The Culture Wars of Kevin Donnelly

The new Commonwealth Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, unleashed a storm when he appointed Kevin Donnelly (and Ken Wiltshire) to review the national curriculum. Both have been strident critics of the national curriculum, and at least in Donnelly’s case a long-term critic of the role of the “cultural left” in Australia.

Pyne’s original intention was clearly to commission a pre-determined set of recommendations from two carefully selected reviewers. The report was due by the middle of the year, followed by rapid implementation in 2015. Pyne said he had not appointed a bigger committee to review the curriculum as he wanted a ‘’robust’’ outcome, rather than a report that pleased all stakeholders (Sydney Morning Herald, Jan 10, 2014).

The response to Donnelly’s appointment was rapid and scathing. The tone can be best captured by the comments of Ken Boston, normally careful with his words. “He is not taken seriously. He doesn’t engage with reasoned argument or evidence. His views or rantings, frankly, are well known and have been disregarded for many years,” Boston said (The Australian, Jan 13, 2014). This view was backed by many other commentators.

The aim of this article is to document Donnelly’s views in three areas – his attitude to two parts of the national curriculum, those on history and health and physical education (sex education), and above all, his attitude to disadvantaged students. This examination confirms that his extreme, and often incoherent, views, grounded in Santamaria’s National Civic Council, should disqualify him from acting as in independent reviewer.

After a career of 15-20 years as a high school English teacher, and some involvement in curriculum administration, Donnelly established the Education Standards Institute (ESI), wholly owned by the Kevin Donnelly Family Trust, in 2008. He has produced a MSc and PhD on his views on cultural left bias in the curriculum, and currently is described as a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.

Donnelly has published four books, and has been a prolific commentator in News Weekly (the organ of the National Civic Council), Australian Conservative, a series of blogs on the ESI website, and articles on a variety of online sites including The Drum and Opinion Online. Significantly, he had been given quite privileged access to op-ed space in The Australian – which shows that the Murdoch Press likes what he says.

Donnelly’s creed, given on the Education Standards Institute covers key elements of Coalition education policy, such as promotion of private schooling, choice, school autonomy, a dismissive attitude to educational disadvantage, an emphasis on falling standards, and an emphasis on the need for education to recognise the contributions of Western civilisation and our Judeo-Christian heritage. No wonder that Pyne thought he was an appropriate reviewer.

Arguably, the area of greatest immediate concern about Donnelly’s views is his attitude to disadvantaged students, and the Gonski Report. The Gonski-inspired funding model is a rather limp and certainly under-funded implementation by Labor of the original concept, but it did mark a move away from the use of Commonwealth education funding to promote private schooling and choice, towards an emphasis on funding to raise educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. The aim was to ensure over time that the average outcome and range of outcomes for Indigenous and low SES groups (as well as other equity target groups) reached the national averages, rather than being markers of their social disadvantage. Surely this is a worthy aim, but Donnelly has been a tireless campaigner against the Gonski report, using a variety of specious arguments.

It is interesting to note that Donnelly rarely talks about disadvantaged groups. Rather, he uses the quite striking phrase “so-called victim groups.” This strange term appears to come from the writings of Bruce Bawer, an American author who argues that American universities and the liberal mind have been subverted by the cultural left through identity studies. The central thrust of those who use the term “so-called victim groups” is that the victims are to blame for their own situation, and should simply get their act together.

Donnelly has tried to argue that there is no educational disadvantage in Australia – a theme occasionally picked up by Pyne. Unfortunately for them, the evidence of lower educational outcomes for students of Indigenous background, or from low SES backgrounds, is overwhelming. This is documented quite clearly in a series of analyses of NAPLAN and PISA data by Trevor Cobbold, which are available on the Save our Schools website.

Even the current Prime Minister accepts that there is a gap in outcomes for Indigenous students. Gonski funding could provide additional funding for schools with large enrolments of Indigenous or low SES, which could be sensibly used to form links with the relevant communities to promote education, including, but going well beyond the Abbott approach of community attendance officers.

Donnelly has also tried to base his arguments against disadvantage on educational research which claims that schools and teachers are more important factors than social background. This research is however flawed, because it adjusts educational outcomes for earlier school performance. But if the same environmental and social factors that are associated with final educational outcomes are also important in determining early performance, then this leads to an analysis where the importance of socioeconomic factors on educational outcomes is underestimated, and the influence of school factors exaggerated. In reality, it makes sense, and is generally accepted , that students from disadvantaged backgrounds start off behind, and stay behind. From this perspective, what schools need is the funding, staffing, and programs, to make a difference, and Gonski funding was to provide it.

In the area of IQ, cognitive ability and educational performance, the last refuge of a scoundrel has always been genetics. And in a recent opinion piece in The Australian (December 28th), Donnelly breaks (for him) new ground, because he explicitly links educational inequalities in Australia to genetic differences in cognitive ability.

Donnelly starts by stating that “58% of the variation in (British) General Certificate of Secondary Education scores ……. is explained by students’ genetic make-up,” based on an article published in the journal PLoS ONE (Vol 8, e80341, December 11, 2013). He then argues that “innate cognitive ability” is highly influential when explaining why some students outperform others. He contrasts this view with the tenet of the “progressive and cultural-left education establishment” that “success or failure are determined by socioeconomic background associated with being working class, from a non-English speaking background or indigenous.”

He then turns to the highly controversial American academic Charles Murray (author of The Bell Curve), quoting Murray to the effect that “the changes we can expect in academic achievement in the lower half of the ability distribution are marginal, no matter what educational reforms are introduced.”

Donnelly dresses his views up with science, but the evidence he cites is highly controversial. Unpicking the poor science that underpins the idea that differences between social groups in cognitive ability as measured by IQ are significantly genetic in origin is therefore important, but quite complex. Very briefly, the conclusion that 58% of the variation in scores is genetic is based on a standard twin study. But the limitations of twin studies in estimating genetic contributions have been known for many years, although they have often been ignored in practice. With increasing sophistication in genetic analysis, it has increasingly been reported that there is much less defined genetic variation associated with variation in a complex trait such as cognitive ability, than would expected from the twin study heritability. This problem is now so common that the field has come to have its own name – missing heritability (Manolio et al. Nature Reviews 2009; 461: 747-753). In the case of educational attainment and cognitive ability, identified genetic differences presently account for at most 2% of the variation in the trait (Rietveld et al. 2013: 340: 1467-1471). One plausible explanation of the missing heritability is that twin studies are a pretty hopeless indicator of the magnitude of genetic contributions to variation in complex traits. This does not mean that the idea that cognitive ability has a substantial genetic component has been scientifically refuted, so far, but it does mean that assuming that cognitive ability is innate is not based on established scientific fact. For a more detailed treatment of the scientific issues, see Kevin Donnelly – The Cory Bernardi of Education Policy.

The second strand of Donnelly’s argument comes from Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. It argues that variations in IQ within the white population in the US are mainly genetic in origin – a conclusion largely based on the sorts of flawed analysis of twin studies outlined above. It then argues that the differences in mean IQ between whites and African-Americans in the US are, at least in part, due to genetic differences in ability. This argument is also theoretically flawed, because there is no reason to assume that the causes of between-group variation are the same as those within-groups. It is not impossible that they are, but factors such as racial discrimination, community disruption, lower standards of living and lower opportunities for education experienced by African-Americans relative to whites could explain the lower mean IQ scores for African-Americans, without any need to postulate genetic differences. From this evidence Murray concluded that it would not be possible to raise outcomes for the bottom 50% of the US population.

In contrast to Murray’s predictions, The US 2013 Mathematics and Reading Assessments show that from 1990 to 2013, the percentage of students in the below basic category dropped from 50% to 17% in Grade 4 maths, from 48% to 26% in Grade 8 maths, from 38-32% in Grade 4 reading and from 31-22% in Grade 8 reading. What is more, bigger gains over this period were achieved by African-Americans than whites. This means marked improvements in outcomes at the bottom of the distribution, quite the reverse of Murray’s predictions. And Indigenous educational outcomes are improving in Australia, even though the process is slow (see the Save Our Schools website for detailed analyses). This evidence leaves Murray’s genetically racist and socially elitist predictions in tatters, and leaves Donnelly without a genetic case.

Donnelly is never explicit about how much of the current educational inequality in Australia he thinks is due to innate differences in cognitive ability, although he does lead off with the figure of 58%. But at the same time he argues that this view “is not to suggest that inheritance is destiny, or that nothing can be done to lift standards and strengthen the performance of many under-achieving students.” But if this is true, then there just might be a place for Gonski funding after all.

While there has been a constant barrage of criticism of the national curriculum, much of it coming from Pyne’s two reviewers, two key themes have emerged. One is that the history curriculum does not give sufficient emphasis to the benefits of Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage. The second is that the national curriculum defines three elements which should permeate the whole curriculum – Indigenous perspectives, Asian perspectives and sustainability.

It is hard to deal with this critique because it is extremely vague, and people should people read the national curriculum documents, and form their own judgements. Those for history are available online.

One of the problems is there is no agreement among the critics as to what the benefits of Western civilisation and our Judeo-Christian heritage actually are. Donnelly puts most emphasis on our Judeo-Christian heritage. The Institute of Public Affairs wants greater emphasis on the development of free market economies, the product of the genius of Western civilisation. In a recent blog on the ESI website, Donnelly quotes John Howard: “…… it further marginalises the historic influence of the Judeo-Christian ethic in shaping Australian society and virtually purges British history from any meaningful role.” A simple reading of the curriculum document will show what nonsense the latter is in particular.

My list of important contributions of Western civilisation includes separation of church and state, freedom of religion, representative government, democratic elections, freedom of speech, freedom of association, including in trade unions, equal rights for all, including equality before the law, and the development of a welfare state which guarantees basic provision the necessities of life, including health care and education to all, and the development of modern science and the scientific method which have given us a scientific foundation to the equality of all humans, and put both the natural and social sciences on a genuinely scientific footing.

Others would clearly have a different list, although there would be a lot of overlap. But whatever the details, any list of contributions would not sit easily with our Judeo-Christian (or should that be Graeco-Roman) heritage. At almost every step of the way, from the divine right of kings to universal suffrage) these rights were achieved in opposition to institutionalised religion and specifically Christianity. There is a genuinely fascinating history to be taught of the battle for these rights against, rather than as a product of, the Judeo-Christian heritage, but, unfortunately I do not think that this is what Donnelly and Pyne have in mind.

I suggest that a reasonable reading of the history curriculum is that it designed to give students a general overview of the development of the modern world, combined with detailed studies to provide them with an understanding of historical analysis. It also appears to be a serious attempt to develop a curriculum which prepares students for the future in which the world will be very different. The certainties (for us) of a world dominated by countries of European origin are coming to an end with the rise of Asia, particularly India and China. And the development and spread of Western capitalism has reached the stage where the issue of sustainability has come to the fore. This explains why Asian and sustainability perspective are important. And Indigenous perspectives are important, because giving people of Indigenous origin a full place in modern Australia remains a major challenge. To me it makes perfect sense to try to ensure that these perspectives are never ignored, as they have been so often in the past.

Sometimes, Donnelly’s biases do come clearly to the surface. He has expressed his concern that students must be taught “intercultural understanding”, with its focus on diversity and difference, and are told “to value their own cultures and the cultures, languages and beliefs of others.” “It’s clear that the underlying philosophy is cultural relativism.”

What then does Donnelly want? Is he really advocating that students should not be taught “intercultural understanding” and “to value ….. the cultures, languages and beliefs of others.” It would seem so. In a critique of a book on Islamic perspectives, he concludes that teaching intercultural understanding ignores “the reality that some worldviews are preferable to others and some religious and cultural practices are un-Australian.” (The Drum, May 16, 2011) It would be hard for him to be clearer.

Similar scandals follow: “Christianity ……… is diminished by treating it as one religion among many, alongside Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam.” And further scandal, suggested topics students are asked to study on human rights include “denying citizenship to indigenous Australians, the Stolen Generations, discrimination against women, assimilation policies, mandatory detention and abuse of children in “orphanages, homes and other institutions”.

Sometimes the arguments become petty and ludicrous. In the commentary mentioned above (The Drum, May 16, 2011), Donnelly attacks the book on Islamic perspectives for not acknowledging “what some see as the inherently violent nature of the Koran.” Perhaps he should also have noted that the Bible was used to justify Christian atrocities during the Crusades, but that does not seem to make Christianity “inherently violent.” And I almost forgot to mention the Spanish Inquisition, and the Spanish Civil War.

Or take this piece from the Australian Conservative (July 11, 2010). “Years before the slave trade to the Americas, Muslim rulers along the Mediterranean coast enslaved thousands of Christians, inflicting torture and death.” He did not mention that Christian rulers along the Mediterranean coast equally enslaved thousands of Muslims, inflicting torture and death. And it is surely relevant that it was Western civilisation and the Judeo-Christian heritage that developed the massive slave trade that was the foundation of European colonisation of the Americas.

The fundamental problem is that Donnelly’s attacks on the history curriculum do not stand up to critical scrutiny. Someone who starts with the premise that “some worldviews are preferable to others and some religious and cultural practices are un-Australian” is not qualified to review the national curriculum in any area.

If there is one area in which many Australians would have concerns about a dominant role for a right-wing Catholic in curriculum development, it is the area of sex education, part of the Health and Physical Education curriculum. Catholic doctrine in this area sits well outside current community standards, and Catholic doctrine on issues such as contraception and abortion are rejected in theory and practice by most of the Australian population, including many practising Catholics as well.

Donnelly appears to be particularly concerned about gay and lesbian issues. He has argued in the past that many parents believe the sexual practices of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals are ‘’decidedly unnatural’’ and has questioned whether students ought to learn about such relationships at school. He has taken this further to argue that only heterosexual teachers have a right to teach students about sex – a completely impractical suggestion, since it would involve teachers making an official declaration of their sexuality at the very least.

Sometimes, the issue clearly becomes too much for him. Prior to the last Victorian elections, he warned that Green policies would mean that: “Government and other faith-based schools will also be made to teach a curriculum that positively discriminates in favour of gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex persons,” whatever this actually means.

In a more recent article (The Australian October 20, 2012) he expressed concerns about the national curriculum forcing all schools to teach sex education to seven-year-olds and fears about the Proud Schools program being trialled in NSW, addressing issues of “homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism” in schools, adding “it’s clear that the gender-sexuality wars are centre stage.”
He has attacked the national curriculum for adopting “a relativistic, cultural-Left view of identity and relationships. Students are told to “celebrate their unique qualities and value the diversity within their community” and the emphasis is on “diversity and difference” instead of what we hold in common.” Is the alternative to ensure that students deny or are ashamed of their unique qualities? This is the crux of the issue, which poses a real challenge for Catholic and other religious schools, which want the right to teach that anything other than heterosexuality is abnormal and immoral.

In contrast to Donnelly’s position, many people would argue that all children have the right to an age-appropriate sex education, and that no parent, or school system, has the right to deny children access to age-appropriate information. And most people would accept that students should be protected from homophobia and other forms of discrimination within their schools.

In his gender-sexuality wars, Donnelly has attacked the AEU for its opposition to the activities of the Christian-based Access Ministries in schools (The Drum (May 16, 2011). This is the Access Ministries which is now under investigation by the Victoria Department of Education (ABC News, February 23, 2014) for distributing “inappropriate and offensive” material which instructed children to seek counselling if they had homosexual feelings, and claimed that girls who wear revealing clothes are inviting sexual assault, and that masturbation and sex before marriage are sinful.” Is this what Donnelly wants?

And there are more serious issues. The problems faced by gay teenagers in Catholic schools, faced with an official view that their behaviour is unnatural and immoral, are well-documented. But on these issues, Donnelly is completely silent. Unfortunately, he has also been completely silent on the parallel problem of sexual abuse within schools and boarding schools. Catholic schools have been a significant source of problems, although clearly not the only offenders. But there has been no moral leadership from Donnelly on this issue. He appears to have simply accepted Cardinal Pell’s “defence of the church at all costs), and, by his silence, he has been complicit in the culture of cover-up.

Donnelly often uses arguments based in parental opinions. Some parents may regard GLBT sexual practices as unnatural, but Australia has developed a strong culture of acceptance. These relationships are not illegal, and Australians have given considerable support to non-traditional forms of marriage. Donnelly needs to wake up to the fact that whatever the diversity of views of parents on GLBT sexual practices, they overwhelmingly abhor child abuse and molestation. Because of his expressed views on sex education, and his silence on the issue of child abuse, Donnelly reviewing the Health and Physical Education curriculum is simply not acceptable. If Pyne imposes this, then it will have even less credibility that the rest of the curriculum review.

Overall, reading what Donnelly has written, just in the limited areas that I have covered, unfortunately confirms the views expressed by Ken Boston. He is simply not a fit person to conduct an unbiased and consultative review of the national curriculum. Appointing someone like him means that the review will have no credibility for stake-holders.

Pyne and Donnelly are now trying to pretend that this curriculum review is not about removing cultural left bias, but is motivated by concerns about standards. But this argument fails on a simple logical point – the countries in South and Southeast Asia that out-perform us do so, not because of superior curriculum documents, but because students in those countries study much harder than Australian students, because their families place overwhelming pressure on them to succeed. And when Chinese students are educated in Australia, they continue to out-perform students of European origin, despite being educated under our supposedly flawed curriculum. While there are things we can learn from Asia about educational achievements, the recent claims by Pyne and Donnelly are simply a ruse to cover up their culture and gender wars. But nobody is really fooled. Just as Pyne was forced to back off on Gonski funding, if he wants a curriculum review to have any credibility, he has to start all over again. That will not stop the war on alleged biases in the curriculum, but it will make his job that much harder.

Ian Morgan

Professor Morgan is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Canberra, and Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China. He is a former President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations and the ACT Council of P&C Associations. He is a member of Save Our Schools.

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2014 issue of Dissent Magazine.

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