FAZAL RIZVI. What students learn about Asia is outdated and needs to change.

While we readily recognise the new Asia to be culturally dynamic, and changing rapidly, we have yet to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Asia-Australia relations – and indeed also of the discourse of Asia literacy.  

The idea that all Australian students should develop a deeper understanding of Asian languages and cultures is not new. Some elements of this thinking go back to the 19th century.

Australia has consistently faced the dilemma of reconciling its colonial history with its geographical location within the Asian region.

In the 1970s, this dilemma led many policy advisors and educators to remind Australians of the importance of learning about Asia.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the reports by professor Ross Garnaut and the then the secretary of Queensland’s premier’s department, Kevin Rudd, used the idea of “Asia literacy” to highlight the economic importance of Asia to Australia’s national interests.

They once again challenged educational institutions to ensure that all Australians had a better understanding of Asian languages and cultures.

It was not until 2008 that the idea of Asia literacy became official government policy through the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. This in turn inspired the Australian curriculum to identify ‘“Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” as one of its three cross-curricular priorities.

Importance of learning about Asia cannot be denied

So embedded has the idea of Asia literacy now become that it is no longer the question of whether Australian students should learn about Asia and Australia-Asia relations, but how.

Our current approach to Asia literacy is exhausted and outdated, partly because it has been overtaken by events.

The profound economic, political and cultural changes that are now taking place in Asia, and in Australia, demand new ways of thinking about relations between the two.

Over the past two decades, most educational authorities have worked tirelessly to produce curriculum material, engage in advocacy, conduct study tours of Asia and develop professional development programs for teachers and educational leaders. Governments have invested heavily in the teaching of Asian languages.

While this activism has no doubt transformed the ways in which many young Australians think about Asia, the main problem with the current approach is that it remains trapped within an instrumentalist logic that interprets and justifies the need to learn about Asia largely in terms of its economic returns.

“Asia-relevant capabilities” are viewed as important for expanding trade links, developing new markets, and more generally, working in Asia.

This line of thinking is clearly evident in the Henry report on the Asian Century, launched with much fanfare in late 2011.

Current approach is narrowly-framed

While this report recognised the dynamic nature of Asian societies and stressed the need to forge people-to-people links, its business orientation effectively eschewed equally significant aspects of a changing Asia.

It paid little attention, for example, to the marginalised communities within Asia, and to the growing social inequalities across Asia resulting from globalisation.

It repeatedly romanticised the growing middle class in Asia for the enormous commercial opportunities it had created for Australia.

It suggested that for Australia to take advantage of these opportunities it needed to develop appropriate economic policy settings, with respect not only to trade and taxation but also education, skills development and migration.

In this way, education was embedded within a broader framework of economic instrumentalism.

There is of course nothing wrong with highlighting the importance of economic and strategic outcomes.

What is problematic, however, is the failure in the contemporary discourse of Asia literacy to also consider the cultural and social dimension of relations.

Risks of reinforcing binaries

To forge our relations with Asia largely in instrumental terms is to view Asians as a means to our economic and strategic ends.

It is effectively to assume Asia to be Australia’s Other – culturally and social distant.

It is to presuppose the theoretical assumptions surrounding an East-West binary, in which Asia is still seen as the East while Australia is assumed to be a proxy for the West.

This binary represents a colonial legacy that is no longer very helpful in interpreting Australia-Asia relations for a wide variety of reasons.

Australia’s changing demography

To begin with, it fails to take into account Australia’s changing demography: almost 17% of the Australian population is now of various Asian backgrounds.

Many Asian-Australians now have dual or multiple citizenships. They are therefore able to relate to both Australia and their countries of origin in ways that are significantly different from what they might have been in the 1980s.

Asia and Asians are also now part of Australia – not apart from it.

The discourse of Asia literacy based on the East-West binary makes it difficult for Asian-Australians to understand how such a discourse positions them in Australia, and how they should relate to the calls for them to learn about Asia.

For them, the impact of the new media and communication technologies is highly significant. This has enabled them to enjoy on-going connections with their “home” countries, while also re-casting the distinction between “here” and “there”, as their sense of identity and belonging are subjected to major shifts.

Expanding ties with Asia

At the same time, the level of mobility for work, education, business and tourism of all Australians has never been greater.

More than 200,000 Australians now live and work in Asia, and many more visit Asian countries on a regular basis. This has transformed the nature of Australia-Asia relations, both spatially and culturally.

The economic rise of Asia has also engendered a new sense of post-colonial confidence in many Asian countries that has redefined the ways in which Asians view Australia, and its attempts to develop closer relationships with them.

Global flows of ideas, capital and people have created conditions in which cultural fluidity and hybridity have become ubiquitous.

What these observations suggest is that while we readily recognise the new Asia to be culturally dynamic, and changing rapidly, we have yet to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Asia-Australia relations – and indeed also of the discourse of Asia literacy.

Asia literacy should not simply be about learning cultures and languages but should be about teaching the skills of interpreting and negotiating the possibilities of intercultural relations within Australia and beyond its borders.

Professor Fazal Rizvi is from the Melbourne Graduate school of Education, the University of Melbourne. This article was first published in The Conversation on February 8, 2017.


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3 Responses to FAZAL RIZVI. What students learn about Asia is outdated and needs to change.

  1. Jim Kable says:

    Honestly – where does one start? Is it with the Chinese admiral Zheng He and his fleet which sailed to Africa’s east coast five centuries+ ago – which may have brushed across northern Australia – or any of the Japanese pirates – Yamada Nagamasa among them – of the early 17th century – who possibly visited Australia’s north-east – early Chinese sailors/Malays – lascars from the Indonesian archipelago/Malayan peninsular into Sydney Town on trading ships – Arnhem Land seasonal visitors from Macassar – shepherds from India – Chinese furniture craftsmen – then gold rush miners – we keep rediscovering all kinds of connections long part of our national history even before the British – to late 19th century Japanese – in the sugar industry – later Pearl shell industry and as early rice-growing pioneers/traders….I grew up with Chinese members of my rural NSW Church – and neighbours with Chinese ancestry back into the late 19th century – with friends at university of varied Chinese-connectedness – I spent years teaching immigrants and refugees from a whole range of east and south-east Asian countries – and those from Asia closer to Europe – Turkey, Syria, Lebanon … In the mid-latter 1960s at university I studied Asian History (“sub-continent”) though in my final year at high school had studied Asian History – Japan from the end of the Edo Era till the end of the US/MacArthur Occupation Era. In my early 40s I was part of the push by the NSW State Dept. of Education to implement the widespread teaching and study of Japanese within schools – and that led to me living and reaching nearly two decades in Japan. And about which – like many many others with similar if different kinds of familiarity and ease with parts of Asia – out of Asian backgrounds or of my own Anglo ethnic origins – there is a deep knowledge and connection binding in fabric like metaphor this land to those lands – yet almost entirely ignored by politicians themselves in many many cases ignorant – totally ignorant – of those lands apart from official pomp and ceremonial visits… Professor Fazal Rizvi – thank you for opening up this conversation/discussion (even if it is something which has been canvassed seemingly regularly already over the years – yet each time a new angle seems to emerge)!

  2. Greg Bailey says:

    Whilst the general thrust of this article is to be commended, it could well have pointed out how much Asian Studies has declined in Australian universities over the past thirty years. In my own area of Indian Studies there are very few fully denominated positions in most Australian universities and Indian languages (Hindi and Sanskrit) are only taught at three universities. This seems crazy given the possibility of easily getting spoken practice in modern Indian languages, especially Hindi, given the number of Indians now in Australia. In North America and Europe Indian Studies and Asian Studies generally are flourishing.

    The instrumentality of government thinking on Asian Studies can be seen in the fact that it is only modern Asia being taught, again in contrast with North America and Europe where classical Asian languages are still widely taught. Perhaps the eschewal of classical learning in Australia generally, including Old Chinese and Sanskrit, is a consequence of the cultural anti-intellectualism which now so dominates media and political discourse.

  3. Malcolm Crout says:

    Walking through a university campus recently I had the distinct impression that Asian students vastly outnumbered caucasian and other races. Difficult to prove because the information is not publicly available, so it’s just my impression. There are high levels of Asian investment in domestic real estate and foreign investments in Australian corporates. The author has pointed out there is significant demographic integration, so I’m wondering why there needs to be an emphasis on educating Australians further about the cultures of Asia when this will occur by natural osmosis.
    I would like to see us reinforcing the Australian identity, which I would personally like to see as compulsory within the primary and secondary education sectors. It’s interesting that Asian countries do this in their own education system, yet the author believes we should do the reverse in this country.
    After shaking off our cringe with respect to our previous colonial masters and finally discovering our own identity, the notion that we should now re-educate our children with another culture just doesn’t make any sense to me. With all due respect to the author, I don’t see any hard quantification of the benefits and while we need to be aware and respectful of the Asian cultures, I think we need to be reinforcing our own together with the associated values and social mores.

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