The draft shape of the National Curriculum's ''civics and citizenship'' subject does not go far enough in promoting intercultural understanding. I reject the concern by Libertarian Chris Berg that it is "blatantly ideological", reflecting left wing politics. In fact it is in parts too conservative and needs to be stronger on intercultural understanding.
Chris Berg is not to be pigeon-holed as an extreme right wing conservative. As he pointed out on Twitter last night he has come out in defence of gay marriage. He is just wrong in almost all of his critique of the direction civics and citizenship education is taking.
I am not a typical left wing hippie. I was raised as an ultra-conservative Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn New York and ordained as a Rabbi. For the past 10 years I have been involved with issues of citizenship and intercultural understanding as the leader of an inclusive multi-faith based diversity education non-profit organisation. I grew up with a lot of respect for my own tradition but with little contact outside it. Interaction with Arabic, Christian, Aboriginal, Muslim and other Australians has enriched my life beyond what I have ever imagined. Still, I can see sense in some conservative arguments and have no flowers in my hair.
I think it is worth thinking about Berg's suggestion that the curriculum document does not require an appreciation of our "own traditions", only that we "tolerate the traditions of others". Of course there is already a lot of information about "our" traditions in the History curriculum, but I would like to see it mentioned more explicitly here too. A Lowy Institute poll that found that only 39% of 18 to 29 year olds say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, demonstrating that we have a problem there.
The curriculum needs to teach students to both cherish what is special about Australia without fostering chauvinism. We must celebrate the sacrifice, courage and loyalty shown by Australians on the Kokoda trail while also acknowledging that the core values there are essentially universal. Students need to learn to find what is common between cultures as well as recognise the differences and nuances unique to particular groups.
In our work with over 60,000 Australian students, I have often noticed that "Anglo" students equate culture with migrants and have trouble recognising their own interesting and beautiful Australian culture. Some Australian born students of migrant backgrounds do not recognise their own Australian culture or identity.
This is not the result of too much "intercultural understanding". In fact, it reflects a deficiency in self-awareness which is a critical component in intercultural competence. Regardless of ethnicity, we Australians need to ensure our Australian culture is not an invisible boring norm for others to try to fit into but one wonderful way of being in the world, to be highly valued alongside the ways of many other nations and cultures.
The draft civics and citizenship shape paper seeks to address this. Contrary to Berg's assertion the paper explains that intercultural understanding involves "opportunities to engage with their own cultures, (emphasis added) values and beliefs and those of others in local, national, regional and global contexts.and to consider how factors such as group membership, traditions, customs and religious and cultural practices impact on the function and form of daily life."
The civics and citizenship document doesn't go too far in its emphasis on intercultural understanding; in fact it needs to go further. It rightly emphasises civic involvement, surely every conservative who wants a smaller government would like to see people involved in their local charities to look after the needy. It mentions civic institution visits yet it fails to make a clear connection to the action needed to develop intercultural understanding, cross cultural intergroup contact. This means getting out to the Chinese, Islamic or Jewish museum, a place of worship or forming a relationship with a school whose demographics are different to the dominant groups found in many schools.
In addition to inter-group contact students need to develop skills such as self-reflection, critical thinking/media literacy, recognition of commonality and differences within and between groups, responding to apparent cross cultural conflict or divisive arguments as explained by researches including Murdoch University's Anne Pedersen and Deakin's Yin Paradies.
The dominant agenda of this curriculum is the preservation and strengthening of our democratic institutions which is front and centre. The words racism, bigotry or prejudice do not darken the pages of this allegedly radically left wing document, the word democracy appears 40 times. Our cherished democratic institutions are not under threat from being more inclusive, just as Berg argues that the moral fabric of our society is likely to be strengthened by being more inclusive when it comes to marriage. There is a valid concern about culture in the curriculum, it is to ensure that the skills and content required for us all to get along be taught well and included in the curriculum as a matter of highest priority.
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