TONY SMITH. Promoting ignorance over education.

True education is open minded and open ended. It is the antithesis of propaganda and works to free minds, not control them. The federal government has a minister who lacks any understanding of basic educational principles.

It was embarrassing but not surprising to hear federal education minister Tehan trying to express simple concepts recently. It was glaringly obvious that he lacks even the most rudimentary acquaintance with the rules of grammar. It makes me cringe to think that he might represent Australia at international conferences.

In the next breath the minister sought to direct teachers how to conduct themselves during the current crisis. The reluctance shown by many teachers to return to the classroom following the strict pandemic lockdown is perfectly understandable, particularly given the tardiness of the head boy in Canberra to recall the class to Parliament House. In the absence of any willingness to lead by example, the minister’s exhortations seem like heavy handed authoritarianism.

Teachers are rightly concerned that the lockdown conditions could be lifted too soon and for the wrong reasons. In the interim, the federal government has not matched state efforts to ensure that all students have access to online and remote learning opportunities. The federal attitude seems to be that schools should be open and that contingency plans are not warranted. In fact, parents and students should be grateful that the government which has overseen dreadful messes in the census, broadband and Centrelink is not ‘organising’ online education.

Like so many conservative ministers Tehan takes his lead from rabid right wing media commentators who willingly air his ravings. He has descended into the culture wars targeting all unions. The very language he adopts reflects where his loyalties lie. By asserting that teacher unions have their ‘foot’ on the neck of the premiers, he panders to the politics of envy dear to the hearts of some talkback radio hosts. It is a dreadful mistake to introduce such negative and divisive assertions when your role should be to inspire teachers to trust the federal government and support its policies.

Conservative ministers responsible for education often make an erroneous assumption when dealing with teacher unions. They think that they can drive a wedge between unions and those at the chalkface by telling teachers that the unions are being unreasonable. I have been at conferences where ministers have made this assertion about the New South Wales Teachers Federation and the National Tertiary Education Union and have been happy to see them corrected. Rank and file members of these unions have pointed out that they are the union. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Democratic decision making processes including elections ensure that union officials are genuinely accountable to the membership.

It is likely that these conservative ministers have no experience beyond the narrow worlds of political parties. It is understandable then if they assume that everyone attains their positions in the same way they do and have the same attitudes to responsibility. So they understand about duplicity, back stabbing, branch stacking and other political arts, but understand nothing about open debate, integrity and honest dealing. Similarly ministers display great skills at avoiding accountability, refusing to answer questions and mocking critics. They seem not to appreciate that this very attitude is an insult to the communities they so hypocritically claim to represent. In the final analysis, many ministers use their tenure to make decisions which favour those corporations likely to offer them post-parliamentary employment and directorships.

Tehan accuses teachers of rejecting medical advice. It seems odd however that he has had to exert pressure on non-government schools by threatening their funding unless they open. Of course, this then enables him to argue that if government schools remain closed, their students will be disadvantaged especially at the competitive final year assessments. He routinely uses division, coercion and threats which are aspects of ignorance.

State governments have been objective and sensible in their policies towards schools during the pandemic, just as they have been decisive in their general responses. To assert that teacher unions are dictating state education policies is an insult to education bureaucracies and ministers at the sub-national level. It serves rather to show the priorities of a federal government desperate to rule by fomenting division. The education minister’s intemperate remarks make a mockery of the slogan that seeks to have us believe that we are all in this together.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic. He also taught in primary and secondary schools, TAFE and a university education faculty.


Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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5 Responses to TONY SMITH. Promoting ignorance over education.

  1. Avatar michael lacey says:

    It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

    The neoconservative global system has failed our children and the true purpose of education. Our society reaps what it sows! We set them up to fail, we give them little to no purpose, we reward an elite few, we continually blame the victims.

    We embrace Free market ideology, the abandonment, and alienation of working people in our country,“every man for himself” and then we want people to cooperate. As larger and larger segments of society are forced because of declining economies to become outsiders, the use of coercion, under our current model, will probably become more widespread.

    Neoliberalism is one of the greatest threats to the future of progressive education, it is data-driven it works against the development of a student’s ability to think critically, thereby undermining the formative culture and values necessary for a democratic society. If we keep looking at educational policy and practice through the lens of market-based values, there is little hope that progressive education, with its aim of educating students for critical citizenship and social and economic justice, will survive.
    Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as

    James Baldwin wrote, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin further noted, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”

  2. Avatar Peter Dixon says:

    good thoughts.

  3. Avatar Andrew McRae says:

    Fortunately, the Morrison-Tehan bribe – nothing more than a ‘wedge’ in political terms – seems to have run into a bit of a brick wall, with independent school principals saying they won’t be wedged. Tehan himself has no background working in education or teaching, and is one of those politicians the author describes as having done very little outside politics; Tehan once had a diplomatic posting in Mexico and a job with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, great experience for an education minister. Like many LNP education ministers before him, similarly unqualified, he treats the job as a continuous diatribe against the teaching unions, the LNP conflict paradigm.

  4. Avatar Richard Ure says:

    “It is likely that these conservative ministers have no experience beyond the narrow worlds of political parties.” As has become evident with the last-minute expectation that cash strapped employers undertake more financial risk and increased costs to shoulder the government’s responsibilities to fund jobKeeper. It can extend to their public service advisers. Testimony given by Ms Wilkinson, a Treasury official, at the COVID-19 Senate inquiry on 28 April suggests the financing requirement for (expanded) payrolls is for 14 days. In fact, it is for six months, the duration of JobKeeper.

  5. Avatar Stephen Saunders says:

    It is legislated and bipartisan policy that church schools are the federal government’s preferred sector and funded accordingly. If Tehan is now in a position to weaponise them against the state schools, it goes with the territory.

    Could it be happening in any other OECD nation? Doubt it.

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