Year 10 students sat for the first compulsory Australian history, geography, civics and citizenship exam in New South Wales (indeed, in Australia) in November 2002. On Wednesday March 5, students marched in Sydney in protest against the prospect of war in Iraq.
Has the new civics a practical training component? Are demonstrations changing their character? Are school students playing a more active role and university students a less active one?
The Sydney Morning Herald estimated that more than 3,000 students left state or private schools to protest against Australian involvement in war on Iraq. Numbers in Melbourne and Adelaide approximated 4,000, with “hundreds” marching in Brisbane and Perth and 500 in Tasmania. A day later the chairwoman of the Sydney protest rally put the number at 10,000. At the weekend The Australian said 13,000.
These demonstrations were for students. A broader range of people, allegedly 150,000 in Melbourne and 250,000 in Sydney, attended demonstrations in mid-February.
The reaction of the school authorities to this extra-mural activity varied. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at the Anglican girls’ school, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, teachers were posted at various exits to prevent girls heading off to the lunchtime march. Some 20 girls who left via a builders’ exit were subsequently required to write an essay on why they chose to attend the “Books Not Bombs” protest. At the Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral School in central Sydney the headmaster, with a stroke of genius, changed the lunch hour for the day so that it would not coincide with the march.
At St Vincent’s College in Potts Point, a girls’ school operated by the Sisters of Charity, the principal prohibited girls from attending because they had been authorised to march under the school banner at the peace rally a few Sundays before. Eventually those with permission slips from their parents were allowed to go. By comparison, 15 students from St Ignatius College, Riverview, were driven to the march in the school bus and given a school banner to take with them.
Do these activities represent a new form of citizenship, a “participatory democracy”?
Civics, Old and New
Civics slipped out of the school curriculum in the late 1960s. In December 1971 Dr John Vaughan, Deputy-Director of Primary Education in New South Wales, described “responsible citizenship” as one of a number of pious aims: “That sort of statement is so vague that a school can teach just about anything and say it is consistent with the statement of aims.”
In September 1970 a syllabus sub-committee on social science reported: “Existing social studies curricula, with their emphasis on good citizenship and on cultivating the ‘correct’ social and political values, cannot hope to retain the respect of students when ideas and values are changing all the time.”
The concurrent decline of the study of history and of religious instruction in state schools further weakened citizenship education.
Within a decade doubts were arising. In 1983 an analysis by the Australian Electoral Office of attitudes towards enrolment and voting stated that some young people deplored the failure of schools in citizenship education. A 1989 report of the Commonwealth Senate’s education committee, Education for Active Citizenship, complained that across Australia “students stand more than an even chance of completing their secondary education without taking any course which genuinely prepares them to be an informed and active participant in the democratic process.”
Two years later a follow-up report, Active Citizenship Revisited, found some improvement in schools. But it cautioned that, “as a source of students’ political information, teachers rank fifth, behind television, newspapers, radio and parents.”
Nonetheless the Commonwealth provides funds for citizenship education in the states and territories.
Another small but powerful form of citizenship education – or anti-citizenship education – became active in the late 1960s: political youth movements. “Nature abhors a vacuum”, and after civics was expelled from schools replacements soon entered. For some years religious study groups such as the Student Christian Movement had existed in high schools. In the late 60s left-wing youth movements became active. The immediate outcome was a flood of “underground newspapers”.
A group of Trotskyists at Sydney University set up an off-campus youth organisation called Resistance in 1967. They also set up High School Students Against the War in Vietnam and established contacts in 100 Sydney high schools.
In 1970 Resistance held its first national conference at the University of New South Wales, attended by 45 delegates from Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide. It changed its name to the Socialist Youth Alliance.
The next step was to establish a political party. The Socialist Workers League was founded in January 1972 in Sydney and affiliated to the Trotskyist “Fourth International”. Four years later it became the Socialist Workers’ Party, shed its Trotskyism in the 1980s (though remaining “Leninist”) and became the Democratic Socialist Party. Its most public manifestation is Green Left Weekly. It retained international links.
The Socialist Youth Alliance provided some of the outside help needed for the recent demonstrations. In Sydney early reports said that the protests had been organised by students at the University of Technology, Sydney. Presumably these were members of the Socialist Youth Alliance. Certainly SYA placards were prominent in the march. The international co-ordination character of the youth protests doubtless owed something to the DSP’s international links.
An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Classroom struggle: school’s out for peace, unity and social justice”, sought to widen the political significance of the rally. It was written by Lauren Carroll Harris, chairwoman of the Sydney protest rally, a Year 11 student at a government two-year senior high school. Harris wrote that students “were also protesting against other injustices and drawing links with other social issues.”
There were other supporters. As early as February 24 the Melbourne Age reported that Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle and Dr Carmen Lawrence of the ALP had endorsed a “wag against war protest”, encouraging Victorian high school, university and TAFE students to cut classes to attend the anti-war “strike”. The Victorian Education Department warned that students who took time off without written permission from their parents would be treated as truants and could be reprimanded by their school.
A New Civics?
Has the concept of citizenship changed? Does it now include participation in demonstrations? As if to support this idea the cover of the 1991 report on citizenship had a cartoon of young people demonstrating in front of the Commonwealth and state parliaments.
The examination in Australian history taken by more than 82,000 NSW Year 10 students included several radical issues. It covered the Vietnam moratorium, Federation, the White Australia Policy, Sydney in 1901, immigration, women’s suffrage and communism. In the exam students started with the 1965 Freedom Ride in NSW, discussed several referenda, and pondered the “most likely reason for banning fishing” in waterways.
The 1991 Senate report on citizenship extended its precursor’s concept of “active democracy” into “participatory democracy”, a concept embraced by far left students during the early 1970s. At Sydney University, representative democracy meant students elected faculty representatives to the Students’ Representative Council, which then elected a president. From 1971, under participatory democracy, the president was elected directly by a mass electorate, the students.
The Australian Democrats are committed to direct election of their leader by party members.
Direct democracy had some success in Athens in the fifth century BC, when the city was small enough for all citizens to directly elect officials. Nonetheless, the Athenians also made appointments by lot, relying on chance to allocate responsibilities. In Anglo-Saxon England the tribes also employed direct democracy. But in larger social units this system carries serious difficulties.
Maybe the concept of participatory democracy explains the closing sentence of the newspaper article by the chairwoman of the Sydney protest rally: “There is no democracy in this country until Howard submits to the will of the majority.”
In the Sydney Morning Herald Lauren Harris likened the walkouts to “the mass moratoriums against the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s during a period of mass youth radicalisation.” The Australian excitedly invited its readers to tell its website whether they thought the marches by school children had “created a new generation of radicals.”
On the same page reporter Kate Legge pointed to one difference with the mid-1960s. Parents in those days were, by and large, more conservative and schools would not have given students leave passes for demonstrations. Now many parents were themselves former demonstrators. Another reporter echoed this, using the headline “Parents’ blessings for making love not war”.
The chances of a re-run of 1968-72 are not great. If more demonstrations do eventuate it is likely that school students will play a proportionately larger part. These days university students are too busy to repeat old New Left dramas. Many lack the wealth of their precursors and have to hold part-time jobs.
They are too busy for demonstrations not only because of this employment but because the semester system of study has intensified the demands on their time. The old three-term system provided some leisure, particularly for those who entered university with a good preparatory education.
Not all students are as fascinated with the late 1960s as are the newspapers. In August 2002 Daniel Kyriacou, president of the Sydney University Students’ Representative Council and now in Melbourne as president of the National Union of Students, expressed his impatience with this nostalgia. As a member of the Labor Club, which supports left-wing Labor, he has some political credentials.
He was sick, he said, of comparisons with the Vietnam era. “Tales of the past are nice bedtime stories but have little if any relevance to today. Over the last 30 years the nature of universities has changed, the student body has changed, the national political agenda has changed and so too has the student movement.” Student activism, he said, was different, though a no less potent force for reform on campus or in the broader community.
Surviving campaigners of both the Old Left and the New may well contemplate the new styles of activism with some bemusement.
- Alan Barcan is a former associate professor in education at the University of Newcastle