Genetically modified curriculum risks contaminating young minds


The Australian, June 11, 2013

THE abstruse lyrics of Midnight Oil’s nervous anthem Progress are hard to follow, but we get the drift: Peter Garrett and his chums are nervous about modernity.

“Forget about your indecision, let’s get the beast off our land,” Garrett sang. “Got your last meal, filled up with pesticide; Hamburger, chain third world infanticide.”

The lanky, snarling 32-year-old skinhead who spat out those words is now a middle-aged education minister and oversees the development of the national curriculum that will determine what our children are taught about science, technology, progress.

The draft curriculum on technologies, released earlier this year, is being fought over by those who hold to the quaint notion that scientific industrial progress is generally a good thing and pressure groups fearful of modernity who would have us return to a simpler lifestyle. When Progress was released on the EP record Species Deceases in 1985, the proceeds were assigned to what the Oils considered to be good causes. Part of the funds were used to form the organisation Gene Ethics, a body dedicated to the eradication of genetically modified crops.

Gene Ethics is one of those Frankenstein non-governmental organisations that look harmless in the laboratory but turn into monsters when released, lurching across the public stage with an uneasy, half-vital motion, mocking human endeavour. Mankind has become too clever by half; science and technology are the cause, not the solution, to present problems.

True to the narrative of Mary Shelley’s novel, Gene Ethics has made a submission on the technologies draft curriculum, arguing that technology can be bad as well as good, and if in doubt about the outcome we should simply sit on our hands.

In its joint submission with Friends of the Earth and a group known as MADGE — Mothers are Demystifying Genetic Engineering — Gene Ethics disagrees with the “preferred future” outlined in the draft curriculum, to wit, a nation that is “highly technological and complex”. These groups argue technology should not be left to provide the “dominant and preferred solutions to the most future needs and problems”.

Instead, kids should be taught about the “precautionary principle . . . limits to growth . . . responsible stewardship” . They are demanding history lessons on “failed and superseded technologies” and for a difference to be drawn between technology derived from military and civil technologies.

There must be a strand on “government regulation, assessment, monitoring and enforcement of laws and standards”. Kids must consider “social justice . . . social context . . . systemic diversity” and “culturally appropriate technology for ethnic, religious and other groups”.

Ominously, they talk about “Life Cycle Analysis and Assessment”. Words like this carrying an upper case generally signal trouble. It is not clear what LCAA entails, but if we are ever told, the odds are that normal people will think it is nuts.

If the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority has its wits about it, this fidgety, trepidatious document will be sealed in a vault, for we can only guess where the release of a genetically modified curriculum might lead. Experience shows that bad ideas like this can be blown on the intellectual wind through our schools and universities, contaminating young minds. Before you know it out kids are being taught culturally appropriate trigonometry and Enid Blyton has disappeared from the library.

It is a far cry from the heroic version of technology taught in schools until the 1970s, and the history of Australia as the Enlightenment’s most audacious experiment, a triumph of ingenuity, intellect and industry.

The official guide to teachers in Tasmania once said: “We must keep before the pupil the central idea that man has, by using his wonderful powers, gradually made himself dominant on the Earth and moulded his environment to his will. This is a truly wonderful thought and the full realisation of this great truth is part of every child’s heritage which cannot be denied to him.”

Such ideas would be alien to many teachers today, let alone students, in a nation where the divide between city and country has never been so pronounced.

Fewer children have any contact with agricultural production. A report two years ago for the Primary Industries Education Foundation found that while more than half of Year 6 students had been involved with a school vegetable garden, barely a quarter had stayed on a farm or attended an agricultural show.

It is little wonder, then, that 27 per cent thought yoghurt was a plant product and 75 per cent thought that cotton socks came from animals.

The longer kids spend at school the more confused they seem to become.

In Year 6, 17 per cent thought farming damaged the environment; by Year 10, 40 per cent were convinced that was true. Barely half of Year 10 students believed that pesticides increased the amount of food grown on farms.

The National Farmers Federation and other agricultural groups take the survey as evidence that the food and fibre component of the technology curriculum must get back to basics. It seems premature to ask children to “prioritise competing factors in . . . ethical, just and sustainable development”, as Gene Ethics submission argues, when only 30 per cent of Year 10 students recognise that cardboard is produced from trees, the same proportion, incidentally, that thinks Lycra comes from plants.

Farming was once regarded as a heroic pursuit; it is today viewed with deep suspicion. About 4000 professional positions in primary industry are advertised a year yet there are only 300 new agricultural graduates to fill them.

Little wonder.