How to teach what it means to be Australian
September 24, 2014
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Celebrating diversity is only feasible when there is a willingness to commit to the values and beliefs that underpin and sustain tolerance.
Celebrating diversity is only feasible when there is a willingness to commit to the values and beliefs that underpin and sustain tolerance. Photo: Andrew Quilty
Now that Islamic State terrorism has arrived on our soil it’s time to ask the question: what does it mean to be Australian?
There’s no denying that during the 1950s and 1960s the prevailing mood was nationalistic and pro-British. When I was at school, for example, every Monday morning at assembly we neatly lined up in rows, saluted the flag and sang God save the Queen.
With our hands on our hearts children would then recite the oath of allegiance and promise to “cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the law”. The world map on the back of our workbooks was covered in red, proving that the sun never set on the British Commonwealth.
Islamic State values such as forcing child brides to marry, female circumcision and believing that anyone not of your religion or faith doesn’t deserve to live are cultural practices that Australians reject.
Islamic State values such as forcing child brides to marry, female circumcision and believing that anyone not of your religion or faith doesn’t deserve to live are cultural practices that Australians reject. Photo: AP
Fast-forward to Al Grasby and the Whitlam government in the early 1970s when multiculturalism was born and everything began to change. Against the background of Vietnam moratoriums and the counter-culture movement, what Geoffrey Blainey described as the “three cheers view” of history became superfluous and representative of a bygone era.
Australia had to cut the umbilical cord to Westminster and assert its independence. As a result of waves of post-war immigration we were now a nation of diverse cultures where those who came to live here were free to celebrate and hold on to what makes them unique.
Governments spent millions resourcing classroom materials and programs to celebrate diversity and difference. Saluting the flag was jingoistic, the bronzed ANZAC a caricature (or, at worst misogynistic) and British settlement an invasion.
At its extreme, multiculturalism championed the view that all cultures are equal and that embracing tolerance and respect meant that it was impossible to discriminate and argue that some beliefs or practices are un-Australian.
Initiatives like the Howard Government’s Discovering Democracy and Values Education programmes, where children were taught to appreciate the institutions, values and beliefs that make us unique and bind us as a nation, were derided as conservative, Anglophobic and binary.
The result? Generations of young people are ignorant of the nation’s history and fail to see why democracy, for all its limitations, should be preferred before all other forms of government.
Worse still, even though limited to a radicalised few, is the fact that there are those born and who have grown up here who place their allegiance to foreign, terrorist ideologies before a commitment to being Australian.
What’s to be done? The first thing is to jettison the postmodern, deconstructed belief that it is impossible to discriminate and to argue that some cultural practices are unacceptable.
Cultural relativism is inherently contradictory – if it is impossible to argue that any one particular view of culture is preferable or superior, then on what basis can advocates of cultural relativism argue that their version should prevail?
Cultural relativism, like the argument put by the Green’s Senator Peter Whish-Wilson that it is wrong to use the word “terrorism” as it demonises people, also fails the pub or barbecue test.
Forcing child brides to marry, female circumcision, refusing to accept the division between church and state and believing that anyone not of your religion or faith doesn’t deserve to live are cultural practices that Australians reject.
Secondly, as argued by Chris Bowen when Minister for Immigration and Citizenship in a 2011 speech to the Sydney Institute, those who come to live here, while free to retain a sense of their own identity and culture, must abide by Australian laws and values.
Bowen argues: “Those who arrive in Australia are invited to continue to celebrate their cultures and traditions … However, if there is any inconsistency between these cultural values and the values of individual freedom and the rule of law, then these traditional Australian values win out”.
Celebrating diversity and difference is only feasible when there is a willingness to commit to and protect the values and beliefs that underpin and sustain tolerance and accepting others.
And such beliefs, values and institutions have not developed by accident or in a vacuum.
They are associated with a unique form of government that has evolved from Westminster, a legal system based on common law and a moral code of behaviour drawing on Judeo-Christian beliefs and significant historical events like the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum.