School curriculum overhaul needed for Australia to find its place in Asia

Nov 16, 2021
School children
(Image: PA/Ben Birchall)

The failure to properly resource Asian studies in Australian schools and universities is a problem for Australia’s long-term security.

In his recent National Press Club conversation with Laura Tingle, Paul Keating observed that Australia is still finding its way in Asia. If Australia is going to find its way in its region of consequence, peacefully and prosperously, it is imperative that Asian studies curricula in schools and universities should be recognised, and resourced, not simply as an exercise in educational idealism, but as a core component of Australia’s security and defence planning.

Collectively, “Asia” is a brilliant kaleidoscope of spectacularly different cultural histories and regional variations. It embraces diverse languages, religious and historical traditions, economies at varying levels of development, and complex political systems that range from authoritarianism to representative government.

Throughout their histories, Asian states and societies have endured, and rejected, imperial domination, and in the 20th century they’ve been the victims of war fought across their territories by Western powers and Japan.

For the first 150 years or so of its history, Anglo-Saxon-Celtic Australia largely looked upon Asia as a seething mass looming over our horizon, threatening to invade and dispossess white settlers of the land they had unilaterally claimed as theirs. They did so under the cover of the great Australian lie about “terra nulius”, to disguise their expropriation of the land of First Australians.

The theme of dangerous Asia was — and still is — trotted out by feckless politicians and cynical commentators to drill fear and loathing into the minds of the many Australians who have been mis-educated about the meaning of their country’s proximity to Asia. What is especially concerning is that it constitutes a major threat to the country’s security and prosperity.

Out of ignorance by prejudice, so racism and xenophobia are born.

The theme of dangerous Asia has drawn Australia into spurious alliances with “great and powerful friends” in the absurdly confected “Anglosphere”.

Overwhelmingly, these alliances have negatively impacted the country’s national interest on numerous occasions. In the first instance, it meant rushing off to Britain’s wars (the Boer Wars and World War I and II).

Then, wrongly believing that the ANZUS treaty is the foundation of the country’s security, it has meant participating in all of America’s subsequent wars, at huge cost to the wellbeing of military personnel, society, and the economy.

And now we’ve been plunged into what is arguably the most dangerous of these fake alliances, AUKUS, a blending of the two previous failed alliance systems that have imprisoned Australia in its “dependent middle power” cocoon.

As Keating warned, this could lead us into a war on the side of the US against China over Taiwan. Some of the madder dogs of war even seem intent on bringing on this conflict (consider, for example, Mike Pezzullo’s inflammatory reference to the beating of the drums of war).

Ignorance of Asia is certainly not bliss for Australia.

And yet our education systems have failed to address this lacuna in the nation’s understanding of the region we live in. While this is an educational failure, it also needs to be seen as a problem for the country’s security.

There are no ministers in the Morrison government, and very few at senior levels in the public service, the defence establishment, or in business who can speak, read, and write an Asian language fluently. None have an educated understanding of countries as complex as China, Indonesia, or India.

Moreover, there are very few Australians who have an educated awareness of the histories, cultures, political systems, and economies of those countries that make up our geopolitical neighbourhood. This is especially true of the mainstream media, as evidenced in the shockingly low level of analysis of the current crisis in the Australia-China relationship that we see, for example, in the Murdoch media.

This means that communications between those at the “commanding heights” of Australia’s political, security, and business communities need to be mediated between go-betweens, people who are bilingual, thus delaying important decision-making and inhibiting frank exchanges with our most important neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.

There are four Asian studies and languages curricula that need immediate and comprehensive upgrading in our schools and universities: Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia), China (Mandarin), India (Hindi), and Japan (Japanese). Down the track, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam will need to be added to those curriculum areas.

It is a counterproductive fact that Asian language studies are in decline right across the contemporary Australian educational system.

In part, this is because they are not always well taught, focusing too much on grammar and vocabulary training and insufficiently on educating about the historical and cultural contexts of language study. Then there is the fact that the country does not have enough well-qualified and dedicated teachers. (This is not to dispute the fact there are some absolutely brilliant Asian language and studies specialists in our schools and universities — it’s just that they’re in a small minority.)

By far the greatest inhibitor that is holding back Asia literacy in this country is the abject failure by governments — at federal and state levels–to properly resource these studies. This is vividly on display with the likes of federal Education Minister Alan Tudge who prefers to gaming the long-outmoded culture wars to addressing the serious security implications involved in the decline in Asian studies across the country.

What is needed is a model school, for all year levels through to senior secondary school, in each capital city that focuses mainly on teaching Asian languages and studies. While the usual focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curricula would be maintained in these model schools, their humanities (including languages) and social sciences programs would highlight Asian societies, histories and economies and Australia’s historical and contemporary relations/connections with those societies.

The four initial language streams (Bahasa Indonesian, Mandarin, Hindi, and Japanese) should commence in the earliest years of a student’s schooling and continue progressively through to Year 12. No student should be allowed to enrol in a language stream that is spoken in their home, meaning that all students start their Asian language learning on a level playing field.

At tertiary level, all first-year students should be required to enrol in at least one subject that introduces young Australians to the myriad cultures and histories of the countries that influence the security and prosperity of Australia.

Meanwhile, there should be a comprehensive expert review of all the Asian studies departments/centres in Australia’s universities, to gauge how successfully they are performing, and how they can be improved.

It’s time for Australia to find its way intelligently in Asia. To remain “the odd man out” in the region — as we are at present — is a threat to our country’s immediate and long-term future, economically, culturally, and strategically.

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