 2017 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm

[27] Young, M F D. Knowledge and Control New Directions for the Sociology of Education. London. Collier Macmillan.  P 38

[28] Lasch, C. Op Cit, p 12.

[29] Connell, R W, Ashenden, D J, Kessler S and Dowsett GW. 1982. Making the Difference Schools, families and Social Division. North Sydney. George Allen &Unwin.  p 27.

[30] Ibid, p 208.

[31] Ibid, p 208

[32] Teese, R & Polesel, J. 2003. Undemocratic Schooling Equity and Quality in Mass Secondary Education in Australia. Carlton, Victoria. Melbourne University Press p 18

[33] Australian Teachers’ Federation. 1988. 1988 ATF Curriculum Policy. Canberra, p 1.

[34] Hannan, B. 1985. Democratic Curriculum. North Sydney. George Allen & Unwin.  p 58.

[35] Ibid, p 61

[36] Kirner, J. 1984.  ‘Choice, Privilege and Equality – The Socialist Dilemma?’ in Victorian Fabian Society Pamphlet 41.  Education – Where From?  Where To? Melbourne. The Victorian Fabian Society, pp 11 – 18.

[37] Pera, M, 2006. ‘Relativism, Christianity, and the West’ in Ratzinger, J & Pera, M, 2006. P 11.

[38] Furedi, F. 2004. Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? London. Continuum.  p 4

[39] Marks, G, N. 2014. Education, Social Background and Cognitive Ability. Oxford. Routledge.  p 7

[40] Crittenden, B. Thinking about. South Melbourne. Education. Longman Australia p 41

[41] See Donnelly, K. 2004. Why our schools are failing. Sydney. Duffy and Snellgrove and Donnelly, K. 2007. Dumbing Down. Prahran. Hardie Grant Victoria for a detailed analysis of the impact of Neo-Marxism and theory on the school curriculum.

[42] Patai, D and Correll W H (Eds). Theory’s Empire An Anthology of Dissent. New York. Columbia University Press p 8

[43] Curriculum Council. 2005. Texts, Traditions and Cultures. Western Australia. Curriculum Council, p 13.

[44] Freire, P. 1974. Education: The Practice of Freedom. London. Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, p 37.

[45] Walton, C and Luke, A. ‘Conferencing critique: progress on teaching for cultural literacy.’ Education Australia. Issue 18, 1992, pp 24-25.

[46] Macintyre, S. and Clark, A. The History Wars. Melbourne. Melbourne University Press, p 41.

[47] Peel, M. 2000. A submission to the National Inquiry Into School History published in The Future of the Past The Final Report of the National Inquiry into School History. Churchill, Victoria. Faculty of Education Monash University. pp i – ix.

[48] Melleuish, G. 2010. ‘History in the national curriculum’ in Berg, C (Ed). 2010. The National Curriculum A Critique. Melbourne. Institute of Public Affairs.  pp 1 – 22.

[49] Yates, L, Collins, C and O’Connor, K. 2011, Australia’s Curriculum Dilemmas: state cultures and the big issues. Melbourne.  Melbourne University Press, p. 34.

[50] Kemmis, S. Cole, P. Suggett, D. 1983. Towards The Socially Critical School. Melbourne, Victorian Institute of Secondary Education, p 11.

[51] Standing Committee for English in Technical Schools. 1982. Use Your Own Words. Melboune. Education Department of Victoria, p 14.

[52] Report of the Royal Commission of Teaching School Enrolments in Ontario. Undated and quoted in Standing Committee for English in Technical Schools. 1982. Use Your Own Words. Melboune. Education Department of Victoria, p 14.

[53] Bruner S B. 1960. The Process of Education. New York. Vintage Books, quoted in Crittenden, B. 1987. ‘Content With Process In Education A Place For Cultural Literacy.’ Bundoora. La Trobe University, p 7.

[54] Yates, L, and Collins, C.  2010, ‘The Absence of Knowledge in Australian Curriculum Reforms’, European Journal of Education, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp. 89-102.

[55] Plowden Report 1967. Children and their Primary Schools. Central Advisory Council for Education. London. H.M.S.O, pp 187-8 quoted in Peters, R.S. (Ed) Perspectives on Plowden. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul, p 3.

[56] Neil, A. S. 1968. Summerhill. Middlesex, England. Penguin Books, p 20

[57] Holt, J. 1970. How Children Learn. New York. Dell Publishing Company, p 1.

[58] Ministry of Education. 1993. The New Zealand Curriculum Framework. Wellington. Learning Media Limited.

[59] Australian Council of Deans of Education. 2001. New Learning A Charter for Australian Education. ACDE.

[60] Ibid, p 85.

[61] Ibid, p 86.

[62] Ibid, p 86.

[63] Wilson, B. 1996. Current Educational Priorities, Future Directions and Initiatives IARTV Occasional Paper. Melbourne. IARTV, p 5.

[64] Victorian Department of Education. 2007. Personalising Education: from research to policy and practice. Melbourne. Department of Education, 2007.

[65] Arnold, M. Op Cit

[66] Eliot, T. S. 1965. “The Aims of Education’ in To Criticise the Critic. Quoted in Bantick, G. H. 1970. T S Eliot and Education. London. Faber and Faber.

[67] Bruner, S, J. The Relevance of Education. New York. W. W. Norton & Company, p 63.

[68] Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority. 2015. 21st century skills for senior education. An analysis of educational trends. Retrieved 22 August, 2017 from https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/publications/paper_snr_21c_skills.pdf

[69] Victoria University. 2017. ‘Experts agree: schools not preparing students for twenty-first century. Published 27 March 2017. Retrieved 10 August, 2017 from http://www.mitchellinstitute.org.au/media-releases/experts-agree-schools-not-preparing-students-for-twenty-first-century/

[70] Toril, K. and O’Connell, M. Preparing Young People for the Future of Work. Mitchell Institute Working Paper No. 01/2017. Mitchell Institute, Melbourne.

[71] Finn, B. 1991. Young People’s Participation in Post-Compulsory Education and Training. Australian Education Council Committee.

[72] Mayer, E. 1992. Competencies. Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training. Australia.

[73] Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. General Capabilities. Retrieved 22 August, 2017 from https://acaraweb.blob.core.windows.net/resources/General_Capabilities_2011.pdf

[74] Hirsch, Jr. E D. 1996. The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. New York. Double Day.

[75] Sweller, J, 2014, Submission to the Review of the Australian Curriculum, p. 1.

[76] Ibid. p. 3.

[77]  Eliot T S.  Op Cit.

  • About the Author: Dr Kevin Donnelly AM, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, and Co-chair of the 2014 review of the National Curriculum.