Christopher Pyne.

Christopher Pyne: Education review will be "robust". Photo: Nic Walker

Since federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne's launch last week of a two-man curriculum review panel, of conservative educationist Kevin Donnelly and conservatively inclined business academic Kenneth Wiltshire, levels of incredulity, derision and cynicism among educators and political commentators (outside News Corp media) have gone off the Richter scale.

Pyne might as well have announced he was rearranging the communal henhouse by shoving two foxes through its front door. The curriculum history wars, part of the bigger culture wars that have been blighting the Australian cultural and political landscape for more than a decade, were on again.

This focus on religiosity by a government in rampant social-engineering mode presents a disturbing trend. 

The history wars are an invention of the political right which sees hidden ''cultural-leftist'' influence at every turn in the government school curriculum, a chimera supported in particular by News Corp's broadsheet The Australian.

Dr Kevin Donnelly: Selected to review the national curriculum.

Kevin Donnelly: Selected to review the national curriculum.

This purported sedition is expressed in a list of neoconservative grievances. By neoconservative I mean what the movement's generally acknowledged founder Irving Kristol called a ''persuasion'' rather than a fixed, structural set of political attributes.

In Australia's case, the persuasion is based mainly on an anti-interventionist economic and financial policy and an interventionist cultural, religious and social policy agenda, with outlying conservative libertarian elements and some really, really strange extremists.

The first criticism on the neoconservative list is that Australia is not being regarded in exceptionalist and uncritical terms as a model society founded on British parliamentary traditions that go back to the Magna Carta by way of the English Civil War.

Second, there is no list of essential facts in the history curriculum that must be celebrated and commemorated, including Australian-linked events of the Great War.

Third, leftist influences in history education are subverting the national psyche by teaching students to investigate and to think for themselves about the past.

Fourth, Australia is a Western nation, and world history in schools does not emphasise the ''benefits'' of Western civilisation enough.

Fifth, Australia is a Christian society and the curriculum does not stress the significance of Christianity.

Finally, any criticism of this world view is to be regarded as subversive and is based on godless Marxism or is just plain atheist in origin. Occasionally ill-informed mentions of bogyman postmodernism are thrown into the mix. These complaints form the basis of the current curriculum review.

All of this has to be seen in the context of a Coalition government that despises education experts, disparages research evidence with which it disagrees and is a strong advocate of Christianity as the moral force that should underpin Australian values in all schools.

This narrow religious perspective comes at a time when Australia has become an increasingly multi-faith society where nominal Christian affiliation has declined to 61 per cent of the total population (ABS 2011), of whom about 8 per cent of the total attend church regularly.

Given that statistic, the vast majority of those who claim Christian affiliation seem to be cultural Christians only.

These statistics undermine the neoconservative claim that Australia remains a firmly Christian society and the consequent assertion that school students need to be taught more about the religion's societal importance. Indeed, these figures may explain some of the urgency that conservative religionists attach to bringing the Bible into government schools and the common use of the term ''Judeo-Christian'' in neoconservative rhetoric, from John Howard down to Kevin Donnelly.

The phrase ''Judeo-Christian tradition'' has a political history and is used by neoconservative commentators and politicians to create a benign image of a religious inheritance that stretches back to Abraham. This approach comes at a time when US neoconservative opinion has become increasingly paranoid about the rise of Islamic global political, financial and cultural power and is particularly worried about the growth of radical Islam. Indeed a ''Judeo-Christian tradition'' is US neoconservative code for Christians against Islam.

Allowing for modern interfaith initiatives that draw Christian and Jewish communities together, the overused term ''Judeo-Christian tradition'' and its variants remain very problematic.

US Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen commented as long ago as 1969 as follows: ''I regard all attempts to define a Judeo-Christian Tradition as essentially barren and meaningless … at the end point of the consensus when the goodwill is exhausted, and the rhetoric has billowed away, there remains an incontestable opposition.''

US rabbi and author Jacob Neusner in his more recent book Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition (2001) has pointed out at great length and in very great detail that the idea of historic Judeo-Christian harmony ignores, among other matters, a 2000-year history of theological antipathy and a millennium-long narrative of violent persecution of Jews in the name of Christianity.

This focus on religiosity by a government in rampant social-engineering mode presents a disturbing trend. Also disturbing is the Orwellian double-speak adopted by Pyne at his launch. Even the meanest intellect can see that, when he says the review will be ''robust'', Pyne means ''agrees with me'', and when he announces that it will be ''balanced'' and ''objective'' he means ''partial'' and ''subjective''.

The circumstances surrounding the establishment of this review seriously undermine its credibility even before it begins. Instead of immediately blundering into a storm of condemnation and almost certainly invalidating the review's outcomes, Pyne should have done what any capable federal education minister would have done, appointed a three-person panel consisting of a respected former state education department official, a well-regarded nominee of the deans of education, and a lay person with no political affiliations.

Instead he appointed two members of the Liberal Party fan club.

Tony Taylor is a history education and history researcher. His most recent books are (co-edited) History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives, and (co-authored) Place and Time: Explorations in Teaching Geography and History.