We're all stakeholders in the National Curriculum. There are few public issues that are more important than how future generations of students will be educated during twelve years of schooling.
Far from being a matter of mere private concern as he now seeks to argue in his application to the Federal court for an injunction, Spurr’s racist and sexist obsessions are relevant to all of us.
Teachers and researchers who developed the current National curriculum have a particular sort of interest at stake. They would at least have hoped that their work would be reviewed after, not before it was put into practice and that it would be treated with respect.
Even from that limited perspective, the news that Minister for Education Christopher Pyne had selected Kevin Donnelly to conduct a review in an absurdly short timeframe rang warning bells. The fear of many professionals was that the hidden agenda was to impose a national humanities curriculum that reflected a narrow set of political concerns rather than a broader more inclusive and representative interests.
Donnelly had after all edited the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) monograph that kick started the campaign against the National Curriculum in 2011.The then shadow Minister Pyne launched the IPA publication to which the University of Sydney Professor of Poetry Barry Spurr contributed, as did Wollongong University academic Greg Melleuish who Donnelly hired to do the history review.
Spurr is a known traditionalist and Western canonist whose disdain for critical perspectives being introduced into humanities curriculum is very well known. His main recent research focus has been on the role of religion in the work of the conservative modernist poet T.S. Eliot and imagery of the Blessed Mary in poetry.
The short time frame meant that the choice of reviewers was critical as their preconceptions were not going to be tested against actual experience or evaluation.
The fear expressed by the NSW English Teachers Association in their submission that the review would be based on "a brief and theoretical acquaintance with the documents; their practical implications cannot yet be fully appreciated nor can their effect on students be observed" turned out to be well placed. Spurr's supplementary report reads like a schoolmaster reviewing a student's essay with admonishments like "relevant to whom?" and a "chaotic jumble." If those who participated in the curriculum hoped for respect, what they got was disdain. In his arrogance, Spurr sought to pour years of curriculum development down the drain.
Spurr’s views turned out to be the key source for the Final report’s finding that there should be more emphasis on Christian tradition and the Bible.
His vision for an Australian English curriculum emerges from his supplementary report. He mentions about fifty authors, more than 75% of whom are white male authors, nearly all of whom wrote in England more than a century ago. His curriculum would reflect his belief that the impact of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander narrative and literature is minimal and vastly reduce the texts that encourage students to reflect on our relationship with Asia. He complains there are no examples because they would be "hard to find." In fact, hundreds of quality examples are available for teachers.
There are no authors whose works were not originally produced in English amongst Spurr's preferred authors. No Marquez, Chekhov or Dostoyevsky. He would replace what he called the 'socio-political concerns' of the curriculum with a strong focus on morality in the Christian tradition. What this means in practice is that his Western texts would be studied without the tools of critique that allows students to develop an understanding of how the power of words can be used to reflect and perpetuate patriarchal and racial supremacy.
Spurr recommends that creative writing' should be kept in check and not too readily valued. Young children would be set to memorising texts, including from the Bible.
It is a scandal that Spurr's report was accepted by a government sponsored review in 21st century Australia. However the sad truth is that Minister Pyne was ready to move on, declaring four days after the report had been released that it had been well received by stakeholders.
The publication of Spurr's emails by New Matilda has now created a public scandal and is a wake-up call that the curriculum review should be refuted.
Spurr has been suspended from the University of Sydney, in whose cloisters he has taught thousands of students over 38 years. The disturbing silences, unchallenged cultural assumptions and moral orthodoxy of Spurr's public scholarship can now be considered in relation to his private self that uses ugly expressions of sexism and racism. Abos, Mozzies, Chinkie Poos, whores, sluts, fatsoes, you’ve already read the detail on New Matilda.
Spurr's first response was to dismiss the emails as a ‘whimsical linguistic game'. They did not read that way to me. In fact, I would describe them more as a running commentary on Spurr's daily life. His response is not surprising however as racism and sexism are often explained away as humour and also play a role in humour. Racist and sexist humour is still racist and sexist. If recipients of racist jokes raise objections, they are often accused of being too 'politically correct' while silence leads to complicity. An awareness and discussion of the complicated ways in which words including humorous ones create meaning is one of the strengths of the contemporary English curricula that Spurr would eliminate.
The professor's second line of defence was that his private communications had nothing to do with the professional opinion expressed in his Curriculum report. Pyne who expresses disapproval of the language in Spurr's emails agrees with him. But the public and private self cannot be so glibly disconnected.
Back to the 1950s when racism and sexism were not mentioned
There was a time back when I was educated in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time to which Spurr would have us return, when we never used the words like 'race' or ‘ethncity’ in class, let alone in relation to English literature. Australia's First Nations peoples were still described as 'natives'. We didn't question that label because newspaper discourse was never discussed in the 1950s classroom either. Character and language analysis were encouraged but the issue of gender was not raised. We were told not to talk about sex, politics or religion. As I read Spurr's report, I was thrown back into my comfortable middle class classroom where the streams of sexism, racism and exclusion that course through Australian cultures were never acknowledged or explored.
Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and indeed all of the classics in Spurr's Western canon have value as objects of study but not if the critical tools are removed that allow us to appreciate how the origins of Spurr's ugly expressions of opinion lie in the underbelly of his Western cultural tradition. Gone too will be the thousands of novels, poems and other texts that allow us to reflect on the ways ethnicity, gender, class and the colonial experience have shaped our society. Spurr wants students to be transported to the imaginary world beyond their own but without the critical study that enables them to see the connections between those other worlds and their own.
Personal troubles are linked to public issues
In thinking about the connection between Spurr's private and public selves I am reminded of the sociologist C Wright Mills' whose mid twentieth century work influenced students like myself. From the perspective of today, it is hard to remember how novel his notion that the connections between 'the personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure’ were at that time. Later through feminist critique, we more fully came to appreciate that the 'personal is political’. Pyne and Spurr's expectation that the emails have no relationship to his public curriculum report relies on an inability or refusal to understand those connections. Like Attorney General George Brandis’s view that bigots should be free to be bigots, it provides a cover for racism.
On Monday, The Australian’s Henry Ergas has accused New Matilda and myself of an invasion of privacy. He alleged that I assert a 'moral right to invade the private emails of others without providing public access to my own’ which is nonsense. Now Professor Spurr has taken court action to suppress the publication of the material, including material that New Matilda has not published.
When a journalist is shown someone else's emails by a third person with the suggestion that you publish them, the first things you ask yourself is - are they genuine? In the case of Spurr's emails, we were able to quickly reassure ourselves that they were not a hoax. The next question was to consider whether the public interest in publishing them would override his interest in privacy in the context of the use of his university work email account.
Even if Professor Spurr had not been selected by Kevin Donnelly as the person most suited to review the English literature curriculum, the emails raised very serious questions about his fitness for a teaching position. This is a matter that University of Sydney is now investigating. There is already evidence that Spurr has over a long period sought to impose his rigid and conservative attitudes on students, including vulnerable ones.
Private emails reveal thinking behind public role
But the idea that the author of these 'texts' was in the midst of reviewing the English curriculum for future teachers and students of Australia is alarming. The public interest in the emails arises not simply because he has assumed such an influential public role but also because the content of the emails is so closely connected to his demand for a return to a Christian canonical and biblical tradition that shapes not only his own report but is relied up on the final Review report.
Barry Spurr's emails and his review of the curriculum both reveal a man who is threatened by the world in which he lives. It is a world in which people of Asian and Aboriginal descent may move into the street or be chosen as Australian of the year, in which many who share his own Christian beliefs have become more open and accessible, in which students with disabilities have rights, older people don't want to be treated with distant respect, and victims of sexual assault are not blamed as whores.
That's the Australia we live in and the world we need our National Curriculum to reflect. It is very much in the public interest that Australian school students understand the ways in which the public and private faces of racism and sexism are connected in our culture. Barry Spurr’s own emails provide an important case study of how informal and formal texts can reflect the same broad ideologies and similar agendas. This is an important truth that has been revealed by New Matilda’s publication and which Spurr wants eliminated from our schools’ curriculum.